The Pig War
The Treaty of 1846 defined the northern boundary of the United States and the Territory of Washington at the 49th Parallel. However, the Treaty designated the "main channel" between Vancouver Island and the mainland to the south as the border through the San Juan Islands. Since there were arguably two "main channels," the British treated the southernmost one as the boundary, giving them the San Juan Islands. The United States claimed that the main channel was the northern one, which placed the San Juans in the United States. Both countries claimed the islands and both Americans and British settled there.
Early in 1859 a British pig raided an American farmer’s potato patch and Lyman Cutler, an American settler shot and killed in the pig in the act. The British demanded compensation, and although Cutler offered to pay for the pig, the British wanted to arrest him. Cutler refused to surrender.
At the time, U.S. General W.S. Harney was visiting Puget Sound. Hearing of the situation in the San Juans, he rushed Captain George Pickett and a company of 64 troops to the islands to protect the fourteen American settlers there. (Pickett later gained fame during the Civil War for “Pickett’s Charge”). The British responded by sending three large warships manned by hundreds of Marines to blockade Pickett’s camp on San Juan Island. Pickett sent a messenger to General Harney asking for reinforcements and Harney responded by sending Lieutenant Colonel Casey with all of the troops (500 men in al) from Fort Bellingham and Fort Steilacoom.
When word of these events reached President James Buchanan, he realized that they could very easily plunge the United States and Great Britain into war. The President immediately dispatched General Winfield Scott, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army, to Puget Sound to defuse the situation, much to the disappointment of Pickett and the majority of the citizens of Washington Territory who wanted to teach the British a lesson.
Scott entered into negotiations with the British authorities and they agreed to a period of “joint occupancy” until the boundary issue could be resolved. Pickett was withdrawn and from then on the British and American garrisons enjoyed peace, often visiting and helping each other.
However, the legal status of the islands needed to be resolved since no court had clear jurisdiction and title to property could not be claimed. In 1871 the United States and Great Britain asked William I, Emperor of Germany, to decide which country owned the San Juan Islands. On October 21, 1872 he rendered his decision, awarding the islands to the United States.