San Juan County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/04/2005
  • Essay 7505
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Accessible only by water or air, San Juan County is an archipelago of hundreds of islands, reefs, and rocks between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island. Around 20 islands are inhabited. The largest three -- Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez -- contain most of the land area and nearly all the population. Only in 1872, later than any other area in the 48 contiguous states, did the San Juan Islands become an undisputed part of the United States following the "Pig War" boundary dispute with Great Britain. San Juan County was created the next year. Like the Lummi, Samish, and other Northern Straits Salish peoples who have made the islands home for thousands of years, early settlers depended heavily on the islands' rich marine resources. As settlement increased the islands supplied the surrounding region with fish, agricultural produce, timber, and lime from some of the nation's richest deposits. A few residents still make a living from fishing, farming, or forestry, but tourism, construction, real estate, and self-employment are now the leading economic sectors as ever more weekend visitors, summer-home buyers, and retirees flock to enjoy the San Juans' beauty.

Northern Straits Salish

More than a few present-day inhabitants of San Juan County have ancestral roots in the islands dating back thousands of years. Many of the first pioneer families in the mid-1800s had a strong Salish as well as Euro-American heritage. Shell middens, tools, artificial reefs, and other signs of homes and work areas throughout the county document more than 9,000 years of ongoing human habitation, with recent archeological discoveries indicating that some people reached the islands at least 14,000 years ago, soon after Ice Age glaciers receded. For generations before Europeans arrived, the San Juans, neighboring islands, portions of Vancouver Island, and the shoreline of what are now Whatcom and Skagit counties were home to peoples identified by present-day anthropologists as Northern Straits Salish, including the Lummi, Samish, Saanich, and Songhees.

Like most Northwest Coast peoples, they lived in winter villages of large cedar plank longhouses, dispersing in the warmer months to fish, hunt, and maintain and harvest shellfish beds and upland gardens. They used carefully calibrated burning to prepare fields where they cultivated camas, tiger lilies, onions, and other edible plants. These efforts created the open prairies and meadows that still characterize parts of the islands, although many have disappeared -- the islands are probably more forested than they were in 1800.

The Northern Straits Salish devised a unique method of harvesting the region's large salmon runs. Known as reef netting, it was not used anywhere else in the world, even by neighboring salmon-fishing peoples. Later adopted and modified by commercial fisherman in the San Juans and neighboring islands, reef netting employed a complex technology and co-operative labor. Crews cut huge anchor stones and dropped them at strategic points along routes salmon were known to follow. Over generations the stones dropped each year built up artificial reefs. A carefully designed and camouflaged net held in place by these anchors was stretched between two canoes and raised quickly when fish entered the net.

Raids and Exploration

Impacts from European contact reached the islands even before the first Spanish explorers arrived in the early 1790s. As throughout the new world, epidemics took a devastating toll. Firearms also affected island populations. The San Juans lay directly in the path of slave raiding parties from Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Bella Bella (Heiltsuk), and other nations from the northern British Columbia coast and Queen Charlotte Islands that traditionally targeted Coast Salish communities. Casualties tended to be relatively few until the "Northern Indians" (as settlers called them) acquired guns from fur traders, allowing them to wipe out entire villages. By the 1790s, the Northern Straits Salish were abandoning vulnerable winter villages on the islands and retreating to fortified mainland sites, although they returned every summer to fish, garden, and collect shellfish.

Several Spanish expeditions under the general command of Captain Francisco Eliza mapped the San Juans in 1791 and 1792, giving the archipelago and many of its individual islands, channels, and other features the names they bear today. The 1792 British expedition under Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) also briefly explored the newly named archipelago. But for more than half a century, neither the Spanish, who soon abandoned the Northwest, the British, nor the Americans who began staking their own claims in the region demonstrated any interest in settling the islands. Indeed, the 1846 Treaty of Oregon between the United States and Great Britain did not address the San Juans when it otherwise resolved the countries' competing boundary claims. The ambiguity over who owned the islands eventually led to the long-running international dispute dubbed the Pig War.

The Hudson's Bay Company

Not until 1850 did the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) establish the first non-Indian presence on the San Juan Islands. The company followed Salish footsteps, setting up a fishing camp at Eagle Cove on the south shore of San Juan Island where locals taught HBC employees their reef netting technique. The next year it dispatched William Pattle to Lopez Island to trade with the Salish and cut timber for spars.

Pattle soon departed and the Lopez logging camp was taken over by Richard W. Cussans, apparently the first American citizen to try settling in the San Juans. At least Cussans, who told British Columbia authorities he was British, asserted U.S. citizenship in a complaint to American authorities over the license fee and custom duties the British imposed. The U.S. did not act and Cussans left in 1853.

Establishment of HBC's Belle Vue Farm near the southeastern tip of San Juan Island in late 1853 marked the real beginning of transition from the flower fields and open forests of the Salish landscape to the pastures, plowed fields, and denser forest (due to fire suppression) still seen in much of the islands today. Farm manager Charles John Griffin, a few Indian and European employees, and a group of Hawaiian sheepherders set loose more than 1,300 sheep to graze the flower and oak prairies. They also brought other European farm animals and planted a large truck garden.

American officials who had shown little interest in the San Juans before 1853 demanded, unsuccessfully, that HBC pay customs duties and property taxes. The legislature of the newly formed Washington Territory declared the San Juans part of Whatcom County, which it created in 1854. Despite official claims, Americans remained scarce in the San Juans, deterred in part by Northern Indian raids, perceived as a significant threat at least until smallpox decimated Northern nations in the mid-1860s.

Less vulnerable than individual settlers, the powerful Hudson's Bay Company expanded to Orcas Island. By the late 1850s, it was operating a deer hunting camp at the westernmost of the island's three long inlets, a major Salish fishing location known ever since as Deer Harbor. Louis Cayou, one of the hunters, and his Lummi-Saanich wife Mary Anne homesteaded at the head of the harbor, becoming the first pioneer family on Orcas.

Settlement During the Pig War

The first real American challenge to the Hudson's Bay Company came in 1858 and 1859, when a handful of frustrated miners returning from the short-lived Fraser River gold rush, along with their predominantly Indian wives, settled on San Juan Island. Growing tension between American homesteaders and Belle Vue Farm manager Griffin climaxed in July 1859 when settler Lyman Cutlar (d. 1874) found one of Griffin's pigs in his potato patch and shot it. Threats and counter-threats prompted local military commanders on both sides to dispatch troops to the island, triggering the Pig War. Armed confrontation was averted when more senior officers negotiated a joint military occupation until diplomats could resolve the boundary, a process that eventually took 13 years.

Despite the unsettled boundary, settlement increased rapidly during the long (and peaceful) joint military occupation. San Juan Town, consisting largely of saloons, liquor stores, and brothels, sprang up almost overnight on the shore of Griffin Bay a short distance from American Camp, where U.S. troops were quartered. Stores appeared on other islands. In the late 1860s Hiram Hutchinson opened one on Lopez Island's Fisherman Bay, the present site of Lopez Village. On Orcas Island, where most of the customers were Indian, Paul Hubbs's small store at Grindstone Bay (Hubbs had the islands' only grindstone) was followed by trading posts operated by Joseph Sweeney and Charles Shattuck. Back in San Juan Town, Israel Katz opened a branch of Port Townsend's Waterman and Katz.

In 1871, the United States and Britain finally agreed to arbitrate the San Juan boundary dispute and in October 1872 arbitrator Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany ruled for the U.S. American islanders celebrated, not least because the decision meant the end of military rule by the American Camp commander, which they found increasingly oppressive. British settlers quickly applied for U.S. citizenship to ensure they could make homestead claims.

San Juan County

The U.S. Army alarmed Canadians by sending a survey team to find "the most favorable sites for the erection of fortifications in the different islands" (Richardson, 156). The Canadians needn't have worried. Although the Army established seven government reservations, it never used any of them. Many of the sites, preserved by government ownership, eventually became public parks or preserves, including South Beach County Park on Shaw Island, Odlin County Park and Shark Reef Recreation Area on Lopez, and the UW Friday Harbor Laboratories tract on San Juan.

Islanders who had resented control by the Hudson's Bay Company, British authorities, and the American military didn't care much for the authority of Whatcom County politicians either, especially when their formerly tax-free property was subjected to county taxes. Edward D. Warbass (1825-1906), one-time post sutler at American Camp, organized a petition asking that the territorial legislature separate the San Juan Islands from Whatcom County, and within a year of the Kaiser's decision the legislature had enacted a bill creating San Juan County. (Although many sources indicate that Warbass was a legislator when he led the effort to create San Juan County, and he did serve legislative terms in 1861 and 1877, he was not a member of the 1873 legislature that created the county.)

Warbass managed to have the nearly empty area fronting San Juan Island's Friday Harbor -- a natural harbor named for a Hawaiian sheepherder listed in Hudson's Bay Company records as "Friday," whose family were the area's only inhabitants -- designated the county seat. Despite Warbass's vision, commerce and newcomers continued to flow to San Juan Town; for several years he was the county seat's only resident.

Salish Heritage

In the first years after San Juan County was formed, as under joint occupation, most settlers were Euro-American men who were either already married to Indian women or else married women from local Northern Straits Salish communities. Many island families were descended from these Indian-white marriages. The Cayous on Orcas, the Browns and Barlows on Lopez, the Chevaliers on Speiden and Stuart, and the Jones and Reeds on Decatur and Blakely, among others, played prominent roles in developing island industries.

As more white families settled in the islands in the late 1800s, prejudice developed against "half-breed" families. Often the children and grandchildren of Indian women downplayed their heritage to be accepted in "white" society. Others identified more with their mothers' families, some moving to the Lummi, Swinomish, and other reservations that harbored the islands' remaining Salish communities. No reservations were established within San Juan County, and as settlement increased those communities lost access to reef netting locations, oyster beds, camas fields, homes, and sacred sites that had been theirs for centuries.

Ancient villages were not the only ones to disappear. Rowdy San Juan Town, barely three decades old, was gone before the end of the century. Friday Harbor finally began to overtake its rival after Joseph Sweeney, who moved over from Orcas, and William Douglas opened competing stores there. With their competitive prices and backroom saloons these establishments soon diverted customers from San Juan Town. The old town's fate was sealed when Israel Katz moved his store to Friday Harbor in 1884. Six years later, its vacant buildings burned, and today there is virtually no sign that a bustling town stood on the shores of Old Town Lagoon.

Expanding Economy

Friday Harbor was incorporated in 1909 and remains the only incorporated town in the county. Like Friday Harbor, ports at Roche Harbor at the northwest tip of San Juan Island and Richardson on the southern end of Lopez grew rapidly in the late 1800s and early 1900s as island industry and commerce expanded.

As it had been for thousands of years, fishing, especially for salmon, was a mainstay. Many leaders of the burgeoning commercial fishery were of Salish descent. Henry Cayou (1869-1959) learned to fish from his Salish stepfather (or uncle depending on the source) and was reputed to have caught more fish in a lifetime than anyone in Washington. Cayou was also a leading politician, serving many years as a county commissioner. Several generations of the Chevalier family were noted purse seiners and reef netters. A fleet of small wooden reef net boats with tall ladder-like lookout towers was a familiar sight in the islands for many years. A few reef net "gears" still operate in the San Juans and off Lummi Island.

Purse seiners, gill-netters, and fish traps (eventually outlawed in 1934), along with reef nets, generated an abundant salmon catch -- one million fish in 1901. By 1900, large canneries at Friday Harbor and Richardson and smaller ones elsewhere had been built to process the catch. Richardson, named for pioneer homesteader George Richardson, was then the county's busiest port. The Richardson cannery, built by William Graham and N. P. Hodgson, employed more than 400 workers.

Island farmers also supplied canneries and ports as orchards blossomed. Orcas settlers quickly recognized that the island was exceptionally well-suited to raising fruit. They began in the 1870s with Italian plums and soon added apples, pears, and more. Reverend Sidney Gray, Eastsound's first clergyman (in 1885 he built Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which still stands on the Eastsound waterfront) promoted the Orcas fruit industry heavily. Orchards also flourished on San Juan and Lopez, as did barley, oats, wheat, dry peas, and other grains. Lopez, with more level land than its somewhat larger neighbors, was the county's biggest agricultural producer. Sheep were raised on Lopez and other islands. Commercial dairy production increased rapidly and a creamery opened in Friday Harbor in 1901.

Produce and fish, along with passengers and mail, reached markets in Bellingham, Seattle, and other cities via the "mosquito fleet" of steamers that had been the primary transportation system for Puget Sound communities (mainland as well as island) since the 1850s. Often captained by islanders like Sam Barlow of Lopez, many boats serving the islands were built in the San Juans. Beginning in the 1890s, Reed Brothers Shipyard on Decatur Island, operated by William and Joseph Reed with their brother-in-law Henry Cayou, built some 40 boats and worked on many more. Friday Harbor's economy was boosted when Albert Jensen started the Jensen Shipyard there in 1910.

Sawmills and Lime Kilns

Sawmills throughout the county supplied timber to build steamships, cordwood to power them, and wood for barrels and fruit boxes in which merchandise was transported. Andrew Newhall operated one of the largest lumber mills at Cascade Bay on Orcas Island's East Sound, now the site of Rosario Resort. Island forests also provided wood -- nearly 2.5 million cords over 50 years -- to power the 35 or so lime kilns that produced the islands' primary industrial product.

Several beds of very pure limestone run through the islands, the most prominent crossing Orcas and the northwest tip of San Juan where a massive ledge rises at Roche Harbor. Troops stationed at nearby English Camp during the joint occupation were the first to make lime, used for many building and manufacturing purposes and a key ingredient of concrete. Over the next 15 years various would-be entrepreneurs, including Lyman Cutlar, attempted to exploit lime deposits at Roche Harbor, on the west coast of San Juan (where Lime Kiln Point State Park is now located), and on Orcas.

Large-scale production at Roche Harbor began in 1886 after Indiana-born lawyer John S. McMillin (1855-1936) acquired a controlling interest in the property. Blessed with a deep bay adjacent to the rich limestone deposits, Roche Harbor grew rapidly, becoming the largest lime works in the west and the leading employer in the county. For 50 years until his death, McMillin ran the plant and the company town that he built around it. As head of the Republican party, he dominated San Juan County politics for decades.

Temporary Downturn

The boom of the early twentieth century did not last. By the 1930s the most-accessible lime deposits had been exhausted and by World War II, the industry all but disappeared. Rail and then motor vehicles supplanted water transport, making it harder for island farmers and canneries to market their goods. Small San Juan County farms could not compete with large agricultural businesses in the newly irrigated lands of Eastern Washington and California. From before the Depression until the late 1960s the county saw little growth. Population, which had reached 3,600 by 1910, remained stagnant, actually declining to 2,872 in 1960.

One "industry" did expand. Smuggling was an accepted if not honored calling in the islands from the time of the Pig War, when settlers took advantage of the fact that taxes and import duties were not collected due to the joint occupation. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese workers from entering the U.S., enterprising skippers used their sailing skill and knowledge of island waterways to transport workers, along with opium (at the time legal but heavily taxed), silk, Canadian wool, and other products without benefit of customs clearance. In the 1920s Prohibition opened up a lucrative new field for smugglers, who engaged in running battles with government revenue agents. Later years saw significant drug trafficking.

Auto Ferries and Airplanes

Captain Harry W. Crosby introduced the first car ferry service in the San Juans in the early 1920s with a run from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C., via Orcas and Roche Harbor. Crosby soon sold out to the Puget Sound Navigation Company, which operated under the Black Ball Line flag until acquired by the newly formed Washington State Ferries in 1951. Black Ball added service to Lopez in 1926 and to Shaw in 1930, when Friday Harbor replaced Roche Harbor as the San Juan Island terminus. Seventy-five years later the route is unchanged. Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan remain the only islands with regular ferry service.

Airplanes provided a new means to reach the islands and after World War II airstrips were developed on many. Bob Schoen (1919-2003) of Orcas Island began commuter air service between the islands and the mainland in 1947. The next year Roy Franklin (1924-2011) joined Schoen to operate Island Sky Ferries, bringing regular air service to Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez.

By 1970 population had rebounded to 3,856 and San Juan County's lull was over. Salmon fishing boomed briefly in the early 1970s, drawing newcomers to the islands' oldest industry. That did not last -- there are now no canneries and few commercial fishing boats. However, the rise in tourists, summer residents, and retirees has continued.

Tourist Attractions

Some tourists had frequented the islands for years, especially Orcas, where the first hotels opened in the 1880s, with youth summer camps and beach cabin resorts appearing in the 1920s and 1930s. Moran State Park on Orcas, with mountain lakes and 2,409-foot Mt. Constitution, San Juan County's highest point, has been popular since Robert Moran (1857-1943) donated it to the state in 1921. From the 1960s on, Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez all saw substantial development of tourist accommodations, subdivisions, and summer and retirement homes. Despite growth, San Juan County remains distinctly different from its mainland neighbors. The only traffic light in the county, which hung for some years in Eastsound, now sits in the Orcas Island Historical Museum.

The county's year-round population was 14,400 in 2000, with 95 percent on the three largest islands, a couple hundred more on Shaw, and several hundred scattered across Waldron, Decatur, Blakely, Stuart, and a handful of smaller islands. At the peak of the summer tourist season, the overnight population more than doubles. Not surprisingly, the tourist industry is the county's leading employer, while construction accounts for the largest percentage of retail sales. Real estate and banking are also important. Many residents are retired and a substantial number who work are self-employed.

National, state, and county parks -- some comprising entire islands -- are prime attractions for visitors and residents. Blind, Clark, Doe, James, Jones, Matia, Patos, Posey, Skull, Sucia, Turn, and Victim islands, ranging from small to tiny, are all marine state parks. Lime Kiln Point State Park, formerly a Saanich reef-net site, a lime works, and a lighthouse preserve (the lighthouse still stands), is now a whale-watching park where pods of orca whales often swim near shore. San Juan Island National Historical Park commemorates the Pig War and its peaceful resolution; the Park's English and American Camp locations also contain important archeological sites from centuries of Salish history, including a sacred Lummi island in Garrison Bay. The Lummi regained Tsel Whi'sen, a village and burial site on Orcas Island's Madrona Point near Eastsound, in 1989 and operate it as a public preserve. At the start of the twenty-first century, descendants of the Salish who made the islands home for millennia share their fragile beauty with other island residents of all heritages and visitors from around the world.


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Note: This essay was updated on May 6, 2013, and revised on September 8, 2017.

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