Orcas Island Ferry

San Juan Islands, Washington | C.1951

Photo Credit: Marlynn Wei

Still only accessible by sea or air, Orcas Island invites explorers from all over the world. It is the largest among the San Juan Islands, an archipelago located in the United States Pacific Northwest between Washington State and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

Native peoples of the Coast Salish tribes inhabited the San Juan islands beginning about 13,000 years ago. However, Spanish explorers arrived around 1791, and it was they that bestowed the name, “Orcas” on the island. The name honored the Viceroy of Mexico, a man with many names, one of which was “Horcasitas.” The islands were then claimed by Spain, then by England, then supposedly relinquished to the U.S .after the Oregon Treaty of 1846. However there was still some ambiguity, culminating in the Pig War of 1859. After the incident, in which only the pig was killed, everything below the 49th parallel was placed in the hands of the U.S.

Subsequent explorers named and renamed the islands, but in 1847, British naval officer Henry Kellet reorganized Britain’s nautical charts and officially assigned the name “Orcas” to the island, thus ending any debate. Not long after, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent trappers to Orcas, and established farming, sheep ranching and trade with the locals. By the turn of the century, several highly productive agricultural settlements were in full swing.

Tourism eventually replaced agriculture, and today the island is home to many historic hotels, boutiques, and restaurants. The island hosts several small parades throughout the year and has a thriving arts scene and museum.

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