Belle Vue Sheep Farm
On a chilly December 15, 1853, a group of Europeans, Hawaiians, and Indians led by Fort Victoria Chief Factor James Douglas landed on the southern tip of San Juan Island and turned loose 1,369 sheep to graze on the sweeping prairies that gave onto the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Douglas also brought along seed for crops and farm yard animals, including several Berkshire boars. He then appointed Charles John Griffin (right) chief agent of this new Hudson's Bay Company establishment. Gazing at the magnificent Olympic Mountains directly across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Griffin appropriately called his prairie home "Belle Vue Sheep Farm."
While San Juan Island's open prairies were ideal for agriculture and livestock, Douglas's primary purpose was political. The presence of a thriving agricultural community would solidify Great Britain's claim to the island, which had been in dispute with the United States since the two nations signed the Treaty of Oregon in June 1846. In his role as governor of the crown colony of Vancouver Island, Douglas had already "succeeded in defeating every attempt made to preoccupy the Arro Islands (San Juans) by American Squatters" by warning off Yankee timber men, while at the same time establishing HBC fishing stations on San Juan's western shore.
Belle Vue Sheep Farm was the last of the agricultural facilities established by the HBC south of the 49th parallel. The foray into agriculture by a company principally known for the fur trade, had begun in the 1820s as means to feed and clothe employees. However, by the late 1830s the company operated several corporate farms in the Oregon Country, which, combined with timber and fishing interests, made it an economic force on the Pacific Rim. Wool, mutton, lumber and fish, in addition to furs, were shipped from the West Coast to Russian America (Alaska), China and other points west, as well as to England. It was the realization of the vision expressed by Alexander Mackenzie when he wrote about his epic journey across Canada to the Pacific in 1793.
The stations tallied a total of 4,250 sheep with 2,700 sheep on site, 1,000 supplied to "other places," 150 killed for food and 400 carried away by Americans! If the HBC's commercial empire fulfilled the vision of Mackenzie, it also fueled dreams of "Manifest Destiny" by the Americans. Yankee merchant captains visited the Oregon Country by sea as early as the 1780s and commercial claims were staked by 1810 with the founding of Astoria. By the mid-1840s, American farmers dominated the Willamette Valley, which spurred the HBC to move its headquarters to Fort Victoria and begin to curtail its farming operations between Puget Sound and the Columbia River.
Between 1855 and 1859, taxes were assessed (but not collected) on the HBC. As of May 20, 1859, the HBC had 4,500 sheep, 40 cattle, 5 yoke of oxen, 35 horses and 40 hogs, plus 80 fenced acres under cultivation with oats, peas, and potatoes. Griffin had 19 employees, three of whom were naturalized American citizens who actually voted in the territorial election. The company reported property holdings with structures at Stubbs Point, Belle Vue Farm, Frasers Farm, Droyen Farm, Blakes Farm, Longacres Farm, Chandlers Prairie, New Station, Limestone Station and John Bull Station. There were altogether 29 settlers. No Americans settled on the island until several frustrated miners drifted over from the Fraser River diggings between the summer of 1858 and January 1859. Indian fears had heretofore kept them away. For example, in April 1858 deputy customs inspector Paul K. Hubbs, Jr., was shot at by a party of Clallams from the Olympic Peninsula encamped on the island. Captain Granville O. Haller, commander of Co. I. Fourth Infantry at Fort Townsend crossed the strait with a small guard to “capture the offenders.” Griffin had helped Hubbs escape and was pleased to see Haller and his men. The Clallam fled.
Throughout crisis, Griffin continued to list events of international import along with daily farming tasks, such as Pickett's landing and the men's official encounter:
"Wednesday 27th Dark & cloudy wh constant thunder & showers of rain. -- wind fresh west -- L’Gamine wh two kanakas out at Grande Prairie cutting hay. George at cradles. Inds whitewashing house. -- Last eveg. late the U:S: Steamer “Shubrick” & “Massachusetts” anchored in the Bay. They have been all day landing stores etc etc -- wh the intention I fancy of building a military station a number of soldiers, officers etc- wh tents stores etc are encamped near the Lagoon at my wharf."
"Saturday 30th Very warm & calm. -- Mens occupations as yesterday. -- This morning I lodged a complaint before Capt Picket personally his being a trespasser here & warning him off the Island -- see official correspondence. -- Mr Dallas left in 'Beaver' about 1:30 pm: --"
Despite his initial fury at losing a hog and his occasional consternation with soldiers and sailors overrunning his property and shooting his livestock, Griffin still managed to make many new friends, Americans and British alike. However, with the coming of the soldiers and marines also came more settlers, many of whom squatted on HBC property and diminished sheep grazing areas. Moreover the island was beset by smugglers, whisky sellers and prostitutes, which Griffin claimed was "demoralizing" his employees. The company's London headquarters, acting on advice from Alexander Grant Dallas, an HBC director in Victoria, ordered on Feb. 9, 1861 that Belle Vue Farm should be closed "as soon as circumstances would permit. Charles Griffin left exactly one year later and was replaced by Robert Firth, a shepherd, who later leased the farm from spring of 1864 until 1873, when he became owner of the land.
Did You Know?
Belle Vue Sheep Farm, founded in 1853 on San Juan Island, was a classic HBC sheep station with two rows of tidy log houses, heavy-duty fencing for sheep pens and an English-style, double-bay barn. Its establishment created tensions that nearly brought war with the United States. More...