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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The San Juan Islands: A Complex History of Place Names

Last weekend, in a used bookstore here in Friday Harbor appropriately called Serendipity, my mom serendipitously found a copy of a book that I've long wanted to own: Who the Hell Was San Juan ? Published in 1982, this booklet by Doug Cardle examines the history of place names in the San Juan Islands and also provides a nice summary of the convoluted history of European exploration of these islands which has contributed to the vast array of geographical names. The book, which has long been out of print, is available via the above link on Amazon, but here's my understanding of the history:

The Coast Salish people were the original inhabitants of the region, with the Samish tribe in particular making extensive use of the San Juan Islands and its natural resources. Somewhat surprisingly considering the rest of the region, only a very few names reflect this Native American history. Lummi Island refers to one of the other regional tribes, Indian Cove on Shaw Island is a known historic fishing ground, and Smallpox Bay on San Juan Island refers to the disease that wiped out such a large portion of the native population.

Indian Cove on Shaw Island, one of the few local place names that references the Native Americans who called this area home for thousands of years before Europeans arrived

In 1592, Apostolos Valerianos of Cephalonia (a Greek better known by his Spanish moniker of Juan de Fuca) sailed the west coast of North American in search of the Northwest Passage. He marked a strait in the rough vicinity of the closest oceanic access to our inland sea, and when such a waterway was found in a similar latitude almost two hundred years later by a British expedition, it was marked on the map as Juan de Fuca's Strait, and that name has persisted.

The infamous Strait of Juan de Fuca

In 1790, of course with complete disregard for the people already here, ownership of lands in the Pacific Northwest was being disputed among the Spanish, English, and Russians. Spain, under the leadership of (take a deep breath before saying this name) Don Juan Vincente de Guemes Pacheco de Padilla Horcasitees y Aguayo, Conde de Revilla Gigedo (abbreviated by some to San Juan - though he was not in fact a saint), decided to attempt to take control of this situation by sending an expedition to figure out where the Strait of Juan de Fuca actually led. After entering the strait, they made the fateful decision to turn left rather than right, making them the first Europeans to thoroughly explore what would become known as the San Juan Islands. The verbose name of San Juan was not only the inspiration for the name of San Juan Island and of the archipelago as a whole, but provided several other place names: Padilla Bay, Guemes Island, and Orcas Island. Orcas Island - isn't that named after our local black and white marine mammals? This is what many think, but bizarrely Orcas is taken from the name "Horcasitees".

Orcas Island - NOT named for Orcinus orca

While Spain agreed to abandon their claims to any lands north of California in 1795, their earlier presence remains evident in many local place names: Lopez Island, Rosario Strait, Sucia Island, Patos Island, and many others come from the names of Spanish dignitaries or Spanish words.

Patos Island - quite literally where the Spanish saw some ducks

Two years after the Spanish "San Juan" expedition, in 1792, the famed British sailor Captain George Vancouver also made his way into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Like Juan de Fuca two centuries before him, he was also interested in finding the mythical connection between the Pacific and Atlantic known as the Northwest Passage. Instead of turning left like the Spanish, however, Vancouver turned right after entering the strait, and thus is credited with "discovering" Puget Sound. He was more interested in the major waterways than any of the islands, but some of the names listed on his charts for this region have nonetheless survived: he penned the name Cypress Island (though the trees were actually junipers) and also paid tribute to his king via the Gulf of Georgia (now known a little further north than he marked it as the Strait of Georgia).

Finally, in 1841, the US made their mark on the region via the Wilkes Expedition. One of the United States greatest but largely forgotten exploring expeditions, the Wilkes Expedition spent four years surveying Antarctica, the Pacific Islands, and the west coast of North America, including the San Juan Islands. (Another great book is Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 which details the Wilkes Expedition). Lead by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who was somewhat obsessed with the War of 1812, he christened these islands part of the Navy Archipelago and proceeded to name all geographic features either after members of his crew (Waldron Island, Stuart Island, Spieden Island) or after major ships and figureheads involved in the War of 1812. Some examples of the latter that have survived the test of time are Mount Constitution, the Wasp Islands, and Decatur Island.

Waldron Island, named after Thomas and/or Russell Waldron, the purser and Captain's clerk on the Wilkes expedition

 In response in part of the increased US presence in the region shown by the Wilkes Expedition, the British redoubled their efforts to survey the area we now know as the Salish Sea in the 1840s when the Hudson Bay Company moved their headquarters to Victoria. Names that came from members of the Company include Mount Finlayson, Mitchell Bay, Kellett Bluff, and Reid Rock. In 1846 the border between the US and Canada was set as the 49th parallel, but the wording left the ownership of the islands unclear, and the British presence remained the dominant one. In 1847, Captain Henry Kellett revised many of the existing charts, and in the process erased a lot of what Wilkes had done, relieving us of such names as Rodgers Island for San Juan Island, Macedonian Crescent for Lopez Sound, and Penguin Harbor for part of Bellingham Channel. Around 1860 another British surveyor, Captain George Richards, put in a lot of time detailing the local geography, naming many of the smaller islands and land features. As you'll see, he was a real creative type, but more than 100 of his place names have stuck. Some examples include Yellow Island, Cliff Island, Dot Rock, Eagle Cove, Flat Point, Steep Point, and Harbor Rock - and I don't even have to provide any explanation for how he came up with these names, because they're self-explanatory. The British also named several places after the natural resources that led them here in the first place, and so we have Cattle Point, Deer Harbor, Fisherman Bay, and the like.

Yellow Island, named by the creative Captain George Richards of the Hudson Bay Company

After a short gold rush in the nearby Fraser Valley in 1858, more Americans drifted to the San Juan Islands after failing to find their fortune. This set the stage for the San Juan Island's 15 minutes of fame when it comes to US history. Tensions were already running high between the British and Americans in 1859 when American Lyman Cutler shot a trespassing pig that belonged to British magistrate John Griffin. This was the straw that broke the camel's back and the start of the Pig War, in which both countries established encampments here on the island (hence our American Camp, English Camp, and Garrison Bay). The joint occupation continued for 13 years with the only casualty of the war being the pig. Then, for some reason that has never been made clear to me, the German Emperor of all people ruled in 1872 that the US-Canada border would be in Haro Strait instead of Rosario Strait, placing the San Juan Islands in the United States as the last land acquired by the country in the Lower 48.

View from the redoubt at American Camp, which was occupied from 1859-1872
So, that wasn't quite as concise of a history as I had intended, but I hope you found it as enlightening as I did. At the very least, it sheds some light on why we have place names both English and Spanish, some of which make total sense, and others which reference people and ships and battles that took place far from here. While I know the British in particular did some chart revisions over time, it's still interesting to me that a few names from every exploring expedition have survived. Why wouldn't the British have gotten rid of all the Spanish names entirely, for instance, or were they using their charts? It's a fascinating question to ponder, but we may never have the answers. In the meantime, I now understand a little bit more about this amazing place I call home.


Vera said...

That was quite a history lesson and very interesting. Thanks!

James said...

Fascinating story!

Scott Veirs said...

Great post, Monika! I came here pondering the origin of "Smallpox Bay" as a Race to Alaska boat spent the night unexpectedly there yesterday.

I hadn't appreciated the memorable sequence of expedition timings: 200 years from the initial "discovery" of Juan de Fuca to the ~1790-92 explorations by both Spanish and English; then 50 years til intensified surveying by both Americans and the British. Thanks for helping me see the whole of the unusually quantized sequence!

Also, for folks not familiar with the Spanish language, it may be helpful to know that the "H" letter in Spanish is always silent. (J provides the sound in Spanish that H does in English.) So, "Horcasitees" would begin exactly the same as the word "orcas." I can see how a British chart maker in the 1840s might have simplified the local common name for the island from "Horcasitees" (pronouned "Orcaseetees" to just "Orcas."