The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Number 4, Pages 13-15
Fall, 1977

Life on San Juan Island in the Late Nineteenth Century

By Lynn Harrison

Lynn Harrison works at the Pacific Northwest Indian Center.

At first glance the early history of the San Juan Islands seems to be exclusively the story of the Pig War, that curious episode that almost brought the United States and Britain into actual warfare. To the outside world that confrontation may well be the most interesting thing that happened on San Juan in the nineteenth century. But on the Island, itself, the military events were less important than the day-to-day social and economic life of the region. These are some of the activities that occupied the Islanders a century ago.

At the arrival of American troops on San Juan Island in 1859 sightseers from the mainland flocked to the tiny island, drawn perhaps by a yearning for excitement, secretly hoping to find the two countries locked in mortal combat. Even after the respective militaries settled down to a peaceful routine, excursion boats continued to make daily trips between Victoria and San Juan. It was, and still is, a novel way to spend a day.

Being different nationalities, the British and Americans, of course, had different days of celebration. This led to an abundance of holidays on the islands. For example: The English celebrated the Queen's birthday May 24. The Americans, not having a monarch, celebrated instead the birthday of their country, July 4. Christmas and New Years were also celebrated. At other times balls, dinners, as well as sporting events were held on the Island.

Horse racing seemed to be the highlight of most large outdoor affairs. There were an assortment of purses such as the Farmer's purse of $100.00 for three-year-olds and the Pony purse. The races were well attended, and according to a local newspaper, "the betting was lively but for small amounts."(1)

The military leaders sometimes took short holidays to Victoria and likewise others from Victoria would repay the visit to San Juan. Descriptions of these affairs were frequently printed in Victoria's newspapers. The following is an article printed July 8, 1863 in the Colonist.

July 4, 1863 - American Camp - Shortly after noon a sumptuous dinner was laid out in the company's mess room, to which a large company of citizens, including a number of the fair sex, repaired. The room was very tastefully decorated with evergreens, with here and there a star, formed of side arms, which had a brilliant and striking effect. On the door were the words "Welcome All"; a motto which was most literally construed inside...Prior to the commencement of the repast an extract from the Declaration of Independence was read, and a few appropriate remarks made by Sergeant Jones, U.S.A.; after which the time-honored Star Spangled Banner was sung in excellent style.

Dinner over, all hands adjourned to the prairie outside the camp, where a number of sports took place. Everything passed off most satisfactorily, and all (except those who participated in a ball at the town, which was kept up with great spirit until the small hours) retired well satisfied...The officers from the British camp were also present and seemed thoroughly to enjoy the proceedings.(2)

Sometimes the British played host. The Queen's birthday was a time of celebration at English Camp, when many sporting events took place. Among the contests were sailing and sculling races, sack races, bobbing for rolls, and walking a greased pole. Then too, there was the wheelbarrow race-blindfolded. According to an account in the Colonist: "The men rushed about in all directions and several of them disappeared, barrow and all, over the embankment."(3)

Despite the peaceful character of the joint occupation, the unusual condition on the Islands created some problems. In fact, during the joint occupation, the Islands were a haven for offenders of the law. If caught by the American authorities, they could claim British citizenship and if caught by British, claim American citizenship. This proved convenient for the not-so-trustworthy. Only upon arbitration and subsequent awarding of the Islands to the United States did the dual citizenship cease.

A member of the United States Boundary Commission visiting San Juan Village in 1860 commented: "The population of the place numbers about 30 or 40; the number being made up of...white men, Chinamen and Indians. Whiskey drinking seems to be the principle occupation. There were not more than half a dozen respectable Americans in the place."(4)

Farther up the Island on a beautiful little harbor the town of Friday Harbor was seeing its beginnings in 1875, and by late 1880's was favored over San Juan Village which was nearly abandoned. On a hot summer day in 1890 a man known as "Whispering Pete" Seary started a fire to get rid of some debris from a stable and consequently leveled what was left of the old town.

Another town, Roche Harbor, grew rapidly at the end of the century. It possessed substantial limestone deposits. Discovered by the English during the occupation, the deposits were not fully exploited until 1884, when John S. McMillin bought out the existing English company. Since lime was a major necessity in the production of steel, cement, plaster and paper products, a man with foresight could easily turn a substantial deposit into an empire, and by 1929 John McMillin had done just that.

McMillin owned Roche Harbor and virtually owned its people. Single men lived in barrack accommodations located against the hill, while men with families lived in one and two story cottages on the east side of town. The western end of this small metropolis was reserved for the quarries and the Japanese.

Roche Harbor boasted a first class hotel, a church, general store, post office, company offices and a school. The near-independence of this "company town" is evidenced by its autonomous power, water and telephone systems.

The employees of Roche Harbor were paid in scrip which was negotiable only at the company store, but they could draw their wages in currency if they so desired, but the scrip was a convenience for both the employer and employee as the company store stocked almost everything the people needed. This system tended to bind the people to the company - the store advanced credit for items sold, often leaving the worker in debt until death.

McMillin, as magistrate, made known how he wished his men to vote. He discouraged any thoughts of unionization, even replacing entire crews immediately when they went on strike. Foremen carried side arms to keep the men in line. The gates to the town were locked at night and if, for some reason, an islander got on the wrong side of the McMillins he was refused entrance into town.(5)

Today San Juan Island still reminds the tourist of its early history. The inhabitants favor a quiet, slow pace, enjoying the same type of neighborly activities as their predecessors did. Roche Harbor is still in evidence, though it is no longer a "company town" but unique resort area.


(1) Port Townsend Register, June 27,1860.

(2) Colonist, July 8,1863.

(3) Colonist, May 26, 1866.

(4) Thompson, Erwin N., ed., Historic Resource Study, San Juan Island, National Park Ser., 1972, p. 184.

(5) Evans, Lynette and Burley, George, Roche Harbor: A Saga in the San Juans, B. & E. Enterprises, 1972, p.60.