The Letters of Mary Julia Tysen Allen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.