Samish Island History

Samish Island History is a small part of the history of Skagit County. The main historical periods and events are summarized below, with links to historical pages on this site and online. Click here to see a few historical photos.

Samish Island Geological History

This presentation was created specifically for our community by resident and geologist Dan McShane. Click here to view the presentation.

Pre-history and Early History – to 1790

Samish Island: A History, From the Beginning to the 1970s, published by Islanders Fred and Sue Miller in 2007, is an excellent resource dedicated to the Island’s history.

The Skagit River once entered Puget Sound at Padilla Bay, but sometime during the past thousands of years, its mouth shifted southward into Skagit Bay.

Bayview Ridge to the southeast of Samish Island, was also once an island, like Samish Island, before delta marshes filled in this region.

The Samish Indian Tribe, a Coast Salish cultural tribe, lived in this area. The Coast Salish homelands were the Gulf of Georgia, Puget Sound, a good portion of the Olympic Peninsula, and most of western Washington, down to Chinook territory at the mouth of the Columbia River. (Drucker) The Samish Indians’ ancestral homelands were on the Samish River and Samish Bay, Samish Island, Guemes Island and the northwest portion of Fidalgo Island. There were an estimated 1,000 Samish tribal members in 1780. (Swanton). Phillips estimates more than 2,000. The Name Samish is derived from the Skagit Indian word samens, meaning “hunter.” (Phillips).

The sandy beaches of Samish Island were good for canoes and camping. Two natural springs on the north shore and two on the south provided fresh water. Clams, crabs flourished along the north beaches with unnumbered waterfowl living in the marshes to the south. Samish River was teeming with salmon. The Samish Tribe had permanent homes primarily on Samish and Guemes Islands. Their encampments were all over Samish Island, the most prominent being on the southeastern part. A community longhouse existed along Alice Bay, which various sources estimated to be about 600 ft. long.

Visit the Samish Indian Nation Web Page for information about the Samish Tribe.  The Washington State Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs has a Tribal Directory which includes information on the Samish Tribe.

Exploration and Early Settlement – 1790 to 1860

1791 – Spanish Explorers on the Eliza Expedition discovered and named Samish Island’s Point William “Punta Solano.” Jose Narvaez, a crew member on the Eliza Expedition, named it to honor Spanish naval officer Jose Solano. He also gave Padilla Bay its name, after the viceroy of Mexico, whose full name was Juan Vicenta de Guemes Pacheco de Padilla Orcasitas y Aguayo, the second conde de Revilla Gigedo (1740-99). Narvaez describes this bay as “a great sand flat with 1/2 fathom of water on it, and an extended piece of flat land beyond to the east and south horizon. In the sandflat, they saw many Indians after shellfish.” (Majors, p.22)

1792 (June 10) – Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey of the Vancouver Expedition landed on Hat Island. Puget said “there is a communication by rivulets” between Padilla Bay and Skagit Bay. They camped that night on Punta Solano (Point William) on Samish Island. “An animal called a skunk was run down by one of the marines after dark, and the intolerable stench it created absolutely awakened us in the tent.” (Majors, p22)

1792 (June 23) – Point William was named by George Vancouver for a British supply officer in England named Sir William Bellingham. (Majors, p.22). The Lummi Indians knew this point as “Shuts-kus.” This point had the previous year been named Punta Solano by the Spanish. (Meany, p. 209)

1821  North West Company (Astoria) was forced by the British government to merge with Hudson Bay Co. because of bloody, violent confrontations between them. Their new headquarters moved to Ft. Vancouver. Their range covered the whole West Coast, B.C. to California. The North West Company lost its name to Hudson Bay Co. One of the trappers of Hudson Bay Company was Blanket Bill Jarman, who trapped Jarman’s Prairie near Alger.

1824 – Fur trader John Work meets with a party of Skagit Indians at Padilla Bay during December 1824: “The Scaadchet are fine-looking Indians…They go quite naked except a blanket about their shoulders; many use in lieu of blankets little cloaks made of feathers or hair. The bay in which they reside is a handsome place. Padilla Bay is a bird watching site for ducks, shorebirds, and peregrine falcons.” (Majors, 22)

1852 -“Blanket Bill” Jarman” became the first white man to settle on Samish Island when he and his Clallam wife paddled their canoe from Port Townsend and were welcomed by the Samish chief, S’-yah-whom (a.k.a. Chief Sehome), who lived in the Samish village at the eastern end of the Island. With the profusion of wild roots and berries, ducks and game, fish and shellfish, and inspired by the beauty of his new surroundings, “Blanket Bill” decided to stay. He named the shallow bay at the mouth of the Samish River after his wife, Alice.

1854 – The Samish Indian population had dropped to 150 people, due to diseases carried by white settlers and periodic attacks from the fierce Haida Indians of Queen Charlotte Islands. The Indian encampment at Samish Island was located at Scott’s Point on Alice Bay and consisted of a number of crudely constructed huts made of split cedar slabs. Chief S’-yah-whom (Sehome) was chief in 1854. He sold his daughter (Julie) to Bellingham Bay Coal Mines superintendent Edmund Clare Fitzhugh and eventually moved to the town of Sehome (now part of Bellingham) to be near them. (Jeffcott). The tribe was later moved to the Lummi Indian Reservation. (Majors, 19) (Swanton) (Jeffcott). A photo of the longhouse site is in the Jeffcott book, the current location of the Freestad plat on the southeast shore of the Island, along Alice Bay. The longhouse was said to be around 600 ft. long.

1859 – Josiah Leary arrives in the Leary Slough area, which is named after him. (Majors, 19)

Settlement – 1860 to 1933

1860  Chuckanut Drive was constructed during this decade by U.S. Military Engineers to connect Whatcom with the military posts in the south. It was named Military Road. (Thomas). The road was later abandoned by the military and became a gravel road partway, then a trail. Later, as public demand increased for a through road, the Skagit County Commissioners built a new road which is the present route of Chuckanut Drive. (Thomas)

1897 – 1905 – The Equality Colony was formed on Colony Mountain by the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, a cooperative socialist venture, headed by G.E. Pelton, who bought 280 acres of land near Edison for $2,854.16. It expanded to nearly 500 acres before it ended in 1904. You can read more about the colony at the Skagit River Journal site. The University of Washington Digital Collections has many photographs of people and work of the colony. It was located on Colony Creek.

1901-1902 – The Bow post office was established, and Bow became the railway stop for the rich farming area of the Samish flats. Bow had a large general store, hotel, meat market, livery stable, post office, school, and church. The steamboats which had operated on Samish Island from 1875 to 1902, soon faded away because of the railroad. (Samish Island Newsletter, July 1994)

1903 – Washington State appropriated $25,000 for the establishment of the “Ruby Creek trail, beginning on the Blanchard road in Whatcom County. This was the beginning of the Chuckanut highway. (Koert-Biery).

1907 – The Squires children Gladys and Jim traveled with two other siblings by horse and buggy to school in Edison, which had three teachers for the eight grades and school spanned nine months. There was a livery stable near the school where they kept the horse and buggy during the day. Samish Island had a school, but it was just open three months in fall and three in spring, and one teacher juggled lessons for eight grades. (Samish Island newsletter, February 1994). Read more about the school in the Squires’ History of Samish Island.

1907 – The State Highway Department took over the Chuckanut Road in 1907 and made it part of the State highway system from Blanchard to Fairhaven, naming it Chuckanut Drive. It was still a gravel road – not made into a concrete road until 1919-1920. (Thomas).  In 1913, the Pacific Highway was designed to include this waterfront route. In 1920, the state with Federal aid, extended the paved road three miles southward, at a cost of $35,000 per mile. The road was opened to traffic in 1921, with a mile still remaining unpaved. (Koert-Biery).

1908 – Samish Island was a real island in the early century, separated from the mainland by the South Fork of the Samish River. A channel about 1/4 mile wide connected Alice Bay on the East to Padilla Bay on the West. The channel was deep enough for tug boats to use. A wooden bridge spanned it, but the buggy and later the Model T had to negotiate some muddy marsh on either end of the bridge. It was no place to be in high tide. Gladys Squires says you could tell who lived on Samish by the rust on the underside of their autos.

1912 – The Interurban freight and passenger service began service between Bellingham and Mount Vernon. It was an electric train, built by The Northwest Traction Company. There were station stops at Sedro Woolley, Allen, Burlington, Mount Vernon, and Bellingham. (Hansen). The all-steel cars had hourly service, carried up to seventy-five passengers, and reached speeds of up to sixty-five miles an hour. Each care had a smoking compartment, parlor coach, and baggage area. There were twenty stops between Bellingham and Mount Vernon. (Koert-Biery).

A large substation for power was built at Clayton Bay near the Whatcom-Skagit county line and kept in operation by a maintenance man who lived at the substation. The passenger coach was called the Interurban, but nicknamed by all the young fry of the day the “Auntie Urban.” This was the school bus of the early days. Unable to compete with automobiles, buses, and trucks, and plagued with wrecks and maintenance problems, the company abandoned service in 1929. The tracks were torn up and the Clayton Bay substation dismantled. (Thomas)

1913 – Edward R. Murrow, the respected CBS news reporter, moved with his family to Blanchard “living in a tent by a cousin’s house until they found a home of their own. Roscoe Murrow, his father worked at the big saw at the Hazel Mill, and was later a brakeman on the lumber camp railroad of the Samish Bay Logging Company. His mother Ethel was a Quaker. At age 14, Ed went to work summers as a whistle punk and donkey-engine fireman in the logging camp. He graduated Edison High School in 1925, and from WSU in 1930.” (Koert-Biery).

1914 – “Three men held up the Great Northern train between Burlington and Bellingham in a daring, Jesse James-style heist”, near Chuckanut Bay’s Samish Station … killing the three people who tried to stop them..” These wanton murders stunned and shocked the people of Skagit. A massive dragnet went on for months, but the thieves/murderers were never found. (Roe)

1922 – Samish Island School District #5 consolidated with Edison Schools.

1923  Camp Kirby is donated by the Kirbys as a campground/nature center for what is now called Campfire USA. There are 47 pristine acres and 1.5 miles of beach at the west end of the Island.

1932 – Skagit County builds a fill across the Samish Slough (the channel mentioned above) the salt marsh area between Alice and Padilla Bays, to construct the present roadway to the Island. This action blocks the river outlet to Padilla Bay, forcing the Samish River to go north around the Island. Samish Island becomes a peninsula off the mainland. (Samish Island newsletter, February 1994 and February 2002)

1933 – The Atlanta Home Hotel, built in 1883 by George Allen, founder of the town of Atlanta on the Island, burns down.

Development of Community, 1934-present

1941 – 1958 – Samish Island during WWII and the Cold War Era: A contingent of soldiers arrived in their jeeps to perform land/air/sea patrol for the duration of the war. Samish Islanders were mobilized. A wooden observation structure was constructed on what is now the Langley property on Samish Island Road. It was a small, rustic cabin on stilts surrounded by a narrow deck, rising some 16 feet off the ground and manned round-the-clock by volunteers. They were looking for enemy planes, on the chance that one might evade the large army installations near Port Townsend. (Samish Island newsletter, June 1994)

1943 – Fred Schram bought 67 acres of land that was to become known as the Filbert Farm, later featured 1951 in this Seattle Times article.

1944 – Sig and Tora Freestad bought most of the east end of the Island for a turkey farm – about 100 acres, located along Alice Bay, along what is now Scott Rd, stretching north across the Island to Blue Heron Road. The southeast side of the Island was purportedly the historic location of the Samish Tribe longhouse. Chief Samish is buried near the Scott Point area.

1946 – Carl and Anna Rasar donated one acre of land to the Island, for the sole purpose of creating a Community Center. Fundraisers and donations by the newly formed Samish Island Civics Club (now known as the Samish Island Community Center, or SICC) helped build the hall, which opened in 1948.

1949 – The Samish Island Fire Department began on February 17, 1949, when it got its first fire-fighting equipment.

1950s – A proposed Industrial Park would have filled in much of Padilla Bay between Bayview, March Point and Samish Island. Fortunately, the plan was never realized, due to the strong conservation efforts of the Breazeale family (John, Anna, and their three children). Edna Breazeale fought against all plans to dike in Padilla Bay.  Their family land was donated later to the preservation efforts. You can learn more about this proposal at the nearby Padilla Bay Breazeale Interpretive Center.

The shallow bay was often the subject of commercial interests: in the 1920s agricultural interests wanted to fill it in for farming, in the 1970s Industrial Park was still under consideration, and in the 1980s, the Orion Corporation wanted to make it into a residential development “The Venice of the Northwest.” The “Dike and Drain” efforts have resulted in the loss of 98% of Near Shore Habitat in Skagit County, more than any other coastal area in the state.

1950s – The first Samish Island sign was put in place, followed by many more signs over the years. Follow the story here.

1952 – The Samish Farms Water Association was formed by a group of farmers and Island residents with a common need for water. The Public Utility District of Skagit County advised the group that PUD was unable to extend water mains to provide service to the area. The first collective water consisted of a 47,000-gallon reservoir at Point William, and a domestic water distribution system with over 69,000 feet of pipeline on Samish Island and the adjoining Samish Flats.  The 79 members of SFWA contributed $20,540, and the Farmer’s Home Administration granted a $100,000 loan, the largest loan of this type in the area. 

1955 – About twenty years after filling in the dike and blocking off the south Samish River channel, all oysters in Alice Bay were attacked by a creature called the oyster drill. They died, effectively ending the oyster habitat south of Samish Island. The buildup of silt and mud in Alice Bay has built up 4 feet since the 1887 survey by the Navy.

1958 – Sig and Tora Freestad donated a substantial portion of their 100-acre property to the RLDS Church for a church camp. The rest along the southeast side was subdivided into 60′ wide properties, now called Freestad Plat, in Skagit county legal records.

1964 – Evelyn Hopley Clift puts together her history of Samish Island, Samish and Vendovi Islands; Records and Thoughts.

1968 – Seattle City Light and Snohomish PUD #1 purchased 100 acres of the Point William area of Samish Island, and all of Kiket Island in Skagit Bay near La Conner. The stated purpose for both islands was to build a nuclear power complex of two or more plants, of 1000 megawatts each. Eileen Anderson, a retired librarian has put together A Chronology of the Nuclear Controversy in Skagit County from records at the Skagit Valley Historical Museum in La Conner. Islanders’ remarks about the period are included at the end of the chronology.

1969 – On June 30, the Seattle City Council approved Seattle City Light’s request to purchase Kiket Island on Skagit Bay as a site for a $250 million nuclear power plant.

1970s – The National Estuarine Research Reserve System, was established as part of the Coastal Zone Management Act, to protect 28 places in the United States, like the Padilla Bay Reserve. This non-federal system was established to allow scientists and citizens to find out how the nearshore systems worked and are connected together. For every $2 in federal money, Padilla Bay Reserve must match that amount. Many non-profit groups assist in this effort.

1972 – Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and City Light Superintendent Gordon Vickery (1920-1996) shelve plans for Kiket and Samish Islands. “No Active Plan For Kiket Island Plant Says Vickery,” The Seattle Times, October 28, 1972, p. A-9.

1973 – History of Samish Island, written in 1973 by James Squires, Jr. and Gladys Squires, fills in still more of the historical picture of Samish Island.

1980 – Seattle City Council approves the sale of Kiket Island in 1980.
(Seattle City Council Resolution 26414, September 22, 1980, Seattle Municipal Archives).

1983-84 – The RLDS Church was constructed on the RLDS Church Camp property. Vic Hastings was the building project coordinator for the church, later renamed the Community of Christ church.

1990-1991 – The winter was a harsh one: in a period of a few weeks there was a foot of ice from spray from 90mph northerly winds, hundreds of trees down from a tornado at the west end of the Island, and the only road to or from was under a couple of feet of water from the sign to Bay View Ridge. Doug Hopley put it on videotape, and later, Doug Lundgren had the tapes converted to DVD.

1998-1999 – Thirteen houses on North Beach were protected from severe erosion through the facilitation of Coastal Geological Services, designed by Wolf Bauer and Jim Johannessen.

2001 – John Guy, a long-time Island resident, writes a book about his life in the aviation industry, which provides a unique perspective of the 1900s in our country’s aviation, and our Island’s appeal. Called One Guy’s Journey, it was reprinted by the Samish Island Community Center for historical appeal and value.

2002  Samish Island Rapid Shoreline Inventory Project was conducted in July by People for Puget Sound for the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee (MRC). 59 Samish Island shoreline property owners participated in the study, which analyzed characteristics of intertidal, backshore, bluff, bank, invasive species, adjacent land use, streams, outfalls, and other freshwater outflows, shorelines structures, wildlife and vegetation, spawning habitat, aquatic vegetation, hydrography, marine birds & wildlife habitat, conservation focus areas, and restoration focus areas.

2004 – John Guy passed away in February, shortly after his 100th “Island Birthday” celebration. He was a long-time resident who recorded daily weather records for the ShoreLines Newsletter.

2005 – Tora Freestadt passes away in March. Tora and her husband owned about 100 acres on the Island. They donated 100 acres of land on Scott Point for Camp Samish, in 1959, which belongs to the Community of Christ church.

2007 – Fred and Sue Miller publish Samish Island: A History, from the Beginning to the 1970s.  For further information, contact Fred Miller, 360-766-6548, or any SICC Board member.

2008-2009 – Islanders were “snowed in” for 10 days when 2-3 feet of snow fell the week around Christmas. Then, in January, with all that snow melting from the mountains—and a “pineapple express” dumping lots of rain from Hawaii—the Samish River flooded all over the Samish River Basin out to Samish Island, cutting off traffic to the Island for three or four days. Flood photos show some of the details.


Clift, Evelyn Hopley. Samish and Vendovi Islands; Records and Thoughts (unpublished manuscript), 1964.

Drucker, Philip. Indians of the Northwest Coast. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press, 1955.

Hansen, Lawrence. SamishGold Memoirs; Samish River Adventures and History. Hansen Publishing, 1999.

Jeffcott, P.R. Romance and Intrigue on Bellingham Bay, or the story of Old Sehome and the origin of its name. Unpublished manuscript. Bellingham, 1955.

Johannssen, Jim W. Soft Shore Protection as an Alternative to Bulkheads; Projects and Monitoring. Coastal Geologic Services, Inc., 2000.

Koert, Dorothy and Galen Biery. Looking Back; the Collectors’ Edition; Memories of Whatcom County/Bellingham. Bellingham, Grandpa’s Attic, 2003.

Majors, Harry M. Exploring Washington. Holland, MI : Van Winkle Publishing, 1975.

Meany, Edmond S. Vancouver’s Discovery of Puget Sound. Binford and Mort, 1942.

Miller, Fred and Susan Miller. Samish Island: A History, from the Beginning to the 1970s. Mount Vernon, Copy and Print Store, 2007. (Available on Samish Island from Fred Miller or an SICC Board member).

Phillips, James. W. Washington State Place Names. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971.

Roe, Joann. The North Cascadians. Seattle, WA: Madrona Publishers, 1980.

Rousseau, Julie Wilkinson. Alice Bay Cookbook. Mount Vernon, WA : Quartzite books, 1985.

People for Puget Sound. Samish Island Rapid Shoreline Inventory Project; prepared for the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee by the People for Puget Sound, ed. by Phil Bloch and others. Seattle, 2002.

Samish Nation Center for Study of Coastal Salish Environments. A Proposed Study of the Re-Opening of the Channel between Alice Bay and Padilla Bay; a presentation by Russel Barsh, ecologist, to the Samish Island Community Center on April 17, 2004.

ShoreLines; the Samish Island Newsletter, ed. by Kathleen Packard. Many issues include brief histories of island residents and events, 1994-present.

Skagit Historical Museum, La Conner, WA. Various archived articles about the Skagit Nuclear Power Controversy in Skagit County during the 1968-1972 period, that affected Samish Island. A chronology from these articles was compiled in 2005 by Eileen Andersen.

Skagit River Journal of History and Folklore. A great online history of Skagit County provided great histories of Equality Colony in the West County section.

Squires, James, Jr. and Gladys Squires. History of Samish Island (unpublished manuscript), 1973.

Swanton, John R. Indian Tribes of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Fairfield, WA : Ye Galleon Press, 1968.

Thomas, Robert B. Chuckanut ChroniclesBellingham, WA: The Chuckanut Community and Firefighters Association, 1971. Reprinted December 1992

University of Washington Libraries. Digital Collections, especially the Equality Colony photographs.

Compiler: Eileen Andersen, former webmaster, and librarian in a previous life.