San Juan Island's storied past

When the first Spanish ships explored the San Juan Archipelago in 1791, they encountered a native Coast Salish community that had inhabited the islands for more than 9,000 years.

While the English followed closely behind the Spanish in charting the waters of the San Juan Islands, neither country began actively settling here.

It wasn’t until the Hudson Bay Company established the first non-native outpost on the islands in 1850, at present day Eagle Cov, that the British first laid claim to the islands.

The Americans officially challenged this claim in 1859 when an American settler, Lyman Cutlar, found one of the British settlers’ pigs in his garden digging up his potatoes, and shot it dead.

Threats from both sides ensued, and the situation quickly escalated to the point of both countries establishing military camps on San Juan Island. This was the start of the great "Pig War" between the two countries.

The next 11 years resulted in a peaceful military standoff, during which time the islands’ fishing and farming economies continued to grow.

In 1872 both the British and Americans agreed to arbitrate the dispute, and Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany ruled in the Americans favor.

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Friday Harbor, ca. 1915. Courtesy Washington Rural Heritage
Pole vaulting in Friday Harbor, ca. 1920. Courtesy Washington Rural Heritage

Friday Harbor was incorporated as the new county’s first town in 1909, and is still the only incorporated town in San Juan County.

During the early 1900s the town and county flourished economically, as fishing, logging and the vast lime reserves that had been found throughout the islands were actively mined.

The boom lasted about 30 years, when lime deposits started to disappear and transportation improvements on the mainland made shipping produce via water too expensive.

Population in 1910 reached 3,600 county-wide, and remained virtually the same for the next 50 years.

Tourism has grown steadily since 1960, as has the local population; today San Juan County has more than 16,000 year-round residents.

Today, the island’s economy is primarily tourism based, with construction-related activities coming in a close second.