Alexander McKenzie peered through the loopholes of his blockhouse prison and watched as the weekly steamer maneuvered in the shallow bay before tying up at the dock of the Royal Marine Camp on San Juan Island. Peace between Great Britain and the United States had brought disaster as assuredly as war, costing him the fruits of his labor and leaving him homeless.
Another Delacombe album photo with the steam gunboat tied up at the dock with the blockhouse in the background. Imagine the Royal Marine guard marching Alexander McKenzie down this dock to the gunboat. Also, note that what we call the formal garden today is described as a “strawberry garden.”
Still a British subject, the native Scot had become entangled in a land claim dispute with a prominent American citizen during the joint military occupation of the island, during which the assignation of real property was governed not by law, but an informal “gentleman’s agreement.” The expedient for anyone kicking up a fuss over this or any other matter was immediate eviction. This had been the ongoing practice for more than nine years, following a crisis ignited in 1859 by an American who shot a British-owned pig that was rooting in his garden.
The central issue behind McKenzie’s troubles was the international border. Following the Oregon Treaty of 1846, the border was believed by the Americans to be the Haro Strait to the west of the San Juan Archipelago, and the British the Rosario Strait to the east. With diplomats unable to agree and both governments in a hurry to sign the treaty, the boundary decision was left in abeyance and the islands in dispute. That essentially spurred the struggle for real estate and all the attendant issues, including fishing and mining claims, sheep theft and, finally, the murder of a Berkshire boar.
The British were the first European nation to exploit island lands and resources in the guise of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which in 1849 was granted a charter to colonize Vancouver Island and surrounding environs. To James Douglas, who held the dual position of colonial governor and chief factor, these included the San Juan Islands. Never mind the Oregon Treaty anomaly and the fact that the islands did not belong to anyone…yet. With few Americans north of the Columbia River, Douglas followed up on lore that a company man, Roderick Finlayson, claimed San Juan as early as 1845 (leaving a wooden tablet on his future namesake hillock) and established a fish-salting operation on Fish Creek and other locales in 1851.
Opportunities for farming on the island were available as well to prospective yeoman at one pound per acre for no less than 20 acres. However, as historian Boyd Pratt writes, “…The price for land of mixed agricultural potential proved to be too steep, particularly considering the alternative of either donation or preemption across the border in Oregon Territory.” Consequently there were few private farms on Vancouver Island, where HBC plantations were established, and virtually none on San Juan.
Douglas was well aware that American land claims in Oregon were based upon the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, which established the rectangular township system that subdivided the continent south of the 49th parallel under a number of public laws. The dominant one here at mid century was the Preemption Land Act of 1841, which granted 160 acres to males over the age of 21 provided they “prove up” by demonstrating six months residence and paying a mere $1.25 in cash per acre. [This is the law that eventually morphed into the more commonly known Homestead Act of 1862, passed by the Lincoln Administration.]
Alarmed by the prospect of more Americans pouring into the newly established Washington Territory by the day, and under pressure from his home government, Douglas in December 1853 granted nearly the entire island of San Juan, save three plots to individual employees, to the HBC. Thus came into being Belle Vue Sheep Farm, with the Home Establishment on the southern end of the island and pasturage (called stations) throughout, all connected by tracks cleared by Cowichan work parties under the governor’s direction.
The home government was pleased to have “colonists” in place on disputed territory, and directed Douglas to maintain the status quo and defend British interests on the island. They had no idea that it was a business operation. It was one thing to puff up and defend the rights of Englishmen, and quite another to support a multi-national corporation that did not hesitate to send invoices for what it perceived to be services rendered. And make no mistake. In the end, a bill would be sent.
Except for a few scattered incidents with American tax collectors—including the pilferage of 34 breeding rams by a Whatcom sheriff’s posse in 1856 to cover “back taxes”—Douglas pretty much had “settlement” his own way until late February 1859. That’s when Belle Vue Sheep Farm Chief Trader Charles J. Griffin wrote Douglas that a party of Americans from Victoria had spent 10 days surveying on the island. Their object was to establish preemption plots pending a U.S. takeover of the islands.
A Capt. C. L. Denman, assisted by B.C. Gillette, directed the survey parties. According to Northwest Boundary Survey geologist George Gibbs, they were laying out claims “in strength of advices and secured from Washington.” Twenty-six plots of a quarter section each (160 acres) were staked, with 27 quarter sections (or 4,000 acres) left to the HBC. Gibbs observed that only two of the HBC claims had been settled by then (one by a Scotsman, the other by two Hawaiians), which seemed to confirm that “the whole seemed to be a matter of bare speculation.”
Douglas was aware of the enterprise, and wrote the colonial office that he was continuing to regard San Juan Island as a dependency of Vancouver Island, as per instructions, and had appointed Griffin Justice of the Peace to maintain a semblance of control. Griffin’s operation since the sheep confiscation had been “general and complete” as well as undisturbed by Americans. However, Douglas now feared the surveys would attract hordes of Yankee squatters and more trouble.
Well, maybe not hordes, but the surveys did bring 18 Yankees. Following the death of the pig, that’s how many signed a petition asking for protection against “northern Indian raids,” although they really meant James Douglas. And that brought the U.S. Army, the Royal Navy and their assortment of rifled weapons and naval guns and, finally, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army, to negotiate a stand-down and force all the players back to reality. No one wanted a war over possession of an island you could walk across in a morning, let alone the death of a farm animal.
Thus began the joint military occupation, designed to referee disputes between subjects and citizens and avoid at all costs another crisis. The respective commanders—company grade officers with no cannon and in command of no more than 100 soldiers/marines—were given their marching orders.
The Admiralty’s instructions were precise, and mirrored the guidelines Winfield Scott had roughed out the previous November. Captain George Bazagette of the Royal Marines was advised foremost that he was not only to protect British interests on San Juan Island, but also to maintain a frank and free communication with his U.S. counterpart so as not to interfere with U.S. citizens, who had equal rights on the island. Lawbreakers of U.S. citizenship were to be turned over to the U.S. commander for justice. The captain was also instructed to safeguard the discipline and morale of his garrison by treating vigorously any bad influences, namely pimps and whisky sellers, and do his best to “...prevent any of the detachment from straggling.”
Douglas then added his two cents: “I have to request that you will be good enough to embody in your instructions to the officer you may place in military command such cautions as may prevent him from interfering in any way with American citizens, and advise him in any intercourse he may have with the United States’ officers to adopt such bearing as may promote a good understanding and preserve harmony.”
I have already written in these pages (see “Scofflaws and Moonshine”) about how the government and citizens of Washington Territory reacted to this agreement. Badly! From start to finish, the American commanders had to watch out for miscreants and see to the safety of pioneer residents and the scattering of farmers on the Denman and Gillette claims while being undermined by their own people, mainly whisky sellers and purveyors of prostitutes. As many as 20 Americans were evicted from the island over a 12-year period for these and various other offenses.
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 barring a few evictions for whisky selling and one notable desertion, major incidents between British subjects and Royal Marines were rare. But one farm, elegantly dubbed the “Hermitage,” was to test the joint occupation agreement one more time.
The place was located in a roughly cleared area flanking Beaverton Valley Road, at the intersection of Boyce Road (a future holding of the Sandwith family from England), according to Doug McCutchen of the San Juan County Land Bank. The farm was being worked by McKenzie, a British subject whose naturalized American brother, Murdoch, owned adjoining acreage where the Animal Inn and the Buchanan farm are today.
But the Hermitage was, in fact, considered the “pre-emption claim” of Edward Warbass, the U.S. citizen alluded to above and the influential former U.S. Army sutler, who was away from the island at the time. This was possibly one of the 26 quarter sections surveyed by Denman and Gillette in 1859. But the legality of this parcel, as well as any other on the island granted under British or American systems, could not possess firm legal standing until the boundary dispute was settled. And that wasn’t until 1872, after the land was officially surveyed and apportioned.
This wasn’t the first and only claim on the island for Warbass. In the early years of the joint occupation, he had attempted to purchase a farm near San Juan Town, the island’s first community near the U.S. Army camp. That effort came to naught in face of counter claims by the Hudson’s Bay Company and two Americans. One of them was Stephen Boyce, who would eventually become San Juan County’s first sheriff. That was probably when Warbass turned to Denman and Gillette, and claimed one of their 26 parcels.
Angus MacDonald, a Scot and former Hudson’s Bay Company employee, was looking out for the Warbass claim while Warbass was away from the island. He sublet the land to Alexander McKenzie and died not long thereafter. That’s when the trouble started. Beinecke Library, Yale University.
But Warbass was an entrepreneur and sometime legislator with interests elsewhere in the territory, not a farmer. He left his claim and the cabin erected upon it under the care of Angus McDonald, a former Hudson’s Bay employee who in 1867 subcontracted with McKenzie to help him crop the land until Warbass returned. McDonald died in 1868, but McKenzie stayed on and continued to make improvements that were standard among pioneer farmers: Clearing (or “grubbing”) oceanspray and other brush, cutting down trees, yanking stumps, planting and harvesting potatoes, then shifting to oats and barley as his fields grew. He also erected fencing and made improvements to the cabin, upgrading it into a house.
This happy idyll continued until April 1870, when McKenzie was approached by August Hoffmeister, the English Camp sutler. Acting as agent for his friend and former counterpart, Warbass, Hoffmeister offered McKenzie $600 (about $13,000 today) for his vastly improved property. McKenzie scoffed and refused to acknowledge Hoffmeister as agent and Warbass as owner. Where were these storekeepers while he was building a life? And were not the islands in dispute? Surely possession and occupation, not to mention hard work, trumped a piece of paper with no legal force.
Royal Marine Captain William A. Delacombe (far left) and Augustus Hoffmeister (standing center) pause for the camera on Officers Hill at English Camp in this image taken in the final year of the joint military occupation of the island. Hoffmeister, the storekeeper at the camp, acted as agent for Ed Warbass in the McKenzie property dispute. Delacombe evicted McKenzie from the island. This photo is from the Delacombe family album, the inscription from the period. The family shared the album digitally with the National Park Service several years ago.
A few days later, McKenzie again encountered Hoffmeister near the farm, which was located near the Military Road. This time the sutler was accompanied by an officer from the U.S. camp, who ordered McKenzie off the premises. The Scot again refused to leave, this time claiming British citizenship. Thus the mechanism of the joint military occupation was called into play.
This meant appeals would have to be made to Captain William Addis Delacombe, commander of the Royal Marine contingent and his opposite, U.S. Army Captain Joseph Haskell. Delacombe was a 17-year marine and the second to head the post on Garrison Bay. He had arrived in mid 1867 with his wife and four children (including his teenage son, Willie, who would find fame later as a cricket player). Haskell had been on San Juan a little over a year—long enough to be weary of shenanigans. The 27-year-old had proven his mettle on Civil War battlefields, and rewarded with a regular Army commission. He would eventually retire a brigadier general after being fatally wounded in the Spanish-American War.
By the late 1860s, commanding officers at American Camp, such Capt. Joseph Haskell, occupied these quarters on the parade ground. This undated image may have been taken during a Royal Marine visit to the island. The photo is from the Delacombe family album.
Adhering to protocol, Haskell wrote Delacombe on April 21 stating that Warbass, through Hoffmeister, had claimed American protection. As McKenzie was already in the process of sowing another crop, he requested that Delacombe order him to stop plowing and leave the property until he made a decision. The American further explained that while he disapproved of looking after the “special interests” of those who were absent from the island (namely Warbass), it also was his duty to look out for creditors as well as property owners.
Delacombe responded two days later, pointing out that the McKenzie brothers (Murdoch, Alexander and Kenneth) were good citizens, and that he knew Alexander had been in uninterrupted possession of the Warbass claim for three years, making improvements and putting up and repairing fencing. The brothers seemed to be working both claims interchangeably. As much as it pained him, the marine commander nevertheless agreed to order McKenzie off the Warbass claim.
At this, McKenzie hired a lawyer in Victoria to take legal action against the Royal Navy for interfering with his business. This was, he would find, a mistake. His action prompted Pacific Station commander, Rear Admiral Arthur Farquhar, to ask Delacombe to explain himself. While admitting McKenzie had a legitimate claim and that the brothers were honest settlers, the captain was also exasperated that McKenzie had gone around him and hired a lawyer.
“Instead of my dealing harshly with (the McKenzies) I have gone out of my way to endeavor to prove in a measure of the truth of their statement which my letter to Captain Haskell shows,” Delacombe wrote, “…and therefore consider the course they have taken in getting some lawyer in Victoria to draw up a letter to you, after finding they could get no satisfaction from the American Authority, is most ungrateful.”
The captain also pointed out that it was his understanding that property claims had to be registered with the respective camp commanders, and that no such claim had been filed at either camp by Alexander McKenzie.
But he was not unsympathetic to the Scot’s plight. On June 8, Delacombe once again met with McKenzie, advising him that he would write Haskell for permission for McKenzie to take in his crop, but that he would still have to vacate the premises. At that, McKenzie again refused to leave, pointing out that his brother Murdoch, an American citizen, had stepped in and claimed the Warbass property in addition to his own, and that his rights were unquestionably under U.S. protection.
The captain probably ruminated as he rode a few miles more down the Military Road to the U.S. camp to verify this new information. But Haskell remained adamant. He wanted any and all McKenzies off the Warbass claim. On the way home, Delacombe stopped to the Hermitage to find that Alexander McKenzie, in a fit of pique, had occupied the house and cast the contents (presumably belonging to Warbass) into the yard. The Scotsman also issued a challenge: They would now have to force him out.
Delacombe wrote Farquhar once again.
“I consider this man has no claim and is pitting the authority of the United States and also mine at defiance. I therefore respectfully beg you…to give me an order for his eviction from the island.”
Farquhar’s reply, in so many words, was, “You handle it.”
Two weeks later, Delacombe dispatched an armed escort to the Hermitage. The sergeant was to order McKenzie off the property, and if he did not leave, to escort him under guard to Garrison Bay. McKenzie came to the camp voluntarily, the captain reported, where he was again warned that he would be evicted from the island if he persisted. When McKenzie scoffed, Delacombe locked him in the blockhouse. The next morning, the now ex-farmer was grimly marched down the dock onto the steam gunboat, and dispatched to Victoria. He never returned.
McKenzie reported it differently in a letter to the Admiralty submitted two years later:
“Captain Delacombe sent a Marine to tell me that Admiral Farquhar was at the camp to hear my case. I accompanied the man to the camp, but instead of seeing the admiral I was put into the Guard House and kept a prisoner until a boat could be procured to carry me to Victoria. Captain Delacombe told me never again to set foot on the island. My firm conviction is that Captain Delacombe expelled me from San Juan Island in order that he and Hoffmeister might appropriate the land for their own use and benefit.”
No evidence exists that Delacombe and Hoffmeister had any such plan, though there can be no doubt that the sutler would have earned a percentage of the sale if McKenzie had come up with the money.
McKenzie also declaimed that he would have paid Warbass for the land if Warbass had asked him in person. “I protested against…paying money to Mr. Hoffmeister unless the sale was authorized by Mr. Warbass to sell it,” he wrote. “Mr. Warbass failing to make his appearance I considered the place belonged to me.” But this show of reason, made in retrospect, was nothing more than a play for leniency.
Shortly after his eviction, McKenzie and his brothers lobbied their San Juan neighbors for assistance. It came in the form of a petition dated Nov. 7, 1870, bearing 28 signatures of Americans and British settlers alike, including respected Yankees Boyce and John Hankinson, the latter a retired sergeant from the Army camp. The document addressed to Admiral Farquhar attested to Alexander McKenzie’s “good character,” but said nothing about allowing the Scotsman to return to San Juan.
Boyce, Hankinson and their British neighbors, no doubt suspected that what befell McKenzie could just as easily happen to them, and they were right. In the fall of 1872, not long after his appointment as territorial governor by President Ulysses S. Grant, Elisha Ferry visited San Juan and warned British settlers that they would have to take an oath of allegiance to the United States or risk forfeiture of their claims. Moreover, he relayed that the Secretary of the Interior had withdrawn the San Juan Islands from preemption settlement to fund construction of the Northern Pacific Railway. Lands would be sold by HBC for no less than $2.50 an acre. This was by an Act of Congress that was passed 1864 and reaffirmed in 1870.
The British minister plenipotentiary in Washington soon got wind of this and filed a protest with U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, who asked Ferry to explain himself. The governor assured Fish that some 48 alarmed British residents had assured him of their intent to apply for citizenship. This still did not seem reasonable to the president, who in February 1873 issued a proclamation forbidding all land sales until the British settlers’ claims could be adjusted. But when a commissioner arrived on the island the following year to do just that, he found that every single British subject was now a U.S. citizen. Their descendants are here to this day.
As for the Northern Pacific Railroad? That never came to pass. Congress pulled back public lands in the wake of the Panic of 1873, which involved the railroad’s chief financier Jay Cooke.
This Government Land Office map is the result of the first official survey of the island following the final adjustment of the international boundary and the San Juan Islands becoming part of the United States. The Warbass/McKenzie claim is northwest of Friday Harbor at the intersection of today’s Beaverton Valley and Boyce roads.
Meanwhile, the Public Land Office arrived in the county and completed the bulk of the formal U.S. survey in 1874. Warbass’ name is clearly inscribed on the claim in question, just above that of Murdoch McKenzie on the first official map, issued in 1875, indicating that his investment was still in play. Interestingly enough, his formal claim is listed as a “cash sale” under the Land Act of 1820, which indicates that he paid in full for the land upfront, rather than proving up. Alexander McKenzie apparently never returned to the island, except perhaps to visit his brother, who was still on San Juan at the time of the 1880 Census.
By then, thanks to promotional literature circulating around the country and even finding its way overseas, more people were staking claims in a stable environment and building lives on San Juan.
As for Ed Warbass, the pendulum swings in any life lived long enough. The plucky entrepreneur used his influence to promote the secession of the San Juan Islands from Whatcom County, and in the process was named San Juan County’s first auditor. Among his initial acts was the establishment of the townsite of Friday Harbor as the county seat, but given all the drinking, gambling and other goings on in San Juan Town, he couldn’t sell a single town lot.
Ed Warbass in later years at the gate of his property located on the then outskirts of Friday Harbor. Embittered by the shenanigans of the county auditor who succeeded him, Warbass never again involved himself in civic matters. He died in 1906. San Juan Historical Museum.
His luck ran out when when he was defeated in the next election and the new auditor sold the town lots to himself and a buddy at a discount. Embittered by this and other matters, Warbass moved to the outskirts of town where he lived in one of the old laundress quarters that had been purchased at federal auction and moved from the Army camp. He later claimed the house was the quarters of George Pickett, and hung a painting of the general over the fireplace in testament. As the years rolled on, anyone who could contest the fact was either pickled in alcohol or dead.
All that aside, we celebrate Ed Warbass today, and rightly so. Thanks to him, we have a county and a county seat. He and his dog, Bob, are still with us, dipped in bronze and sitting on the park bench at First and A streets.
Friday Harbor founder and frontier storekeeper and entrepreneur Ed Warbass, depicted here with his dog, Bob, was at the heart of a San Juan land dispute that resulted in one of the more notorious evicts during the joint the military occupation of the island.
Poor old Alexander McKenzie faded from history…until now.
For more Information, read Mike Vouri’s “The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay; Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island;” and “Images of America: “Friday Harbor” and “San Juan Island”; both of the latter cowritten with Julia Vouri; Boyd Pratt’s “Island Farming: History and Landscape Agriculture in the San Juan Islands” and “The Disputed Islands Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: The San Juan Archipelago, 1850-1874” (unpublished manuscript); and Lynn Weber/Roochvarg’s biography of Ed Warbass on Historylink.org.