San Juan Island Scene Of Smuggling Wool
From Sheep Raised In Canada
a note from history...
At one time, prior to the settlement of the boundary dispute between the United States and Britain in 1872, the residents of the San Juan Islands in Washington and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia could move freely back and forth. Once this border was set, however, they were governed by the laws and customs regulations of two differing nations. Smuggling was the natural result.
smuggling included everything from groceries and wool to Chinese immigrants and opium. Sheep ranchers of the Canadian Gulf Islands could get twice as much for their wool if it was sold in the United States. Many found the temptation irresistible. And many of those who didn’t choose to sell illegally found themselves vulnerable to the many sheep rustlers from the San Juans, who would sneak in at night and take the wool back to the United States “on the hoof.”
The most well-known smuggler was a little man from Shaw Island in the American San Juans, Alfred Burke. In his long, slender rowboat painted a dull black, to blend with the sea water for camouflage, he would cross the Haro Strait at night during shearing season. Traveling from one sheep ranch to another, he would trade chickens, tobacco, candy for the children and even cash for wool fleeces.
The Gulf Islanders kept these transactions as discreet as possible. They would leave the fleeces in a convenient spot in the barn. Burke would slip in, quietly pick up the fleeces and leave the agreed upon payment in its place.
Back in the San Juans, Burke would sell his fleeces to the various sheep ranchers. The scheme came finally to the attention of the customs men when one rancher with only 100 sheep shipped 30 tons of wool to the market in Port Townsend. Investigation showed that more wool was being shipped through Seattle and Port Townsend than “could possibly grow on the backs of all the sheep” in the whole region.
Customs agents were soon on Burke’s trail. They went unobtrusively to some of the Gulf Islands themselves and put little wooden pegs in some of the fleeces they found in the barns there., When these fleeces showed up at a warehouse on Orcas Island in the San Juans, Burke was arrested.
He was later acquitted, when the judge at his trial ruled that he had not actually been seen to cross the international boundary with the wool. Most islanders were pleased with this result.
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