“When pigs fly,” is a centuries old adynaton, insinuating the obvious impossibility of a statement. However, pigs have flown. The first pig to fly was actually a piglet, proving once again that the youth of the world are out front when it comes to innovation. That first flying piglet situated itself in a waste basket that English aviation pioneer John Moore-Brabazon strapped to a wing strut of his biplane for a successful flight on November 4, 1909.
The Pig War, on the other hand or snout, occurred about a half century before the first pig flew. When Alexander Macpherson (He pronounced it: Mac-fur-son, no capital letters after the “M”) started a sawmill on the Albion River in the 1850s, almost everyone assumed that he owned that mill and the ten thousand or so acres adjacent to it. However, a man named Alexander Grant Dallas actually owned the mill and timber land.
Both Macpherson and Dallas were native to Inverness, Scotland. In the early 1840s Macpherson went to China to work for Jardine, Matheson & Co., with Dallas as his mentor. Jardine, Matheson & Co. made much of its profits through the opium trade from India into China and grew to be such a financial power that founders William Jardine and James Matheson, also Scotsmen, personally influenced the British Parliament to wage “The Opium War” on China in order to loosen trade restrictions. The phrase “Gunboat Diplomacy” originated in reference to the Opium War of 1839-1842. One result of that conflict: the British Empire acquired Hong Kong. Jardine and Matheson were lightly fictionalized by James Clavell in his book Tai-Pan. The term Tai-pan means Great Manager and was first applied to William Jardine.
Macpherson helped manage Jardine, Matheson & Co.’s fleet of nineteen clipper ships as well as hundreds of smaller smuggling vessels for upriver ventures. Besides opium Jardine, Matheson & Co. traded in spices and sugar from the Philippines as well as Chinese tea and silk shipped to England; they sold cargo insurance, charged rental fees for company owned docks and warehouses as well as providing loans to other businessmen.
The Gold Rush brought Macpherson to San Francisco, first to help set up a Jardine, Matheson & Co. headquarters, later to strike out on his own road to wealth in the untapped timber trove of Mendocino County. To do so he needed a large money backer. That's where Alexander Grant Dallas came into the picture. Dallas had risen to be the first non- Jardine or Matheson to become a partner in that family firm, a business that in its time was the financial equivalent of Goldman Sachs and Amazon put together.
By the 1850s Dallas had come to North America as well, but not to settle in San Francisco or the coast of Mendocino County. Alexander Grant Dallas was one of the governor’s of the Hudson Bay Company in British Columbia.
San Juan Island in the eponymous archipelago east of Vancouver Island and northwest of Seattle was known as Belle Vue Island and whether it was part of the Washington Territory of the United States or a possession of the Canadian provinces of the British Empire had been in dispute since the 1855 seizure of thirty-five sheep by a U.S. marshal as payment for neglected back taxes by the Hudson Bay Company, who managed a fishing station and sheep ranch on the island. An 1857 Joint Boundary Commission failed to reconcile matters.
On June 15, 1859, American settler Lyman Cutlar shotgunned a pig allegedly eating its way through his potato patch. The pig’s owner, Charles Griffin, the Hudson Company’s agent on the island requested $100 in damages. Cutlar considered that demand grossly unfair and countered with a $10 offer. Griffin requested that Vancouver’s Governor, Sir James Douglas, bring the matter to trial in a Victoria court.
Douglas asked his son-in-law, Alexander Grant Dallas, and two other Hudson Bay Company officials to intervene. Dallas marched onto Cutlar's front steps and threatened the American. News of Cutlar’s predicament reached Brigadier General William Harney, commander of U.S. forces on the Pacific Coast. Harney ordered Captain George Pickett and a company of fifty men to establish a military post on San Juan in defense of its American settlers. Vancouver Governor Douglas sent the frigate Tribune, with its thirty-one cannons, into Griffin Bay.
Both the Americans and British sent warships into nearby waters, fortified military posts with cannons, then cooler heads prevailed enough that the Pig War settled into a stalemate, continuing unresolved from 1859 to 1872 until an arbitration commission headed by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I decided by a vote of 2-1 that the San Juan Islands belonged to the United States.
Many of the military figures involved in the Pig War went onto historical glory in the Civil War. George Pickett gained notoriety for what has come to be called “Pickett's Charge” on the final day of the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July, 1863, when so many of his Confederate soldiers were killed or maimed.
A young lieutenant named Henry Martyn Robert built one of the fortifications during the Pig War. He’s better known for creating Robert’s Rules of Order, the authority on parliamentary procedure. Lt. Cmdr. James Alden provided another Albion River connection to the Pig War. Alden’s voice of reason helped prevent an all out shooting war when tensions were highest. He was a direct descendant of John Alden, supposedly the first Mayflower passenger to set foot on Plymouth Rock. John Alden, as readers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow will recall, became entangled in a love triangle involving his friend, Miles Standish and Priscilla Mullins.
That Miles Standish was the direct ancestor of the Miles Standish who worked as general manager for the Albion Mill Co. and later bought a part ownership of the Albion Lumber Company. Early in the twentieth century Miles Standish and his partner Henry Hickey formed their own timber company. My paternal grandfather, John Macdonald, worked for them as a timber cruiser and mapmaker during their tenures with the Albion Lumber Company and on their own. Standish and Hickey also pioneered giving back timber lands to the public as witnessed by the 1,000 acre Standish and Hickey State Park in northern Mendocino County.
After arriving on San Juan Island the very day of the pig shooting and threatening the pig shooter on his front porch, Alexander Grant Dallas went on to become the Hudson Bay Company’s chief agent in British Columbia. A company man through and through, he even worked against his own father-in-law’s dealings as governor to preserve the company’s land claims. Dallas’ only documented California visit came in the spring of 1857 in San Francisco, though his name is attached to the land claim case won by Macpherson’s Albion Mill company. That court decision took many acres from hard working locals like longtime Mendocino Coast diarist Etta Stevens Pullen and her husband Wilder Pullen.
In the end the pig turned out to be the only fatality of the entire thirteen year conflict. A pictorial history of the Pig War can be found in Mike Vouri’s book, part of the Images of America series.
Printed on the wicker basket, strapped to the wing strut, during the November 4, 1909, flight of Moore-Brabazon's aeroplane were the words,”I am the first pig to fly.”