Features & Stories

Story and photos by Trudy Frisk


Few people realize how deeply animals have influenced Canada’s history. Not large, charismatic creatures, either.  No, the animals which beckoned explorers and helped establish boundaries were humble ones; beaver, a cow and a pig.


Beaver have been acknowledged for their role in luring fur traders ever further into the continent in search of the pelts demanded by hat makers in England.  Fur trading posts gave England a toehold in the ‘new’ land.  Behind them came explorers, priests, settlers.  Makers of nations. No wonder the beaver is Canada’s national symbol.


Mind you, creating a new country certainly wasn’t the beaver’s idea.  They were more than happy with what they already had.  Their participation and sacrifices were entirely involuntary.  In fact, it’s possible that their descendants still bear a grudge.


Still, there it is, the beaver got things started.  But, what was this “country”?  Where did it begin and end?  Two farm animals, a cow and a pig, were crucial in defining the Canada we know today.


The war of 1812 between Britain, (including Canadians), and the U.S. was to determine the scope of each one’s control.  The Americans were intent on pushing into Canada. Laura Secord, born an American in 1775, but loyal to Britain, lived with her husband James, in the small village of Queenston, in what was then Upper Canada, now the province of Ontario.


One June 21, 1813, a group of American soldiers took over the Secord home.  James was recovering from wounds he’d suffered at the Battle of Queenston Heights, six months previously.  Laura gave the soldier food and drink.  Quite a lot of drink.  Stimulated by alcohol the soldiers talked openly about a plan to surprise British Lt. Fitzgibbon at Beaver Dams (there are those beaver again!), destroy his headquarters, take the British and Canadian soldiers prisoners and occupy the Niagara Peninsula.


Fitzgibbon had to be warned.  But how?  James Secord could barely walk.

Laura was determined to go herself.  She told the American soldiers, when she passed through their lines, that she was going to St. David’s to visit her half-brother, Charles, who was ill.  She hoped that either he or one of James’ nephews would be able to take the message on.  No luck.  Charles was too sick to move and both nephews were away in the Canadian militia.


Wisely, Laura had prepared for this possibility.  When she left her home, at dawn on June 22, she’d also taken her cow, as a cover for her mission. Enemy soldiers at Queenston might accept her tale of visiting a sick brother, but American sentries in the country beyond St. David’s would certainly be suspicious. There were any number of logical   reasons why she might be taking the cow to another farm.  Sentries, probably country boys themselves, would likely believe her.


 Laura had the company of her niece Elizabeth for three hours past St. David’s. Elizabeth stopped on the shore of Black Swamp. Laura and the cow continued.  It was a daunting journey. The twenty mile trek from Queenston to Beaver Dams took her along country roads, across meadows, into thick woods and through stagnant swamps.

Wolves, wildcats and snakes inhabited the country.


 Lt. Fitzgibbon never forgot that day. “The weather of the 22nd of June 1813 was very hot and Mrs. Secord, whose person was slight and delicate, appeared to have been, and no doubt was, very much exhausted by the exertion she made in coming to me.”,  he wrote in 1827.     


Laura and her cow began their trek at dawn.  It was dark when she left the final swamp, climbed a rocky escarpment, pushed through heavy underbrush and encountered Indians loyal to the British.  They escorted Laura and the cow to Lt. Fitzgibbon.  Consequently all but six of the American soldiers were captured, the garrison was safe and Niagara stayed Canadian.


Modern revisionists dispute the presence of the cow. What nonsense.  In 1813 women generally stayed close to their house and hearth.  The cow gave Laura a good excuse for being so far from home.  Since James Secord couldn’t walk, if the cow had to be taken somewhere, well who but Laura would take her?  And Laura knew she needed a good excuse. Spies, if caught, were executed by firing squad.  Getting the cow through swamp and forest might have been difficult, but it was preferable to being caught and shot. A woman determined to risk her life to warn the British of an American assault was certainly clever enough to provide herself with an alibi.


The sturdy bovine was probably a familiar comfort and support, staying firmly by her mistress’ side.  Never once mooing, “It’s too hot and the bugs are terrible.  Can we go back now?” Canada owes a lot to that cow.  


Most Canadians know of Laura Secord and her cow.  Few are familiar with the Pig War, the skirmish on San Juan Island, where a dispute over a pig led to a twelve year military stand-off between Britain and the U.S., the involvement of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany and the final settlement of the Canada/U.S. boundary.


In 1846 the Oregon treaty gave the U.S. possession of the Pacific Northwest of the continent south of the 49th parallel.  As often happens, while the major question was settled, a minor one, San Juan Island, was unresolved. According to the treaty the boundary was to run through the middle of the channel “which separates Vancouver’s Island from the mainland.”  There are actually two channels, Haro Strait and Rosario Strait.  San Juan Island lies in the middle.  Naturally both Britain and the U.S. claimed it.


In 1845 the Hudson’s Bay Company in Fort Victoria issued a notice of possession on San Juan Island.  It established a salmon curing station there in 1850 and a sheep farm in 1853.  Meanwhile the Territorial Legislature of Oregon, which stretched to the Pacific, stated that it included San Juan Island.  When Washington Territory was created in 1853 it claimed San Juan Island as part of Whatcom county. Neither side recognized the claims of the other. Numerous Hudson’s Bay employees lived on the island.  So did eighteen to twenty-five American settlers. The stage was set for conflict.


It began June 15, 1859, when Lyman Cutlar, an American settler, shot and killed a pig rooting in his garden.  The pig belonged to Charles Griffin, an employee of the Hudson’ Bay Company. 

Cutlar had previously warned the Griffin to keep his pig out of the potatoe patch.  Griffin responded that no American had the right to restrict the actions of a pig on San Juan Island.  When Cutlar killed the potatoe-loving pig, Griffin, supported by the Hudson’s Bay, demanded recompense. 


The pig, they said, was a champion breeder, well worth one hundred dollars.  Cutlar replied that no pig, whatever its pedigree and prowess, was worth one hundred dollars.  He refused to pay. The Hudson’s Bay in Victoria passed the news on to Governor James Douglas. A British warship from Victoria sailed to San Juan to arrest Mr. Cutlar.


The American settlers had also yelled for help. As the warship dropped anchor, sixty American soldiers under the command of Captain G. Pickett, landed, “for protection against northern Indians.”  Both sides knew there was much more to it than a pig and some unspecified Indians. By August 31st five British warships armed with 137 guns and carrying 2,l40 troops faced 155 American soldiers. No shots had been fired and Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, commander of British forces in the Pacific informed Governor Douglas that he would not “ involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” Information traveled slowly in 1859 but finally word of the stand off reached Washington.  Both governments agreed to a joint military occupation until the ownership of San Juan Island was decided.


The American Civil War intervened. It was 1871 when the matter was referred to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.  He passed the question on to a three-man arbitration board.  On October 21, 1872 after a year of meetings in Geneva, they ruled in favour of the U.S.  After thirteen years’ occupation the military withdrew.  The final boundary between the U.S. and Canada was drawn through Haro Strait. 


His life may have been short, but the potatoe loving pig which caused the ruckus and was the only casualty is still remembered and fondly commemorated on San Juan Island.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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