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Mike Vouri: Scofflaws and Moonshine: San Juan’s Stormy Joint Occupation

  • Written by Mike Vouri

O'Reilly's gone to Hell

Since down the pole he fell.

He drank up all the bug juice

The whiskey man would sell.

Oh, they rammed him in the mill

They've got him in their still.

His bobtail's coming back by mail

O'Reilly's gone to Hell. 

    —Barracks ditty

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

          —James Madison

There was a time on San Juan Island when you could live tax free!

FREE, do you hear? There were only two major caveats from 1860 to 1872. You could not sell moonshine liquor to soldiers and Indians, nor could you import prostitutes. If you did, the U.S. Army or the British Royal Marines would send you packing by steamer, rowboat or canoe without appeal as the island was essentially under martial law.

This was the result of the 1859 Pig War crisis, when a shooting war nearly broke out on the island. The boundary between American and British lands on San Juan Island had been in dispute since the Oregon Treaty of 1846. But the “troubles” did not begin in earnest until 1853 when the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company claimed the entirety of the island for a sheep ranch. The Americans on the mainland had been largely indifferent to island life until then, but intense interest quickly materialized in the form of revenue officers, county tax collectors, real estate speculators, farmers, loggers, fishers and finally saloon and bordello owners. When the colonial governor sent a magistrate to evict the Yankees, a maverick American general responded by dispatching a company of U.S. Infantry to occupy the island. This prompted the governor to send the Royal Navy to back the magistrate.

By December 1859 diplomats in London and Washington had resolved the crisis and agreed that until the boundary dispute was settled, military forces from both nations would remain on the island. It was believed that immediate communication between the respective commanders would sort out misunderstandings and matters of jurisdiction pertaining to law enforcement long before they escalated into violence.

That was the theory.

Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with the diplomats. Fueled by wishful thinking and misinformation campaigns, citizens and elected officials living in Washington Territory still believed the San Juans belonged to the United States alone. That was one issue. The other was the American distaste for martial law in any form, which dated to the occupation of Boston on the eve of the American Revolution by these same Redcoats.

There was no question about who was in charge over both civil and military matters among the British: The Royal Marine Camp commander. Civil authorities were not allowed on the island, so incidents between British subjects and Royal Marines were rare. Not so among the Americans. While most willingly accepted, and profited, from the tax-free status and frontier security of military camps, friction prevailed on the southern end of San Juan. There, a noisy minority was eager to smuggle or distill whiskey, purvey prostitutes and thumb their noses at the law in any guise. This created no end of frustration for U.S. military commanders, who initially were advised by superiors to leave civil matters to the local justices of the peace and sheriff deputies. Those officials tended to be island residents who were loath to interfere with their miscreant neighbors.

Desperate to preserve their soldiers from illegal liquor that was often raw and debilitating, the commanders intervened. The best way to solve this problem was to make it vanish by evicting these evildoers. Predictably, the saloon owners wrapped themselves in the stars and stripes and made lawlessness synonymous with freedom. Further complicating matters, the Territorial government often sided with these patriots.

Cheap whiskey was the bete noir of Army posts throughout the West, and the origin of the verse that opens this essay. Post returns and letter books from the San Juan garrison are full of disciplinary measures taken against drunkenness. San Juan Island in the 1860s was not a vacation paradise for soldiers. Many could not read and write, had come fresh off the boat from Ireland or Germany or were on the lam from the law back East. Time hung heavy, and what better way to fill it than John Barleycorn. But soldiers did not learn to drink in the Army. According to the English traveler and journalist, Frederick Marryat, over-imbibing was universal in America:

“I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink...They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear [and plunge into denial]. They begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence early in life, and they continue it until they soon drop in the grave.”

Alcohol abuse was considered a serious enough matter that the Washington Territorial Legislature passed a law in 1855 forbidding the manufacture and sale or gift of “Ardent Spirits.” Only a public agent was permitted to sell liquor “for certain purposes as long as he conforms to regulations and is paid.” Selling to Indians and Hawaiians was prohibited in all cases, and by 1863 violators were subject to imprisonment. Fines for first offenses were applied to the Territory’s school fund, which actually made going on a bender a virtuous activity.

Captain George Pickett’s first tent stake was barely hammered in July 1859 when the first liquor establishment rose in a wall tent about 25 yards above the Hudson’s Bay Company dock on Griffin Bay. This was was start of San Juan Village. Barges soon appeared with shacks and cots from the abandoned mining camp on Bellingham Bay. 

The same location today, now called “Old Town Lagoon.”

But no one took the law seriously. Indeed, Captain George Pickett’s first tent stake was barely hammered in July 1859 when the first liquor establishment rose in a wall tent about 25 yards above the Hudson’s Bay Company dock. This was was start of San Juan Village. Barges soon appeared with shacks and cots from the abandoned mining camp on Bellingham Bay. Young Indian women soon followed. They were mostly escaped slaves or slaves being worked for a profit, or simply teenage girls cast adrift from their groups. Soldiers, sailors and marines were ready and willing for the company of these women and girls, much to the chagrin of their respective commanding officers. A Victoria Gazette reporter, who called himself Curioso, wrote that “some three or four persons had started little groggeries near the landing from the harbor and several parties had been in a state of drunkenness the night before.” Hudson’s Bay Company Agent Charles Griffin was amazed: “Soldiers, Inds. & Men all were determined to be drunk together. Never saw anything like it.”

The only San Juan Village establishments probably bore a strong resemblance to this bare-bones saloon somewhere in the Far West. It was not television’s “Longbranch” by any stretch. You were there to drink and that was that.

By the mid 1860s, when the joint military occupation was underway, Pickett wrote:

“…Ever since knowledge of the joint occupancy, the desperadoes of all countries have fought hither. It has become a depot for murderers, robbers, whiskey sellers–in a word all refugees from justice. Openly and boldly they’ve come and there’s no civil law over them. All the Indian tribes in the neighborhood—Lummi, Swinomish, the Skagit and even the Cowichan and the Victoria Indians flock here in quantities to supply themselves with poisonous whiskey. As a result, this is a perfect bedlam day and night.”

Of the 12 U.S. Army camp commanders during the joint occupation, two in particular stand out in the struggle over jurisdiction: Captains Lyman Bissell (1862-65) and Thomas Grey (1865-67). Each took full advantage of their authorization to expel lawbreakers from the island.

In early 1863, Bissell intervened when Whatcom County Justice of the Peace E.T. Hamblett attempted to evict a British subject from a land claim coveted by an American. (While there was no legal mechanism to establish claims, first comers were universally respected.) Bissell then took the extraordinary step of suspending Hamblett “as a functionary of Washington Territory.” On reading Bissell’s report, Department of the Pacific commander Major General George Wright approved the action, citing Winfield Scott’s original orders that territorial officials were not to interfere with British subjects. To avoid future conflicts, however, Bissell was directed to limit the jurisdiction of American civil authorities to the southern end of the island. The northern end would be under British law.

Royal Marine Camp commander, Captain George Bazalgette, then jumped into the fray that same year by evicting from the island William Andrews, a U.S. citizen whom Bazalgette claimed had killed an Indian in the vicinity of his camp and another Indian in San Juan Village back in 1860. In each case, the incumbent U.S. justice of the peace had failed to act, and Bazalgette pleaded with his U.S. military counterpart to intervene. In the spirit of the joint occupation, a bi-national patrol, led by Bissell and Royal Marine Lieutenant Henry Cooper, went to the Indian camp and learned from the headman that three of his people could identify a certain “Bill” as Andrews.

The three accompanied the officers to the San Juan Lime Company at Lime Kiln Point where they identified Andrews in company with the owner, Augustin Hibbard. Bissell apprehended Andrews and posted a list of other Yankee troublemakers, giving them 24 hours to leave the island. One of them was Hibbard, who sold liquor on the premises and elsewhere on the island. The previous fall, Bissell reported that Hibbard had “…tried to create a disturbance between the officers of the two camps by writing a dictatorial letter to Captain Bazalgette, because Captain Bazalgette ordered [Hibbard’s] men out of his camp that went there for the purpose of selling liquor to his men.”

The suspended Hamblett responded by organizing a meeting of fellow U.S. citizens, mainly San Juan Village liquor purveyors, to draft petitions insisting on expulsion of Bissell and ending military control of the island. Bissell in turn characterized his accusers as “keepers of low whiskey ranches, thieves and vagabonds.” However, Hamblett’s resolution and its outfall spurred an exasperated General Wright to again direct Bissell to leave local law enforcement to civil authorities and mind the “boundary” between the two camps. If American settlers wanted U.S. Army protection, he wrote, they “must settle and remain within the portion of the Island within our jurisdiction,” as the joint occupation arrangements with Great Britain should be rigidly maintained.

General George Wright

The following year, Wright’s replacement, Major General Irvin McDowell (the loser of the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas in 1861), saw things differently after visiting San Juan Island in September 1864. Americans and Britains were scattered throughout the island, making geographical boundaries moot and impractical. From here on out, McDowell ordered, civilians would submit to civil authority only if they “chose” to do so and cooperative joint military rule should prevail.

Not satisfied with steps taken by McDowell, Washington Territory re-entered the arena by petitioning Secretary of State William Seward to grant absolute civil jurisdiction to the island in 1866. The Territory maintained that the rule of a “single military officer” was arbitrary and unacceptable. Wearying of the issue, but bearing in mind political as well as diplomatic ramifications, Seward further muddied the waters by directing American officers to “only advise” when it came to law enforcement. But some continued to act out of sheer desperation, which caused real trouble.

The climax came in September 1866 when Grey and his deputy, First Lieutenant William Graves, crossed swords with Isaac Higgins, a 41-year-old Massachusetts man who predated Pickett’s landing and was a known quantity on San Juan Island. Higgins ran a combination post office and saloon, which was little more than a board hammered over two barrels in the rear of his house. His initial relationship with Grey was positive, as the captain awarded him an official contract to carry the mail via his small schooner between the island, Victoria and the mainland. But after only three months, Grey pulled the contract without warning. He later claimed that upon reviewing Bissell’s correspondence, he’d learned that Higgins was a signatory of Hamblett’s anti-Army petition and sold his liquor to all comers, including soldiers and Indians.

A sullen Higgins, who claimed ownership of the entire San Juan Village townsite, decided to put in a crop and plowed up the military road that ran between the camp and the dock. He then erected 150 feet of paling fence, which blocked the Army’s access to the dock on Griffin Bay. When Graves arrived on the scene, he ordered Higgins to remove the fence. Higgins refused. When Higgins hurried to the parade ground to appeal the order, the first sergeant confided that Captain Grey was “on a big drunk” and unavailable. Higgins claimed in a court deposition that he went on to an Indian village about two miles away (perhaps Kanaka Bay) to conduct some business, and by the time he returned the fence was being torn down under Graves’ supervision. When Higgins asked Graves—whom he claimed was “drunk”—how he could do such a thing, the lieutenant replied, “Because I ordered you to do it, and you would not, and now, Goddamn you, I have done it for you.”

Grey later claimed that Higgins responded with threats and verbal abuse. This from a man who was no slouch at dishing it out himself. Grey was the same Irishman whose fractious correspondence over the return of a British deserter resulted in Bazalgette’s own eviction from the island the following spring when he was relieved of his command. After jailing Higgins on bread and water for a week, Grey ordered him expelled from the island as “one of the most disreputable vagabonds in Washington Territory.” Higgins said he was marched to the beach and taken away by an Indian canoe that landed him “...upon the sea beach, six miles from Whatcom, perfectly destitute, without food or blankets.”

Higgins’ incarceration and eviction was by no means a lone incident. According to him, as many as 20 individuals had endured similar treatment over the last six or seven months, some performing hard labor under ball and chain. One was a widow with children. Friday Harbor founder Edward Warbass, the former post trader, reported that Grey had evicted no less than 14 people from the island in his two years in command.

Grey’s action gave the Territory the excuse it needed to enforce its claim to jurisdiction, citing a clear case of abuse of power by federal officers. Higgins lodged a grievance complaint for “malicious trespass” against Grey and Graves on Sept. 7, 1866 in United States District Court in Port Townsend. An indictment and warrant were issued, but an attempt by a Deputy U.S. Marshall to arrest the officers was unsuccessful, as Grey was backed by a heavily armed garrison. A second attempt, this time with a posse in tow, was met with fistacuffs. Consequently, another indictment was filed for obstruction of legal process, and yet another for assault and battery, which also named four soldiers.

In November 1867, Military Division of the Pacific commander Major General Henry Halleck advised the War Department that the only way to end the tension between military and civil authorities on San Juan Island was to place all of Washington Territory under martial law or exclude the San Juan Islands from the Territory altogether. He then took a page from William Selby Harney’s book and questioned whether the British had the wherewithal to colonize British Columbia, calling them a “flaccid” race. The U.S. should put a stop to the mess, force a treaty with Britain and take over the whole thing, he wrote, further endearing himself to the State Department.

The Grey-Higgins case ground on until September 1868 when Judge B.F. Dennison refused to issue an “alias arrest” order as the island was under “military rule.” Advised of Dennison’s decision, Secretary Seward changed direction and fully endorsed military administration of San Juan Island "for reasons of high public expediency."

By then, Grey and Graves had been gone from the island for nearly a year after their 2nd Artillery unit was rotated back to Fort Steilacoom. There they hired an attorney to fend off a civil suit filed concurrently by Higgins asking $10,000 in damages. An initial ruling in 1866 had awarded Higgins $5,000, but this decision was thrown out on appeal by another judge. Higgins fades from our history after that.

Emboldened by the court cases and Seward’s affirmation, the camp commanders, U.S. Captain Joseph Haskell and Royal Marine Captain William A. Delacombe, ended the liquor trade on the island in 1868 by closing all retail stores except those run by the respective post traders. Territory officials howled once again and appealed unsuccessfully to Congress, but squads of soldiers and marines enforced the order, which prevailed until the end of the joint occupation.

General George Crook

In 1870, Military Department of the Columbia commander Lieutenant Colonel George Crook (no relation to Jim) reviewed a decade of correspondence and probably shook his head. Unlike Halleck, he had a healthy respect for the British and admired the way they handled the joint occupation:

“The English Commanding Officer uses his authority to protect citizens claiming British protection, sends turbulent law less parties off the Island, administers fines, and I think had the case of Watts and Hibbard been between English Subjects Watts would have been tried by Military Commission and hung by the British Commander.”

By “Watts and Hibbard,“ he was referring to Charles Watts (no relation to Charlie). In June 1869 he shot and killed his boss, lime kiln owner and liquor purveyor Agustin Hibbard. In this case, the American commander Haskell immediately turned Watts over to courts in Port Townsend. The case meandered through the appeals process all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Watts’ conviction for murder seven years after the deed. But Watts cheated the hangman by escaping from jail and was never seen again.

The Army gratefully ended its law enforcement role in November 1872 when Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany ruled that the Haro Strait was the international boundary and the San Juan Islands belonged to the United States. A caretaker force would remain for another two years to see to the disposal of public property at both camps, but they had no jurisdiction over civilians. The Whatcom County Sheriff was in charge until San Juan County was created a year later.

Friday Harbor’s Saloon Best at the end of the 1880s carried on the legacy of San Juan Village until the town was voted dry in 1910. Beer was only a nickel, then which would be about 50 cents now. Not bad!

Friday Harbor was chosen to be the new county seat. Its founder, Edward Warbass, envisioned a wholesome community unlike the Gomorrah of San Juan Village. But now that anyone could sell booze again, there was no quenching the community’s powerful thirst. Liquor-by-the-drink would eventually be sold in rear of general stores until the Saloon Best was founded at the foot of Spring Street along with two other establishments on the same block, which came to be known for its “lower, “middle” and “upper” saloons. Warbass was said to be so embittered by this and other issues that he exiled himself to the town limits where he lived in a converted laundress quarters from the Army camp.

From left: Edward Warbass, Charles McKay and Stephen Boyce all bore witness to the wild goings-on in San Juan Village. This photo was taken in 1906, the year Warbass died. He did not live to see the town he founded voted “dry.”


Warbass died in 1906, 16 years after San Juan Village burned to the ground. Four years later the Reverend Billy Sunday arrived, gave a fiery sermon in the Odd Fellows Hall and inspired the newly incorporated town to vote itself dry.

Emergency saloons were quickly established in nearby tents and barns.

The spirit of the scofflaws endured.

For further reading: The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island, all by Mike Vouri; Historic Resource Study: San Juan Island National Historical Park by Erwin Thompson; and “Charles Watts murders Augustin Hibbard at the San Juan Lime Company on June 17, 1869,” by Boyd Pratt, Historylink.org (https://www.historylink.org/File/10934).

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 onTuesday, 08 February 2022 02:50