The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay by Mike Vouri



Historically, issues surrounding British North America were negotiated between the Americans and the British, excluding the people who actually inhabited the land. This is particularly evident in the Anglo-American Convention, following the resolution of the War of 1812. Britain made several concessions to the Americans in order to build their alliance with the USA, a nation that would likely gain influence as a global power. These stipulations included American access to the Atlantic Fisheries, a point that British North Americans fiercely disliked. The British favored the Americans, despite the fact that British North America was their own possession. This pattern is complicated in Vouri’s analysis of the dispute over San Juan Island in his book The Pig War. While civilian officers dealt with British North American Citizens, the issue was ultimately decided without consideration for British North America.

Governor James Douglas, a British North American, exercised a significant amount of power initially in the San Juan dispute. Douglas is considered a British North American, rather than a British citizen because of his deceiving of the British of the nature of the British presence on the island and failure to acknowledge the influx of Hawaiian’s that had arrived to work on the island. This suggests his loyalty lay in the country he inhabited, rather than the country in which he was born. While Douglas aggressively pursued British rights to the island for honor’s sake, the British Navy soon swept in to take control and prevent him from acting rashly. General Scott, the American determined to peacefully solve the San Juan boundary dispute, had little interest in engaging with Douglas. “The general…never left the ship, or his cabin for that matter, throughout his negotiations with Douglas.” (189) The issue of the San Juan boundary dispute was eventually put to Germany. This “impartial” arbiter would determine who had the rights to the island. The choice of Germany as an arbitrator, a nation who was likely to favor the US showed the dwindling interest of the British in British North America. Indeed, Britain was considering dropping BNA as a colony, which results in the forming of the dominion of Canada. The economic benefits of San Juan Island were not lucrative enough to cause the British to wish to engage the issue further. Douglas, and other British North Americans, however, felt the battle should be fought for the principle of the matter. While Douglas is a central character to Vouri’s narrative, he does not ultimately get his way. Rather, the British government decided the value of San Juan Island was less than their continued alliance with the United States.

It was not only the British and the British North Americans who faced divisions. There was also a division in military culture between civilian officers and military officers on both the British and American sides. As previously discussed, James Douglas was firm in his convictions that the island belonged to the Hudson Bay Company, thus making it already British. His anger over the loss of Oregon combined with his own anti-American bias due to his hatred of slavery stemming from his own racial background caused him to be less inclined to settle peacefully. Charles C. Griffin, the man whose pig was shot, catalyzing the San Juan conflict, was not willing to settle for simple repayment from Lyman Cutlar for his killed animal. Instead he passionately began questioning the right of Cutlar to settle on the island. Cutlar reports the incident, “Mr. Griffin flew in a passion and said it was no more than I expected…for you Americans are a nuisance on the island and you have no business here and I shall write Mr. Douglas and have you removed.” (53) Cutler shot back, “I came here to settle for shooting your hog, not to argue the right of Americans on the island for I consider it American soil.” (53) Griffin’s failure to simply accept payment reflects the HBC’s itching to start a conflict.

The British military officers were much less inclined to engage militarily with the Americans. The British Navy was determined to not allow a conflict to come to fruition, but to enforce peace with the knowledge that their forces could blow the Americans out of the water. Their mere presence was enough to maintain an uneasy peace. While the HBC argued that the possession of the island was a matter of national honor, the British navy saw the invasion of San Juan Island as a mistake. Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes, the Pacific Station commander was determined to avoid a collision. “I was decidedly adverse to a joint military occupation, which could in no way strengthen our claim, and was very likely, from various causes, to bring about a collision.” (143) In a letter to Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, Baynes writes:

It is now my positive order that you do not, on any account whatever, take the initiative in commencing hostilities by firing on them or in any work the may have thrown up…Should the troops of the United States commit any aggressive act by firing on the Tribune or any of Her Majesty’s ships or boats, you are at full liberty to resent the insult by adopting such measures as you think [desirable] informing me of the circumstances as quickly as possible. (135)

There were clear divisions in the British forces between the hawkish HBC and the Dovish Royal Navy.

The division in the American forces is less clear-cut. Though George Pickett and William Hearny were American Military Officers, their physical occupation of the island, especially when compared with Winfield Scott’s detached position in his cabin, put them in a position to be dealing directly with hawkish HBC officials. It is arguable that Pickett and Hearny became the equivalent of the British civilian officials, manipulating orders and operating without full knowledge of the conflict. Indeed, George Pickett did not even know about the Oregon Treaty or the background of the San Juan dispute. He was simply convinced that the island was American. Harney admitted to not reading the Marcy Letter, which asserted that the island belongs to no one until the British and American governments decide, until Douglas shared his copy with him. (144) Hearny and Pickett were willing to fight for the island. Harney was a former “pet” of Andrew Jackson and had a similar positive attitude toward engagement. Thus, he dispatched 500 soldiers to the small island causing the HBC to set the Northern Indians upon the American forces.

In contrast to the militant Pickett and Hearny, Winfield Scott was known as the “Great Pacificator.” He was horrified with the behavior of the two American officers. “Harney and Pickett were professional officers who should have known better than to intrigue in areas best left to civilian government.” (188) Scott, a former lawyer, had experience in settling boundary disputes. He saw his sole responsibility was to prevent war. There was a clear divide between the two military cultures. While civilian officials, in which I assert Pickett and Harney are included, were much more open to the idea of hashing out the conflict. The British Navy and Winfield Scott were equally determined to prevent war. There are several reasons Britain and America’s reluctance to engage, perhaps one of the most important being the British Naval shield.


The British naval shield made both Britain and the United States unwilling to engage militarily. The British and American alliance had been beneficial for the economy of both nations. Britain’s navy was the strongest in the world. While the navy protected British North America, the United States was also protected from invasion. This allowed the United States to pursue their landward turn, which led to further development and economic prosperity. While the United States became a massive land power, Britain remained a formidable sea power. Both nations benefitted from the other. The British had invested millions of dollars in the American industrial infrastructure and were benefitting economically from that partnership. That partnership was much more valuable to Britain than the possession of San Juan Island. This can partially explain Britain’s seeming lack of effort in their fight for possession. Thus, the nations’ economic ties made war a disastrous prospect. Vouri fails to emphasize the importance of the naval shield in the resolution of this conflict.

During the San Juan conflict, the American Civil War was unfolding. This had several effects on the San Juan conflict. Firstly, the impending civil war distracts the Americans from fully engaging in the San Juan conflict. The possible division of their nation is much more important to the Americans than the possession of a small island. The civil war also causes divisions between the British and the British North Americans. BNA were sympathetic to abolitionist sentiments. Indeed, Douglas was particularly concerned about San Juan becoming an instrument of the slave trade. However, the British begin to toy with the idea of aiding the South, not because they agreed with slavery, but because they saw the benefits of the division of the United States. The British built two warships for the south, angering the Americans and British North Americans. The British never intervened militarily on behalf of the South.

The resolution of the Civil war and the resulting abolition of slavery had an effect on the resolution of the San Juan dispute. The British North Americans were much less vehement in their determined possession of the island, since their fear of the island becoming involved in the slave trade was not to be realized. The United State’s survival of the Civil War also reaffirmed their status of superpower. It was in Britain’s best interest to concede to the United States an island that would become a part of the dominion of Canada anyway. This partially explains the British’s acceptance of Germany as impartial arbiter, despite Germany’s American bias.


Germany was certainly not an “impartial” arbiter. George Bancroft, the US ambassador to Berlin influenced the choice of Germany as arbiter, foreshadowing a US bias. The American’s first choice was Germany, while the British advocated for Austria. Germany was biased toward the United States because the USA was not a European country, and thus not a direct competitor. As Germany was uniting, they sought the United States as an ally. They had no incentive to help Britain, as the nation was a European rival. Thus, the Germans decide two to one that the United States will get San Juan Island. The dissenting vote, Goldschmidt suggested a compromise that was overruled by the other two geographers. Germany was an obviously unfair choice for arbiter, however the British decision to not challenge the choice shows their growing disinterest in North America.

Vouri fails to address this point of unfair arbitration. He is so pleased with the peaceful resolution on the conflict, that he does not address the fact that the Americans were favored. In his preface, he makes it clear that his anti-war sentiments are what drove his desire to write the book. While a peaceful resolution is indeed admirable and desirable, Vouri does not fully address the reasons for this peace. His failure to examine the naval shield and acknowledge the American advantage is a notable oversight.



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