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Richardson's book offers lessons to be learned | Island Books

Beth Helstien, book reviewer - Submitted photo
Beth Helstien, book reviewer
— image credit: Submitted photo

“Pig War Islands: The San Juans of Northwest Washington,” by David Richardson

For National Historic Preservation Month, I decided to review Richardson’s history.

As I sat to write up my thoughts about it, I was also thinking about the impact of the recent “Every 15 Minutes” program to reduce drinking and driving. So I dedicate this review to the many lives of islanders lost or maimed due to alcohol abuse.

Richardson did not intend it, but one can read his book as a chronicle of this community’s relationship with spirits. Each of the commanders of American Camp struggled with lawlessness in San Juan Town — historically located in Griffin Bay below the American encampment — due to excessive drinking and illegal activity selling alcohol.

Capt. Pickett (camp commander from July to August 1859 and April 1860 to July 1861) begged civil authorities to enforce order. Capt. Bissell (camp commander from February 1862 to October 1865) resorted to de facto martial law. You can still find pieces of historic wine bottle glass along the shore at English Camp.

Another telling story is the founding of the county seat by Edward Warbass and how close the town father’s vision came to failure. When we speak with pride of the historic appearance of Friday Harbor, most of us probably are not thinking that the town’s success was the result of the opening of the second store with a backroom saloon, when William Douglas became the third person to own a business here. Three business properties in “town” — two of them bars.

Customs was one of the sources of the conflict. The good people of the islands often preferred to get their products without the benefit of taxation. Before national jurisdiction was decided, importing from Victoria was a way of life. Such importation continued, without customs duties, after the national boundary was settled; only now it was smuggling.

During Prohibition, smuggling from Canada via the San Juan Islands flourished. Many islanders learned to keep silent about well known rendezvous location sites and to ignore the night time sounds of engines on beaches as exchanges took place. Rum-runners would sew their loads into gunny sacks in case of such emergencies. When a “rummy” felt he might be boarded, he would toss the contraband overboard.

There were benefits from close calls with the Coast Guard: locals learned to find the sack-wrapped bottles in the shallows, and would sometimes haul in the entire load before the smugglers had a chance to return to retrieve their jettisoned cargo.

Alcohol and the San Juans: is there such a thing as moderation?

“Pig War Islands,” like all books reviewed in this column, may be found at the San Juan Island Library.

— Beth Helstien is the outreach coordinator for the San Juan Island Library. She may be contacted at 378-2798 most Wednesdays through Fridays or at Read her book blog at

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