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Home » Archives » January 2007 » A Brief History Of The Islands: Part Two

[Previous entry: "A Brief History Of The Islands: Part One"] [Next entry: "Brief History Of The Islands: Part 3 Island Values & Traditions (i)"]

01/03/2007: "A Brief History Of The Islands: Part Two"


(Warning: What you are about to read is not politically correct. In fact, it may not be correct at all. Read at your own risk)

IN the formative years of the planet ferryboats were not needed to get here. Early man could easily access the San Juan Islands on foot or with snowboards. In fact, to this very day the islands are still totally connected underwater.

The islands are the tops of an ancient submerged mountain range. Today we can observe areas where the sharp edges of giant glaciers peeled down the tops of these islands like a holiday Satsuma leaving them naked as a baby's bottom.

Some theories contend that the islands did not sink but the sea rose and covered up the ancient valleys as a result of global warming. Others argue that the islands sunk from the enormous weight of glacial ice in a global cooling cycle. However, the most popular theory is that man is responsible for submerging the islands because according to most women men screw up everything.

According to legend one man in particular stands out as the guy responsible. George Brown was a pioneer well digger. Some say he drilled a well in one of the ancient valleys and hit the famous Mt. Baker aquifer. He could not cap the gushing well and as a result the water rose to today's' level. Rumors of this ancient aquifer still exist but it is apparently empty.

With the mountain range now mostly covered by water many islands appeared. This brings up the question how did these islands get their funny names anyway?

Spanish explorers wearing comical hats tacked names onto many of the Islands to honor the Viceroy of Mexico. Conveniently his name was big enough to name most of the archipelago. Don Juan Vincente de Guemes Decatur Pacheo y Padilla Orcasitees y Aguayo Blakely Conde de Revilla Sucia Gigedo Shaw de Lopez Jualdron y Stuarte de Jones y Peavine Passe de Turtleback.

So the Islands became known as "The Don Juans" for short. After the Viceroy's death it became "Sans Don Juan" then Don was dropped because it was redundant.

Legend has it that Spanish explorer Lopez de Haro sailed into the Straight of Juan de Fuca looking for the fabled Northwest Passage. One foggy morning he ran aground on the West side of what is now San Juan Island in a wide but shallow inlet. He had plenty of time to think up a name while he waited for the tide to rise. After discarding some rather obscene names for the bay he called it "Bahia Verdadero Nada" which when translated means "not a real bay", and to this day it is still not a true bay.

Our forefathers had many challenges to overcome before they could organize the first government. First they had to decide which islands would be included in this new county.

In 1873 the Territorial Legislature arbitrarily created a new County out of a handful of these 172 islands. Of course there are hundreds more islands at low tide but they decided that they only had one Spanish guy to name them all after and he only had 172 possible names even when all the letters were rearranged.

Anyway, the first County Commission met in Friday Harbor and began to do what they always do which is start spending money. According to records they spent $16.70 for a safe and $12 rent for the County headquarters. This amount was enough to run the county government for the first year. When adjusted for inflation this amount is still less than today's expenses for operating the entire county government bureaucracy for approximately 30 seconds.

The second action this first Commission took was to drop a hint to the commander of U.S. forces on the island, Major General Jeff C. Davis, that since the county now had its own government, military authority was no longer needed in the islands. A letter dated July 16, 1874, written by the Commissioners states:
"Repeating their regret at the loss the county sustains in your departure, they would also express their regret that time will not permit their paying their respects in person or preparing a more appropriate manifestation of their regard" (sorry, no big party for you boys!).

After all those years of protecting the islanders from a British invasion or an Indian raid from the north, our very first Commissioners sent the Army packing without a party or a fond farewell. Attitudes have not changed since. To this day islanders have never elected a Commission that would even think of throwing a party for the troops.

The military had been the only "law" of the islands in the days before self government and that made some people really really mad. And just like today, pioneer islanders did express their anger in letters to the Editor. Excerpts from this scathing letter to the "Washington Standard" still burn with rage:
"No civilized people on earth are subjected to the same degrading petty despotism as practiced upon the residents of San Juan. . . . By what authority can a military officer require that no sale of property, nor lease, nor erection of a fence, nor building, shall take place on San Juan without his consent is first obtained?"

Isn't it ironic that the descendents of this petty despot now run the Permit Center for San Juan County? And that subsequent Boards of Commissioners have instituted all manner of taxes and permits on property just like those that caused this same rage to burn in pioneer days?

It is typical of independent islanders to resent the authority of petty dictators. It is true to this day. But there has never been a shortage of people who want to dictate their own niggling little rules and regulations onto the shoulders of islanders (see "clam worshipers" in part one).

From history it is obvious to see that independence was a strong trait of islanders. Early islanders resisted British rule, shrugged off the authority of their own military, refused to pay taxes to Whatcom (except the ugly sheep), and chose to govern themselves and elect leaders who would never impose burdensome taxes on their own neighbors.

As the population of the islands increased the respect for this important fundamental value decreased. Recently our elected officials seem to have no restraint with regard to imposing taxes on their own neighbors. Today taxes paid per person in San Juan County are by far the highest in the State of Washington. ( Property Tax Statistics 2006 )


Some people believe that the independent spirit and neighborliness seems to have been displaced by newcomers. For example it is puzzling to old timers why someone would turn in a neighbor for building a chicken coop without a permit. And new departments are created to hassle and annoy people who are just doing what islanders have always done. Being independent means they resent a government that increasingly strives to rule their lives.

This dissatisfaction with our leaders over the years has led us in a new direction. Not content with any old government and being a group of distinctive independent individuals, this time �we the people' squeezed the tube of uniqueness and out came home rule. There is no putting it back in the tube now. Here's how it happened.

Twenty-one Freeholders were elected to pass a rusty cannon ball around a circle and think up a new way of governing. They visited many of the islands in their travels and even went to Waldron Island where they met with the bearded ones. They sat in miniature chairs in the old Waldron Schoolhouse ate funny brownies and laughed. Soon after this they came up with a new plan.

The Freeholders believed that the old useless three commissioner ineffective style of government (that we have used since 1873) was running amok and making people really mad. People wanted a change.

So the home rule Charter was passed by voters in 2005 and was implemented in 2006. Now an ineffective six member Council with an Administrator will be allowed to run amok and make people really mad. It is still too early to tell if this kind of governance will be an improvement or not. However with a broader representation on the Council and with the ability to fix things along the way the outlook is optimistic.

Not all of the Council members like the Charter but nobody has actually blown their nose on the original signed copy. Instead certain members have shown their dissatisfaction by pretending it does not really exist or that what is says does not really matter (you know who you are).

When did women come to the islands?
Do you know why the early settlers smuggled sheep?
These questions answered and more. Don't miss Part Three: The Smugglers



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