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Mike Vouri: English or British? The Puzzlement on Garrison Bay

  • Written by Mike Vouri

When I arrived here for duty with San Juan Island National Historical Park in February 1995 my first question for my supervisor was: “Is it English Camp or British Camp?”

The question remains as valid today as it was then, but in 1995 there was a genuine conflict in messaging. The park’s official brochure listed the northern unit on San Juan Island as “English Camp.” But the signage at both ends of the park boundary on West Valley Road proclaimed “British Camp” in bold white letters. And to ensure no one got lost along the way, every town and county directional sign pointed the way to “British Camp” as well. Even the park bulletin boards read “British Camp.”

“It’s English Camp,” Chief Ranger Bill Gleason sighed.. “You’ll have explain it to visitors until we get new signage, which may take awhile.”

The Royal Marine garrison at their camp, c. 1860-66. The officer in front is probably the first commander, Captain George Bazalgette.

When the park was created in 1966 the enabling legislation called for preservation of the “English Camp” and “American Camp” historic sites. In 1990, the park acted on a unilateral decision reached in 1986 to change the name of the northern unit from English to British Camp. The park cited two reasons for the change: First,“British” Camp accurately conveyed the multi-national composition of the garrison, which included Scots, Welsh and Irish as well as English. Second, colonial and naval officials used the word “British” in correspondence pertaining to their camp.

Local citizens then filed an appeal to both the state and federal Geographic Names boards. Two years later the state board ruled that the common local usage was “English Camp,” which was upheld “by default” by the federals. The park brochure was corrected and reprinted and thousands of dollars in signage was to be removed and replaced, a task that would not be complete until 1999. Contrary to the popular impression that all federal entities have deep pockets, the park struggled in those days on a budget of just under $450,000.

In other words, we were to soldier on until the signs could be replaced. However, it is not a simple matter to tell the public one thing while signs as big as billiard tables proclaim something else.

In those days websites had yet to become universal across the National Park Service and the internet was just a novelty. After a crash tutorial from a whiz-kid seasonal ranger, I introduced the park’s first web site in 1996. A page adapted from a brochure and clever illustration by my predecessor, Detlef Wieck, was devoted to the name change.

Yet, even after the park signs were changed back to English Camp and the town and county followed suit with directional signs, we were still explaining the confusion. Regional and national guidebooks do not make corrections overnight. Seasonal visitor guides, commercial maps and travel magazines also had trouble making sense of the double switch.

So, what did the British/English call their camp and when exactly did it become known as English Camp? 

Unlike the American military installation, which had several official designations during the joint occupation of the island (none of them “American Camp”), the Royal Marine camp was never officially named by the parent Royal Navy. It was always meant to be a temporary arrangement. Its garrison of supernumerary troops—those not assigned sea duty— were fed and paid through the senior naval officer’s ship at Pacific Station headquarters in Esquimalt. In fact, the camp was considered so provisional that the enlisted men lived in tents during the first five months. Who knew the occupation would last 12 years? As you would expect, they settled in. During that time, despite the 27 pristine white buildings, docks, gardens and lush parade grounds, the camp was most often referenced in official correspondence and on maps as the “Detachment, ” or the “Royal Marine,” “Military” or “British” encampment. The name “Roche Harbour” was also used because the site of today’s resort was the nearest preferred deep-water anchorage and a source of limestone, which was excavated, burned, barreled and distributed throughout the British colony.

The site was often labeled the “Royal Marine Camp” by British colonial and naval officials, as is attested by this 1860 map. Note the missing ‘t’ in Westcott Cove (also known as Creek or Bay).

Tracking entries across the ships through which the men were paid offers a rough demographic of the initial San Juan Island detachment and a hint of who they were. The majority were from England, with half from the seafaring western counties such as Devon and Somerset. Six listed Ireland as place of birth and one was from Scotland. Most were unskilled laborers employed in factory or industrial work before enlisting, while the balance had been apprenticed to a trade such as shoemaking. Of the 83 enlisted men, 53 were below the age of 30, and 15 below 23. The oldest enlisted marine was John Wilson, a 41-year-old private, followed by Privates George Alderman, 40, John Charlton, 38 and George Doidge, 37. Sergeant George Babbage was the oldest noncommissioned officer at 37. Of those who landed on Garrison Bay in March 1860 only Private James Haynes remained when the Marines vacated the island in November 1872.

Despite the fact that the Royal Navy and its Marines safeguarded the interests of the British Empire and not England alone, there were some who considered the names interchangeable. Among them was Belle Vue Sheep Farm Chief Trader Charles Griffin who mentions “English Camp” in his journals when he isn’t addressing it as “the other camp.” Additionally, Captain Edwin A. Porcher of HMS Sparrowhawk, a steam gunboat, identifies the site as “English Camp” in a diary entry and in the margin of a splendid watercolor of the camp he painted during an 1866 visit.

Porcher and Griffin reflect the mixed perception of what was “English” or “British” among those in the British Isles at mid-19th century, nearly 160 years after the first Acts of Union uniting England and Scotland, and 65 years after a second Act added Ireland. The confusion was even more apparent with foreigners, especially Americans, “...who used (England) as the name of a great power and indeed continue to do so,” wrote British historian A.J.P. Taylor in 1965.

U.S. Army Major Nathaniel Michler clearly labeled the site “English Camp” in his 1874 survey of the site.

Is it any wonder that Major Nathaniel Michler, who surveyed the Royal Marine Camp for the U.S. Army in 1874, labeled his map “English Camp?” An assumption might be made that Michler’s map was consulted the following year when the U.S. Government Land Office dubbed it the “English Garrison” in their survey of the former “Disputed Islands.” The die was cast and further cemented when the William Crook family arrived in November 1875 and claimed the site and surrounding acreage under the Homestead Act. For more than a century the family called their claim “English Camp.”

 Jim Crook and his amazing boat hoist on his Garrison Bay dock.

A skilled carpenter, Crook immigrated to Canada from Yorkshire, England in 1856. After waiting out the Civil War, he commenced an eight-year Westward migration with his wife Mary Forrest Crook, a Scot. A girl and boy were born along the way and a second girl once they arrived on San Juan Island. The entire family would live out their years on the site. The last survivor, Rhoda Crook Anderson, passed in 1972, six years after the land was purchased by the National Park Service. There were no progeny.

During the Crook years, the site and its Royal Marine blockhouse hugging the beach were a popular attraction to visitors. Arriving by automobile or pleasure craft, they would pay a nickel for the privilege of strolling the grounds and listening to stories told by Rhoda, her sister Mary and brother, Jim. Those stopping by after hours to inspect the blockhouse were met with a crudely lettered sign posted by Jim next to the door: “English Camp Private Property.”

Jim Crook’s famous, 20‐foot‐long, two‐ton wool carding machine , fashioned from a manure spreader’s wheels, was powered by a belt connected to his tractor. His sister Rhoda recalled that even as a child Jim tinkered with machinery. Crook himself told a visitor: “I’ve always had a mind for inventions."

Jim became something of a folk hero on San Juan Island. He was a self-sufficient farmer who invented his own version of things rather than go shopping and could be called the godfather of “steam punk.” His inventions included a web-like boat hoist 10 times bigger than his boat, a bed-making machine, twin walking sticks (way before their time), a tractor-powered rake (that cost him an eye), and his piece de resistance, a wool carding machine so enormous it could serve as a bow anchor on a supertanker. (If you don’t believe me, it will soon be on display at the San Juan Historical Museum.) The cloth it produced does not have an airtight weave, mind you. In fact, it looks a lot like Spanish moss, which means the clothing he made from it would never make the rack at Nordstrom’s. But it works! My grandfather, who admired and had a lot in common with Jim, brought me to the island as a boy to meet him and see these wonders. But all I remembered from the visit was his empty eye socket, which bedeviled my sleep for several weeks thereafter.

(left) Mary and Jim Crook stand sentinel with their dog in front if the English Camp blockhouse, c. 1950s. The Crook family always referred to the site as “English Camp,” perhaps because their father, William, was from Yorkshire. But it was more because that is what everyone else called it, post joint occupation. (right) Jim Crook poses with examples of clothing (including the hat) fashioned from wool cloth produced by his carding machine.

Undaunted by petty infirmaries and Royal Marine buildings that were falling down around him, Jim remained self-reliant until his death in 1967. This was enough to inspire the formation of the Jim Crook Society, an organization that for decades celebrated the pioneer spirit through his life and works. Before the British Camp sign was replaced, two people from the society annually descended on the barracks visitor center to challenge my summer staff, first about the sign and then our presumption that the Pig War and Royal Marines were more important than Jim Crook. There is no doubt in my mind that these folks numbered among those who challenged the park’s name changing plan. (Incidentally, the society was disbanded a few years ago as only one member was still alive.)

Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash) would have begged to differ with the Crook Society on the interpretive theme. It was this Everett native, a frequent visitor to the island, who submitted the bill to create the park in an effort to preserve the legacy of a bloodless war. That it was English Camp in the bill’s language made no difference to him. He may have been one of those who were still confusing a British Empire with an English one. The important thing was that it sailed through both houses and was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Twenty years later, the park’s management had no desire to change anyone’s history. They were simply checking off an objective in the 1979 General Management Plan that called for the change in the interests of “historical accuracy.” Not expecting anyone would object, and with an initial blessing from the San Juan County Commissioners, they proceeded to spend the $4,000 that was estimated to purchase signage and interpretive materials. The Administrative History records an “‘islanders’ vs. ‘outsiders”’ attitude in the opposition, which compelled the commissioners to reconsider. “One letter even stated that it had never been called British Camp until the park service showed up on the island.”

(left) The monument erected on Officers’ Hill in 1904 reads “British Camp.” (right) San Juan Islanders, visitors and a military and naval contingent attend the dedication of the “British Camp“ monument on October 21, 1904. The monuments and dedications at both camps were arranged by Professor Edmond Meany of the University of Washington, he of Battleship Island fame.

As we saw above, this is almost correct. There is one exception still very much in evidence— the monument erected in October 1904 on English Camp’s Officers’ Hill by the University of Washington State Historical Society. The cenotaph clearly reads “British Camp.” The monuments and event were organized by none other than Professor Edmond S. Meany, that notable place names expert, who 20 years later would exert his influence in renaming Battleship Island. But not even Meany would have his way when it came to English Camp. What chance did he have against a guy who would one day invent a bed-making machine?

By now the name British Camp has slipped into what I would consider “equal common usage,” even among those who live here. The name is as interchangeable with English Camp as it has ever been. And, aside from nationalist sentiments in England, Scotland and Wales, it is also true for those from the British Isles, though I mostly hear them refer to their homeland as the “U.K.”

Whatever we call it, it is best to remember what English Camp and the park represent: the peaceful resolution of conflict.

A good lesson, no matter what the name.

Postscript: The “English Camp” fans may be delighted to know that the American officers Silas Casey, William S. Harney and Winfield Scott all used England, English, Britain and British interchangeably in correspondence during the Pig War crisis from July through October 1859.  This underscores that some still held that England and Britain were one and the same and reinforces the naming of the site.

 Here is the park’s lovely sign that was consigned to the woodpile. I snapped the photo before it was removed.

For Further Reading:

San Juan Island National Historical Park Administrative History by Kelly Canon;

A Tour of Duty in the Pacific Northwest: E.A. Porcher and H.M.S. Sparrowhawk, 1865-1868 by Edwin A. Porcher; and

Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island by Mike Vouri.

Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.  

Last modified onThursday, 10 September 2020 16:54

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