San Juan Town

The Pig War's raucous boomtown.

A diverse frontier boomtown next to American Camp ran a thriving business in whiskey and sex.

People like Israel Katz saw a business opportunity in the Pig War. Katz, born and raised in Germany, travelled across the world to join his brother Solomon and work at his grocery store in Port Townsend. Soon after, Israel crossed the Strait of Juan De Fuca and opened a new branch for Waterman & Katz in nascent San Juan Town, just down the hill from American Camp.

For thousands of years the Salish Sea has been a crossroads of people and commerce, witnessing trade and travel stretching from California to Alaska. In the mid-19th century, San Juan Island suddenly occupied a novel commercial position as a frontier zone at the intersection of two remote powers: America and Great Britain. Businesses soon arrived to 'mine' the isolated, predominantly male population of homesteaders, farmhands, shepherds, and soldiers

Like other Western boomtowns, San Juan Town appeared nearly overnight in 1859. The "village" started as a series of tents around the pier in Griffin Bay, conveniently close to the bored troops at American camp. Some structures were transported over from their previous locations in Bellingham. When the US Boundary Commission visited in January of 1860, they described, "about 20 houses [...] five or six are 'rum mills' [...] the population of the place numbers about 30 or 40 [...] white men, Chinamen and Indians. Whiskey drinking seems to the the principal occupation." These starched surveyors struck a scandalized tone: "There were not more than half a dozen respectable Americans in the place."

The trades of prostitution and whiskey were accompanied by a bakery, a butchery, a whiskey-dealing barber, a fruit stand, and a series of grocery stores, the largest eventually being that of Israel Katz. Before the post office moved to Katz's shop, it resided in the bar of one J.E. Higgins. The town courtroom was in yet another bar, this owned by J.S. Bowker. San Juan Town never seems to have surpassed that early scale of 20 structures in the 1860s. Sex and liquor were far and away the biggest businesses, drawing frequent complaints from authorities in nearby Victoria, and both British and American camp commanders.

The long practiced slave trade of the Inside Passage and the overwhelmingly male labor force saw the sex trafficking of native women well into the 20th century. Meanwhile, the Hudson's Bay Company's (H.B.C.) prohibition of liquor sales to Native Americans simply drove up prices for American whiskey sellers. The H.B.C. used gunboat diplomacy elsewhere to enforce both its liquor prohibition and its stated opposition to slavery, but the challenges of geography, business relations, and the proximity of Americans made successful enforcement impossible.

The confused jurisdiction of San Juan Island made fertile conditions for a boom town. Anyone confronted by British authorities could claim American citizenship, and vice versa. Violence was not infrequent, though the historical record reflects only two murders over 15 years. In both cases, the victims were Native American men, and though one murderer was apprehended, his only punishment was expulsion from the island: the same penalty reserved for selling whiskey.

The resolution of the Pig War and the growing American population also saw the increased presence of American civil authorities. The nearby town of Friday Harbor, with a deepwater anchorage far superior to Griffin's Bay, attracted more upright business and residents, becoming county seat in 1873. San Juan Town swiftly dissipated, likely around 1874. Shortly thereafter Israel Katz relocated his shop to Friday Harbor, before returning to Port Townsend, where he lived out the rest of his days.

No photographs of San Juan Town survive, though we can see Israel Katz on his wedding day. His name even became a nickname for this town of ill-repute: Katzville.

A painting of San Juan Town, with Mt. Baker rising behind, is our best image remaining. In 1972, an archaeology crew from the University of Idaho surveyed this site where Native American men and women from throughout the Inside Passage had walked alongside German Jews, British Royal Marines, Chinese domestic servants, Hawaiian farmhands, and Irishmen in the Army of the Republic. They found the detritus of a boom town: an 1868 dime, a fragment of an Angostura bottle, a pocket knife, an empty can of maple syrup, among many other items. Everywhere, they found a tremendous quantity of liquor bottles.