The earliest inhabitants to the San Juan Islands were Indians, mostly of the Lummi nation.
British and Spanish explorers discovered the islands in the 18th century, but settlement by
whites didn't begin until the 1850s. First to settle here were a few British
trappers and sheepherders, and some Americans returning, disappointed from
searching for gold in Canada's Caribou country.
Conflicts between British and Americans came to a head in the
so-called Pig War of 1859.
An American settler on San Juan, Lyman Cutlar, shot and killed a British-owned hog that
persisted in invading the American's potato patch. The language defining the
boundary between Canada and the United States being unclear, and with both
nations claiming jurisdiction, U.S. troops were sent to confront British
authorities when they attempted to arrest Cutlar. British warships then appeared
off the San Juan coast and a shooting war appeared imminent.
Fortunately the two governments agreed to a joint occupation of the
San Juans until a boundary could be agreed to. Finally the question was
submitted for arbitration by the Kaiser of Germany who decided in 1872 that the
Americans had the stronger claim to the islands. This ended the last territorial
conflict ever between the United States and Great Britain.
Waters surrounding the San Juans remain open to navigation by boaters from both countries.
On the whole, the islands have historically been populated by hard-working farmers, fishermen, seafarers.
Beginning in the 1970s these demographics began to change.
Traditional occupations had become less profitable and the tourist business was
becoming more important, even as increasing numbers of mainlanders came looking
for alternatives to the problems of big-city life. Today with improved
transportation and with better services and living standards, the islands are
less remote and more liveable than ever before. Besides increasing numbers of
retirees, many in the San Juans today are artists, writers, and others able to
live where they like.