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Portal to the 1859 Pig War (almost)

(San Juan map)
Courtesy of the Seattle Times

The Pig War
Condensed from: San Juan: The Powder-Keg Island
By Jo Bailey-Cummings and Al Cummings
[Edited and condensed by Susan Ewing for Northwest Living, undated]

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      Lyman Cutlar, a young, good humored frontiersman with a reputation as a dead shot — arrived on San Juan Island in early 1859 with young Indian wife. He established a claim about one and a half miles from the Hudson's Bay Company's Belle Vue Farms.
      Cutlar built a cabin and planted crops that warm, gentle spring. He rowed 20 miles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Sequim and bought enough seed potatoes to put in about a half-acre.
      The Hudson's Bay Company stock, most of which were used to roaming the island at will, developed a real hunger for Cutlar's potatoes. He was continually shooing the animals out, mumbling under his breath at their intrusion.

(Pickett's camp)
Pickett's camp, courtesy of the Pickett Society

      The worst offender was a particularly large black boar. At one point the frustrated Cutlar dragged the pig back across the fields to Charles Griffin, manager of Belle Vue Farm.
      "Keep your rotten boar out of my potatoes!" he blustered.
      "It is your problem to keep your potatoes out of my pig!" Griffin shot back. But the usually amenable Englishman did build a fence to help contain the stock.
      On the morning of June 15, 1859, Cutlar awoke to see the huge black boar smack in the middle of his potato patch, happily rooting up and munching baby spuds. Cutlar was so enraged that the grabbed his [shotgun] and shot the hog.
      Immediately remorseful, he went over to Griffin's house, owned up that he shot the pig and offered him $10 in payment: the going rate for a pig on San Juan Island. Griffin claimed it was a prize boar worth $100, and amount Cutlar wasn't about to pay. Griffin angrily wrote in his diary on that day, "An American shot one of my pigs for trespassing!" Obviously upset, Griffin wrote the Governor of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, saying:

      An outrage was committed here today by a man of the name of Cutlar, an American, who has recently established himself on a prairie occupied by me and close to my establishment. One of my pigs, a very valuable Boar, he shot this morning. This same man told me to my face he would as soon shoot me as he would a hog if I trespassed on his claim!
      I distinctly gave him to understand he had not a shadow of a right to squat on the island. He replied he had received assurances from American authorities in Washington territory that he and all other Americans squatting or taking up claims would be protected and their claims recognized as being established on American soil. There are now upwards of sixteen squatters, all claiming to be citizens of the United States.

      Cutlar saw things in a different light. He wrote:
      For some time I have been greatly annoyed by one of the Hudson Bay Company hogs (black boar) entering my potato patch and destroying the crop. On the morning of the 15th I seen the company hog at his old game. I immediately became enraged and upon the impulse of the moment seazed [sic] my rifle and shot the hog. I then went immediately to Mr. Griffin . . . and offered to pay for the hog. Or as I had some hogs on the island would give one in the place of that, for the hog annoyed me very much.
      Then Mr. Griffin flew in a passion and said, "It is no more than I expected, for you Americans are a nuisance on the island and you have no business here and I shall write to Mr. Douglas and have you removed."
      Then I said to Mr. Griffin, "That is not what I came here for. I came here to settle for shooting your hog."
      Then Mr. Griffin said, "The hog is worth one hundred dollars and if you choose to pay that, all right."
      I said to him, "I think there is a better chance for lightning to strike you than for you to get a hundred dollars for that hog. . . .
      In the evening Mr. Dallas, Mr. Fraser, Dr. Tolmie, Mr. Griffin . . . and (Jacob) came to my place on horseback.
      Mr. Dallas said, "Are you the man that shot that hog this morning?" I said to him I was the man.
      Then Mr. Dallas said, "If you do not wish to pay one hundred dollars for the hog we will take you to Victoria and see."
      I then told Mr. Dallas, "I do not think you will take me to Victoria if a I know myself and I think I do. I then told Mr. Dallas to crack his whip and left them."

      The story spread over the Pacific Northwest that the Hudson Bay Company had threatened an American settler and a surge of national pride developed among American frontiersmen.
      The first time the Americans flew the Stars and Stripes on San Juan was on the Fourth of July, 1859. There were now 25 Americans living on the island. These fired-up Yankees had rowed to Whatcom and bought the largest flag they could find to serve as their defiant symbol to the British Crown and the Hudson Bay Company. The flag was seen by not only the British, it was also spotted by General W.W. Harney aboard a steamer in the Straits [of Juan de Fuca].
      General Harney, the Tennessee Indian fighter of some [renown], was the commanding officer of the Department of Oregon forces. He served with distinction in the Mexican War as a senior cavalry officer under General Winfield Scott. Scott came to the conclusion that Harney's bravery was recklessness and bad judgment, and relieved Harney of his command. Harney refused to be relieved. He was court-martialed for disobedience, but he had made a number of friends in high places and the verdict was amazingly tolerant. Harney appeal to his influential friends in Washington [D.C.] and Scott was pressured to return the colonel to his command.
      Harney was sent to command the forces in the Northwest and became interested in the San Juan islands and Washington territory. Since the matter of the northern boundary separating the United States from the British colony had not been settled, Harney saw himself as an empire builder; he thought the U.S. should claim all of Vancouver Island. On June 25, in an inspection report, Harney wrote:

      The English cannot colonize successfully so near our people, they are too exacting. Vancouver's Island is as important to the Pacific States as Cuba is to those on the Atlantic.
      He apparently regarded the Hudson Bay Company as a bunch of greedy land barons who had been given a license to put their stamp on a large expanse of land with much natural resource.
(Belle Vue Farm)
This fine painting of Belle Vue Farm on San Juan Island in the late 1860s is one of three by Richard Schlect on the official website of the San Juan Island National Historical Park. We urge you to see all three and to tour that site, which is filled with great information for those curious about the almost-war. The caption for the paintings reads: "Frederick, Maryland-based artist Richard Schlecht has created three exciting new paintings of the parade grounds at English and American camps and Belle Vue Sheep Farm (above). The artist based his work on historical photographs, drawings, paintings, maps and official documents from the park's collections as well as other archives in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The paintings will be used to create wayside exhibits scheduled to be emplaced within the year."

Journal editor's introduction
By Noel V. Bourasaw
      This set-up piece from the 1989 book, San Juan: the Powder-Keg Island gives you a taste of the events that led up to the (almost) Pig War of 1859. The book is rarely found, new, but it can be found for sale, used, in book stores all over the state. It was the first book that we know of that researched documents and interviews and articles with San Juan pioneers and explored in-depth the actions and intentions of both the British and American governments. If a reader knows of other earlier books that did so, we would like to hear about them and feature them in our resources section below. We tried to find Mr. Cummings, the author, but were unsuccessful. The last we heard, he was living in Mexico in 1999. If a reader knows how to contact him or her by email or snail mail, we hope that you will let us know because we would like very much to interview them. Meanwhile, we refer you to the excerpt from the newer book, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, which the author, Michael Vouri, graciously provided us. Vouri published his book ten years after the Cummings book and he explains how and why he wrote it. ( This story will soon be changed to this address. If neither file connects, please email us.)
      The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay is the only scholarly Pig War history in mass print at the moment, complete with index, end notes and bibliography. Moreover, I have put more than 12 years research and writing into the topic and am regularly consulted by scholars and news media worldwide, including the Skagit Valley Herald, which ran a feature about me last October. My latest book, published last fall, is entitled Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island, also with endnotes and bibliography. That book, distributed by the University of Washington Press, will be reviewed in the Seattle Times in the next two weeks
      As I said, my book contains primary research in addition to what I consider to be fairly reliable secondary sources. I also urge you to consult our website. I stand by the website, which provides the most accurate information on the boundary dispute and crisis available. Feel free to use it. I am also pleased to attach a short version of a Pig War monograph, which you are welcome to post online free of charge.
      [Re: the Cutlar/Cutler spelling confusion — ] The NPS uses the Cutlar spelling because that is the way he spelled it in the deposition taken in Whatcom County as well on the petition. I was aware of Cutlar's post-Pig War life, but all we know (from hearsay) was that he was an unsuccessful miner. I have read that he was from Kentucky and Michigan. He is not listed in the 1860 census here. More information would be helpful. I would have expanded on this, but I was more interested in the military and diplomatic side of the crisis.
      We try to underplay the pig thing here (which is impossible because visitors appreciate the irony).The important matter is that instead of fighting they kept the peace. I remember Ray Jordan's book and Cutlar's estate records from when I did the Pickett exhibit at the Whatcom Museum in 1994-95. I am leery of second- and third-hand accounts from sons and daughters of pioneers. They must be taken with so many grains and qualified when used.

      Go out of your way to find Vouri's book. You will be rewarded.

David Richardson's Pig War Islands book
      And we update this article in June 2005 with information about David Richardson and his fine 1971 book, Pig War Islands. Richardson provides terrific details and, like Cummings later and Vouri more recently, he researched many documents and newspaper stories from the period. Reading Richardson, I am reminded of the late Murray Morgan's writing, a high compliment. I like very much his explanation of the sheep incident of 1854 on San Juan Island that presaged the almost-Pig War. His detail about Col. Isaac E. Ebey's stutter provides some humor about the confrontation. And he supplies concise capsule biographies of the key players on both the British and American side that are loaded with information.
      They include: Sir James Douglas, "Old Square Toes," governor of Vancouver island; Charles J. Griffin, owner of the pig that would soon be the crux of the "war;" William Pattle, a Hudson's Bay Company employee who moved to Bellingham Bay in 1852 and was the first to find a coal seam there; Richard W. Cussans (or Cousins), and American who got steamrolled on Lopez by the British; Henry Webber, Ebey's first appointed deputy customs collector; James Sangster, the Bruitsh customs collector; Ellis "Yankee" Barnes, the new Whatcom county sheriff (and the hilarious story of how they pirated Griffin's sheep); Oscar Olney, Webber's replacement; and Brevet Major Granville O. Haller, who would soon become a key settler and businessman in the territory along with his sons. Richardson's attention to the small details again informs and amuses the reader. He explains the anxiety that President Franklin Pierce experienced during the period while trying to avoid flare-ups or war in the Puget sound against Britain, which was a better equipped foe. This is a fine example of his detail: "He [Pierce] had his Secretary of State, William L. Marcy (who secured his place in history by coining the phrase "to the victors belong the spoils") instruct Washington Governor Isaac Stevens to have his territorial officers "abstain from all acts on the disputed grounds which are calculated to provoke any conflicts," but without conceding to Great Britain "exclusive right over the premises." Have you ever wondered, as we have, from whence the oft-used "victors" quote derives? Richardson also provides a detail about a term that has puzzled us and our readers. Canoes that were built from cedar logs to transport them across and around Puget sound were called "salt chuck" canoes. He explains that "chuck" was a Chinook jargon term for water. Those curious about the jargon will appreciate a glossary of jargon words used in the book.
      Richardson also provides a concise explanation of the vague language of the border Treaty of 1846 that led to the conflict surrounding the Pig War. He notes the key phrase, "the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel," and explains how there are actually three channels. He provides another key detail about George Bancroft's involvement in the treaty in 1845 as U.S. Secretary of the Navy; Bancroft's role as a historian has somewhat overshadowed his work as a diplomat.
      Richardson also provides many details about Lyman Cutlar, whose name he spells as Cutler. While Vouri describes Cutlar as a Kentuckian, Richardson describes him as a native of Ohio. The genealogy on Cutlar is very thin and vague so we understand the confusion. Richardson provides a useful list of names of the earliest settlers on the island that genealogists will enjoy. He also provides his own interpretation of the key moments leading up to the pig departing to porcine heaven:

      The light June mist of a Puget Sound morning had clung, dead still in the dimness of dawn, about the drizzle-dulled green of island tree tops. Now, it thinned rapidly before the warming rays of a sun climbing fast and yellow from behind the distant Cascade Mountains. A brace of russet-tailed hawks awoke to the golden light and began chasing one another in an indolent fashion. suddenly they swooped, shrieking, into a still-bedewed clearing and nearly brushed with their wings against the roof of Lyman Cutler's rude log shanty.
      It was not the cry of the hawks that roused Cutler from a profound and youthful sleep, but the clop-clop of a horses's hoofs striking the pebbled dust of the trail outside. Cutler passed a weather-tanned fist through sandy hair and hauled his lank frame the bed, aiming as he did so a playful thwack at the inviting fanny of the Indian girl asleep beside him.
      Cutler went to the window and muttered something unprintable. The passing rider, a Negro, had reined his mount to a walk and seemed to be laughing at something across the way. The tall youth followed his gaze and repeated the oath. It was that damn black boar again: it had pushed through his garden fence and was rooting up his potatoes with its ugly square snout. This was too much. Lyman Cutler sized his long-thin-barreled Kentucky rifle and threw open the door.
      Jacob, the black man, shipped up his horse and disappeared down the trail. The boar — he had felt the sting of Cutler's switches before, when the tall settler discovered him similarly engaged — began a waddling retreat from the garden, a half-masticated tuber still protruding from his dirty-pink muzzle. He got a few yards away and Cutler's rifle spoke sharply. The pig fell in a heap, twitched obscenely, and died.

Seed potatoes, a key source of the friction
      Some have asked why seed potatoes were such a valuable commodity that would cause such tempers to flare. When we interviewed old timers, they told stories of how their ancestors rowed up and down the Skagit river and took sternwheelers to Seattle and Olympia to find the tubers. Indians learned early on how valuable they were for trade. After Fort Vancouver was constructed in 1825, Indians were hired to cultivate potatoes in the fort's farm. Once they mastered the cultivation, they began growing their own and they would hike down the Pacific Crest trail or travel by boats to obtain them and then sell them to settlers who were starting farms on the prairies of Washington territory or on farmland that was carved out of patches where timber was felled. These crops were still valued very highly for settlers along the Skagit river in the 1870s and '80s. In the Journal website about Baker river and Concrete pioneer Amasa Everett, we noted that he grew large patches of the potatoes for trade to fellow settlers: [Please note: that site is on our old domain and the links from there may not work.]
      After he cleared a substantial patch, Everett planted a garden each spring and it steadily grew and soon flourished. In one of the most humorous stories about the travails of settlers, David Batey and Joseph Hart, the settlers of future Sedro, bought a pig. The animal soon got loose and spent a few days dining on their seed potatoes, a delicacy that the settlers had obtained by poling 30 miles upriver to Everett's garden, three days up and one day back.
      In this Pig War section, you will also find two stories about Cutlar and the pig by Ray Jordan, the best of Sedro-Woolley's historians. When he was writing his columns for the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times, he spent many hours searching through the original records in the Samish district, Bellingham and Olympia to give us the most complete portrait of Cutlar's post-San Juan life so far. Although he would have laughed if you called him a scholar, Jordan used sound research principles to find the little details that make this saga so interesting. Copies of his book, Yarns of the Skagit Country, are rarer than teats on a boar hog, as he would have said, but we continue to offer transcriptions of his book, as usual with the help of Larry Spurling, our correspondent from Idaho who grew up with his family in Sedro-Woolley and upriver. You might especially enjoy Jordan's discovery that the weapon in this tale was actual a muzzleloader shotgun, not a rifle. Altogether you will read four stories in this section of Issue 26 of the Journal's online Subscribers Edition, which will all soon be shared on the free home pages. The Vouri story is featured there now. In the links below, you can also read about the history of San Juan Island before the white arrived and about the Indians who lived there before and how their descendants moved to what we now know as Lummi island.

More Journal stories on the Pig War

Other resources about San Juan Island
and the Pig War

(June Burn)
June Burn

Story posted on March 5, 2005, and updated on June 3, 2005, moved to this domain Nov. 1, 2011
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