Washington State History
and Exploration

Washington state history reveals that local tribal peoples were the earliest inhabitants of these northwestern Islands. There is evidence of a settlement near Mission, British Columbia as early as 9000 BC, with prominent villages and communities continuing all the way until the late 18th century. The first recorded contact between the local Tribal people and European explorers was somewhere during the late 1700s. For the next 100 years or so, contact increased through the trading of fur and other goods, though the native tribes were neither much interested nor dependent on trade, unlike the Europeans, whose very survival depended on it. In this and so many other ways, Washington state history reflects that of the rest of North American continent, recording that European settlers did not always adapt well to the New World.

Salish man smoking salmon on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, 1906
Image from public domain.

Explorers, missionaries, and settlers flowed into the area in increasing numbers. Traditional culture was intensely suppressed, including gatherings and ceremonies like the Potlatch, which was vital to their society and way of life. Smallpox, wars, treaties and reservations followed in rapid succession, dramatically and permanently changing everything in a relatively short span of time. Regardless of the fact of European domination and control of the region, the impact of native sensibility on past and current culture and civilization endures.

Charting the Islands

A sailing expedition authorized by of the Viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, and headed by Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza (who made charts of the islands in 1791), named the area, "Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan," roughly translating to 'San Juan Island Archipelago.' They named many of the islands for themselves, including Orcas Island (short for "Horcasitas"), Eliza, and Guemes.

George Vancouver

During subsequent explorations by both Americans and British explorers, some of the Spanish names given to the San Juan Islands Washington were replaced with English words. British explorer George Vancouver renamed a few of the Spanish labels but for the most part left the names already given. According to Washington State history, however, American explorer Charles Wilkes may not have been aware of the existing Spanish charts because he freely re-named most of the locations in the area to honor members of his crew as well as heroes of the War of 1812.

Multiple charts for the same locations, each with differing names and titles was too confusing. So, in 1847, the British Admiralty, led by Henry Kellett, reorganized the "official" charts of the region around the San Juan Islands, not including Puget South. Kellett systematically kept the British and Spanish names and removed nearly all of Wilkes' names. Interestingly, in some cases Kellett moved Spanish names around to replace names given by Wilkes. Thus in Puget Sound itself, the names given by Wilkes are common and Spanish names rare, while the reverse is true for the San Juan and Gulf Islands, areas that were reorganized by Kellet. Area names given by Wilkes that endured are Shaw, Decatur, Jones, Blakely, and Sinclair, named after American naval officers.

Read about some of the other San Juan Islands. Jump to Lopez Island Washington, Orcas Island Washington, Crane Island, Cypress Island, Sentinel Island, Yellow Island, Canoe Island, Lummi Island Washington, Saturna Island, Sinclair Island, or Strawberry Island.

Return to San Juan Islands Washington from Washington State History, or, Return to Simply San Juan.


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