Native Americans on San Juan Island during the Joint Occupation

Admiration and Tension

During the joint occupation of the island, eruo-America settlers and indigenous Coast Salish lived side-by-side in ways that were mostly, but not always, peaceful.

We often look at the Joint Occupation of the San Juans (1860-1872) through the eyes of the British and American citizens and soldiers who faced off and vied for supremacy. But the original Native inhabitants, the Straits Salish Indians, maintained a strong presence throughout the period and had many interactions with the white newcomers.

The site the British chose to build English Camp had been a Native settlement for hundreds of years or more. The British leveled some of the vast shell middens and disassembled a huge Native plank house to reuse the lumber in their own construction. Natives had abandoned the site by the 1850s, perhaps due to declining population and increasingly aggressive raids by Natives to the north.

Though the group at Garrison Bay relocated, other Natives stayed on the island year-round. A group of families lived in Mitchell Bay just south of English Camp, while the She-Kla-Malt family remained on Lonesome Cove on the northern tip of the island.

The soldiers and civilians around American and English camp interacted with the Native inhabitants of the island in many ways. Farmers often hired Native men as day laborers for the hard work of clearing land and building roads. Other Natives sold fresh game and fish to the hungry whites. Natives were customers who bought goods from white shopkeepers, including steel tools, wool cloth, and sometimes, whiskey.

Though relations were largely peaceful, sometimes there was violence. One instance is recorded where the body of a murdered Haida man was discovered in 1860 by Captain George Pickett and his men. The murder was never resolved but the Haida did not seek revenge.

Romantic relationships, sometimes leading to lasting unions, also took place. George Pickett famously married a Haida woman before coming to American Camp, where their son was born. Deer Harbor founder Louis Cayou married an indigenous woman. Such unions were commonplace in the early days, and many of the leading pioneer families of the San Juans began with such unions. Reverend Thomas J. Weeks remarked upon his arrival on San Juan Island in 1870 that some thirty or so white men “were living with Indian women, unmarried.” He reported that within a few years most of these couples were married and their children baptized.

Although the joint occupation came to an end in 1872, tensions between the local Native Americans and settlers continued. Following the establishment of the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 several of the local Indians petitioned for land settlements and payment for damages. The two most notable claims are that of the Lummi Tribe and the Samish Tribe. Another petition was filed by the San Juan Tribe of Indians. However, the United States government rejected this claim because this tribe was deemed to be the descendants of the Lummi and Samish tribes.