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Elvin H. Smith settles on the San Juan island where he will become known as the "Hermit of Matia Island" in April 1892.
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In April 1892, Elvin H. Smith (ca. 1835-1921) settles on the small island in the San Juan archipelago where he will live for three decades as the "Hermit of Matia Island." Smith initially moves to Matia as part of a land speculation scheme, but is so taken with life as the 145-acre island's only inhabitant that he decides to remain. Smith is one of many in San Juan County history to live alone on a small island and his life is not that solitary -- he entertains guests and regularly visits nearby Orcas Island. Local residents and newspapers bestow the appellation "Hermit" largely because Smith spends hours in prayer and in "Theraupeutic Suggestion" on behalf of numerous correspondents seeking relief from their ills.
Born in Wisconsin, Elvin Smith fought in the Civil War, rising from private to brevet captain in the Union Army. Embittered because Army bureaucrats never recognized his battlefield commission and disappointed by an unhappy love affair, he left home for good and headed west. After a stint as a newspaperman, he worked for years as a traveling passenger agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad until he "gave up R.R. business in 1890 and came to Fairhaven, Wash." (Smith).
In Love With Matia
In Fairhaven (now part of Bellingham), Smith joined forces with a lawyer to make some money on land speculation. There were rumors that the federal government was going to open Matia Island for homesteading. The lawyer fronted money to buy out a pair who had acquired squatters' rights on Matia. Smith moved to the island in April 1892 to perfect a claim the partners could sell at a profit.
Within two years, Smith decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life on Matia and bought out the lawyer. He had grown to love his solitary island home with its charming coves, sandy beaches, spring-fed lake, and ancient forests. Smith likened the rich soil in the island valley, where he raised an assortment of fruit and vegetables (including parsnips that grew more than three feet long), to the bottomless soil of Kansas. And he marveled at the views:
"I am surrounded on all sides by mountains and on the N, E, and S by snow capped mt. year round. The scenery is grand every clear day. On stormy or windy days the sea is equally grand and terrible. It is a constant lovely dream" (Smith).
Smith built a snug cabin near the bay at the island's southeast corner. He raised chickens, rabbits, and sheep for himself and for sale and stretched a net across the long narrow bay near his house to catch cod and salmon. Most Saturdays, Smith rowed two-and-a-half miles to the north shore of Orcas Island, then walked another two miles through woods to the village of Eastsound to visit, buy supplies, and collect his mail. Not infrequently, he rowed a friend back with him; some stayed for months.
Not all guests came out of friendship. In 1905, Smith wrote:
"I expect company all next month. I have got to cure a man of drunkenness through Therapeutic Suggestion ... . I have never seen him but know his wife and mother-in-law well and they are sending him to me from Seattle. I cured the mother of indigestion and constipation of many years standing and they have faith in me" (Smith).
Smith devoted much of his time to prayer, "Therapeutic Suggestion, Auto Suggestion and Telepathy," which he believed could cure illness through application of "Gods laws" (Smith). Eventually he carried his weekly mail home in buckets as people around the country wrote asking to be included in his prayers or sent money in thanks for his help. Therapeutic Suggestion, or perhaps just the peace of island living, allowed Smith to overcome what he described as years of suffering from anger:
"I found it was growing worse on me so I just reformed and am so delighted with it that I am a real crank on the subject and I never expect to be angry again. It is injurious to health and one loses many friends through anger" (Smith).
In 1920, friends convinced Smith, then in his mid-80s, to have a house guest again, after he was stranded alone for weeks when a storm destroyed his boat. Orcas resident and fellow Civil War veteran George Carrier went to stay with Smith and the "Hermit" even began talking of giving up Matia and moving to Orcas.
However, on Wednesday, February 23, 1921, as Smith and Carrier were returning to Matia with a full load of supplies, their small outboard-powered rowboat disappeared. Neither man's body was found; gravestones for Elvin Smith and George Carrier were erected in Mount Baker cemetery on Orcas over empty graves.
Matia Island never was officially opened to settlement. It is now a national wildlife refuge and wilderness area with five acres open to the public as a marine state park.
Elvin Smith was neither the first nor the last to have an island to himself in the San Juans. With so many small islands, it was possible well into the twentieth century to find and settle an empty one. In the 1930s, when Floyd Schmoe (1895-2001) began summer studies at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories, he, his wife Ruth, and their children fell in love with tiny Flower Island, located just off Lopez Island's Spencer Spit and easily visible from passing ferries. The island was not on the tax rolls or the assessor's map. A clerk advised the Schmoes that they could occupy it claiming "squatters' rights," and they did so, making it their home for two summers. In the 1940s, Lew and Elizabeth "Tib" Dodd of Orcas bought 11-acre Yellow Island, one of the small Wasp Islands scattered between Shaw and Orcas. They built a small cabin, largely of driftwood, and lived there "in contented solitude for 14 years" (Mueller, 81).
Like Matia, Flower Island is now part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The Dodd family sold Yellow Island, which erupts with one of the San Juans' most spectacular wildflower displays every spring (it probably deserves the name "Flower" more than the somewhat barren Flower), to the Nature Conservancy. Yellow Island still has a lone inhabitant -- a naturalist/caretaker who lives in the Dodd cabin and watches over the Yellow Island Preserve.
Elvin Smith to Alphia Rambo, Spring 1905 and November 24, 1905, copies in collection of Orcas Island Historical Museum; David Richardson, Pig War Islands (Eastsound: Orcas Publishing Company, 1971), 240-55; Marge and Ted Mueller, The San Juan Islands Afoot & Afloat 3rd Edition (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1995), 55, 80-81, 237-40; Floyd Schmoe, For Love of Some Islands (New York, Harper & Row, 1964), 11, 20-25; Eric Sorenson, "San Juan ‘Jem' Sparkles in Solitude,'" The Seattle Times, June 2, 2003, pp. A-1, A-10; "Yellow Island Preserve," Nature Conservancy of Washington brochure (1996).
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Matia Island, San Juans, August 25, 1995
Courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology (Image No. SNJ0951)
Wildflower display, Yellow Island, San Juans, April 17, 2004
Photo by Colleen E. O'Connor
Flower Island, San Juans, August 24, 1995
Courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology (Image No. SNJ0544)