Washington State territorial laws and the social hierarchy present within the San Juan Island region during and after the water boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain is a theme of historian Katrina Jagonisky’s research. Within the book Legal Codes and Talking Trees, Jagonsiky recounts the tragic history of Nora Jewell and her family’s experience navigating settler-colonial laws as the region transitioned from traditional Coast Salish territory, disputed borderland, and American territory. Inidgenous women, during this time period, had to fight for sovereignty over their bodies, children, and property, and Nora Jewell’s story is an example of those struggles.
Nora was born to Fanny and Peter Jewell in 1866, when American and British soldiers jointly occupied their San Juan Island home. During the boundary dispute, San Juan Island was a borderland territory and the laws governing the region were in question. As a result, Peter, a Danish immigrant, and Fanny, a Strait Salish woman, married and had children as laws were being written that prohibited similar relationships within the Washington Territory. The family’s story was not a unique on the island as many immigrant settlers, Kanaka (Hawaiian) residents, and British citizens intermarried with indigenous women. Even though she lived under the shadow of an international boundary dispute, Nora had an ordinary homesteading life on the island with limited interventions from the territorial or federal governments. When the boundary dispute ended through arbitration, the United States took control of San Juan Island and residents were under the jurisdiction of territorial laws. San Juan County was established in October of 1873 and within the next few years Nora would lose her father and be named his sole heir.
When Nora was born, she was considered illegitimate under Washington Territorial anti-miscegenation statutes which, beginning in 1854, invalidated mixed-race unions. However, between 1865 and 1866, legislators chose to recognize mixed-race children born out of wedlock due to the large number of white men wishing to bequeath property and surnames to their children. Jagodinsky wrote that this, “…offered legislators an opportunity to uphold the white patriarchy – making whiteness and property inheritable by citizen men’s children – without acknowledging Indian wives’ rights to fair treatment, inheritance, or maternal custody.” In 1868 race was excluded from marriage statues, but not retroactively and Fanny’s legal right to Peter’s estate was not recognized. Faced with the possibility of losing her younger children to legal guardians – because the law did not recognize Indigenous maternal custody – Fanny most likely left San Juan Island for British Columbia but the records are unclear. It is known that, after the death of her father, Nora was placed under the guardianship T.W. Boggess, a widowed homesteader, and not with her maternal aunt Ellen Jones who had a farm on the island with her German husband.
In 1877 Nora was removed from Boggess’s care and placed with James F. Smith, another homesteader who lived with his wife on property not far from the Jewell farm. Smith was tasked with clothing, feeding, and educating Nora. While under his care, Nora reported that she was pregnant as a result of repeated assaults and described her experience with Smith as field, domestic, and sexual servitude. Nora’s mixed race status made her vulnerable within the Washington territorial system but also granted her the right to file charges and testify against a white man. She was granted a legal venue and, at the age of fourteen, told her story to a jury of white men. During the trial Smith insinuated that Nora was of loose moral values and that her deviant behavior was due to her Indigenous heritage. Nora’s reputation was questioned during the trial but her Uncle, Fred Jones, and the Puget Sound region sheriff swore oaths to Nora’s moral character. Smith was acquitted and Nora married E. Hitchens, a forty-one year old farmer from England living on Orcas Island. There is no record of the child, which most likely did not survive. Nora’s marriage, soon after the trial, was a convenient arrangement, and she left Hitchens a few years later. In the end, Nora returned to San Juan Island to claim her property and, after selling the Jewell farm, she had the finances required to live independently. After selling her family’s property, Nora lived in a rented room and worked as a dressmaker in Tacoma, WA.
Nora’s story is an example of the struggles women with cross-cultural identities had to navigate in early Washington Territorial history. She had access to privileges such as property rights but that privilege could not protect her from abuse. Nora also had access to legal protections but her mixed-race background meant that her character was questioned in court. Her childhood ended in tragedy, but Nora’s powerful decision to identify an abuser demonstrates how one woman was able to use territorial laws to challenge her guardian’s presumed power.
Jagodinsky, Katrina. “A Tale of Two Sisters: Family Histories from the Strait Salish Borderlands.” The Western Historical Quarterly 47, no. 1 (2016): 27-49.
Jagodinsky, Katrina. Legal Codes and Talking Trees: Indigenous Women’s Sovereignty in the Sonoran and Puget Sound Borderlands, 1854-1946. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2016.