Educating Pioneer Children on San Juan Island

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 1/11/2018
  • Essay 20501

From the earliest days of non-Native settlement on San Juan Island (located in the Salish Sea between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island) assuring that pioneer children received at least a basic education was of concern for many parents, who initially schooled them at home before gathering a subscription to pay for the island's first schoolhouse and teacher. Soon after formation of San Juan County in 1873, more schools were created: simple one- or two-room buildings, where teachers taught first through eighth grades during three-to-six-month terms. In 1889 Washington achieved statehood and new laws focused on improving education, but it was not until 1895 that legislation was passed enabling the state to collect a property tax to help support local schools -- a boon, since financing island schools was always a struggle. High-school classes were eventually available at Friday Harbor School, the island's largest, but, even in 1910, only through the 10th grade. By 1913, however, a small new building housed a four-year high school (the first in the county) on its way to full state accreditation.

Early Territorial Education

A democracy requires an educated populace, and when, in 1785, the Continental Congress of the newly independent United States passed legislation regulating the structure and governance of the new territories being settled west of the Atlantic seaboard, schooling was not forgotten. Included among the provisions was the declaration that one section of each township being homesteaded was to be reserved for the support of education. A 1787 amendment to the original legislation emphasized that "religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged" (Bibb, 26).

In the early nineteenth century, the Pacific Northwest was settled by both British and Americans, but an 1846 treaty established the border between British and American sovereignty at the 49th parallel, and the Oregon Territory (encompassing today's states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana) quickly became a destination for a growing wave of American pioneers. Schools had already sprung up in the area, and curricula, while differing widely across the vast territory, covered a surprising variety of subjects. Textbooks included readers and spellers and arithmetic books, of course, but also titles on philosophy, chemistry, geology, U.S. history, English grammar, French grammar, geography, bookkeeping, botany, and such diverse items as the "Natural History of Birds and Beasts, Psalmists, and the School Singer" (Bibb, 56).

In 1851, settlers north of the Columbia River petitioned for separation from Oregon Territory, and in 1853 Congress obliged. Less than a year later, the new Washington Territory's first governor, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), acknowledged that "the subject of education already occupies the minds and hearts of the citizens of this territory, and I feel confident that they will aim at nothing less than to provide a system, which shall place within the means of all, the full development of the capacities with which he has been endowed" (Bibb, 80). The territorial legislature soon passed a law establishing a common-school system and providing that county commissioners could levy a two-mill tax for paying teachers.

Each county was to have a superintendent of schools elected for a three-year term who was responsible for determining the boundary lines for school districts, testing and certifying potential teachers, visiting all schools annually and compiling a report, and apportioning school funds to districts -- all for the princely salary of $25 per month, which could be increased by county commissioners to no more than $500 per year. Each district was to have three school directors, elected at a school meeting for three-year terms, who were responsible for preparing the tax list, purchasing sites, building and furnishing schoolhouses and keeping them in good repair, assuring there was enough fuel, visiting the schools twice each term, and providing uniform texts for the students if possible. Teachers were required to be certified and to keep attendance registers that had to be filed with the school-district clerk.

San Juan Island's First Schools

San Juan Island, one of an archipelago in waters between the new Washington Territory and (British) Vancouver Island to the west, had long been important to Coast Salish groups who farmed plots of camas on its prairies, established villages, and maintained seasonal fish camps near the reliably productive salmon banks on its west side. It wasn't until the 1850s that British and American settlers first came to San Juan Island and others in the archipelago, but when they did jurisdictional questions arose almost immediately. The British considered the San Juan Islands to be theirs, an extension of Vancouver Island and Fort Victoria. The Americans considered the islands theirs, an extension of the Washington mainland. The long-simmering dispute would not be resolved until 1872 when Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany (1797-1888), agreed to arbitrate and ruled in favor of the United States.

Regardless of whether settlers considered themselves British or American, their children needed schooling. Because San Juan Island was so isolated and governmental control disputed and therefore almost non-existent, parents took it upon themselves to assure that their children were receiving at least a basic education. The earliest classes were provided in local homes where a parent taught the children and perhaps those of near neighbors. But it was not long before several families banded together and collected a subscription to pay for the first real schoolhouse on the island, a simple whitewashed building with homemade tables and benches and a potbellied stove. The school was built into the slope of Portland Fair Hill in the south-central part of the island. (During the years of the international boundary dispute, American settlement was largely concentrated near the southern end of the island, where San Juan Town sprang up between American Camp, the U.S. military encampment, and Cattle Point at the island's southeast tip.)

It was a long difficult walk up a very steep incline for students from more northern portions of the island who lived as far as four miles from the schoolhouse. Because of the distance from many homes, the lack of good roads or even trails, and the often miserable, wet winter weather, the school was initially open only for three months in the summertime. The school building was used, according to the later recollections of a child of an early settler, for just about every public gathering in that part of the island from church services to lodge meetings. Every year, a large public Christmas tree was put up at the school, a delight for the entire community.

The Washington Territorial Legislature established San Juan County in 1873, just a year after the boundary dispute was settled, and soon the first school district was created under the territorial education directives and the supervision of the superintendent of schools, one of the first officials appointed for the new county. No. 1 Schoolhouse, the first government-sanctioned school on the island, was erected on a level, open property on the southwest side of the island on South End Road not far from Kanaka Bay. The school was set in a spacious yard with swings, and the boys played baseball in a field nearby. It was a white-painted building with separate cloak rooms for boys and girls on each side of a recessed entry with hooks for clothes and shelves for lunch pails. It had a small bell tower and a big round woodstove. Water came from the well in the yard, and the bigger boys would haul in buckets of drinking water, which was doled out from a communal dipper until later teachers insisted that each child bring a cup from home. Separate outhouses were located at opposite ends of the schoolyard. In addition to providing classroom space, the school served as the center of the South End Reading Circle, a gathering of women, one of many organized around the state, that subscribed to a rotating lending library of books for reading and group discussion.

Since a real governance structure was now in place, and No. 1 Schoolhouse had been built even farther from farms of many youngsters living in the middle of the island, parents petitioned for a second school more centrally located so that their children could be spared the long, arduous walk. No. 2 Schoolhouse Road, just off of San Juan Valley Road, is a permanent reminder for today's residents and visitors of this early island school. The first No. 2 Schoolhouse was built in the late 1870s. The small building was constructed of squared logs with a shake roof and was heated by a brick fireplace. The parents provided books, slates, and pencils and hired the teachers who, like all teachers of the time, understood that occasional corporal punishment was acceptable for disregarding the rules of classroom decorum and responsibility.

By 1889 attendance had outgrown the first building and a second school house, this one larger and more sturdily built on a concrete-and-rock foundation, was finished with clapboard siding and more generous windows. When the second building was constructed, fireplace bricks from the original school were salvaged and reused, so that the unfortunate students still housed in the old building often arrived on a wet winter morning soaked through from a long walk in the rain with no means to warm up or dry out during the long school day; serious illnesses were the frequent result. Just getting to school in the winter could be a challenge, and the school directors and neighbors had to place boards across big puddles on the road and build stiles over farm fences so the children could safely cross neighboring properties on their way to class.

Not all sequential numbers were utilized on the island when new school districts were formed, so the next district created on San Juan Island was District No. 8. The farms at the north end of the island were too far from the established schools and neighboring families there, as elsewhere, came together in a communal effort to provide a school for their youngsters within reasonable walking distance. The first No. 8 Schoolhouse on Young Hill (not far from the Royal Marine Cemetery) was almost immediately too small for the 34 children who enrolled, and the school was relocated twice, finally being established in the Mitchell Bay area in 1900. The school term initially ran just from June through September 30. As late as 1884 the teacher, a woman, as were most early teachers, was paid only $40 per month; male teachers always earned higher wages. At Mitchell Bay, by the turn of the century, the school term had been extended to eight months, and the teacher was paid more during the four winter months when she had the older boys, who were absent working on the farms in spring and fall. From her salary, the teacher paid $2.50 to $3.50 per week for room and board at one of the neighboring farms. Many families all over the island liked to have the teachers boarding with them, as it was an easy, additional source of income.

School District No. 9 was carved out of District No. 2 in 1884. It included the town of Friday Harbor, located midway up the eastern shoreline and then well on its way to becoming the island's population center, and quickly became the district and school with the largest enrollment. By 1890 the district had built a handsome two-story schoolhouse with a belfry tower on the hill on the north side of town, a site which today is part of the courthouse parking lot. The building was paid for with a $3,000 bond, and had, in early days, two teachers. Off-island children who attended Friday Harbor School were charged a nominal fee.

A New Era in Education

In 1889 Washington celebrated becoming the 42nd state in the union, and the provision of education was addressed in the new state's constitution: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders" (Const., art. IX, sec. 1) and "the legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools" (Const., art. IX, sec. 2). This was important in principle, but no clear provision was made for state assistance with school funding.

Rural schools, in particular, struggled financially to meet even basic school needs. In 1895 legislation finally addressed the problem, requiring the state to collect "an annual tax on the value of property sufficient to provide, in combination with other available funds, a minimum of $6 per year for each school-age child in the state" (Caldbick), with the funds collected to be apportioned based on the number of school-age children in each county. The legislation became known as the "Barefoot Schoolboy Act."

As the new state government was organized, an agency was created to administer the state's education-related responsibilities, establish the first "normal school" to provide training for teachers, set standards for teacher testing and certification, and establish basic guidelines for a common curriculum for the state's schools. The law was very specific. It listed required areas of study, ranging from the expected, such as reading, arithmetic, English grammar, and U.S. history, to "physiology and hygiene, with special reference to the effects of alcoholic stimulants and narcotics on the human system," and also mandated attention to manners, health, exercise, and even the "ventilation and temperature of the school room" (Caldbick).

Teaching on San Juan Island

Over the next decade, four new districts were established on San Juan Island, from District 13 in the far north of the island to District 25 on the west side, and the number of teachers on the island, of course, grew too. Many of the teachers were anxious to upgrade their skills and share concerns with their colleagues. Frequent teachers' institutes (to which teachers from other islands were invited as well), often lasting two to three days, were enthusiastically attended. Sessions included teaching methodologies for specific subjects such as reading, grammar, and geography, as well as topics of general instructional interest such as busywork, school etiquette, how to interest pupils in good literature or, even more basically, how to interest pupils in study. Professional concerns were also addressed: the relation of the teacher to his work, teachers' wages, and clerical duties were some of the topics touched upon. Presentations specifically related to state regulations were common, so school ventilation, for example, was frequently on the agenda. Field trips were often a part of the teachers' institutes as well. In 1899 participants in a summer institute were invited for a picnic at the property of esteemed pioneer Edward Warbass (1825-1906), who spent a pleasant afternoon with them discussing early days on the island.

As new state regulations went into force, quarterly notices began to appear in the local papers announcing schedules for teacher examinations. All teachers had to be certified at one of three levels, and those certifications had to be renewed. Some teachers, as their knowledge and experience improved, wanted to upgrade their certification level. The examinations usually extended over two days and focused on subject knowledge far more than the philosophy, theory, and methods of teaching. Through the 1890s, few San Juan Island teachers had obtained professional training at one of the state's new normal schools. Teachers as young as 17 were still hired for one-room classrooms where they had, with minimal materials and support, to educate any children in attendance learning at first- to eighth-grade levels.

But by the beginning of the twentieth century, District No. 9 (Friday Harbor) school directors were discussing hiring only teachers who had attained the highest level of certification and had some professional training. As one of the directors noted, there were then three normal schools in the state, and "if the people are to reap from these institutions the benefits which they are intended to confer, it can only be through the employment of their competent graduates in the public schools in preference to teachers who have not had the advantages of special training for their work" ("Two Open Letters"). He did acknowledge, however, that not all normal-school graduates were exceptional teachers and that many teachers without formal training were excellent educators. The topic prompted lively debate in the community.

San Juan Island School Days -- 1900-1913

Throughout the 1890s, school notes in the San Juan Islander, the first local newspaper, not only recorded upcoming school activities, statistics on attendance and tardiness, financial reports, and schedules of directors' and teachers' meetings, but often the grades of each student, by name, as part of end-of-term school reports. How the parents felt about this unsolicited family publicity is unknown, but by 1900 only general statistics on attendance and tardiness were being published, together with the names of those students who had completed the term without any absences or late arrivals.

By 1900, San Juan Island had eight school districts. However, as roads and transportation improved, more and more parents chose to send their children to Friday Harbor School. Still, some small outlying schools continued to operate through the next decades and it would only be in 1943 that the San Juan Island School District was created to serve all students on the island from elementary through high school. Proximity to a local school made real estate more attractive and property "For Sale" notices in the Islander as early as 1900 often included mention that the land was, for example, "five minutes' walk" ("San Juan County," March 29, 1900) or "only one-half mile" ("Farm for Sale") from a schoolhouse.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the possibility of providing more than an eighth-grade education for island students was being explored. Young people wanting further study had to leave the island to attend a high school in, for example, Bellingham or Seattle, far too expensive an undertaking for most parents. In response to the perceived need, Friday Harbor School extended an invitation to districts around the island to meet for discussion about organizing and financing a union high school and adding a teacher to the staff to help with the advanced subjects; the proposal was a modest one since initially only adding grades nine and 10 to the school was envisioned. This first attempt at multi-district cooperation in 1904 did not generate much interest, but some small progress was made the following year when ninth- and 10th-grade classes were offered experimentally and without additional staff. To the disappointment of teachers and school directors, some initially enthusiastic 10th-grade students dropped out during the term, but parents and staff remained determined to upgrade the educational offerings on the island.

By 1907 Friday Harbor School had been divided into primary (grades 1-3), intermediate (grades 4-6), grammar (grades 7 and 8), and high school (grades 9, 10, and, perhaps, 11) classes. Four teachers (including some teaching by the school principal) were employed to handle all of these grade levels. The 11th grade students were committed to pay tuition amounting to one half of the salary of the teacher to be hired for that grade, who would include German language instruction as part of the curriculum since that was her subject specialty. All of the teachers employed had top-level certificates. Distribution of the workload for the teachers was very uneven. On opening day in 1907 there were only 16 pupils above the seventh grade and more than 100 (61 for the beleaguered teacher in the primary-grades classroom!) in the lower grades, so some classes were severely overcrowded, and teachers demanded that another staff person be hired. By this time salaries had grown to $60 per month for teachers (female) and $90 per month for the school principal (male). It was decided to eliminate the 11th grade class since only one student had enrolled and to shift some classes to a different level.

The following year was a turning point. School directors proposed that the community pass a $3,000 school bond that would be used to build either an addition to the current school or a new building that would ease overcrowding and accommodate high-school classes. The two local newspapers of the day, the San Juan Islander and the Friday Harbor Journal, had opposing views. The Islander opined that the bond and additional facilities were unnecessary as there had not been any interest shown in having a multidistrict-supported union high school and the bond constituted an undue financial burden on the Friday Harbor community and school district; the Journal was strongly in favor of the bond passage and advancing educational opportunities in the community, arguing that the town should support this "without quibbling over the matter of pennies or of jealousies that are beneath our manhood and womanhood" ("Let Us ..."). Despite even the endorsement of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the bond measure failed by a vote of 79 to 72 in an election in which 90 "for" votes were needed because a three-fifths majority of the total vote was necessary for a measure that would incur indebtedness.

But by then, parents were determined to provide local high-school-level education; in the following year 21 students were enrolled in ninth- and 10th-grade classes. Frequent articles, on the front page of the Journal in particular, encouraged support for a full four-year high school, and local community leaders sent long letters to both papers arguing in favor of additional facilities. By 1911 even O. H. Culver (1862-1941), former editor of the Islander, wrote a vigorously worded letter on the need for better schools and a four-year high-school course equipping students "for the state university or other schools of higher education and giving boys and girls not able to go further a fair scholastic equipment for the battle of life" ("The Need ..."). The tide of support had turned, and by 1912 a new four-room schoolhouse had been built for high-school classes. In 1913 the facility and teachers were ready for the evaluation that would result in a fully-state-accredited four-year high school for the island.

It was a big step for the Friday Harbor community whose total population at the time was approximately 400, with the school enrollment less than 130. Beginning in 1917 and continuing through the 1920s and 1930s, school consolidation brought more and more students into Friday Harbor, now the location of the only public schools on the island. In the twenty-first century the community is proud of its elementary, middle, and high school, and provides not just tax support but volunteer instruction in special school subjects, assistance with extracurricular activities, fundraising in the community for a variety of projects, and help with numerous other programs. Current graduates of the San Juan Island School District can look back on a history of commitment to provide the best schooling possible in the island's isolated environment, energized by a community of caring and hardworking families who have striven to assure that each generation does its best to foster the success of the next.


Thomas W. Bibb, History of Early Common School Education in Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1929), 25-26, 37-38, 55-56, 80-83, 105-06, 111, 123, 139; Lila Hannah Firth, "Early Life on San Juan Island," Acc. 4729-001, Lila Hannah Firth Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington (copy available at; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Friday Harbor Journal, September 13, 1906, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 13, 1906, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., December 27, 1906, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., March 7, 1907, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., April 18, 1907, p. 5; "New School Building," Ibid., May 16, 1907, p. 5; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., September 5, 1907, p. 5; "The Schools and the People," Ibid., September 19, 1907, p. 1; "A Pressing Need of the Islands," Ibid., February 2, 1908, p. 1; "Let Us Do Our Duty," Ibid., March 5, 1908, p. 1; "Patriotism in Education," Ibid., March 19, 1908, p. 1; "Should Remain a Live Issue," Ibid., March 19, 1908, p. 1; "Directors' Meeting Boost for Public Schools of San Juan County," Ibid., July 30, 1908, p. 1; "Friday Harbor in a Nut-shell," Ibid., February 25, 1909, p. 5; "Give Friday Harbor a High School," Ibid., January 13, 1910, p. 1; Ibid., June 30, 1910, p. 4; "Early Island School Teachers Recall the 'Good Old Days,'" Ibid., December 5, 1974, p. 9; "San Juan Schools Pre-date Final Pig War Arbitration," Ibid., March 23, 1977, p. 14; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington's 'Barefoot Schoolboy Act' is passed on March 14, 1895" (by John Caldbick), "Washington Territorial Legislature establishes San Juan County on October 31, 1873" (by Lynn Weber/Roochvarg), and "San Juan County -- Thumbnail History" (by Kit Oldham) (accessed November 30, 2017); "Length of School Year and Per Pupil Costs," compiled by F. G. Cornue, in "Fifty Years of Education in the State of Washington: A Graphic History," Bulletin of the State Department of Education, November 1, 1939, p. 12; "Roche Harbor," San Juan Islander, May 26, 1898, p. 3; "School Report," Ibid., June 9, 1898, p. 3; "Program," Ibid., August 4, 1898, p. 3; "The County Institute," Ibid., August 10, 1899, p. 3; "San Juan County," Ibid., March 29, 1900, p. 3; "Rules and Regulations," Ibid., September 1901, p. 3; "Two Open Letters," Ibid., May 28, 1903, p 1; "San Juan Island," Ibid., April 8, 1905, p. 1; Ibid., May 6, 1905, p. 1; "School to Begin September Third," Ibid., August 25, 1906, p. 1; "Opening of the Public Schools," Ibid., September 14, 1907, p. 1; "Unequal Division of School Work," Ibid., October 19, 1907, p. 1; "Is Proposed Bond Issue Advisable," Ibid., February 29, 1908, p. 1; "The School Bond Proposition," Ibid., March 7, 1908, p. 1; "Bond Question Fails to Carry," Ibid., March 14, 1908, p. 1; "Favors a High School," Ibid., April 4, 1908, p. 5; "San Juan Island," Ibid., June 6, 1908, p. 1; "Farm for Sale," Ibid., March 12, 1909, p. 8; "Year's School Work Begun in Earnest," Ibid., September 17, 1909, p. 1; "School Notes," Ibid., November 5, 1909, p. 5; "The Need of Better Rural Schools and of a High School on San Juan Island," Ibid., April 28, 1911, p. 1; "School Meeting Tomorrow Afternoon," Ibid., May 19, 1911, p. 1; "Keep Boosting for Better Schools," Ibid., June 30, 1911, p. 1; "Friday Harbor School," Ibid., September 15, 1911, p. 1; "Prof. Edwin Twitmyer Visits Local High School," Ibid., October 10, 1913, p. 1; Mike and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, Friday Harbor (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2009), 58, 91; Mike and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society, San Juan Island (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2010), 93-96; Washington Constitution, article IX, sections 1 and 2.

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