The Backstory: The Pig & Potato War


Jacqueline L.

The Backstory is a column celebrating fun and forgotten history!

The Backstory is a column celebrating fun and forgotten history! 


One fateful day, a pig got hungry. 

In search of lunch, the snacky swine fled its home and ran to a nearby farm, where it started munching on some potatoes. Its mid-day munchies spurred a decade-long international conflict that had no purpose, took up way too many resources, and amounted to absolutely nothing—but ultimately shaped the nation as we know it today. The year? 1859. The place? The San Juan Islands, in what’s now Northwest Washington State.

Our story starts with two neighboring farmers who got along swimmingly until the day this pig showed up and snacked, only to be shot and killed by the potato farmer. When the pig farmer came around in search of his swine, the two farmers got into a bit of a shouting match. One allegedly whined, “It was eating my potatoes!” The other responded, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.” 

Should the pig have stayed out of the potatoes, or should the potatoes have stayed out of the pig?

This squabble over a swine should’ve ended with an apology, a bro-hug, and a nice BLT. But this particular pig picked the wrong time and place to eat a potato. 

You see, back in the day, the British and the Americans were not-so-happily sharing ownership of the San Juan Islands. The pig’s owner was British and the potato farmer was American, so the conflict over the creature escalated into a this-land-is-my-land, this-land’s-not-your-land issue.

British authorities in the San Juans threatened, first, to arrest the American farmer—and then, in an angry fit of rage, to evict all Americans from the islands. The American population panicked and cried for military protection. When they called an infantry to the region, the San Juans’ British Governor rallied his own troops to prepare for full-scale conflict. A naval big-shot came by to talk some sense into him, wisely advising against “war over a squabble about a pig.” But the frenzied population didn’t pay much attention to him. 

The San Juan Islands: Where the Pig War went down

Outraged Americans rallied reinforcements and marched to confront the indifferent commander, who thought a fight over a pig was hogwash and refused to leave the comfort of his heavily-armed ship and its 84 guns. Reading this as a sign of aggression rather than apathy, the American side beefed up its defense. Since there was no actual combat, the troops on both sides had to find something to entertain themselves, and spent the summer blasting their cannons and firing into the water just for funsies. 

Word of the Pig War finally got back to Washington, which was busy dealing with objectively more important problems than a pesky pig. The U.S. government suggested both sides just chill out and continue to share the land until a better solution could be worked out. 

…That took a while. 12 years later, the Brits and Americans still couldn’t figure out what the heck to do. So they called up Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany.

Why the German Kaiser? Maybe they were hoping for free beer and pretzels during their chats. But snacks were not on the table, because the decade-long land conflict spurred by a hungry pig was too much for even a European monarch to handle. The Kaiser delegated the matter to a three-man committee to deal with the issue on his behalf, and even they were so overwhelmed that it took a full year of deliberation before they ruled that America should get full control of the San Juan Islands. 


Kaiser Wilhelm didn’t dig the pig.

The Pig & Potato War’s namesake and single casualty went down in history as a martyr for the cause of useless warfare. But without it, we wouldn’t have the nation as we know it today.