Painful Truth: History made by pigs and potatoes

A war almost started not far from here, thanks to the shooting of an errant hog.

One of the most popular genres of science fiction is the alternate history story.

What if Napoleon won at Waterloo? What if the South won the U.S. Civil War? What if the Spanish Armada had invaded Elizabethan England?

From those questions, the authors spin out tales where the Roman Empire still rules or a steam-driven British Empire straddles the 21st century globe.

The more I learn about real history, the less I feel the need for the alternative variety.

Consider the history of British Columbia alone.

Did you know we almost went to war with the U.S. over a single pig in the Gulf Islands?

Back in 1859, when Canada was but a drunken gleam in John A. Macdonald’s eye, Great Britain controlled the colony of British Columbia, and the United States controlled what was then known as the “Oregon Country,” including modern Washington State.

What wasn’t clear was exactly who owned all those fiddly little islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island.

No one had drawn a line yet snaking between Saltspring and Saturna, Orcas Island and San Juan.

But settlers turned up. Instead of aging hippies in Volkswagen vans and retired dentists building summer homes, back then it was mostly farmers.

On San Juan Island, American farmer Lyman Cutlar shot a pig he found eating his potatoes. Said pig belonged to Hudson’s Bay Company worker and British subject Charles Griffin.

Griffin and Cutlar had words. The Brits threatened to arrest Cutlar. Cutlar called in the U.S. military, because why not escalate a situation involving a dead pig and some lost spuds?

U.S. soldiers arrived on San Juan. Vancouver Island’s colonial governor, James Douglas, sent in the Royal Navy. (A local admiral wisely refused to get into a shooting war over a pig.)

Both sides eventually jointly occupied the island, and despite some shouted insults, no one ever fired a shot. For a dozen years, the biggest military conflicts were the annual athletic competitions in which the Brits and Yanks competed with one another.

Eventually, in 1872, an international tribunal drew the border, and San Juan was officially American.

That’s just our local history, real and set down in the maps. It’s not even nearly as odd as the tale of the stranded Japanese samurai who wound up as mercenaries in colonial Mexico – maybe next time for that tale.

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