On October 31, 1873, the Washington Territorial Legislature creates San Juan County, separating the San Juan Islands from Whatcom County on the mainland, of which they have been part since the long-standing boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain was resolved the year before. It is little more than two decades since the first non-Native American pioneers arrived to settle in the islands (located between Britain's Vancouver Island and the far northwest of Washington Territory) with their abundant timber, open meadows, fertile farmland, lime deposits, rich fishing resources, and deepwater harbors. British settlers, primarily under the aegis of the Hudson's Bay Company, frequently disputed with the Americans and increasing tensions culminated in an 1859 standoff and 13 years of joint British and American military occupation. The islands' disputed sovereignty was finally resolved through arbitration, with German Kaiser Wilhelm I ruling in October 1872 that they are U.S. territory. When Whatcom County assumed control of the islands, officials there immediately imposed taxes and administrative structure on islanders, much to their dismay. At the next legislative session, island residents petition for self-government, and a bill establishing San Juan County is passed within weeks.
Treaty of 1846
Long before any Europeans or Americans explored the archipelago in the Salish Sea known today as the San Juan Islands, Lummi, Samish, and other Native American groups were present, hunting, fishing, and gathering the abundant land and marine resources in the area; cultivating camas and other crops; and raising woolly dogs to produce woolens. The Coast Salish salmon fisheries in the islands were especially productive, and on Vancouver Island just to the west, British officials and employees of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) took note. In 1845, recognizing that San Juan Island, directly across Haro Strait from Victoria, was a busy hub of Coast Salish fishing and fish processing, in addition to being strategically located on an important channel for British ships and communication, James Douglas (1803-1877), Governor of the Crown Colony of British Columbia and chief factor in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company headquarters at Fort Victoria, hastened to lay claim to the island, sending agents to erect a small wooden plaque there to attest to British sovereignty.
Both British and American settlers had been pushing into the Northwest through the early decades of the nineteenth century. Finally, in 1846, Britain and the U.S. signed a treaty that was supposed to settle the long-simmering questions of boundary and jurisdiction. According to that compromise decision, all territory south of the 49th parallel of latitude was under American control, with the exception of Vancouver Island off the Northwest coast, which was, together with all territory north of the 49th parallel, under the jurisdiction of Britain.
This established a clearly understood boundary line across the mainland, but the definition of the border in the waters between the mainland and Vancouver Island was left decidedly murky. The treaty simply said that the boundary "shall be continued westward along the said forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island; and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca’s Straits to the Pacific Ocean" (Vouri, 19), with no account taken of the large group of islands in between the mainland and Vancouver Island through which, in fact, there are a number of channels leading south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. To which channel did the treaty refer?
British and American Settlement
To the British, it seemed clear that the passage noted in the treaty was the Rosario Strait just west of the mainland, and that therefore that all the islands belonged to Britain. By 1850 a seasonal fish-curing plant had been opened on San Juan Island by HBC employees who traded blankets and other items with the Coast Salish residents in exchange for salmon, which were packed in salt brine in large barrels for preservation and shipping. Hoping to populate the islands with British settlers and thereby discourage Americans from moving into the area, the British government at first offered free grants of land, but the undertaking was not a success, so just a few years later in 1853 Douglas directed that a Hudson's Bay farm operation with an initial flock of 1,300 sheep be developed on the island. In addition to the growing flock and other livestock, the Belle Vue sheep farm, managed by Charles John Griffin, soon boasted a large truck garden and more than a dozen British, Native American, and "Kanaka" (Hawaiian) employees. Douglas was also concerned about the trickle of American settlers arriving on Orcas, Lopez, and other of the San Juan Islands, as he was determined that their fertile land and substantial resources should also be preserved for British development and use.
But Americans were finding the San Juan Islands an attractive place to settle and start new lives. Some American men, often with their Native American wives, came south, having been unsuccessful prospectors during the brief Fraser River gold rush in British Columbia. Others came north and west from the mainland. All considered themselves United States citizens under United States jurisdiction, and some specifically asserted land claims on the islands under U.S. law. Just a year after the U.S. Congress established Washington territory in 1853, the new territorial legislature in 1854 created Whatcom County, a large, sparsely populated area that specifically included the San Juan Islands although the county did not attempt to provide most services or undertake other official activities there.
However, a customs collector in the federal Puget Sound Customs District (which had been moved from Seattle to Port Townsend in 1854) traveled to San Juan Island to assess the property and collect taxes from the HBC's prosperous Belle Vue farm on livestock that he claimed had been smuggled into U.S. territory; his efforts were summarily rebuffed. And the Whatcom County sheriff did make several attempts, beginning in 1854, to collect taxes on Belle Vue farm, with one trip resulting in what must have been a comical scene when the tax collector, having been refused payment, seized approximately 50 rams that he said were taken in compensation for tax claims, the sheep to be auctioned off right on the beach to a group of bidders. After the auction and before the sheep could all be herded onto boats for a swift get-away, Belle Vue farm personnel arrived, and the result of the ensuing melee involving men and sheep with diverging agendas could be deemed, at best, only a partial success for either party, as only some 34 of the rams were eventually transported to the mainland. The British were incensed and determined to enforce their claim to jurisdiction. Belle Vue farm manager Charles Griffin was appointed as a justice of the peace and magistrate that year specifically "to enable him to treat the U.S. collector of taxes on San Juan as a common offender, as Douglas reported to the British Colonial Office" (McCabe, 11).
Boundary Commission, 1857
While the Treaty of 1846 had described the boundary line between British and U.S. territories, as yet there had been no actual determination and marking on the ground of just where the line ran. To do this important and challenging work, an International Boundary Commission was formed including teams of British and American surveyors. One of the commission's tasks was to define the border through the San Juan Islands. The British contingent was headed by Captain James Prevost; the U.S. was represented by Archibald Campbell. The first meeting took place aboard the HMS Satellite in Esquimalt Harbor near Victoria on Vancouver Island in June 1857.
Discussions concerning the San Juan Islands did not go well, as each man was obstinate in his conviction and not inclined to compromise or to consider the other's position. Prevost wanted Rosario Strait to mark the boundary, which would put the San Juans on the British side; Campbell insisted that Haro Strait was the appropriate channel and that the islands therefore lay on the U.S. side of the boundary. Talks were still going on in 1859, but clearly a stalemate had been reached. San Juan was the island that both countries most coveted because of its location immediately across from Britain's Vancouver Island and on the western channel leading to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and out to the Pacific Ocean. Both saw it as of strategic and potential military importance. When Prevost suggested a third alternative boundary through the middle of the archipelago, giving most of the islands to the Americans but half of Orcas Island and all of San Juan Island to the British, Campbell immediately refused to even consider the proposal.
Conflict and Joint Occupation
As more Americans moved into the islands, British concerns grew. To British officials, the settlers were nothing more than squatters on British soil. Charles Griffin was particularly annoyed when Americans developed claims near the burgeoning sheep farm or on areas that he wanted to reserve for grazing. In the hot summer of 1859 matters came to a head when a valuable, but free-roaming, British Berkshire hog invaded (not for the first time) the unfenced potato patch of American farmer Lyman Cutlar. In extreme frustration, Cutlar shot the pig, but subsequently reported the incident to Griffin with an offer to pay $10 for the animal. Griffin, however, demanded $100, which the farmer angrily declared an unreasonable sum, and in response Griffin threatened to have him seized by British authorities for refusing to pay for his offense. Tempers flared, more settlers became involved in the dispute, and soon irate residents on both sides were calling in their respective militaries for support.
Fortunately, before hot-headed officials could escalate the conflict, President James Buchanan (1791-1868) sent General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) to negotiate a peaceful solution, resulting in the establishment of a joint military occupation of the San Juan Islands until a more permanent agreement could be worked out. With authorities in Washington, D.C., focused on the buildup to the Civil War, British support of the South during the conflict, and continuing disagreement on the details of a possible arbitration for the issue, it was 13 long years before a real attempt was made to resolve the boundary question.
Throughout the joint occupation only military rule prevailed; there was no real civil authority and therefore no way for settlers to legally register homesteads, no taxes, no laws or regulations except those the military enforced. As neither side had ceded jurisdiction, however, some elements of U.S. governance continued in the islands for American settlers. One San Juan Island resident, Edward Warbass (1825-1906), who had first arrived on the island as sutler (storekeeper) to American troops from Fort Bellingham dispatched there as the dispute flared following the pig shooting, was even chosen to represent Whatcom County in the ninth session of the territorial legislature in 1861. He was appointed to the legislature's committee on counties, experience that would serve him and the islands well in the future. And, also in 1861, a United States post office finally came to San Juan Island, housed (conveniently if not with much governmental formality) in a saloon in San Juan Town, the raucous village that had sprung up on a shallow bay on the southeast side of the island near the American military encampment. The post office was served by a steamer plying a route from Olympia to Victoria, south to Seattle and Steilacoom City and north to Unionville and Whatcom.
While free from taxes and other civic obligations, islanders found military rule often oppressive and capricious. They were sufficiently annoyed that, in one instance, Charles Mackay (1828-1918), an early settler, sent the first-ever telegraphic message from the island to complain of the arbitrary actions of one of the American officers in charge; the motivation for sending the telegram must have been extreme, as doing so cost $30.50. After returning from his service in the territorial legislature, Warbass was called on by his fellow islanders in 1862 to voice their dissatisfaction with the local justice of the peace. Warbass wrote to the commanding general at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River that the "American settlers would be contented to have the laws of Washington territory in full force, and with rigid vigor executed, but ... under the law as executed by Mr. [E. T.] Hamblet we have something other than the laws of our country" (Richardson, 119).
Arbitration and Resolution
Throughout the military occupation, some discussions about a possible solution to the boundary question continued to occur, but despite Britain proposing, at various times over the years, the heads of almost all the European nations as possible arbitrators, no agreement to arbitrate was reached. And while the British wanted a middle channel to be considered along with Rosario and Haro straits as a potential boundary, the United States was adamantly opposed. Finally, in 1871, the Americans agreed to arbitration if only the east and west channels were considered, and the British reluctantly acquiesced. The United States proposed the emperors of Germany, Russia, or Brazil as arbitrators; the British said they would accept either Brazil or Germany. U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish (1808-1893) chose to approach the Emperor of Germany, and Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888) agreed to assume the responsibility.
The Kaiser promptly delegated the work of analyzing the quantities of information provided by the British and Americans as well as the Treaty of 1846 and detailed maps of the area in question to three individuals who brought a variety of skills and knowledge to the undertaking: the vice president of the Supreme Court of Germany with particular knowledge of international law, a distinguished professor of geography at the University of Berlin, and a member of the German Supreme Court of Commerce -- a specialist in commercial law and practice. The delegation that presented the British case before the Joint High Commission was led by James Prevost, former head of the 1857 Boundary Commission. Their somewhat diffident presentation, offered in English with a translation in French, focused on the wording of the 1846 treaty and the superiority of Rosario Strait as the more navigable channel with its flow less impacted by strong currents. The Americans, led by George Bancroft, the U.S. government's minister to Germany, maintained, more assertively and in German, that Haro Strait was the widest, deepest, shortest, and most conspicuous channel and therefore the one that best matched the channel described in the 1846 treaty.
The panel of experts took almost a year to individually and thoroughly review all of the information at hand, and each produced his own final interpretation. The outcome was not unanimous; two of the reviewers chose Haro Strait as the boundary. Levin Goldschmidt, the member of the German Supreme Court of Commerce, refused to commit to either of the alternatives offered, and, instead, wrote a lengthy argument in favor of a "middle channel" despite the concept having been specifically omitted from the arbitrator's consideration. The Kaiser, adhering to the officially proposed alternatives, made the ultimate decision and declared in favor of the United States in October 1872.
The San Juans, long collectively named "the Disputed Islands" on census and other government documents, were now officially American, and their U.S. residents were immensely grateful to the Kaiser. In lasting tribute, his nearly full-length portrait (a handsome oil painting) still hung in dignified splendor in the San Juan County Courthouse in Friday Harbor as of 2017.
It was a bitter loss for the British, lamented in Victoria's Daily Colonist newspaper, and one to which Crown Colony Governor James Douglas never became resigned, as it was his firm conviction that the San Juan Islands were clearly an extension of Vancouver Island. British businessmen in Victoria anticipated decreased income, as British goods would no longer arrive in the San Juan Islands duty-free as they had since 1859. British troops stationed on San Juan Island began to organize their departure from English Camp on Garrison Bay near the island's northern tip. Americans were jubilant to be free of military rule and firmly a part of the United States, and numerous British residents in the islands quickly applied to become naturalized American citizens.
The San Juan Islands and Whatcom County
With the Kaiser's decision, the San Juan Islands were under the undisputed jurisdiction of Whatcom County, which promptly began to treat islanders as an integral part of the county population and therefore subject to the same taxes, administration, laws, and regulations as all other Whatcom residents. Many islanders hadn't really thought through all the implications of coming under Whatcom County jurisdiction. Among the first shocks was the discovery that Whatcom County imposed an eight-mil-per-dollar tax on personal property. Road taxes, poll taxes, territorial taxes, and school taxes were also collected. In order to vote, islanders (men only, of course) had to row to mainland Whatcom County and pay a $2 poll tax. And the residents were now subject to a variety of laws and rules that islanders, long accustomed to living almost completely independent of regulation and restriction, found annoying and frustrating.
Many felt that as a population isolated from the mainland, the San Juan Islands should constitute a separate county, with residents able to elect their own officials and decide on their own taxes and laws specifically appropriate to the island community. Edward Warbass, who had gained detailed knowledge of how counties are established during his service in the territorial legislature a decade earlier, knew just what to do. A petition directed to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, requesting that the San Juan Islands be established as a county of Washington Territory, was soon ready for resident signatures.
By the 1870s, the Washington Territorial Legislature was authorized by the U.S. Congress to meet biennially for a single session lasting 40 days. The first session after the Kaiser's decision took place in Olympia beginning October 6, 1873. Islanders were ready and had their documents in order. On October 17, less than two weeks after the opening of the legislative session, N. T. Caton (1832-1916) of Walla Walla, Speaker of the House, presented a petition from islanders requesting the formation of a new "San Juan County."
Edward Eldridge (1828-1892), the representative from Whatcom County that session -- not, as some texts suggest, Edward Warbass (who was not then a legislator, although four years later he would serve a second term, representing the new county) -- led the county-formation effort in the legislature. Eldridge moved that the petition be referred to the committee on counties. Less than a week later, the committee reported back to the House with a bill authorizing formation of the new county together with a recommendation that the bill be passed. The bill was then read for the first time into the record, and Eldridge moved that rules be suspended and the bill be read a second and third time that same day.
Following procedure, after the third reading, the bill was immediately voted upon and approved unanimously by all members present. And little more than a week later, on October 31, 1873, islanders officially became residents of San Juan County.
A New County is Organized
December 1, 1873 was the date specified by the legislature for the initial organization of the new San Juan County government. Three commissioners had been chosen to make the first appointments, but only two, Charles McCoy (1836-?) and J. A. Merrill (1821-?), were able to attend the meeting. The first offices to be filled were those of sheriff, treasurer, auditor, judge of probate, superintendent of public schools, coroner, surveyor, and wreck master. The next day election precincts were determined: San Juan Island was divided into two precincts; Lopez, Shaw, Decatur, and Blakely islands were combined into one precinct; and Orcas and Waldron were combined into one. For each election district, a justice of the peace and constable were appointed.
The question of where the county seat should be located remained open, as the county population was widely dispersed and villages not much more than scatterings of a few buildings. Warbass (who had been the first treasurer and auditor of Lewis County 20 years earlier) had been appointed as San Juan County's first auditor. San Juan Island was the most populous in the county, but San Juan Town, the island's only village, did not seem to him to be suitable as a county seat since it was merely a collection of ramshackle taverns, brothels, and a few stores on a shallow harbor unsuitable for development as a port. Instead, he began a campaign to establish a new community farther north on the island's east side, on the shore of a bay commonly known, for the Kanaka shepherd who had tended his HBC flock on a nearby prairie, as "Friday's harbor."
Here, Warbass noted, was a site that offered a freshwater spring, open land for building family homes and town businesses, a handsome tree-lined setting, and an excellent large, deepwater harbor. Utilizing a special provision in the federal homesteading laws, Warbass staked out 160 acres on behalf of the county to serve as the county seat, and by 1874 he had built a rough 16-by-24-foot cabin to be the first county courthouse, auditor's office, and, incidentally, also his residence. However, it was years before the town truly became the center of island commerce and county government. Today Friday Harbor remains the county seat and is the only incorporated town in the San Juan Islands.
San Juan County retains its rural, isolated character into the twenty-first century. Villages have evolved into thriving small towns with goods, services, and a variety of community venues but not a single stoplight (one hung for some years in Eastsound on Orcas Island, but was removed and now resides in a museum) or chain restaurant. The farming, fishing, canning, and limestone industries that were central to the county's economy for so many years have been eclipsed by tourism, as word of the islands' serene beauty, outdoor recreation, and cultural offerings has spread. But it is still possible at local historical museums to obtain vivid, fascinating glimpses of what life was like in those first decades when the earliest settlers labored to establish new lives for themselves and their families in the small northwest Washington county.