The First Ones
Library of Congress
San Juan Island has been a magnet for human habitation. Its location at the crossroads of three great waterways, plus sheltered harbors, open prairie and secluded woodlands, drew people wanting to stake a life, or find rest and relaxation amid an abundant food source.
The ancestors of today's Northern Straits Coast Salish people began to appear in the wake of the continental ice sheet that started to recede 11,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that the island supported hunting and gathering between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. The marine culture encountered by the first Europeans to the area developed about 2,500 years ago, and traces of its once thriving villages remain in the shell middens found along the shoreline of American and English camps and throughout the San Juan islands.
By early historic times, the indigenous people of the San Juan Islands and nearby mainland areas were primarily members of six Central Coast Salish Tribes who spoke the Northern Straits language: Sooke, Saanich, Songhee, Lummi, Samish and Semiahmoo. Another Central Coast Salish tribe that entered the Northern Straits country spoke the closely related Klallam (or Clallam) language.
The Lummi are one of the Coast Salish peoples whose ancestors lived in the San Juan Islands. Below are quotes from Lummi elders, which are examples of oral tradition. They are from a book called Lummi Elders Speak.
We had all kinds of food. We had food that was gathered and preserved for the winter like salmon and clams and berries. And fresh ducks. There are times when the weather is right and they would know just what to gather like a certain kind of berry. It took a lot of training and it took advice on how to do all of this. They didn't just go and gather too much food. They only gathered a lot of food when they were preparing for winter.
We went out to the islands to get berries, fish.
When they were gathering food the Indian people never stopped in one place. Didn't have no reservation then. They went from place to place… They had seasons for these moves. Like right now there's the herring season… Steelhead run in December… They know when the clams are good. They know all these seasons.
Library of Congress
Archaeologists call the way of life described by the Lummi elders a seasonal round. In a seasonal round, people live at different places during specific times of the year. At each place, certain plants and animals were ready to be harvested.
During the winter, they lived in villages near the shore. English Camp was an ideal spot for a village because it is on a quiet bay, protected from harsh winter winds by the surrounding hills. The quiet bay provided a safe place to dock canoes and fish during the winter.
Coast Salish families passed down sites for fishing, hunting, and gathering many plants. Cattle Point was an abundant site for gathering food. People fished for salmon off the coast and gathered large amounts of shellfish, and gathered camas bulbs and other plants from the prairie. They stored all of these foods for use in the winter.
Fifty years later, in October 1853, James Alden of the U.S. Coast Survey enthused about the maritime resources. "Salmon abound in great quantities at certain seasons of the year, when the water in every direction seems to be filled with them…The Hudson's Bay Company has a fishing establishment at San Juan … where I am informed they have put up this season 600 barrels of salmon."
Not one month later Vancouver Island Gov. James Douglas wrote London that "…These islands are exceedingly valuable, not only on account of their relative position to Vancouver Island, but also from the fact that their shores and inlets abound with salmon and other fish which form a productive export and an inexhaustible form of great wealth."
Those "with the proper appliances" for fishing could make money, Kennedy predicted. Geologically speaking, the bank is a submerged ridge formed by moraines left by the glacier that receded starting about 11,000 years ago. But its cultural and economic impact reverberates to this day.
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...