The history of the first road on San Juan Island

The Old Military Road played a significant role during the Pig War, but it is also deep-rooted in indigenous history as well. The road is a story of codependency and diversity that molded the early beginnings of the San Juan Islands.

Before it was called the Old Military Road, it had been named Cowichan Road in honor of the Coast Salish people who helped to build it.

“The road birthed many other roads from it, which bred commerce, productivity, community, so that was the germ of the county road system,” Local historian Michael Vouri, author of “San Juan Island” (Images of America), “Friday Harbor” (Images of America), and “The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay,” said

Vouri explained the reasoning behind why this road was built. It started when the soon-to-be governor of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, James Douglas, decided that the best way to ensure possession of San Juan Island was to establish a colonial presence on the islands. Douglas worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was not just a fur company, but an agricultural company as well.

In 1853, a sheep farm was established where the current day American Camp is. A couple of months later, it was agreed that the sheep farm would expand, Vouri said, and American Camp was at that time named the home establishment.

“What they wanted to do was to cut sheep runs up the island and establish pasturage on various points on the island,” Vouri said. “How were they gonna do this? You need laborers for that kind of work. It is expensive and time-consuming and labor intensive. So where do you get the labor force? There aren’t many people in the crown colony of Victoria yet. The Fraser River gold rush had not yet hit. So, there’s a built in labor force right on the island and that’s Cowichan Indians, Skagit, and Lummi. There are all of these people and a lot of them are looking for work.”

Vouri said that both the Native Americans and the white colonists were excited to have this “built-in labor force” as they both benefited from it. The Natives were able to advance themselves economically by being provided with jobs and income.

The building of the road wasn’t easy work, as the Natives had to cut down trees, clear stumps and clear brush for 13 miles.

James Douglas was a mixed-race individual, with his mother being of African heritage. He was also married to a Native American woman. While still being a product of his time, Vouri said, he still had these experiences in his life that made him open to diversity.

Along with Douglas, the Hudson’s Bay Company also celebrated diversity, as they saw how it benefited business. “The Hudson Bay Company was always to build bridges with indigenous groups of people because that was good business. It was not good business to isolate people on reserves and exploit them. It was good to establish trade relationships, to employ them, and that was the case here,” said Vouri.

Charles Griffin was from Montreal and recognized the contribution of the natives that worked. He was the one who determined that the road would be named Cowichan road, in honor of their hard work.

From there, the road went on to serve the Pig War between the American Camp and British Camp.

“What was most important was for the two camps to communicate and to communicate rapidly,” said Vouri. “And the best way to do that is to have a road cut between the two camps. They were 13 miles apart. Well, there’s already a road isn’t there? It’s already been cut up the island.”

After the Pig War was over the road still continued to be used for various purposes, including trade and commerce.

In 1860, it was renamed the Old Military Road.

Despite the name change, the impact of indigenous groups on the island is still strong.

“There’s a lot of Europeans who would not have made it without the skills and knowledge and generosity of the indigenous people here,” Vouri said. “In the early days of the island, this was celebrated and appreciated and there were a lot of European men who married indigenous women and there are many island families that take a lot of pride in pointing to this heritage.”

It is important to take the time to learn about local history, Vouri said, in order to respect and remember the role Native Americans played in the development of the San Juan Islands.