Looking to the Past

From atop Youngs Hill, you can see for centuries

Staring out to the distance from atop Youngs Hill the casual hiker may see an array of sights. Many have made the same hike throughout history, but the sights have changed.

You made it! Here on the top of Young Hill, you are 650 feet above the Salish Sea. Note the long, vertical scratches on the bedrock at your feet. These were made by Ice Age glaciers dragging boulders over the top of the island thousands of years ago. The view from this hill might seem timeless, but it has changed a great deal in recent centuries.

For thousands of years, Straits Salish people were virtually the sole inhabitants of the San Juan Islands. They hunted wildlife and gathered resources from the nutrient-rich land. The Straits Salish were also a maritime people, so Salish canoes would have been a common sight, scattered all about the water as the people fished for salmon and dove for shellfish. From where you now stand, you might have seen the waters dotted with dozens of ocean-going canoes, engaged in fishing or trade or perhaps even a raiding party. Below at Garrison Bay was a huge native village, with a longhouse that measured 800 feet long.

Fast forward to the 1700s and the first European explorers might come into view. The Spanish came first, and as a result many of the names given to places in the San Juan Islands by the Spanish explorers are still used today. British explorer, Captain Vancouver, arrived in the late 1700s and renamed some of the locations. He also created extensive and highly accurate maps of the geography. Unfortunately, with the explorers came diseases.

By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the view would change again, thanks in no small part to the epidemics of European diseases that spread throughout native communities. Devastated by these epidemics, native populations plummeted. British and American settlers came to take control of the widowed lands. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established a post on the island in the 1800s, bringing with them sheep and cattle previously unseen in the islands. American and English families began to settle on the islands, with white men often taking native wives. Native canoes were replaced with fishing vessels and sometimes warships.

If you stood on this hill in the 1860s you might have heard the sounds of the British Royal Marine garrison below. The San Juans were disputed territory, claimed by the United State and Great Britain. In 1860 each had an established and armed camp on San Juan Island, but the two sides never came to blows. English Camp was built over the remains of the native village. If you are quiet, perhaps you can still hear the sounds of the Marine drills, the hammer of the blacksmith, and the children of the officers at play.

Today as you stare out into the beautiful horizons from Youngs Hill, you will not see Salish canoes or British warships. Instead, you may see a luxury boat, shipping containers, or your ferry home. At certain times of the year, you may spot killer whales migrating through the waters, or an eagle soaring through the skies. Though you cannot see the sights of yesterday, you can still imagine what your hike would have looked like as far back as 500 years ago.