The Letters of Mary Julia Tysen Allen

commanding officers house
The commanding officer's house at American camp as it appeared while Maj. and Mrs. Harvey A. Allen lived in it with their three sons. The photograph is from the family album of Capt. William Addis Delacombe, English Camp commander from 1867 to 1872. The photo is undated, but could have been during the Allens' tenure.

Delacombe Family, UK

Mary Julia Tyson Allen
Mary Julia Tysen Allen married her deceased sister's husband and became stepmother as well as aunt to his three sons.

Thanks to the letters of Mary Julia Tysen Allen we are offered a glimpse of what it was like to be an officer’s wife on the far frontier of the Pacific Northwest from Benicia, CA to the wilderness of the new territory of Alaska….and for a brief while San Juan Island.

Mary Julia was the second wife of Major Harvey Abner Allen, who was commanding officer of Camp Steele (American Camp) from June 1867 through July 1868. Allen had been married to her sister, Susan Antoinette Tysen, who died after bearing three sons: Albert, Anson and Carleton. Mary Julia married him in New York and became step-mother, as well as an aunt, to the boys.

While her status as an officer’s wife made her life more bearable than the post laundresses—she had a housekeeper and cook—she still faced considerable challenges living in the raw frontier of northwest Washington Territory. Transportation, on land or water, was risky, the quality of food uneven and she was isolated from family and life-long friends who lived more than six weeks away by steamer. She also had the responsibility of raising three rambunctious boys, seeing to her family’s mending and needlework, and maintaining a sense of decorum with her counterparts at English Camp and on officers’ row.

They had quite an adventure before arriving on San Juan. They left New York City on August 10, 1865, stopped for a week in Baltimore and then required 14 days to steam south on the Atlantic to the Isthmus of Panama. The Panama railroad had made the 47-mile crossing of the isthmus (in two and half hours) faster than the old canoe and mule back route, but the withering heat and specter of the vomito (yellow fever) was still a reality. They caught another steamer waiting in Panama City without incident, but spent another 19 days chugging north to Angel Island on San Francisco Bay.

Harvey Allen_younger_beard
U.S. Army Maj. Harvey Abner Allen was commanding officer at American Camp (then called Camp Steele) from June 1867 to July 1868. His second wife, Mary Julia Tysen Allen, was a detailed correspondent.


They remained in the Bay Area until June of 1867, when they departed for Camp Steele, San Juan Island. The post had been renamed for Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, commander of the Department of the Columbia from December 1865 until his death in November 1867.

Mary Julia was never entirely comfortable on San Juan, where her husband had the responsibility of enforcing martial law on American citizens (never an easy proposition) and sustaining the delicate balance with his counterparts at English Camp, under the command of Capt. William Addis Delacombe of the Royal Marines.

A letter written by Major Allen from San Juan Island on Aug. 27, 1867 sets the San Juan island scene: He describes himself as "…sort of a Justice of the Peace here for all American citizens, fine them or imprison them when necessary or banish them from the islands.. It is not a grateful office and difficult to do justice as many of these frontier men are bad and dishonest…"

He characterizes the "English" (never British) at the other end of the island as "…very agreeable. There are four officers and two ladies; and as there is a doctor’s wife here, we have an agreeable society so far. We expect some tomorrow to stay a day or two."

The family visited Victoria and Dunsmore Castle at the top of Fort Street, which was by then being used as a school. He describe Victoria as "…going to ruin; heavy duty and taxes under British rule."

San Juan, he writes, is "very quiet." The mail came once a week, and the telegraph was working.

steamer diana
Mary Julia Allen refers to passages aboard the steamer Diana, which had the contract to haul mail and passengers from San Juan island to Victoria and throughout Puget Sound and the Northern Straits region.  The vessel called "largest small steamer" or the "smallest large steamer" in Northwest waters


Allen’s brief term at the American camp was without the major incidents that characterized some his predecessors. There was some controversy among British naval and colonial officials over Allen’s rank of major. The joint military occupation convention prescribed that each garrison would have no more than a company (100) of soldiers/marines under the command of a captain. Delacombe contacted the provincial governor requesting that he be elevated to the temporary rank of major. The governor agreed, but the admiral vetoed the request as he believed it would not be well received among the rank and file on the pacific Station.

Allen’s one bugaboo was that he could be rather punctilious about the U.S. soldiers maintaining a military bearing. Here is one order: "The wearing of civilian clothing or having it in their possession, by the enlisted men of this command is strictly prohibited." The soldiers also were forbidden from wearing waistcoats as well. Presumably this was to discourage desertion, which was not all uncommon at frontier posts where the men could go months without being paid and were enticed by gold strikes, free land and other attractions.

The attached document contains only two San Juan Island letters that survive, written in March 1868. By then the boys were 18, 16 and nine respectively. A daughter, Maud, would be born in January 1870 while Allen was in command of Fort Canby, also in Washington Territory.

Written mainly to her sister Carrie Riker in New Jersey, Mary Julia's letters start in March 1868 and conclude Sept. 4, 1872 from Sitka, Alaska, where Allen had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and became commanding officer of the Department of Alaska.

The letters reflect boredom, uncertainty and some of the pettiness bred by an idle mind far from home. Readers should be aware that they also reveal social and racial stereotypes common to the era. These come in the form of opinions about the efficiency of Chinese house boys and a U.S. officer's wife, whom she alludes may have been engaged in unsavory practices in her past and thus warranted shunning.

Click here to read the letters.

For a look at the complete set, contact park historian Mike Vouri at 360-378-2240, ext. 2227, or e-mail

Maj. Harvey Allen described the "English" at the other end of the island as “…very agreeable. There are four officers and two ladies; and as there is a doctor’s wife here, we have an agreeable society so far. " Capt. William Addis Delacombe (second from left) had arrived with his family in May 1867. Mary Julia Allen often went to visit them by carriage and the Delacombes returned the courtesy.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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