Island Vice

The Red Light District at Griffin Bay

As British and U.S. troops settled in for what—though they did not yet know it—would be a 12-year joint occupation of San Juan Island, their vices moved in with them.

San Juan Town, sometimes called San Juan Village, quickly sprang up at Griffin Bay to meet soldiers’ demand for leisure activities during joint occupation.

A reporter for the Daily Alta California, who visited the island in 1859, described a tiny “embryo” town of 20 or so buildings boasting such respectable establishments as a bakery, butchery, and grocer. The village, however, quickly became a red-light district filled with saloons, brothels, and liquor stores.

With no formal government on the island, activities that would be illegal in either country’s jurisdiction flourished, drawing merchants, tourists, and settlers eager to enjoy—or profit from — abundant liquor trade and sex work. According to historical accounts, enterprising whiskey dealers brought women — mostly northern Native women — with them to the island to work as prostitutes.

When U.S. General George Pickett arrived on the island in April 1860, he wrote, “This has become a depot for murderers, robbers, whiskey-sellers, in a word all refugees from justice.”

Despite reservations about enacting a version of martial law on the island, generals representing each occupying country reached an arrangement whereby each military would govern their own nationals on the island, enabling them to control the liquor trade and prostitution to some extent. Still, the town “floated on a sea of bad whisky, prostitution, and lawlessness,” historian Mike Vuori writes, until the end of military occupation in 1872.

The decades that followed ensured a continued reputation for lawlessness. Friday Harbor, incorporated in 1909, became home to canneries in an expansion of the region’s seafood trade, along with the farms and lime mining that boosted the island’s exports into the 20th Century. The boom soon faded, but the underbelly of the island’s trade—smuggling—endured. 1920’s Prohibition laws proved lucrative for the island’s smugglers, who were all too happy to add booze to their offerings.