History of the Area


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 upon. 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.