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San Juan Island History

The Pig War: Reliving Contested Memories

In the weeks leading up to the election, we are terrified of the lack of information and the ensuing chaos this lack of information may bring. “What if it takes a whole week to know the results?” wail pundits on all sides of the political spectrum. In our world of convenience and instantaneous knowledge, this seems unthinkable. However, Americans have coped with a larger void of information and still acted diplomatically. The Pig War is a prime example of this. 

“With the transcontinental telegraph still several years away, steamships often crossed paths bearing dispatches containing conflicting information. Policies enforced had to be undone. Confrontations escalated—or vice versa—before reports reached their readers.”

The Seeds of Conflict

The pig war started out non-miraculously. In 1859, Lyman Cutlar, a down on his luck miner, took his Coast Salish wife to San Juan Island to survive until better opportunities presented themselves. Fashioned in the traditional Coast Salish fashion, he and his wife delineated their property with stacked rocks around its perimeter. This method suited the Salish people for thousands of years, but white people found problems with it in just a few. As the story goes, a man named Charles Griffen was convinced that this “insufficient mystery fence” allowed his cattle and pigs free access to Cutlar’s garden. Cutlar didn’t agree with this sentiment, and when he caught one of Griffin’s pigs rooting through his potato patch, he shot the pig. 

Shortly after shooting the pig, Cutlar felt bad about it and described it as a “moment of irritation.” He offered either to replace the animal or agreed for three men to choose an appropriate price value to compensate Griffin for the pig. Griffin had different plans and valued the pig at $100, or $3,135 in 2020 money.For further reference, a state of the art Sharps breech-loading rifle sold new for $30 during this time period. According to accounts, Cutlar was deeply insulted by this demand as he didn’t even believe the pig was worth $10. The argument shifted away from the pig and soon became focused on the fact that Cutlar, an American was living on the island. With Griffin threatening to bring a posse from Victoria, and Cutlar threatening a resistance against such a posse, the seeds of the Pig War were sprouting. 

This Chart shows the value of $100 in 1859 at $3,135. The average amount of usable meat on a modern pig is 154 pounds. If the meat was sold at a price proportionate to the pig’s $100 value, it would sell for $20.35 per pound in today’s money. Even more when you consider that pigs weighed less back then. With recognizing the limitations of currency conversion, that’s still one expensive porkchop. 

In an alternate universe, the Germanic Kaufland Königreich intervenes by appeasing both parties with an abundance of questionably cheap pork. 

Contested Accounts

Despite Cutlar’s claims, Griffin and Alexander Dallas maintained that they never demanded a $100 sum from him nor did they threaten to take him back to Victoria. Furthermore, they maintained that the pig was not shot on Cutlar’s property, but was instead shot in the woods bordering his land. We find out later that Dallas’s claim that he never demanded $100 is either a lie, or a matter of his own forgetfulness, but at the time the truth was blurred. Ending the issue of the pig in the pig war, Judge Henry Crosbie ordered Cutlar to pay a fine for shooting the pig. However, the pigless pig war continued as an ongoing border dispute until 1872 when following mediation efforts by Kaiser Wilhelm I, the British left ceding the island to the United States.

Celebrating Diplomacy and Reliving the History

The contested stories and lack of information could have easily spelled disaster for San Juan Island and its American inhabitants, but through restraint and diplomacy, peace prevailed. However, this wasn’t the first time in American history that grazing animals caused a war. Lisa Brooks mentioned how disputes over grazing animals were one of the factors that led to King Philip’s War. 19th-century preservationist John Muir referred to sheep as “horned locusts” and was against them grazing in natural areas. In the spirit of promoting nature preservation and indigenous heritage, I think that replicating (perhaps for now just digitally) a replica of what the Coast Salish stone garden fence would be a great interpretation piece as it represents both the origin of the war, Indigenous heritage, and the broader picture of settler colonialism being at odds with Indigenous customs. Boyd Pratt researched the Coast Salish and his book: Island Farming History and Landscape of Agriculture in the San Juan Islands features information on their customs. I think that this interpretive piece would be a great opportunity to utilize recent research and build an interpretative piece that allows people to visualize the Pig War where it began.

Since many of the Island’s buildings were auctioned off after the joint occupation, there is plenty of room for interpretive sites.