Boyce, Stephen (1829-1909)

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 3/03/2020
  • Essay 20992
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Stephen Boyce moved to San Juan Island in 1860 and, over the next half-century, farmed there, raised a large family, and became a much-respected pioneer settler and community leader. As a youngster in rural New York, Boyce craved adventure and he began his travels while barely in his teens. He eventually joined the many who were venturing west to the gold fields, first of California and then of British Columbia. He married Lucinda Stewart (1836-1916), and the couple moved from Victoria, B.C., to nearby San Juan Island. Boyce served as justice of the peace, helped create the island's first school and church, and was San Juan County's first sheriff. In his later years he was honored as one of the patriarchs of San Juan who had contributed much to the development of the island from a small group of settlers on disputed land to a prosperous, well-governed, and growing community.

Early Life and Travels

Stephen Van Buren Boyce was born in Greene County, New York, on January 28, 1829. (Some sources give his birth year as 1827 but Boyce's tombstone in Valley Cemetery on San Juan Island says 1829.) His family farmed a homestead near the tiny hamlet of Round Top. He received his first years of education there and shared with his many brothers and sisters in the work of the farm. But from an early age "Stephen had a great desire to get to the mysterious west, of which he had heard many exciting tales" ("Stephen Van Buren Boyce ..."). Even before his teens he moved to Syracuse to apprentice with a rail-car builder, but he stayed only a year before setting out for the West, much against the advice of family members who tried to persuade the still-young boy to wait a few years before heading into the unknown.

As a young teen Boyce worked on a boat and rode the tow path of the Erie Canal, whose western terminus at Buffalo offered access to Lake Erie and the Great Lakes schooners that could take him farther on his journey. Chicago was his next stop, and by 1845 he was working as a carpenter and in the vast cornfields of a farm in Kendall County, Illinois. At the end of two years he moved on to Tennessee and became for a time a grocery clerk and assistant before again moving on, ever south and west, to New Orleans where he stayed for a year and a half, working once more as a carpenter. Finally, in 1851, after years of travel and work experience that would serve him well in the future, Boyce boarded a ship that would take him on the first leg of a voyage to Panama, across the isthmus to another ship, and then north to California, his dreamed-of destination for years.

Boyce arrived in the midst of the young state's gold-rush fever, and he was quickly caught up in the excitement and possibilities. But his endeavors in goldmining were not nearly as successful as developments in his personal life. Lucinda Stewart, a young widow with two small children, had come to the California gold fields from Tennessee with her parents a few years earlier, and soon Stephen and Lucinda, both strong individuals used to hardship and hard work and with ambitious hopes, were making plans. They were married on October 15, 1856, a partnership that was to last 53 years. The time when small-claim miners could make fortunes in the gold fields of California was ending in 1858 when word arrived of newly discovered gold near the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers in British Columbia. Stephen and Lucinda decided to try their luck once again.

When they arrived by ship at Victoria on Vancouver Island (controlled by the British and the first stop on the way to the Fraser River), they found that Crown Colony Governor James Douglas (1803-1877) was determined to exert some authority over the engulfing flood of arriving prospectors. He required licenses for all miners and stationed a warship at the mouth of the Fraser River to enforce order, greatly annoying the many thousands of Americans anxious to stake a claim. Victoria was primarily the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), which had a thriving fur-trading business in the area and didn't appreciate the disruption that the gold rush was bringing. The town in its small stockade was quickly inundated with newcomers, and the Boyce family was only able to find housing in a tent. Having procured the necessary permits, Stephen went off to the gold fields leaving behind Lucinda, her two boys, and their new baby, John (1859-1930), born in Victoria. He was gone for two long years.

A New Life on San Juan Island

When Stephen finally returned to Victoria after limited success in the gold fields, he brought news of a place where he and Lucinda might settle and establish a home. Across Haro Strait from Victoria was San Juan Island, reported to have fertile land, good harbors, and a small population of settlers. The British asserted a claim to the island, which had strategic military and trade importance for their growing interests in the Pacific Northwest. In an effort to back up the claim, HBC had established first fish-processing and then sheep-ranching and agricultural operations there. But American settlers, some coming west from Washington Territory but most coming south after disappointment in the gold fields, were beginning to arrive, much to the dismay of Governor Douglas; many brought with them Native American wives and were eager to establish homesteads and farm the open prairies. Boyce planned to open a store on the island to serve this growing population.

By the time he arrived there with his family in 1860, however, increasingly acrimonious British and American claims of sovereignty over San Juan Island had escalated and, as the American Civil War began and U.S. government priorities were focusing elsewhere, an interim arrangement of joint British and American military occupation was reached. Under terms of the agreement, the only shop allowed to sell goods was the store at the American military camp. The Boyces' plans had to be scrapped, and Stephen exchanged his store stock for property near the American encampment. Since there was no civil government in place, no official homestead claims could be recorded and the family became squatters on land that they discovered was also at least partially claimed by two other men as well as by HBC. By 1863 they had moved to farmland in the San Juan Valley, but they sold this property within a year and purchased adjoining property (near the area today known as "The Oaks") where Stephen and Lucinda finally established a home for their growing family.

Lucinda Boyce, the first white woman to settle on the island, soon became known for her skills in healing and was much in demand among the American settlers, Hawaiian residents (brought to the island by HBC, primarily as sheepherders and locally known as Kanakas), and Native Americans. Alice, their first daughter, arrived in 1861. Stephen adopted Lucinda's two boys from her previous marriages, and he and Lucinda eventually had nine children of their own, raised a hunchback child who had been abandoned, and fostered several Native American children along the way. It was, grandchildren remembered, a lively household.

Creating a Community

When Stephen Boyce and his family arrived on San Juan Island, the civilian population numbered only in the dozens. American and British military camps occupied sites at the south and north ends of the island, HBC had its extensive sheep-ranching operation, and farms were being established -- despite the lack of legal homestead authorization -- with many clustered around the American fort but others scattered in broad fertile valleys across the island. No services of any kind, except the fort store, were available. But Boyce and some other settlers, especially those with families, were determined that at least the rudiments of civilized community life were needed. Even while creating a home for his family and beginning to establish his farm, Boyce soon had taken on a number of other responsibilities, both official and unofficial, as a member of the growing community.

A primary concern of island parents was the lack of proper schooling for the increasing number of children. Sometimes one parent would offer some instruction for that family's children and, perhaps, those of a neighbor, but more structured classroom learning was needed. Boyce felt proper schooling was essential, and by 1865 he had spearheaded an effort to build a schoolhouse and hire a teacher. He gathered a committee to support the effort, and a site was chosen on Portland Fair Hill on the south end of the island near the American encampment and the majority of the settlers' farms.

The committee staked out land for a 30-by-20-foot log building. Donations of labor, materials, or money were sought; "a day's work was equivalent to two dollars in cash. Use of a yoke of oxen was valued at one dollar" (McDonald). Since there were no taxes to support the school, parents contributed to the upkeep of the building and the teacher's salary and took turns providing housing. The Boyce family often hosted the teacher, as Boyce keenly felt his lack of formal education and enjoyed learning from his boarder. He also served on the governing committee of the school for many years.

The spiritual needs of the community were also recognized, and in 1860 Boyce, with Charles McKay (1828-1918) and others, organized the first church on the island, a Presbyterian fellowship (only the second Presbyterian church in Washington Territory). Initially the small congregation met in the schoolhouse before construction began on the Valley Church near Madden's Corner (on today's Cattle Point Road) in 1878.

Public Service

Early on, Boyce also assumed a number of official responsibilities. Captain George Pickett (1825-1875), commander of the American garrison on the island, appointed him as liquor inspector and sheriff with a primary responsibility for dealing with increasing thievery and whiskey trading, especially to Native Americans. It was a frustrating task, as it was difficult to get convictions, but "as sheriff, Stephen was respected by both whites and Indians for his fairness and honesty" ("Forty-five Years ..."). Native Americans reportedly called him "hyas tyee" ("great man" in the Chinook trade jargon). San Juan Town, a small, boisterous collection of mostly bars, brothels, and boarding houses that had grown up near the American encampment, was a constant irritant for Pickett, and dealing with its issues became an on-going challenge for Boyce, but he seemed to have weathered the experience and "the nefarious doings ... rampant vice and lawlessness completely unscathed" (Crawford).

Boyce served as an election judge; the islands, while officially termed "disputed" by the U.S. government, within Washington Territory were considered to be nominally under Whatcom County jurisdiction and subject to its legislative processes. And he also served as justice of the peace intermittently for 12 years both before and after resolution of the sovereignty question, which in 1872 was finally decided by mediator Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888) of Germany in favor of the United States.

Just a year after the Kaiser's decision, citizens of the San Juan Islands petitioned the territorial legislature to be separated from Whatcom County and, in October 1873, San Juan County was created encompassing San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, and more than a hundred small neighboring islands in the Salish Sea north of Puget Sound. Among the new county commissioners' initial appointees was Stephen Boyce as the first assessor and county sheriff.

Murder Investigations

One of the most dramatic and disturbing cases that Boyce handled mostly took place before he officially became sheriff of the new county. In late 1872 the small island population had been badly shaken by the brutal murder of one of their neighbors, an Englishman named William (or, according to a few sources, Samuel) Fuller (1819-1872). Fuller ran a few sheep on his waterfront claim but primarily seemed to have private resources. After a friend two days in a row found Fuller's house empty with its door open and his dog agitated, Boyce, then sheriff under army appointment, was called in. Fuller's body was found buried under rocks on his property. He had been murdered -- shot through the head and then battered with stones -- but despite careful examination no clues were found to point to the murderer.

Only six months later Boyce was faced with an even more horrific crime. Again it was a neighbor who found the victims, a young couple who had recently homesteaded on the island. Harry Dwyer (ca. 1839-1873) was lying in his field with his plow and the horses still standing in their traces; he had been shot through the head. Selena Dwyer (ca. 1850-1873) was in the house, having also been shot and then battered. Watches, papers, and money were missing. The Dwyers were British citizens who had just moved from Victoria and their bodies were taken there for funeral and burial.

Boyce examined the Dwyer property and found a small bag of shot resting on the roof of the root cellar but made no mention of it to anyone. Another neighbor, Minerva Hannah (1844-?), and her daughter remembered that a local boy, Joe Nuanna (1856-1874), known as "Kanaka Joe," had recently borrowed a shotgun and, when returning it, had acted strangely. The boy was tracked down in Victoria and the watches and other items found. Extensive legal hearings were held in Victoria's police court at which Boyce and other islanders testified.

The court ordered that Nuanna should be extradited to the U.S. for trial, and in October 1873 he was taken to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. The trial there lasted three weeks, and Nuanna's fate was sealed when Minerva Hannah described in detail, without seeing it, the shot pouch that the family had lent to the prisoner (together with the shotgun) and that Boyce had subsequently found at the Dwyer homestead and presented as evidence in court. The verdict was guilty, and Nuanna's execution scheduled for spring 1874. He soon also admitted to the murder of William Fuller, but offered no motive for either of the crimes other than theft.

There had never been a hanging in Port Townsend, and a new scaffold was built there at Point Hudson. A large crowd gathered on the day of the execution. Nuanna had asked Boyce, now San Juan County Sheriff who was tasked with the proceedings, to assure that the hanging was quick. His wish was not to be fulfilled -- the new rope used for the noose was stiff and did not tighten properly around the prisoner's neck. It was 20 minutes before he was pronounced dead. It was the last hanging to take place at Port Townsend, and Boyce was profoundly shaken by the horror of the botched execution.

A Pioneer Patriarch

Stephen Boyce went on to serve the island community for many more years. Grace (1876-1966), his youngest child, remembered hiding in a closet to listen in when her father conducted legal hearings in front of the family fireplace (the justice of the peace didn't have an assigned office in the small county courthouse in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island's only town). He retained a deep interest in politics and in 1904, at the age of 75, participated in the local Democratic convention, the first in several years, that focused on opposing the domination of government by corporate interests in, especially, local fishing and lime industries.

Over the years Boyce continued to develop his homestead and became one of the most prosperous grain farmers on the island. The original cabin and its additions could no longer accommodate his expanding family, and in 1880 he built a large frame house. Using the skills he had acquired so many years before, he did much of the carpentry himself, even making wood pegs to connect some of the boards. As late as the 1980s family members still used the home in summers, and one of his granddaughters enjoyed taking visitors to see it. She remembered her grandfather as "a kind man, ... but he was strict, prim, and proper. Grandmother ... had the utmost respect for her husband and always spoke of him as 'Mr. Boyce'" (McDonald).

Boyce was also highly respected by the community at large. In 1906 the San Juan Islander, a local newspaper, ran a series of articles on pioneers of San Juan Island in which Boyce was prominently featured. The paper noted that Boyce had been "active in public affairs and an earnest advocate of good schools, good roads and good government for upwards of half a century" ("Forty-five Years ..."). It was only fitting, therefore, that the organizers of the large and festive cornerstone-laying celebration held that year for the new county courthouse being built in Friday Harbor honored Stephen Boyce with the key role of setting the stone in place (with the help of the building contractor) in front of an enthusiastic audience of hundreds of islanders and visitors. Boyce was still able at the close of the year to act as pallbearer at the funeral of his friend and fellow pioneer Edward Warbass (1825-1906), but his strength was beginning to wane.

Three years later a local newspaper reported that "the venerable pioneer and esteemed citizen" was very ill ("Stephen V. Boyce ..."). After months of confinement at home, Stephen Boyce died on November 11, 1909, in the house he had built and with the family he cherished. The community mourned. Funeral services were held at the Valley Presbyterian Church two days later, and he was buried at the Valley Cemetery. It was a blustery cold wet day, but in grateful tribute and despite the weather, an enormous crowd assembled to pay their last respects to one of the island community's most revered founders.


Jo Bailey-Cummings and Al Cummings, San Juan: The Powder-Keg Island (Friday Harbor: Beach Combers, 1987), 59-60, 69-70, 73, 81-82, 99, 102-03, 119-27, 142-48; "Stephen Van Buren Boyce and Lucinda Elizabeth Stewart," Buijs, Buys, Boice & Boyce Families Genealogy website accessed January 21, 2020 (; Jack J. Crawford, Time Shadows & Tall Tales (Friday Harbor: Illumina, 2010), 64-66, 131-38, 141-43; Ruth M. Herberg, "Kanaka Joe," Frontier Times, July 1974, pp. 32-33, 41-42; "Stephen V. Boyce Very Ill," Friday Harbor Journal, November 11, 1909, p. 1; "The Call to Eternal Rest," Ibid., November 18, 1909, p. 1; Anita Garrett, "Grandma Boyce: First Lady of the San Juans," Ibid., November 14, 1979, p. C-1; Harvey Kimball Hines, Illustrated History of the State of Washington (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1893), 524-25; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Boyce, Lucinda Elizabeth Stewart (1836-1916)" (by Julia Vouri), "Educating Pioneer Children on San Juan Island" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), "Washington Territorial Legislature establishes San Juan County on October 31, 1873" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), and "Cornerstone-laying ceremony launches construction of a new San Juan County courthouse on June 29, 1906" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), accessed January 22, 2020; Tom Koppel, Kanaka (Vancouver, B.C.: Whitecap Books, 1995), 82-83; Lucile S. McDonald, Making History: The People Who Shaped the San Juan Islands (Friday Harbor: Harbor Press, 1990), 48, 51, 57-58, 66, 69, 71-74; "Fraser River Gold Rush," The Canadian Encyclopedia website accessed February 3, 2020 (; Ezra Meeker, Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford, 1905), 162-70; David Richardson, Magic Islands (Eastsound: Orcas Publishing Co., 1995), 27-28, 30-32; "Democratic Convention," San Juan Islander, October 22, 1904, p. 1; "Forty-five Years on San Juan," Ibid., February 17, 1906, p. 1; "Capt. E. D. Warbass Gone to His Rest," Ibid., December 29, 1906, p. 1; "Death Takes Another San Juan Pioneer," Ibid., November 12, 1909, p. 1; Frances M. Seels, The Presbyterian Story on San Juan Island (Friday Harbor: Express Printing, 1987), 1-9.

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