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50-year Harvest Statistics

Backlot Logging Equipment

Vulnerable soils

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Abstract. This article explores a single piece of land in the San Juans from its earliest settlement days up to the present. On one hand, the focus is intimate and local. However, the story is also illustrative of the county's larger historical pageant in which people and their natural surroundings adapt to one another. During the 125-year history of this island microcosm, successive land occupiers interacted with the land according to their human circumstances and aspirations and as molded by the constraints and opportunities provided by nature. In this instance, the common thread, and the canvas upon which these human actions are painted, is a forested landscape. As its history unfolds, the piece of land that was originally worth about $350 increases in value by ten million percent ­ and the forest has been degraded. The narrative is in three sections:

  • The Founding Settler (1884 to 1928)
  • The Forest Fabric (from 1874) (unfinished)
  • Newcomers and Colonials (1928 to 2009) (unfinished)

pages about
forest history

The Presettlement Forest

Yellow Island Change

Lost & Found Prairie

Impact of the Lime Industry

Late 19th-Century Landcover

Early Forest Composition



   An immigrant homesteader. Soon after the federal land survey of San Juan County was completed in 1874, homesteading and settlement began, although slowly at first. Immigration to the islands had been delayed by two decades, relative to nearby parts of Washington Territory, until the international boundary dispute known as the Pig War was resolved. With that decision the San Juans became the final bits of land added to the lower forty-eight states. And so began their orderly transfer into private ownership under the Homestead Act. Homesteading was a radical American invention that fired the imaginations of land-starved people everywhere (Figure 1), especially those disenfranchised by Europe's traditional system of primogeniture.

   In the San Juans about 650 plots were offered, all at once, as prospective homesteads. The varied rectilinear shapes of these properties were drawn onto an outline map that  served as both catalog and registry (Figure 2). The shapes bore no relation to the land's natural features. Each plot was nominally 160 acres in size, except that many pieces were truncated by the shoreline. Astute farmers and ranchers claimed open grasslands right away, and most of the remaining properties were eventually consumed by about 1890.

  On December 26, 1884, John W. Johnson, the central figure of this story, filed his homestead bid in the two-year-old village of Friday Harbor (population less than fifty). Because the islands were remote from any city, the Act allowed a local judge to accept land claims on behalf of "settlers who cannot appear at the District Land office." The entry paperwork was fairly simple: Johnson declared his year and place of birth (1847, Sweden), he documented U. S. citizenship status (a Declaration of Intention to become naturalized), he avowed that he had no conflicting homestead applications, and he identified and described the plot that he selected. He was advised that the land could be occupied immediately but that a legal deed would be awarded only after "proving-up," which meant that five years in the future he would need to demonstrate continuous residency and fulfillment of specified improvements. Probably for lack of cash, he declined the alternate option of buying the parcel outright for $2.50 an acre.

   Johnson showed up on San Juan Island at age thirty seven after a brief stopover in Marquette County, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he took the first step toward U.S. citizenship. In the 1880s the iron-rich Marquette Range was being savaged both above and below ground by an army of immigrant laborers, mostly Scandinavians like Johnson, who were irreversibly decimating the immense white pine forests for smelter fuel and mine-shaft supports. So even as he reconnoitered San Juan and selected his homestead, Johnson had already experienced firsthand the aggressive extraction ethic that had become the hallmark of the nation.

   Evidence of Johnson's personality is fragmentary, for he seems to have attracted little public attention. Judging from the remains of his home projects, however, he certainly worked hard, at least in his first years. Although a bachelor throughout his forty-three years on San Juan, he was not reclusive. Records show that he was a life-long member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (a popular social organization) and a frequent juryman, so he must have been genial and temperate. He forged good enough connections with his neighbors, because four of them, including the respected businessman John Douglas, witnessed on his behalf at his proving-up. In my many interviews in the 1980s and 1990s, several older islanders, whose parents had dealt with John Johnson, described him as a good-natured, barrel-chested guy with a ruddy complexion and characteristic Scandinavian accent. Their recollections of him in various settings were vague, but they all vividly recalled him as "Bigfoot" Johnson. That catchy nickname played on his unequal-sized feet, a fact that obliged him to buy footwear two pairs at a time. So, with respect, I too shall also refer to him by that name.

   Occupying the site. Bigfoot's chosen homestead was a forested 142-acre plot two miles northwest of town (Figure 3). It was shaped like a giant meat cleaver with a half-mile long blade and a handle that extended eastward to the boundary of a federal military reserve (later ceded to the University of Washington). The property was saddled between two 450-foot hills but itself was generally fairly level, except for a strip 300 to 500 feet wide that trended downward toward San Juan Channel, sometimes steeply. At the high-bank shoreline, both land and water dropped away so abruptly that no moorage was possible, a feature that in those early days rendered the shoreline worthless (a status that was turned on its head within a century). Additionally, that damp and dark north-facing slope lay in the crosshairs of bitter winter storms that periodically roared out of the Fraser River Valley, so a homesite on the remote and exposed waterfront was unthinkable.

   In January, 1885, three weeks after filing his claim and despite the weather, Bigfoot Johnson began living on his homestead, probably at first in a temporary shed. He situated his homesite near the property's southern boundary where, inexplicably, there was a preexisting clearing. In his entry application he mentions that "4 acres timber [had been] cut down and a road made," suggesting that some unnamed predecessor, or else Johnson himself, had possibly done some preliminary work on the land prior to December, 1884. The opening was sunlit, low-lying, and sloped slightly to the south. It was also probably the most fertile part of the homestead and was walled all around by coniferous forest, mostly Douglas-fir. The primitive road referenced by Bigfoot connected with another track that led along Mapleton Valley into Friday Harbor (which in coming decades would be developed into one of San Juan Island's major routes, Roche Harbor Road).

   During the next five years he demonstrated an immigrant pioneer's determination to succeed by accomplishing much. In his proving-up paperwork of 1890 called the "Homestead Proof ­ Testimony of Claimant," Johnson parsimoniously summarized five years of achievement in words that disguise an impressive amount of physical labor:

"Hewed cedar log house 14 x 22 [feet]. Also kitchen 10 x 22... has 3 rooms. 2 sheds. 4 1/2 acres under cultivation. 18 acres of slashing. 65 fruit trees. 200 rods of fencing [that is, 3,300 feet]. Total val. $950."

The neighbors vouched for these details and added in their testimonials that he had also dug two wells, which he himself had omitted. Once the papers were completed and several registration fees were paid, an official notification of Johnson's homestead award appeared in the local weekly newspaper (Figure 4). The land then became legally his, free and clear.

   Home construction. From our modern viewpoint, surrounded by power tools and prefabricated building materials, it is difficult to imagine how someone in Bigfoot Johnson's circumstances went about the business of building a home with only hand tools, simple materials, and a limited amount of cash. Fortunately, many of Bigfoot's structures still exist, including: the original log cabin, the shed or barn, the old fence lines, both wells, and part of the orchard. I have examined all of these features, and what follows is my understanding of his construction methods. My findings are graphically illustrated using period photographs and an unpublished, contemporaneous map that have been retrieved from private collections and archives.

   The cabin and shed-like barn were both built from redcedar logs that were doubtless obtained very near their points of use on Bigfoot's property. Both buildings had roughly the same dimensions: 14 x 20 feet (like a medium-sized living room today), just as Bigfoot testified in his affidavit. As we shall see in a moment, the cabin utilized whole logs that were freshly cut from living trees. The shed or barn, on the other hand, was fashioned much more crudely, and possibly from logs gleaned from already dead or down trees. We should recall that a few acres of his forest had been "slashed" even before he filed his homestead claim, and those acres may have supplied the older logs.

   Judging from the materials used and the evident methods, the shed (Figure 5) was probably assembled first and fairly quickly; it easily may have served as a temporary all-purpose shelter while Bigfoot labored on his cabin. The shed's imperfectly matched logs were fire-charred, no doubt to sear the outermost sapwood and discourage decay. Logs of larger diameter were split lengthwise and medium-sized poles were left intact; both sizes could have been dragged by hand to the level assembly site. Large, flat rocks served as corner foundations for the interlocking log walls. The "sharp-notched" method of joinery used to secure the corners left prominent gaps or chinks between adjacent logs. This method allows rapid construction, but the results are somewhat crude and open to the elements. In sharp-notching, the top surface of each log is axed into a knifelike edge (at each end) and the lower surface is then notched crosswise with slanting saw cuts to receive and interlock successive logs without needing spikes or nails. Altogether about forty poles and half-logs went into the shed's 7-foot walls. Butt ends were trimmed to project about six inches from the corners.

   In order to keep out some of the weather, inexpensive milled slabwood (likely from a small, short-lived mill in Friday Harbor) was nailed in place to close the gaping chinks. The nature of the original roof is not known; some sort of gabled or shed roof was probably framed with a lattice of poles and surfaced with redcedar shakes, which could have been purchased locally or hand-made using a maul and froe. The shell of this structure remains to this day, but the roof has been repeatedly replaced. If the structure was actually habitable (its function has never been clear), the gable ends would have been closed somehow.

   Bigfoot's log cabin was constructed with much greater care. Its simple design and elegant craftsmanship were evidently somewhat commonplace, because a nearly identical cabin is displayed at the San Juan Island Museum in Friday Harbor after being transported from the other side of the island. I have not discovered how such common house plans might have been exchanged among the pioneers; perhaps a winning design passed word-of-mouth between acquaintances or maybe standardized plans emanated from Scandinavia, where log-cabin construction had been perfected over centuries.

   Redcedar logs for the cabin (Figure 6) were larger and more uniform than those used for the shed. They were very meticulously shaped (hewn, but not split) and at least partially notched before being lifted into place. Corners were again supported on large flat rocks, but because the terrain inclined slightly the foundation was first made level by adding redcedar support posts to the downhill
side (one of these is illustrated in Figure 7). The first tier of logs (sills) were laid out on these supports. The initial step in preparing the logs was to carefully shave two parallel sides to form timbers exactly six inches thick. These flat surfaces became the inside and outside wall surfaces. Still visible today, these surfaces are impressively smooth, but clearly do not as a result of sawing or planing. They were probably roughly hewn with a broad axe and later finished with an adze or draw knife.

   Next, the hewn logs were ingeniously and precisely crafted to seat tightly upon one another, as follows: along each log's upper surface the tree trunk's natural convex curve was left intact, including both the unaltered spongy bark and sapwood layer (the fact that these layers are still present proves that the original logs were freshly cut from living trees). In contrast, the log's entire lower surface was then guttered, that is scooped lengthwise with a scorp, gouge knife, or possibly chisels; thus, the bottom one log's concave profile matched the top of the underlying convexity of the next log as they were stacked.

   Finally, log ends were double chamfered to the correct angles, depth and degree by extremely accurate sawing so that logs would dovetail together securely; these complex cuts were executed with great skill and accuracy. Figure 7 illustrates a finished corner and the extraordinary precision that Bigfoot achieved with his cabin's corners. This hand-sawed joinery involved considerable foresight about how adjacent logs would marry when stacked, and I am tremendously by the extremely refined results. As wall assembly progressed, the previously retained bark and sapwood on top of each preformed log was compressed when the next log was added. Minor chinks that persisted after this compression were packed with insulating wads of Usnea sp lichens that grows on local broadleaf trees.

   During wall assembly, sections of wall logs were cut away to accommodate future doors and windows. I know that such cuts were made one tier at a time, i.e. not after an entire wall was completed, from the manner in which the new log ends were integrated and laterally stabilized. That is, free log ends at window and door openings were firmly locked together by vertical splines (two-inch Douglas-fir poles running the entire height on each side of door or window). These splines were wedged into dado grooves, which were created by boring vertically through each cut log with a two-inch auger. These auger holes could only have been made one log at a time and before the next log was added, while there was still room to work the auger. Dadoes were completed by chiseling the log end out to the augered hole. Only after completing the proper number of dadoed logs could the spline eventually be pounded into place to restore integrity to the wall. At some later time doorjambs and window frames constructed from milled lumber were inserted into the gaping rectangular holes. When complete, the cabin had two hinged doors (north and south sides) and six narrow sash windows, all manufactured.

   The cabin's side walls consisted of about ten logs each and the gabled end walls about twenty logs each. Because each log tapered somewhat, logs were alternately oriented to maintain the level. The exterior was whitewashed, at least in the early years. At the corners, butts were sawed flush, and exposed end grain was protected with corner boards (visible in Figure 6 but removed prior to Figure 7). At about the 8-foot level sockets were let into the interior walls to accommodate rough-milled 2 x 4 joists (purchased) to support the floor of a sleeping loft, which also doubled as the ceiling below. The ground-level floor was not supported by the walls in any way but floated separately on its own foundation; it too was constructed of milled Douglas-fir lumber. Finally, a roof was framed with milled lumber around an off-center brick chimney; the framing was sheathed with skip boards which were then covered with store-bought sawed shingles. A lean-to was attached to the north side of the cabin to serve as a kitchen and semi-outdoor storage area, just as Johnson had mentioned in his proving-up affidavit of 1890. That lean-to survived until 1952 (Figure 6), but neither it nor the chimney existed in the 1970s when I first encountered the remains of Bigfoot's cabin.

   Even a hundred and twenty years after Bigfoot crafted and assembled his redcedar walls, most of the original cabin remains in excellent condition, although nowadays the logs are only visible from indoors. In the 1960s Bigfoot's cabin was incorporated into a larger, stick-built farmhouse, and a decade later the combined structures were re-sided to protect the log walls from the weather. The newer siding also obscured the logs from view (Figure 8).

   Making a living amid a poverty of choices. Finished constructions like the cabin tell us something about Bigfoot Johnson's lifestyle, but they reveal nothing about how he earned a living. As a homesteader, he doubtless expected to be able to live off his land. In the proving-up affidavit he was prompted to describe the usefulness of his land, to which he responded: "Farming, fruit & grazing land. Best for fruit." At that stage, though, he accounted for only 4.5 acres "under cultivation," 18 acres of slashing (meaning that forest had been cut but the stumps had not been cleared), and an orchard of sixty-five trees.

   Five years later, as shown in Figure 8, a mapper graphically represented Bigfoot's improvements as a grand total of only 16 or 17 acres of treeless land (4.7 acres in a remote western field; 5.7 acres in the fenced field east of the cabin; 0.75 acres of orchard; and 5.6 acres acres of unfenced sparse forest or slashing (read more about the series of unpublished T-sheets in the Late 19th-C Landcover of this website). The mapper indicated that Bigfoot had no acreage of plowed land, as would have been indicated by distinctive cartographic symbols, even though other locations in his maps did clearly distinguish such land wherever it was encountered. Nowadays, a century later, the amount of open area of Bigfoot's property has changed little, except that the remote western field has grown in with red alder and lodgepole pine; closer to the homesite it is the same as in 1895 (Figure 8). The homesite fields were (and still are) suitable for small-scale grazing, but I have never found evidence that any of them were ever under cultivation, in the sense of being plowed, sown, and cropped.

   It seems that Bigfoot stretched the facts a bit about the extent of his land improvements, probably by representing aspirations as actualities. Open acreage was somewhat less than stated, and none was ever cultivated. Still, the orchard was real; the 1895 T-sheet confirmed its existence and demonstrated it as measuring 130 by 260 feet, which is just right to accommodate 65 trees at a standard spacing. Today twenty fruit trees (apples, pears, and prunes) still exist in two patches, and they are uniformly 22 feet apart. The orchard was shown fenced, and I would be very surprised if Bigfoot had not included a kitchen garden in this protected area, at least while the fruit trees were still young.

   Can we surmise from the orchard and his "best for fruit" assertion that Johnson prospered as a fruit producer? Unfortunately, he was among more than three hundred other landowners all caught up in an orchard craze that gripped the islands in the last decade of the 19th century. In a flush of optimism more than 100,000 fruit trees were planted throughout the county and everyone expected that their bounty would be lucrative in the urban markets of the mainland. The notion underlying the craze was that the islands' long frost-free and sunny growing season would produce fruit like nowhere else. In actuality, early in the 20th century the San Juans were sorely out-competed by cheaper and higher quality fruit from Wenatchee orchards, where investments in irrigation and rail links to urban markets began to pan out. These were advantages that were unavailable to San Juan fruit growers. When their fruit bubble burst, many prospects were dashed and some bitter realities about rural life in the islands began to emerge: that is, in the San Juans soils are not particularly fertile, the summer drought is prolonged, surface water is essentially nonexistent, and transportation costs to significant markets are high. In Bigfoot's case, his commercial dreams were quashed just as his little trees started to produce fruit.

   Transportation and irrigation are the Achilles' heels of agriculture in the San Juans. A major advance toward solving the first limitation appeared in the early 1950s with the state ferry system, but costs and delays are still important factors. As for irrigation, it is a problem that will not be solved, thanks to intractable facts of geology and climate; in Bigfoot's day the only remedy for a lack of surface water was to dig a well. In fact, he reportedly dug two wells. One well near his homesite (see Figures 7 and 8) was hand-dug through 22 feet of very dense "blue clay" (glaciolacustrine drift) and was five feet in diameter. Digging it must have been extraordinarily arduous and surely required the assistance of at least one other person. Despite its depth it still went nearly dry every October, although it would have supplied enough water to keep the young orchard alive. A second, shallower well was dug near the remote western field into so-called "white sand" and was rumored to yield water year round.

   The crushing disappointment of the burst fruit bubble was repeated in several other sectors of the natural-resource economy of the San Juans. Failures eventually followed in the salmon fishery (from depleted stocks), the pea crop (from a viral plague), the canneries (from lack of fish and peas), logging for export (because local timber was inferior and transportation was costly), local sawmills (because imported lumber was cheaper), and dairies and butcheries (for lack of required inspection facilities that prevented export). Even grains and hay were economically viable inly if consumed locally. Of all the land-based enterprises only the larger limeworks consistently prospered (so long as the source limestone held out), but in that monopolistic business the owners profited enormously while local laborers were treated like serfs (read more in Impact of the Lime Industry of this website). Local agriculturalists were hamstrung by insurmountable geographical constraints and they generally failed to find sustainable market niches. It was a ghastly reality at the turn of the 20th century ­ one that still confronts most island landowners to this day.

   It is untenable that Bigfoot could have expanded his agricultural potential by enlarging his fields. A persistent fallacy asserts that forests stand in the way of great agriculture; in fact, forest soils are usually too poor for cultivating crops, even when were not as rocky as Bigfoot's. Moreover, only one half an acre per year could be cleared for cultivation by manual labor alone, and mechanized or oxen-powered stump pullers, plows, or harvesters were unavailable to impoverished homesteaders. Regardless, Bigfoot never cleared land after the first few years. By his own testimony in 1890 and confirmed in the 1895 T-sheet (Figure 8), Bigfoot had erected 200 rods or 3300 feet of fencing (probably utilizing about a thousand poles cut from the forest instead of barbed wire) to enclose eleven acres of clear fields suitable for grazing. Even if he eventually added the six sparsely treed acres that remained unimproved in those years, the area would have supported only a handful of livestock. Tax records show that Bigfoot did, indeed, maintain a single work horse, sometimes a milk cow and its calf, and later in life small flocks of sheep and chickens.These livestock probably exhausted the fields' capacity.

   Any modest yields from Bigfoot's livestock and orchard were probably mostly home-consumed. He may have engaged in small-scale bartering or local sales, but he could not have been (and never claimed to be) a real or full-time farmer; his homestead had simply opened a path to subsistence but certainly not agricultural prosperity. In fact, when he reflected on his employment career in the censuses of 1900 and 1910 (at ages fifty three and sixty three, respectively), he described himself as a part-time day laborer. That self-assessment was reaffirmed in my interviews in the 1980s with elder locals who retained some recollection of Bigfoot's working life; for example, I was told that in the early days he may have worked at the short-lived Eureka Lime Co. situated less than a mile northwest of his cabin (see Figure 8), that he probably carted and sold cordwood to the steamer docks in Friday Harbor (Figure 9), and that he sometimes assisted larger-scale farmers in San Juan Valley with hay deliveries.

   Around the turn of the century a laborer could earn $1-2 per day. But Bigfoot was not alone as a supplier of cordwood (a wagonload of 4-foot lengths of split Douglas-fir, which took at least a day and a half to prepare), so such employment could not have been highly lucrative. Many competing homesteaders likewise possessed forestland and ambitions, so of course both prices and sales opportunities were suppressed. Even though Bigfoot may have had a comfortable home and was likely content with his lot, in terms of farming or day labor he merely subsisted. This conclusion is supported by the tax records of his time, which prior to income tax were based on the value of personal property (land being valued and taxed separately). Year by year, Bigfoot's tax records paint the following picture of his 40-year existence on San Juan: in his first decade his total personal worth declined from $200 to $62; the value of his personal possessions briefly rose to $183 in 1909; but then they declined steadily to $70 by 1924. By modern standards he endured a life of obligate poverty not unlike the peasant's predicament throughout the Third World.

   Finally, as if local impediments to Bigfoot's prosperity were not enough, the geographically remote San Juans were not immune to remote economic impacts. The late-19th century financial collapse known as the Panic of '93 may have been urban in origin but it spread a severe economic depression to everyone. Markets shrank everywhere and unemployment soared. In that milieu homesteaders in the lower economic strata simply could not advance. Given the difficult circumstances of his time and place, it speaks well enough of Bigfoot that he survived at all.

   By 1919 the aging Johnson had exchanged larger livestock for flocks of sheep and chickens, from which I conclude that he was leading a more pastoral and less physically active lifestyle. Finally, at age seventy six and reputedly in failing health, Bigfoot relinquished ownership of his property to the Odd Fellows, his favorite social organization in Friday Harbor (Figure 10). County Auditor's records show that in 1924 he handed over the 142-acre property for the sum of $1.00. Later events would demonstrate that this seemingly out-of-balance transaction assured him lifelong healthcare benefits; it may have been a fairly customary exchange for elderly lodge members who lacked heirs. Indeed, a year or two later, Bigfoot departed his cleaver-shaped homestead for the final time and transported himself to the Odd Fellow's nursing home in Walla Walla in eastern Washington. After a stay of two additional years, he died, without issue but free of both debts and assets, having endured the wrenchingly beautiful but challenging San Juan Island for forty-three years.

    SECTION 2. THE FOREST FABRIC (from 1874)    

in preparation
    SECTION 3. NEWCOMERS AND COLONIALS (1928 to 2009)    

in preparation

 in preparation



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