Friday Harbor History

San Juan Island & Friday Harbor – A Brief History

The San Juan Islands were inhabited by the Northern Straits Salish peoples for as much as 8,000 years prior to European contact. The Northern Straits Salish include the Lummi and Mitchell Bay Indians, who believe San Juan Island to be their place of origin.

The Northrn Straits Salish and other Native people inhabited the islands seasonally, preserving food in summer for winters spent elsewhere. All were drawn to the islands by the rich abundance of food and materials found here.

European exploration of the archipelago was begun by the Spanish in the late 18th century with key mapping expeditions occurring in 1791 and 1792 by Captain Francisco de Eliza. A British expedition led by Captain George Vancouver also occurred in 1792.

The 1846 Oregon Treaty established the northwest boundary between Canada and the US as the 49th parallel. In the San Juan Archipelago,  mapping inaccuracies would later result in conflict between the U.S. and British governments.

Hudson’s Bay Company

As with the orca, the Straits Salish followed the salmon from the ocean into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, toward San Juan Island, and beyond. So too, did the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which by the mid-1800s was one of the first international business conglomerates trading in raw materials.

The HBC established forts at what is now Vancouver, WA, as well as throughout Oregon and into northern Washington, Canada and Alaska. Their trade routes saw the export of beaver pelts, salmon, timber, wheat and other products to far away places, including England, the Hawaiian Islands, Asia and Russia.

In 1853, British Chief Factor, James Douglas (from Fort Victoria, BC), and HBC employees imported over 1,300 sheep to graze on an expanse of prairie on the southern tip of San Juan Island. While this area was ideal for agriculture and livestock, Douglas’s primary purpose was political. The presence of British agricultural interests would solidify Great Britain’s claim to the island, which had been in dispute with the United States since the two nations signed the Treaty of Oregon in 1846.

Hudson Bay Company's Belle Vue Sheep Farm. 'Home Prairie' Establishment - painting by Richard Schlect - courtesy of the National Park Service

The Pig War

Soon thereafter, the Americans responded by dispatching a federal customs collector and a sheriff from the American mainland, for the purpose of collecting back taxes on the HBC sheep. Relations between the two nations became even more strained when a small number of Americans left the Fraser River Gold Rush to homestead on San Juan Island.

It was the shooting of a garden-marauding British pig by an American homesteader that escalated the dispute to the verge of war. These competing claims, and the international standoff that followed, are referred to as the infamous Pig War.

Early Friday Harbor

The steamer, ISLANDER, a wood burning passenger and freight steamer built at Newhall, Washington for the Bellingham Bay-San Juan Island route, 1904 - Photo from University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division, UW7815

HBC employees came to the San Juans following the company’s numerous international trade routes. One Hawaiian sheep herder and Hudson Bay employee, known as “Friday”, settled the area of what is now the town of Friday Harbor. This caused many to refer to the place as “Friday’s Harbor”.

Friday Harbor (the ‘s’ was dropped over time) was blessed with the right natural attributes—a protected harbor and good anchorage—and by the 1870′s, a handful of farsighted promoters had built the town’s first general stores, hotels, and saloons. In 1873, Friday Harbor was named the county seat of the islands.

By 1900, Friday Harbor boasted a population of three or four hundred residents. Road and telephone networks linked the town to the rest of the island. The community was growing, and by then had added a bank, US Customs, a weekly newspaper, drugstore, barber, a grade school, theatre, four large wharves and warehouses, a cannery, creamery, two churches, fraternal halls, and a number of handsome, substantial homes.

Friday Harbor from the water c.1908, Photo from the University of Washington Special Collections Division WAS0394

What these buildings had in common was simplicity of design. They were attractive and functional, but without elaborate ornamentation or frills. Typically, both residential and commercial buildings were built with local timber. Money was not so plentiful that it could be used for the unnecessary, and so most buildings were painted white, more for functional protection against rot, than for decoration.

Sailing ships, and later, steamships came in and out of the harbor on a regular basis, hauling passengers, mail and freight. They took the island’s bounty: apples, pears, cherries, strawberries, peas, cream, eggs, chicken, sheep, grain, lime, timber and salmon “down Sound.”

In 1909 Friday Harbor became incorporated, and to this day has the distinction of being the only incorporated town in the islands of San Juan County.

After incorporation, Friday Harbor came into its own, prospering and riding the economic ups and downs of the day. The vagaries of the marketplace, the Great Depression, WWII, the pea weevil, and the competition from Eastern Washington agriculture brought about the decline of traditional island industries. Friday Harbor’s fortunes declined with them.

The town wore a pinched look until the late 1960s, when tourism, retirement, real estate, construction, the arts and a variety of cottage industries began to take hold.

Friday Harbor Today

Friday Harbor from the water c.2008, photo courtesy Mike Bertrand

Today, the town is again busy and prosperous. Just over 2000 people live within the town boundaries, with another 4000 islanders living in the unincorporated areas of the island.

Though the traditional industries have all but vanished, there are still many visible reminders of the pioneer era—fragments of 100-year old orchards, kitchen gardens, turn-of-the-century wooden buildings and companionable roof lines—all acquaint islander and visitor alike with Friday Harbor’s spirited early days.

Content provided by Nancy Larsen, Sandy Strehlou, Mike Vouri and the National Park Service.