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Explore, Learn, and Preserve with Island Historians

The San Juan Islands have a rich and colorful history, which is just one of the reasons why the islands are so special. History connects us to people who've lived in the islands long before us, and gives us a sense of our place in their story. We have a responsibility to learn from the past so we can help preserve these special islands for future generations.

“The history of the San Juan Islands is really fascinating,” says Robin, a local historian. “We’re real islands - there are no bridges!” which she says adds to the unique stories the islands create.

“The Islands have a peaceful environment where all are welcome,” says Joy. "It began with my relatives, the Coast Salish first nations people, and continued with the immigrants who came to work or settle here. Today, islanders and visitors from around the world enjoy a special spirit of hospitality.”


Coast Salish tribal history is on display throughout the islands with art, museum exhibits, and cultural events like the Canoe Journey honoring the First Nations. Native Americans were the first stewards of the islands' abundance of fish stocks, shellfish beds, game, and praries. Descendants of the Coast Salish still live in the islands today.  


At the Port of Friday Harbor's waterfront park, Coast Salish house posts carved by a renowned native artist, Susan Point, serve as a welcome to visitors to the islands. They signify the Coast Salish cultural foundation for these islands. 

The posts tell the story of environmental balance. The piece is called "Interaction" and passersby are encouraged to sit on one of them to symbolize how we are part of the ecosystem. Traditionally, Coast Salish house posts (unlike the totem poles of northern tribes) were found inside longhouses and told the story of the families that lived in the houses.

The universal appeal of the islands is present today, Joy says, as their natural beauty and mystery prompt visitors to dive deeper. “I think people coming here today immediately sense the peaceful environment.  And I think they feel a connection to the history.”

Each major island has historical museums that allow visitors and locals to step back in time to the days of farming, mining, logging, fishing and island life.

There are 18 National Historic Registry sites throughout the islands. Visitors can immerse themselves in history at classic stops such as Port Stanley School or library on Lopez Island, or the Crow Valley School on Orcas Island. Located at the foot of Turtleback Mountain, the one-room Crow Valley schoolhouse was built in 1888 and tells the story of early Orcas Island families.  

San Juan Island is home to two separate units of the San Juan Island National Historical Park.  Exhibits, historic buildings and re-enactors bring to life “The Pig War,” which took place from 1859-1872 between British and American troops. It was a peaceful territorial standoff, settled by arbitration instead of bullets. 


The original barracks are still standing at English Camp, along with cemeteries and monuments honoring fallen soldiers. American Camp buildings include the original offices and laundress quarters.  from both camps. “People coming today can see a lot of the remnants of the past," Robin says. "You can really turn back time and immerse yourself.” 

At Roche Harbor Resort, evidence of a bustling lime stone business can still be seen throughout the grounds and hotel. “The Lime Works for instance is an old company town,” Robin says, “and the lime quarries can still be visited.” Visitors can walk through the historic garden, down cobblestone streets, and into the Hotel de Haro where Theodore Roosevelt is rumored to have stayed.

On the west side of San Juan Island, Lime Kiln Point State Park is home to Lime Kiln Lighthouse and a restored kiln. Winding waterfront trails lead hikers to these evocative reminders of the islands' colorful past. One of the best places to view orca whales from shore, Lime Kiln has been drawing whale enthusiasts for decades. Park visitors picnic along the rocky shore, watching the churning waters of Haro Straight for a glimpse of that infamous black and white dorsal fin.  


On Orcas Island, you'll find the historic Rosario Resort. Built between 1906-1909 the Moran Mansion is listed on the National Historic Register and includes a free museum featuring Northwest nautical history, original photographs from the late 1800's and early 1900's, original furnishings and fixtures, and an extensive display of the ships built by the Moran Brothers Company in Seattle. The resort is rumored to be haunted, along with several other haunted hotels in the San Juans.

Orcas is also home to Orcas Island Artworks - a modern art gallery located in the historic Olga Strawberry Barreling Plant. The co-op now represents about forty-five Orcas Island artists and craftspeople, working in pottery, sculpture, jewelry, glass, wood, paintings, prints, wearable art, fiber and more. Established in 1981, the gallery is one of the oldest cooperatives in the country.

“Wherever you go in the islands, you can see buildings that were built in the 1880s and 1890s or around the turn of the century,” Robin says. “And in many cases, they’re still serving the same purpose for which they were built.” 

You can experience the history of the San Juans simply by walking the streets and meeting the locals.

“There are walking tours that convey island history ," Robin says. “And there’s the Saturday markets, that bring back the spirit of San Juan Islands bounty that we love to share with everyone.” 


History offers insight as to why the San Juan Islands are special.  And because they are special, we have a responsibility to care for them as our ancestors once did - to protect them and experience them gently.

Robin notes, “the best way to enjoy and to appreciate the islands and their history is to preserve it for future generations.”

Island Stewardship

There are a lot of amazing places in the world. So why do people come to the San Juans?

Watch The Video
150 Years of History at the San Juan Islands National Historical Park
8 Fun Ways to Explore History in the Islands
Haunted Hotels of San Juan Island
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