Western Wanderings

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Western Wanderings


Fish, Peter, Sunset


OUR MAN ON SAN JUAN ISLAND, WASHINGTON

War and pigs

* The pig stands tall in the world of arts and letters. Take Wilbur of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web or Walter R. Brooks's Freddy. There is the cinematic Babe, and there's Arnold Ziffel from Green Acres. To this porcine pantheon should be added one more member: the hog blasted to kingdom come on June 15, 1859, on San Juan Island.

"We believe he was a Berkshire boar," Mike Vouri tells me. Vouri and I are standing near where the pig met his end, in a pasture overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In this century, such views have made San Juan Island a haven for people who want to spend the money they've earned in less beautiful places. A century and a half ago, this island was the end of the earth, albeit an argued-over end.

Throughout the 1840s, American and British diplomats were preoccupied with this great question: Which nation had rights to the territory called Oregon Country? In 1846 the matter was supposedly settled: land south of the 49th parallel would go to the United States, except for Vancouver Island, which went to Britain. But the diplomats forgot about the islands scattered between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. And both the U.S. and Britain wanted them.

"On the British side," Vouri tells me, "you had James Douglas with the Hudson's Bay Company." To strengthen British claims, Douglas established a farm on San Juan Island. But Americans began to arrive anyway. Tensions rose. One American farmer, Lyman Cutlar, complained repeatedly that pigs from the British farm were eating his potatoes. On June 15, when one of the pigs came calling, Cutlar bumped it off.

From that gunshot, matters spiraled out of control. Determined to protect American interests, the U.S. Army sent in an infantry company commanded by one Captain George E. Pickett. Douglas inveigled the British Navy into sending three warships. "Honor in those days was critical," Vouri says. "You did not let anybody step on it."

Today, San Juan Island National Historical Park has preserved the major sites of "the Pig Scrape," as it was then called. Park historian Vouri has become a scrape expert: he has finished a book on it and performed a one-man show on the life of George Pickett. …

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