Past and present of San Juan Island's American Camp

August 11, 2014
Andrea Michelbach

For the past 20 years, Julie Stein, executive director of the Burke Museum and a professor of Archaeology at the University of Washington, has led walking tours on the southern edge of San Juan Island in Washington’s Strait of Juan de Fuca within the Salish Sea. The people who come on these tours are curious about one thing: stories of people and place. And on Julie’s tour, those stories extend back thousands of years. 

This year marked what may be Julie’s last tour, but if you didn’t get to go on one, you can still draw on your powers of observation and curiosity—as well as this DIY (do-it-yourself) tour guide—to enjoy a rich investigation into the past and present of San Juan Island.

Julie Stein has been giving tours for 20 years.

Julie Stein, executive director of the Burke Museum, has offered archaeology-based walking tours on San Juan Island for the past 20 years.
Photo: John Howell, Cedar River Group

Setting the (Historical) Scene
This guide focuses on an area known as American Camp on the southeast leg of San Juan Island. 

San Juan Island National Historical Park is at American Camp, on the southeast leg of the island.

San Juan Island National Historical Park is at American Camp, on the southeast leg of the island.
Image: National Park Service

The American Camp unit of San Juan National Historical Park makes up more than 1,200 acres in an area known as the Cattle Point Peninsula. San Juan Island National Historical Park is the only national park dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflict—and that conflict is part of how American Camp got its name.

Boundary Limbo
Back in 1846, when the Treaty of Oregon was drawn, dividing the possessions of the British Empire and the United States along the 49th parallel, the water boundary between Vancouver Island and the U.S. mainland was left in limbo. The British thought the boundary should run through the Rosario Strait to the east (the red line on the map below), and the Americans thought it should run through the Haro Strait to the west (the blue line on the map; the green line was a proposed compromise). Unable to reach a solution, the two nations agreed to hold the islands in dispute until diplomats could resolve the question. 

Disputed boundary lines.

Disputed boundary between the U.S. and the British Empire in the mid-1800s. Blue line: US; red line: British. Green represents proposed compromise. Image: Pfly CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

All was well and good, until the two countries began settling the island in the 1850s. The Hudson’s Bay Company established Belle Vue Sheep Farm, an agricultural operation throughout the island in 1853, which was immediately challenged by U.S. territorial and county officials. Shortly thereafter, a scattering of U.S. citizens established their own residences on the island, including some limited farms. 

The Pig War
In 1859, the tensions between settlers of the two different countries nearly boiled over when an American settler shot and killed a boar that the American claimed was rooting around in his potato patch. The American chased it out of his yard and shot it at the edge of the woods, killing open-range livestock that didn’t belong to him. British officials threatened the American with arrest and imprisonment. The American then complained to U.S. officials, who dispatched elements of the U.S. Army to the island. The British responded by sending warships and a contingent of Royal Marines.  

Fortunately the incident, which came to be known as the Pig War, did not result in violence. Cooler heads prevailed and the two governments decided to continue holding the island in dispute until a diplomatic decision could be made. The Americans established their camp on the south end of the island and the British established theirs on the northern part of the island. 

British troops evacuated San Juan Island in 1872.

British troops evacuated San Juan Island in 1872. 
Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

American Camp visitor sign.

Your DIY tour starts at San Juan Island National Historical Park Visitor Center.
Photo: Travis, “American Camp,”CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr

Of course, the island couldn’t be held in dispute indefinitely. The question of which nation had the right to claim the island was submitted to Kaiser Wilhelm I, King of Prussia and German Emperor, for binding arbitration (a process in which an unbiased third party reviews evidence and makes a decision about a dispute, with both parties agreeing to abide by the decision made). A three-man commission met for a year in Switzerland, hearing arguments from both the British and the Americans.

The commission ultimately ruled that the Haro Strait was the channel cited in the Treaty of Oregon in 1846, placing San Juan Island on the American side of the international boundary. The British accepted the decision and peacefully left the island in November 1872. 

You can learn more about this historic period online and in person at the San Juan Island National Historical Park Visitor Center, which is where your do-it-yourself tour begins and a great place to pick up a map of the area.


Get Exploring

American Camp provides obvious evidence of San Juan Island’s past since in the 1800s, but upon closer inspection, this part of the island also has a lot to show you about what was going on before that time. If you were on Julie’s tour, she wouldn’t just tell you what you were seeing. She’d ask you to look and answer questions—and this guide is no different.

1) Start out from the Visitor Center

To begin your DIY exploration, head down the South Beach trail away from the visitor center and toward the water.

Questions to ask yourself or your travel companions:  

  • What do you notice about the landscape around you?
  • Is this the kind of landscape you think of when you think of the Salish Sea, which encompasses the waterways between Vancouver Island, BC, and the northwest corner of Washington, including the Puget Sound?
  • Why would this landscape be attractive to people? How might people have used it thousands of years ago?

Insights. The area you are looking at is considered a prairie. Prairies used to cover an estimated 200,000 acres of Washington, but over the last 150+ years that area has been reduced by 90 percent. Thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, Native peoples valued the prairies for edible and medicinal plants and took care to sustain these ecosystems by regularly setting the prairies on fire. This helped improve the soil and kept trees and other non-prairie plants from encroaching on the area. But with the arrival of American homesteaders, prairie ecosystems began to suffer. Land was cleared for development, agriculture practices changed, burning was suppressed, and non-native vegetation was introduced. All of this has led to significant change to the unique prairie ecosystem. 

Fortunately, efforts are now under way to help restore prairie ecosystems like the one you see before you. These efforts include seeding native plant species and controlling invasive plants, as well as some prescribed fires. During your tour, keep an eye out for signs of prairie stewardship.

Go further. Want to know more or get involved in prairie restoration on San Juan sland? Check out the Prairies and Grasslands page of the San Juan Island National Historical Park website or the Prairie Stewardship guide (PDF).

2) Continue until you reach Alaska Packer’s Rock

After you’ve taken in the view of the open prairie, continue on down the trail until you come to the place where the Salmon Banks frontage road ends. There, you’ll find a large rock known as Alaska Packer’s Rock. (The rock is named after the Alaska Fish Packing Company, which used to have an operation in this area.)

Camas typically grows on prairies in dry climates.

Camas typically grows on prairies in dry climates. Its bulbs were dug up by native peoples and baked or roasted for food.
Photo: Tom Brandt, “Camus Flower,” CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

Questions to ask yourself or your travel companions:

  • What do you notice about this rock?
  • How do you think this rock got here?

Insights. For millions of years, the Pacific plate has been sliding beneath the North American plate. Some of the denser pieces of continent that were riding on top of the Pacific plate have been scraped off and welded to the edges of the North American plate, growing the continent to the west. Packer’s Rock is one example of bedrock that originated this way, accreting onto the edge of the North American plate.

Much more recently—within the past 1 million years—San Juan Island and much of the Salish Sea region underwent a period of glaciation. A glacier as much as 1 mile thick covered the area where you now stand. Bedrock is the only thing that kept this glacier from completely carving out the San Juan Islands, especially the southeastern leg of San Juan Island.  

Hung up on the bedrock, the glacier did, however, drop layers upon layers of gravel as it melted and re-advanced and melted and re-advanced. This gravel doesn’t hold water particularly well and creates an unstable substrate for holding trees against heavy winds. Unstable substrate, coupled with the rain shadow created by the Olympic Mountains, created a perfect environment for prairie plants, including camas, and discouraged forests from developing.

Go further. To learn more about Puget Sound during periods of glacier takeover, visit the Department of Ecology’s Puget Sound Shorelines page.

3) Look at the surrounding land

Now that you’ve spent some time examining and thinking about Packer’s Rock, climb up on it to take a look back toward the prairie.

Julie discusses the forces that shaped and continue to shape the area.

Julie’s last tour in 2014: Walking tour attendees perch on Packer’s Rock as she discusses the forces that shaped and continue to shape the area.
Photo: Gary Tarleton, NPS Interpretive Park Ranger/Photographer

Questions to ask yourself or your travel companions:

  • What might the landscape have looked like 10,000 years ago?
  • Notice the three clusters of bushes. Why do you think these clusters are there? What might have caused them?

Insights. You might wonder if the three clusters of bushes are plants that have encroached on the prairie in the years since native peoples were regularly burning the fields, but in fact, these bushes are evidence of something going on below the surface of the landscape. 

Water that hits the land here seeps through the gravel left behind by the glaciers. As noted above, this gravel doesn’t hold the moisture very well, which means the water keeps moving downward until it hits a layer of clay many feet below the surface. Unable to readily penetrate the clay layer, water travels along the top of that clay and emerges at the cliffs, where it helps nurture the bushes that need more water than the surrounding prairie. 

There is no river in this area, so the fresh water generated by these springs made this area additionally attractive to native peoples. During the last part of this tour, we’ll think more about how else this area of the island met the subsistence needs of native peoples. 

4) Walk down to the shore

From Packer’s Rock, continue the short distance down to the water. The mountains you’re facing are the Olympics and the water before you is the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which also runs between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. 

Visitors can look across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and see the Olympic Peninsula.

Visitors can look across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and see the Olympic Peninsula with its majestic Olympic Mountains in the distance.
Photo: Travis, “Salmon Banks,” CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr

Questions to ask yourself or your travel companions:

  • What do you notice about this area?
  • Do you see any activity out on the water?
  • What’s the wind like? How might this have been a help or hindrance to Native peoples?  

Thinking about all of the areas you’ve seen so far…

  • What might life have been like here thousands of years ago?
  • Do you think people stayed year-round? Why or why not?
  • What additional questions has this tour triggered for you? Where could you look for answers?

Insights. Although hidden from the surface, the water before you is a veritable fish highway. You may see fishing boats and, if you’re particularly lucky, a pod of orcas. The fishing crews and orcas both know that the water along this coastline is filled with fish and that a reef right near the shoreline encourages fish to swim closer to the surface, making fishing easier. Many of the fish going by are about to turn north toward the Fraser River off the mainland of British Columbia, a spawning site of many salmon. 

This southeast leg of San Juan Island was attractive to the native peoples for the abundant fishing, but also because of the wind that is common here. This wind helped with fish processing: along these shores, drying racks were set up so that fish could be dried and stored for the winter months. The people who first came here to gather food from the prairies and fish off the coast likely came for certain seasons when the camas and fish were available. The wind, so helpful in drying fish, might have made for an inhospitable winter home. 

How do we know about people who were here thousands of years ago?
What we know of people who lived here thousands of years ago comes to us through archaeology, the study of how people lived in the past. To uncover these stories, archaeologists examine any evidence of human presence, including traces of human activity (such as fish bones or rocks used for cooking), signs of humans altering the landscape (such as the prairie fires discussed earlier), and materials humans created (such as tools). 

Archaeological evidence has been gathered from sites at American Camp and also at English Camp on the northwestern side of the island. This evidence tells us that the southeastern leg of the island supported people hunting and gathering for thousands of years.

The importance of context. An artifact itself can provide certain insights for archaeologists about how people lived—such as the technology they used or what their diets were like—but such stand-alone information is very limited. Researchers rely on an artifact’s context, in other words, the exact location and position it was found in, the surrounding soil, and the artifact’s relationship with other materials. All of the additional information gleaned from context helps archaeologist construct a more complete record of the past, for instance, learning more about religion, rituals, and political and social structures and situating those things in time.  

Archaeological evidence is vital to the ongoing understanding of the peoples and cultures that came before us, which is why, if you find an artifact, you shouldn’t just pick it up and take it with you. Doing so destroys irreplaceable evidence by taking the artifact out of context. 

So what should you do if you find an artifact?
If you’re at San Juan Island National Historical Park, leave the artifact where it lies and contact a park ranger or volunteer at the visitor center.

  1. If you’re elsewhere, first of all, don’t dig. If you realize you have found something, stop digging. It’s best to take a photograph of the object (include something for scale, like a penny) and make a note about where you found it (taking a GPS coordinate is ideal). Then contact the state agency in charge of archaeology (in Washington, the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation). If you find an artifact on private property, let the landowner know. Under no circumstances should you take or dig for materials in public, federal of tribal lands—doing so is against the law. 

If you have questions or need help figuring out what to do or who to contact, get in touch with the Burke Museum’s Archaeology Department. 

Go further. To learn more about the early inhabitants of San Juan Island, visit the National Park Service page about the First Ones or stop by the visitor center at American Camp. For an even more in-depth background and information about archaeological practices, pick up a copy of Julie’s book Exploring Coast Salish Prehistory: The Archaeology of San Juan Island. 

Mountain view from the San Juan Islands.

Photo: Lora Shinn.

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