In the late 19th century, San Juan Island was a desirable agricultural location for settlement. Once the Pig War – the nonviolent dispute between the Untied States and Great Britain over ownership rights to the San Juan Islands – was resolved in favor of the United States, Isaac Sandwith settled the area on the lower slopes of Young Hill near the site of the abandoned English Camp. Sandwith had already resided on the Island, but laid claim to the new site in 1875.
Shortly after, he built an island house, granary, barn, chicken house, stable, and fences using the materials salvaged from English Camp. The sited is a perfect example of a 19th century homestead farm and subsistence orchard for he, his family, and local neighbors. Like many other homesteaders who claimed land under the Preemption Act of 1841, Sandwith and his young family planted fruit trees, vegetables, grain, and raised hogs, sheep, and cattle. Evidence shows that the orchard’s extant trees were pear, apple, plum, cherry, and apricot and the site’s oldest tree is a Flemish Beauty pear that dates back to 1875.
The Sandwith Homestead’s orchard is significant because it is an example of how a variety of fruit trees where planted by settlers for subsistence farming purposes. For example, planting apples from seed was important for frontier settlers because it not only fulfilled a requirement placed on settlers in the homesteading laws, but the fruit, though unpalatable, was good for cider. Once pressed and fermented for several weeks, the hard cider – a mildly alcoholic beverage – was consumed by entire families and was often a healthier option than local water sources that could be unsanitary and potentially dangerous. As time passed, settlers began changing their orchard practices for a more complex system that included grafted trees that produced sweet eatable fruit. Orchard fruit trees were harvested from early summer to late fall, and the fruit produced was the main form of sweetness in homestead diets, and the basis for all desserts and treats for frontier families.
Sandwith and his family farmed the land for 27 years until its sale in 1902 and the homestead would pass ownership several more times over the next few decades. The site stopped being a producing farm and orchard in the 1930s and it would remain mostly untouched until 1967 when the National Park Service added the homestead and orchard to the San Juan Island National Historical Park. The homestead site consists of the original home site and remnant orchard along the Old Military Road that traversed the island to connect English Camp and American Camp.