Doc Halliday: Ambiguity and Coincidence

Doc Halliday
Doc Halliday

It is interesting how much trouble can be created when people or documents are not precise. I remember reviewing a loan once that called for bi-annual payments, when clearly the intention was to have semi-annual payments. A couple of years ago I wrote about a dispute that hinged on the difference between permanent and in perpetuity. That case worked its way up the legal system to the Supreme Court of the United States for its resolution. That same lack of exactness was evident in the Oregon Treaty that was agreed to one hundred and seventy years ago today, on June 15, 1846.

In the Eighteenth Century both American and European claims were made on the lands in the Pacific Northwest. The four nations with claims on the area were Britain, Russia, Spain, and the United States. With the Russo-American Treaty of 1824, Russia relinquished clams against the United States for this area, moving their southern border to parallel 54.40. The St. Petersburg Treaty between Russia and Britain confirmed this border. Spain formally withdrew all claims to land north of latitude 42 in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. The Treaty of 1812 agreed to the 49th parallel as the border through the Rocky Mountains, but allowed joint occupation (for 10 years) of what are now the states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

The disputed area remained undecided until 1846 when the Oregon Treaty appeared to settle the competing claims between the United States and Britain. This treaty established the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca as the border between Canada and the United States. Therein lays the ambiguity. The treaty reads in part, “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the Pacific Ocean.” Which strait? Did the treaty refer to the Haro Strait on the west side of the San Juan Islands, or the Rosario Strait on the east side of those islands?

The coincidence occurs thirteen years to the day after the Oregon Treaty was signed. On June 15, 1859, the Pig War started. This is sometimes referred to as the “Northwestern Boundary Dispute” between United States and British/Canadian settlers. The Pig War is a more attention-grabbing name. During those thirteen years the negotiations had continued. Britain contended that Rosario Strait was the proper boundary, while the United States held to the belief that Haro Strait was the correct boundary. San Juan Island was at the center of the dispute. That island sat in the disputed area and the outcome would determine which country owned the island.

On the morning of June 15, Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer shot and killed a large black pig that had been rooting in his garden and eating his tubers. The pig had been a repeat offender, and belonged to an Irishman, Charles Griffin. Mr. Griffin was employed by the Hudson Bay Company to manage its sheep ranch. Mr. Griffin also personally owned several pigs that he allowed to roam free.

Cutlar offered to pay $10 to compensate Griffin for the loss of his pig. Griffin refused that offer and demanded $100, which prompted Cutlar to refuse to pay any compensation at all. The escalation was underway. The British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar. This prompted the Americans to request military assistance.

The 9th Infantry was sent to protect the Americans and prevent the British from landing troops. Britain sent three warships. Capt. George Pickett who led the 9th Infantry, was notably quoted as boldly stating, “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it.” The situation continued to escalate. By August the Americans had 461 soldiers and 14 cannon facing off against five British ships carrying 70 cannon and 2,140 soldiers.

The governor of Vancouver Island ordered the British Admiral to land his marines and engage the Americans. At this point, cooler heads prevailed. The Admiral refused to start a war over a pig. But it was close. The date of the pig’s death was a coincidence, but ambiguity could have started a war. The governments on both sides agreed to an amicable solution without any shots being fired.

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