A Bit of Cultural History of the San Juan Islands
Native American Occupation
Native Americans from the surrounding areas used the islands as summer camps to fish for salmon, their primary source of food. Today you can still see a version of the traditional means of fishing (called reef netting) at work on some of the smaller islands. The Native Americans as well knew the abundance of salmon as the resident orca whales who also frequent the coast in search of migrating salmon, which are pushed against the islands by the tide. Salmon and orcas both have important roles in the Native cultures of the Salish Sea.
Cedar canoes were the primary mode of transportation for the Native Americans. The canoes were carefully crafted to handle multiple passengers and long trips over open water. Today kayaks offer a similar mode of human powered transportation placing you right on the level of the water. The maneuverability and stability of kayaks creates a magical connection between participants and the sea. Traditional sea kayaks were developed in northern climes such as Southern Alaska and Greenland where the scarcity of standing timber prompted them to be constructed of pieces of driftwood and stretched sealskins. There are several native stories of tribesmen who turned into orcas as they paddled out to sea. On a foggy day it is easy to see the root of these tales as kayakers fade into the mist looking mysteriously like orcas rising from the water.
The Lummi Indians were the first inhabitants of San Juan Island. They lived on the North side of the island before migrating to Orcas Island and later Gooseberry Point near the city of Bellingham today. Not much is known about the lifestyle of the Natives in the islands before the colonization period. Epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases to which they had no natural immunity either coincided with or closely predated the physical arrival of Europeans. Smallpox Bay at San Juan County Park received its name from the Native Americans who dove into the frigid waters in attempts to rid themselves of the high fevers associated with smallpox. By the time Europeans were actively colonizing the Islands most of the Native population had already been decimated. San Juan County Park, where most of our trips launch from, was used as a campground during the annual summer salmon migration for hundreds of years prior to colonization. Today it is listed as an archaeological site.
Early European & American Settlement
Although the Spanish explorers left their mark on the land with names like San Juan, Haro, and Sucia, Americans and British primarily founded the actual first settlement. Possession of the islands was left unresolved following the 1846 resolution of the border dispute between Canada and the United States. Both countries had settlers on San Juan, though the British had the largest settlement at Bellevue Farm– a farm and supply point for the Hudson Bay Company. Governor Douglas of Vancouver Island appointed Charles Griffin as Justice of the Peace for the islands.
An American settler named Lyman Cutlar settled near the Bellevue Farm. While this in itself was not extraordinary, his actions nearly brought on a war between the Americans and British. At the time Charles Griffin had a pig, which had quite an appetite. Apparently it broke into Cutlar’s garden one too many times and in moment of exasperation, he shot the pig. This is more understandable when you realize that Cutlar rowed 15 miles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Peninsula to get the seed for his potato crop. Though Cutlar admitted to killing the pig, he refused to be brought to trial by the British and sought out protection from the United States. Tensions mounted as the countries established army garrisons on opposing ends of San Juan Island. Somehow things managed to stay in check until 1872 when a German arbitrator awarded the islands to the U.S., placing the international boundary as Haro Strait. You can visit the sites of the garrisons, which are maintained by the National Park Service today.
Although the islands have a tranquil feel today, it was not always the case. Colonization occurred relatively quickly moving into the 1900’s. Fishing and agriculture were the major economic drivers, although the mining of lime (used in cement making) at Roche Harbor became a major industry as well. These may were the largest legitimate industries, but smuggling of wool, alcohol, narcotics, and aliens from Canada to the U.S. were also booming trades.
The intricate waterways of the islands made the perfect hiding place for smugglers, especially during the Prohibition period. There are popular stories of enterprising islanders who found easy ways to obtain large amounts of the illegal liquors. The islanders would sneak up on the smuggler’s watchmen, knock them unconscious, and set fake signal fires, which caused the smugglers to dump their hooch overboard. After the smugglers left (usually quite quickly), the islanders would run out and get a nice stash of moonshine.
Even though most of the smuggling occurred quickly, quietly, and without harming anyone, there were many notable hijackings, murders, and assaults. However, one of the more famous smugglers did claim that none of the Ten Commandments had any relevance to his trade. Though being a “famous smuggler” was not necessarily a good thing… it simply means they were caught more often!
The first real settlement, San Juan Town on Griffin Bay, was also testament to the wildness of the times. Saloons reigned, gun toting, land grabbing, and drunkenness were the norm, and women were not safe at any hour. It was a scene that would have made the frontier towns of the Old West blush. Gradually the town grew dirtier and more unkempt, until all the residents had relocated. Most moved north to Friday Harbor. San Juan Town lay nothing but a ghost town when a fire destroyed it in 1890.
There are many accounts of how Friday Harbor was named, but the actual story is of the pioneer of the northwest side of the sheltered bay (site of the U.W. Labs today), a Hawaiian shepherd named Joe Friday. Ship captains knew that he was the lone inhabitant on the Northeast side of the island, so ships bound for San Juan would navigate by the tower of smoke coming from Friday’s Harbor. The town grew with the help of the agricultural, fishing, and mining industries. Spring Street, which one invariably climbs after unloading the ferry, is so named for the super-prolific first source of water for the town. The flooding caused by the spring became such a problem that it was finally capped off.