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That Time the U.S. and Britain Nearly Went to War Over a Pig

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Dan Lewis runs the wildly popular daily newsletter Now I Know (“Learn Something New Every Day, By Email”). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

The United States and Britain have been adversaries at war twice: the American Revolution and the War of 1812. For years the nations have been close allies. But for a few months in 1859, the two sides were hostile once again, with over 400 American soldiers (and roughly a dozen cannons) facing off against more than 2,000 British troops and five British warships.

The good news: the total casualty count from the war was only one — one pig, that is.

After the War of 1812, most of the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by the U.S. and Britain. Over time, the two nations came to an agreement, the Oregon Treaty, that divided the territory at the 49th Parallel, forming the modern border between the state of Washington (U.S.) and the province of British Columbia (Canada). An exception was made for Vancouver Island, which was placed entirely under British control even though it dipped below the 49th Parallel. The Oregon Treaty specifically drew the line of demarcation separating the two as “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island.”

The problem?

The San Juan Islands, pictured, are in the middle of that unnamed “channel,” and create three separate ”middle” channels. For a dozen years after signing the Oregon Treaty, neither side particularly liked the other’s interpretation of which channel was the true divider. The U.S. preferred the Haro Strait, the blue line pictured in the map; the U.K. preferred the Rosario Strait, denoted by the red line. And this question of ownership causes practical problems: The British Hudson Bay Company set up a sheep ranch on San Juan Island while a few dozen Americans settled there as well.

On June 15, 1859 — thirteen years to the day that the two nations signed the Oregon Treaty — an American farmer named Lyman Cutlar noticed a pig, owned by Charles Griffin, an employee of the Hudson Bay Company, eating one of his potato crops. Cutlar considered the pig a trespasser and shot it. Cutlar offered Griffin $10 in compensation; Griffin demanded $100. Cutlar withdrew his offer, now believing he was fully within his rights to shoot the trespasser. Griffin called upon the British authorities to arrest Cutlar. Cutlar and other American settlers, in turn, requested that the American military protect them from the British.

Things quickly spiraled out of hand and, within two months, the forces described above camped on and around San Juan Island, both with strict orders not to fire the first shot. (Opposing troops did, however, toss insults, hoping to coax the other into violating this order.)

Things came to a head when word of the issue reached Washington, D.C., and London. Both sides wished to keep this conflict bloodless, and agreed to jointly occupy San Juan Island peacefully, each with a military base on the island. In 1874, a panel of international arbitrators declared the Haro Strait to be the border, and awarded San Juan Island to the United States; the British closed up their base soon thereafter.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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