Lasting Impact of the Water Boundary Dispute

Lena Thomas Graignic and Son, Peter. Lena whose Indian name was Skichliss, with son Peter, Circa 1870-1879. Washington State Rural Heritage

In the 1800s the San Juan archipelago was a strategic point of imperial expansion and colonial interest that resulted in a 26 year boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain. In the end, the U.S. gained control of the islands and the final result had a lasting impact on the region’s Indigenous population. The San Juan Islands are part of the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people including the Lummi Nation, the Samish Indian Nation, and the Saanich Nations. It is important to acknowledge that the Coast Salish are not one collective ethnicity, but an anthropological grouping of people based on linguistic similarities and past and persisting similarities and connections.  Though divided into many distinct language groups and hundreds of villages, they shared important cultural elements including networks of intermarriage and economic cooperation, elaborate ceremonies, and highly stylized art expressed through wood carving.  Access to the region’s material abundance encouraged the Northwest Coastal communities to develop wealthy, complex, and stratified societies. 

Coast Salish communities were forever impacted by European expansion into the Northwest region as colonizing nations claimed a superior right of ownership over the land. Epidemics and raids by unrelated Northern tribes diminished their numbers and many established settlements on the mainland, traveling back to the islands for seasonal harvests. For example, before the British and Americans settled San Juan Island it was the location of a Coast Salish winter village, and evidence shows that a plank longhouse stood there until it was dismantled by British troops during the joint military occupation.  

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as European, British, and American interests overtook the region and their trade ships and colonists began to arrive, Native community ties remained strong. The colonies established by the United States and Great Britain asserted legal authority over the land it claimed and they attempted to isolate the Native people onto small reserved tracts.  However, while under colonial rule, Salish speakers and their descendants continued to associate with each other based on concepts of kinship and local customs, rather than government edicts.

Ambiguous language in the Oregon Treaty of 1846 brought the ownership of the San Juan Island into question resulting in a non-violent military standoff, joint occupation, and 26 year boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain. The boundary dispute ended through an arbitration agreement that was argued and decided upon thousands of miles away by the German Kaiser.  During the water boundary dispute those who inhabited, settled, or claimed land on San Juan Island lived under and followed laws that were always in question.  However, once the joint occupation ended the islands became American territory and lands were opened to homestead claims and Washington territorial laws. Some British settlers chose to remain, while others left for Vancouver Island.  For example, many of the Kanaka settlers and Belle Vue Sheep Farm workers relocated because American laws were more restrictive in regards to land ownership, citizenship, and voting rights for Native Hawaiians. 

Beginning in 1854 territorial Governor Isaac Stevens negotiated treaties with Native tribes in Western Washington aimed at obtaining land for the incoming homesteaders and isolating indigenous people to tracts of land, but included provisions that protected cultural hunting and fishing rights. Until the late 1800s, Native fishers were active in the commercial fishing industry but their rights were usurped by Euro-American investors that overtook their reef net fishing sites with new technology and the federal government that promoted assimilation and agriculture over cultural hunting and fishing. Those who lived off the reservation, found themselves navigating laws that prevented property rights, intermarriage, and parental rights. 

When reflecting on the upcoming 150th anniversary of the arbitration decision, one can see how the water boundary dispute is an example of the imperialistic ambitions, colonial consequences, and political compromises often made throughout American history.  Two powerful nations came close to war over vague language within a treaty, political and economic desires, and military interests. However, war was avoided through a joint desire to avoid conflict and for a peaceful resolution.  It is also important to acknowledge that the Northern Coastal boundary between the U.S. and Great Britain was drawn on top of the traditional homelands of Native communities. Claims were made to things like water, fish, and land which had a lasting impact on those who thrived and persisted long before European explorers encountered their shores. 


Jagodinsky, Katrina. “A Tale of Two Sisters: Family Histories from the Strait Salish Borderlands.” The Western Historical Quarterly 47, no. 1 (2016): 27-49.

Lyall, Gordon Robert. “From Imbroglio to Pig War: The San Juan Island Dispute, 1853-71, in History and Memory.” BC Studies, no. 186 (2015): 73.

Miller, Bruce Granville. Be of Good Mind: Essays on the Coast Salish. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking, 2001.

Wellman, Candace. Interwoven Lives Indigenous Mothers of Salish Coast Communities. Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 2019.

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