English Camp Barracks

Color photo of a white wooden building in a field
The English Camp Barracks serve as the English Camp visitor center

Kim Karu

This humble building was originally constructed as a mess hall for the lowest ranking soldiers and became one of two barracks that housed the enlisted men of the British Royal Marines at English Camp from 1860 until 1872.  The Royal Marines were founded in 1664 as a global strike force housed on Royal Navy ships. They were charged with projecting British military power around the globe, attacking the United Kingdom’s enemies at times of war and protecting its possessions during times of peace. In the decade prior to the Pig War, members of the garrison at English Camp had served in the Crimean War (a conflict where a British, French, and Ottoman alliance fought Russian imperial forces in central Asia), the Ned McGowan War (a conflict between American settlers and British authorities in British Columbia, the Indian Mutiny (a revolutionary movement to overthrow British control of India), and the second Opium War (a conflict in which British and French forces attacked the Chinese empire to guarantee the rights of merchants to traffic drugs in China).

83 enlisted men landed at San Juan Island on March 21, 1860 but almost every Royal Marine retired or moved to new positions by the time they left San Juan Island on November 21, 1872; the only man who stayed at English Camp the entire time was Private James Haynes. The barracks were snug quarters, measuring 90 feet by 24 feet and containing 56 beds which gave each man 4 feet of living space. Marine rations consisted of a pound of biscuits, a quarter cup of hard liquor, a pound of fresh meat, half a pound of vegetables, one and three quarters ounces of sugar, an ounce of chocolate, and a quarter ounce of tea. Marines were also given a weekly ration of oatmeal, mustard, pepper, and vinegar as well as beer, wine, and cream. Compared to the American soldiers on the other side of San Juan Island, these soldiers enjoyed a high standard of living.

The enlisted men lived in tents and crude cabins while they constructed English Camp. The Officers’ Quarters were among the first buildings constructed, reflecting the military hierarchy which placed officers above common soldiers. In order to make their new fortification work, the marines tore down a massive Native American long house approximately 500 feet long and 60 feet wide that they believed “must have accommodated over a thousand Indians. The work of building English Camp was so arduous that military officials requested new uniforms to replace those ruined by backbreaking work and extra pay in recognition of their difficult labor.Eventually, English Camp became a comfortable home for the military forces based here. Its facilities included a flourishing vegetable garden, formal garden, library, hospital, workshop, reading room, recreation hall, and billiards room. On holidays, the soldiers enjoyed fun and games such as a blindfolded “wheel-barrow race [that’ evoked intense amusement [as] men rushed about in all directions and several of them disappeared, barrow and all over the embankment” and into Garrison Bay and “a game which consisted of walking a greasy pole extending 15 feet from the edge of the wharf” which led many participants to “take an involuntary header into the briny deep.”

Today, this structure serves as the visitor center for San Juan Island National Historical Park’s visitor center for the English Camp unit. Visitors can explore this historic building, watch our park’s site film, view exhibits about the history and natural features of San Juan Island, purchase gifts at the bookstore, and ask questions to our park rangers. Regular programming also takes place inside and near the barracks, so check our events page for more information.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

Last updated: September 1, 2022