San Juan Island’s History

The idyllic San Juan Islands are located in the northern reaches of Puget Sound, some 80 miles north of Seattle in the northwesternmost corner of the state of Washington. Their natural beauty, equitable climate and relaxed life-style make them an increasingly popular place with vacationers as well as retirees. Over the years, the San Juans have been included in various lists of America’s most desirable places to live. There are approximately 172 islands in the group, depending on how you count them. The four largest and most populated are accessible by Washington State Ferries out of nearby Anacortes. These are: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw Islands. Waldron, Stuart, Blakely and Decatur Islands also have significant populations although they are only accessible by smaller boats, or by air.A few of the smallest islands are owned and lived on by individual families.


The islands together comprise San Juan County, one of the smallest in the state, but Washington’s fastest-growing county. The county seat is at Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. It is also the islands’ largest and only incorporated town.

The earliest inhabitants were Indians, mostly of the Lummi nation. British and Spanish explorers discovered the islands in the 18th century but settlement by whites didn’t begin until the 1850s. First to settle here were a few British trappers and sheepherders, and some Americans returning, disappointed, from searching for gold in Canada’s Caribou country. Conflicts between British and Americans came to a head in the so-called “Pig War” of 1859. An American settler on San Juan, Lyman Cutlar, shot and killed a British-owned hog that persisted in invading the American’s potato patch. The language defining the boundary between Canada and the United States being unclear, and with both nations claiming jurisdiction, U.S. troops were sent to confront British authorities when they attempted to arrest Cutlar. British warships then appeared off the San Juan coast and a shooting war appeared imminent. Fortunately cool heads prevailed and the two governments agreed to a joint occupation of the San Juans until a boundary could be agreed to. Finally the question was submitted for arbitration by the Kaiser of Germany who decided in 1872 that the Americans had the stronger claim to the islands. This ended the last territorial conflict ever between the United States and Great Britain.Waters surrounding the San Juans remain open to navigation by, and are extremely popular with, boaters from both countries. Also because of their strategic location, they have in times past proven attractive to smugglers and rum-runners as routes for the illicit transporting of everything from illegal aliens to drugs, wool, liquor and other commodities. On the whole, though, the islands have historically been populated by hard-working farmers, fishermen, seafarers and others.


Beginning in the 1970s these demographics began to change. Traditional occupations had become less profitable and the tourist business was becoming more important, even as increasing numbers of mainlanders came looking for alternatives to the problems of big-city life. Today with improved transportation and with better services and living standards, the islands are less remote and more liveable than ever before. Besides increasing numbers of retirees, many in the San Juans today are artists, writers, and others able to live where they like, including a new breed of working professionals comfortably connected to their far-distant big-city offices by computer terminal.

The San Juans are actually the remaining mountain-tops of a receding continent much older than the American mainland. The islands are generally quite hilly, the tallest mountain being Mount Constitution at almost exactly a half-mile elevation (see “Orcas Island” below), with some flat areas and valleys, often quite fertile, in between. The coastlines are a mixed bag of sandy and rocky beaches, shallow and deep harbors, placid and reef-studded bays. Gnarled, ochre-colored madrona trees grace much of the shorelines while evergreen fir and pine forests cover large inland areas.

The islands get less rainfall than, say, Seattle because of protective shadowing from U.S. and Canadian mountain ranges. Summertime high temperatures are around 70 degrees Fahrenheit while average wintertime lows are in the high thirties and low forties. Snow is infrequent in winter except for the higher elevations, but the islands are subject to high winds at times– those from the northeast sometimes bringing brief periods of freezing and arctic-like windchills.

Part of the charm of the San Juans is that each island seems to have a character of its own, both in terms of geography and of the lifestyle of the people who live there.

San Juan Island

San Juan is the busiest island with a number of small businesses operating there, county government being the biggest employer, and tourism and growth the major industries. The waterfront is colorful and a delight to visit especially on nice days, with a myriad of pleasure craft coming and going, along with ferries, fishing boats, yachts and every other sort of craft. The town has several good stores and lots of gift and souvenir shops, banks, drugstore, gas stations and so on. A unique Whale Museum in town will tell you everything you want to know about these fascinating animals, especially the “killer whales,” or orcas, which inhabit local waters and were made famous in movies like the locally filmed “Free Willy.” The Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories on the edge of town are a world-famous research center and mecca for oceanography students- -unfortunately they no longer do public tours.Besides Friday Harbor, the village and resort of Roche Harbor are worth a visit. Roche Harbor was a typical company town earlier in this century, where lime production was a major industry and revenue source. The whole town and, some say, the souls of the workers were owned by boss John S. McMillin. The historic Hotel de Haro, which once hosted President Teddy Roosevelt among other VIPs, and the remarkable McMillin family mausoleum are among a number of places worth inspecting.


Other notable attractions are the old British and American Camps at opposite ends of the island which together comprise the San Juan National Historical Park, which commemorates the 1859 “Pig War” (see “History” above). Interpretive centers and reconstructed buildings, formal gardens etc. recall the events and lifestyle of that era. In season, Park workers and volun- teers in period dress recreate significant moments for visitors.

Orcas Island

Orcas is slightly larger but less populous than San Juan. Shaped like a pair of saddlebags, it is almost bisected by fjord- like East Sound (two words), at the northern end of which is located the village of Eastsound (one word), the second largest town in the county.

Eastsound has a number of stores, inns, and excellent restaurants in addition to gift and souvenir shops, gas stations and other businesses.There are other, smaller settlements at Orcas (where the ferry lands), West Sound, Deer Harbor, Olga and Doe Bay, each different and worth a leisurely sightsee. At Olga there is an attractive and popular cafe and store (the rustic building is a former strawberry barreling plant) where local artists hang out and sell their work.

Half-mile-high Mount Constitution is a prime attraction. The easy drive to the top (except in the worst winter weather when park rangers close the road) rewards one with a spectacular 360-degree marine view said to be one of the finest anywhwere in the world. The mountain is part of Moran State Park, which also offers camping, swimming, fishing and hiking par excellence in its nearly 5,000 acres of woodland peace.


A long-time institution on Orcas Island’s northwest shoulder is Camp Orkila, which has been offering healthy summertime fun to boys and girls here since 1906. It is operated by the greater Seattle area’s YMCA.
Lopez is the first place the ferry lands after leaving Anacortes. The island is relatively flat compared to the other islands, which makes it especially popular with bicyclists. The main village is Lopez, half-way down the west coast, where you will find stores, an inn, and other services. It is the one island which still has some profitable working farms and a low enough traffic volume that drivers still wave to each other as they pass. Lopez has good beaches and campgrounds, including 80-acre Odlin Park at the island’s north end, and Spencer Spit State Park to the southwest. Camp Nor’wester offers boys and girls all the usual summer activities of swimming, boating, and hiking as well as crafts and Northwest-oriented Indian lore activities.


Shaw is not a large island, and is unique in having virtually no commercial or tourist-oriented facilities other than two smallish parks, most of the island being privately-owned by people who like their slow-paced privacy. Roads are mostly inland and afford little access to, or even views of the shoreline.

Always a surprise to first-time visitors and ferry-riders, the dock at the Shaw landing is operated by brown-habited Franciscan nuns who also run the adjacent Little Portion store. There are two other Catholic religious orders on Shaw, including the Order of the Benedictines which has a monastery on the island.

Most travellers to the San Juans arrive by Washington State Ferries which originate in Anacortes. The islands are also accessible by ferry from Sidney, near Victoria, British Columbia. CLICK HERE for current ferry information. Be advised that ferries are often crowded and it is best to arrive early at the terminal in order not to be overloaded to a later sailing.


It is also possible to park your car at the Anacortes terminal and board the ferry on foot. The problem is that except for Friday Harbor, where the ferry dock is right in town, there isn’t much you can see and do on arrival without transportation. Auto, moped and bicycle rentals are available in some cases, and the major resorts will pick you up by advance arrangement.

Air transportation is available from various mainland points, or by charter, to each of the larger islands; but again you will need to arrange for transport on arrival.

If you are a boater you can of course cruise the archipelago at your pleasure and find moorage at any number of ports and marinas.

Although the islands now have a great variety of facilities for tourists including inns, resorts, motel-like lodges and bed- and-breakfast establishments, as well as overnight parks and campgrounds, all of these places are in demand much of the year. It is never wise to come to the San Juans without a firm reservation.

For more information…

This brief introduction to the San Juans is courtesy of David Richardson, author of two best-selling books:

Magic Islands–a Treasure-Trove of San Juan Islands Lore Buy

and the more formal

Pig War Islands: The San Juans of Northwest Washington. Buy

    Both are obtainable through your bookstore or direct from
    Orcas Publishing Co., P.O. Box 104, Eastsound WA 98245

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