British and Americans Made Their Own Fun During the Joint Occupation

How to pass the time in the 1860s? It depended on who you were.

When it came to entertainment, the residents of San Juan Island in the 1800s were class-conscious.

The joint occupation of San Juan Island was a boring experience for Mary Allen, wife of Maj. Harvey Allen, commander of American Camp from 1867-8. After initial threats of war cooled, British and American troops settled into an uneventful occupation of the then-remote island. But people are innovative when it comes to entertainment, and those on San Juan Island were no exception.

A person's recreation depended a lot on their class. Camp commanders brought their wives and children along to their posting, or started new families during their stay. Mary's British counterpart - Isabella Delacombe, wife of Captain W. Delacombe - helped create the formal garden at English camp, a model of Victorian sophistication. Certainly, Mary had more in common with British officers than with the hard-drinking, poorly paid enlisted men in her own camp. Mary happily describes officer-only dinner parties and musical entertainment in letters to her sister in New Jersey: "The English at the other end are very agreeable."

Strict cultural norms held sway in Mary's time. She related to her sister how she sailed from California to San Juan Island with another officer's wife, but ignored the woman the whole time because rumor had it she did not merit formal "recognition."

A (relatively) urban escape could be found in the nearby towns of Port Townsend - the town that whiskey built - and Victoria, then the largest settlement in the region. Mary writes about shopping for the latest consumer goods in Victoria - though she had to rely on her sister to know what, exactly, was fashionable on the other side of the continent. Mary's nine-year old son, Carleton, wrote his cousin to describe an excess of Christmas presents and the untimely death of a pet duck.

The vast majority of the island's occupants, however, had no upper class pretensions. A diverse collection of enlisted soldiers, settlers, and laborers engaged in drinking and carousing. This occurred either at home, in rough-and-ready San Juan Town, or at whichever beach the whiskey sellers snuck ashore. Though little historic record survives from this population, we know gambling was a popular pastime of the area, and archaeologists found dice at the former site of San Juan Town. Making music and dancing would likely also have been popular, as well as organized games like a nascent sport called base-ball.

A reporter visiting San Juan Island from San Francisco in 1859 enjoyed a bawdy amateur theatrical production alongside soldiers and homesteaders. He reported that one actress "was warmly welcomed and frequently applauded, not so much for her acting as her gyrations."

The sex trade was also commonplace on San Juan Island. Soldiers and laborers frequented "hotels" in the island's towns. Camp commanders frequently complained that sex workers (as well as the ubiquitous whiskey sellers) were sneaking into both bases to ply their trade. These women were almost certainly trafficking victims, as indigenous slavery was practiced in the Salish Sea into the early 20th century.

Major holidays like the Fourth of July and Queen Victoria's Birthday witnessed cross-island invitations to the respective Camp's celebration. Officers and other upper-class islanders enjoyed lavish multi-course feasts. At American Camp in 1861 the two camp commanders even raced each other on horseback. George Pickett was thrown from his horse - allegedly to the amusement of all. In 1866, English Camp saw 180 tourists visit from Victoria to celebrate the Queen's 47th birthday with the Royal Marines. To entertain their visitors, the Marines organized blindfolded races and the unique challenge of climbing a greased pole at the pier's end to snag a prize.