All Over The Map: San Juan Islands residents seek to rename passage honoring notorious Army officer

Dec 3, 2021, 10:19 AM | Updated: Dec 6, 2021, 11:19 am
San Juan Islands...
A 1930s nautical chart published by the US government shows Harney Channel in the San Juan Islands; local residents have launched an effort to rename the passage for Henry Cayou. (NOAA Archives)
(NOAA Archives)

It’s not as well-known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca or Admiralty Inlet, but a group of residents of the San Juan Islands believe the time has come to rename a stretch of Washington state saltwater known as Harney Channel.

Harney Channel is a passage that lies between Orcas Island and Shaw Island in the eastern part of the San Juans, and is “about a half-mile in width and roughly two miles long,” according to materials prepared by name-change proponents Ken Carrasco and Stephanie Buffum. The channel is named for 19th century military figure General William S. Harney of the U.S. Army. “Harney Channel” has been printed on thousands of maps and nautical charts since the 1860s.

General Harney was the highest ranking Army officer in Washington Territory back in 1859 when the so-called “Pig War” broke out on San Juan Island – which nearly led to a real war between the United States and Great Britain.

That summer, an American settler shot and killed a Berkshire boar belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company that had been rooting around in the settler’s garden. In an era when the word (and concept of) “de-escalation” had perhaps not yet gained, shall we say, widespread acceptance, the British government on nearby Vancouver Island intervened, and then so did the U.S. Army from nearby Fort Bellingham.

It took the personal intervention of General Winfield Scott, the nation’s highest ranking military officer, to help lower the temperature of the conflict. Scott, who had earlier been injured in an accident and for whom travel was difficult, made a two months-long sea-voyage to reach Washington Territory from the nation’s capital in order to give General Harney a tongue-lashing and to rein in Harney, as well as the officer from Fort Bellingham who had landed on San Juan Island, future Civil War figure George Pickett.

Political ownership of the San Juans, which had been home to Indigenous people for millennia, was disputed at that time because language in the Treaty of 1846 that had settled the boundary between American and British territory in the Northwest was vague about which was the main navigation channel in those waters, which had direct bearing on whether the United States or Britain could clearly lay claim to the islands.

The dispute was finally settled in 1872 through an arbitration process managed by the Kaiser of Germany – but only after the real war was averted, tempers subsided, and a 10-year joint occupation of San Juan Island by British and American troops ensued. The entire saga is one of the most fascinating stories in Pacific Northwest history, and maybe even American history.

The group of San Juan residents – led by Ken Carrasco and Stephanie Buffum – objects to continuing to memorialize General Harney, and has petitioned the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names to instead call the passage Cayou Channel – after Henry Cayou (pronounced “KI-yoo”). Henry Cayou was born on Orcas Island in 1869 and lived there until he died at age 90 – and was, by all accounts, a good guy, and an active member of the Orcas Island community.

Carrasco and Buffum write:

Henry Cayou was born on Orcas Island in 1869 and was interred on Orcas upon his passing in 1959. His father was a trapper who was a very early settler of Orcas Island and his mother was from the longstanding indigenous villages on the shorelines of what is now known as Mitchell and Garrison Bays on San Juan Island, and she had Samish and Lummi relations. Henry Cayou’s first wife is often spoken of as Tlingit, but there is some question; certainly, though, she was Coast Salish. Many Native people in our area consider Henry Cayou as a relative and his relations can be found throughout the Salish Sea including Lummi, Swinomish, and Samish.

Henry Cayou also moved easily in the white world. He was a highly successful commercial fisherman (trapping and seining), and his fish processing plant at Deer Harbor was so successful that it kept local people employed even through the depression in the 1930’s. He was also an early local maritime leader, owning a steam tug and a successful boatyard in partnership with his brothers-in-law at Reads Bay of Decatur Island. He also farmed a 500-acre tract on Waldron Island and participated in the initiation of the local electric cooperative in the early 20th century which is now known as OPALCO (Orcas Power and Light Cooperative).

Henry Cayou was elected to the San Juan County Council, where he served 29 years and was chair when Friday Harbor was incorporated. He is the only Native American to have been elected to this county’s board or council. Henry Cayou moved easily through both the Native American and white cultures and can be seen as a bridge between these cultures.

As fine a person as Henry Cayou seems to have been, why would anyone feel strongly enough to believe that General Harney’s name should be removed from the channel that’s borne his name for 160 years?

Though as a federal employee he can’t advocate for or against any renaming effort, Cyrus Forman, the Lead Interpretive Ranger at San Juan Islands National Historical Park – the federal site and museum that commemorates the Pig War – does know his General Harney history better than just about anybody.

“The early 19th century was obviously a more violent and a more racist time than our own, and we should all be grateful for that,” Forman told KIRO Radio on Thursday. “But even in his time period, Harney would be considered an outlier and on the extreme.”

In addition to bringing the United States to the brink of war with Britain, General Harney is believed to be responsible for a number of violent acts. In 1834, he beat enslaved woman to death at his home in St. Louis over some kind of minor dispute. Early in his military career, Harney was court-martialed for beating soldiers under his command.

And, says Forman, Harney was particularly known for his brutality toward Indigenous people, including one notorious episode that took place in what’s now Nebraska in 1855.

“His behavior at the Battle of Ash Hollow — where a group of predominantly Brulé Sioux tried to surrender to him and he ambushed and burnt their village and kidnapped the residents of that village as hostages — was notable in terms of being the greatest atrocity that the United States military had committed at that point in time against Native American people,” Forman described.

Along with Harney Channel, Forman says there are at least two other places in the San Juans named for a controversial Pig War figure: the U.S. Army’s George Pickett.

“There are various places honoring Captain Pickett, eventually General Pickett,” Forman said. “We have Picketts Lane on San Juan Island, and there’s Mount Pickett on Orcas Island.”

Should those names also be changed? A few years ago, the City of Bellingham removed Pickett’s name from a bridge in the city.

“This is something for the public to decide,” Forman said. “But Pickett’s legacy is undoubtedly worth noting and worth re-examining, certainly his behavior during the Civil War was such that he fled the United States in order to avoid [prosecution for] possible war crimes.”

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Committee on Geographic Names is currently reviewing the group’s request.

“The proposal to rename Harney Channel to ‘Cayou Channel’ was approved for Final Consideration in October by the Committee on Geographic Names,” wrote DNR staffer Caleb Maki in an email to KIRO Radio. “That means that the Committee will make its final decision at their next meeting in April.”

Maki says he’ll be seeking public input between now and then, and that he expects “to receive lots of comments from folks who either support or oppose the proposed name.”

“Anyone interested in commenting on the proposal can send an email (best way to contact) to: [email protected] or call me at 360-902-1280,” Maki wrote.

According to Maki, should it happen, the state-approved change is not the final step in the process of renaming Harney Channel.

If it is approved, Maki wrote, “the proposal will then be forwarded onto the U.S. Board on Geographic Names with the State’s recommendation to approve.”

Carrasco and Buffum are also continuing to collect signatures for an online petition supporting the change; a research document they prepared for their request is available to download from the DNR website.

Should it come to pass, timing of the change will coincide with the 150th anniversary of the resolution of the Pig War. The actual anniversary is Oct. 21, but Cyrus Forman of the National Park Service says there will be special sesquicentennial programs and tours, including the debut of a new exhibit, hopefully by late spring or early summer.

And that two-month of trip of General Scott from the other Washington doesn’t seem so long, considering the time it will take for Forman to take delivery of a key element of the new Pig War exhibit.

“There’s a good 40-week wait for us to get a foundry to make a life-size Berkshire boar to have in bronze,” Forman said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: San Juan Islands residents seek to rename passage honoring notorious Army officer