Friday Harbor's Namesake: Thank God It's Still Friday!

  • By Brenda C. Pratt
  • Posted 11/18/2013
  • Essay 10671

Many histories of the San Juan Islands and of Friday Harbor, the town on San Juan Island that is the county seat of San Juan County, report that the protected bay known as Friday Harbor (from which the town took its name) was named for a Hawaiian sheepherder named Joe Friday. In 2003, Brenda Pratt scoured through the historical records and determined that the actual namesake of the bay, and thus the town, was Peter Friday (1830-1894), who left Hawaii before the age of 12 to work for the Hudson's Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest and eventually settled (with his young son, who was named Joe) on the bay that soon came to bear his name. This article by Brenda Pratt originally appeared in the San Juan Historical Museum's Spring 2003 newsletter, and is reprinted here with permission.  

From the Sandwich Islands 

For generations San Juan Islanders have told visitors how, in the 1800s, a sailing vessel looking for shelter followed a thin trail of smoke into the harbor. Not knowing the depth of the water, the captain sent a small boat ahead to investigate. One of the oarsmen called out to a man tending his flock on the slopes above the bay. The shepherd was a native of the Hawaiian Islands, then known as the Sandwich Islands. He thought the oarsmen were asking his name and replied, "Friday." Thereafter the smoke from Friday's wooden shack served to guide seafarers into the bay. Subsequently the town became known as Friday's Harbor. Later the "'s" was dropped. 

At that time in the Sandwich Islands jobs were scarce for "kanakas," a term used at that time for indigenous Sandwich Islanders of low economic status. It was common for strong young men to be recruited as fishermen, sailors, and laborers to the Pacific Northwest. In 1841, Friday left the Sandwich Islands and began working as a day laborer for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) at the age of 12 at the Cowlitz Farm near the mouth of the Columbia River. HBC listed him as a "mid-man," a term from Friday's Sandwich Islands meaning the middle paddler in a canoe, a job requiring only strong arms, broad shoulders and no responsibility. During this employment with HBC from 1841-60, he took two trips to Hawaii, the first in January of 1845 in which he returned the same year, and the second in December of 1848. It is unusual that he returned to the Pacific Northwest after these trips, especially since there is no recorded explanation for those long, costly journeys. Day laborers made very little money, so he probably worked on board ships as a deck hand. 

It is possible that Friday's name was Poalima. He was born on Oahu, in 1830, according to the 1880 San Juan Island Census. His Hawaiian name has been written as "Poalie," though this word has no meaning in the Hawaiian language, and therefore was most probably "Poalima," which translates as "Friday." This would have been his only given name due to his class in Hawaiian society. During his employment with Hudson's Bay Company from 1841 to 1860, he is referred to as "Friday" only. While working in the Washington Territory he had a son, Joe [Joseph] Friday. It is believed that this child's mother was an American Indian woman. There may have been a marriage, and she may have died, though no record of this has been found yet. Joe's birth probably occurred at Cowlitz Farm and is recorded in the 1880 census as taking place in Washington Territory. 

"Friday and Son" 

In 1854 Friday, Joe, and probably Joe's mother, moved to Belle Vue [Sheep] Farm on San Juan Island. While working at Belle Vue Farm, Friday and his son Joe appear continuously in Charles Griffin's Journal as "Friday and son." They lived in a wooden shack overlooking the bay and [future] town. There the legend of how Friday Harbor was given its name began. However it was Friday who, while tending sheep, was hailed by the sailors, not Joe Friday who would still have been a very young child. Friday left his employment with HBC at Belle Vue Farm in 1860. It appears he remained on San Juan Island in his shack for some time. 

In 1870 Friday married Mary [Saaptenar] of the Songhees tribe from Canada, by whom he had a son Lassel (1866). To wed Mary he converted to Catholicism at which time he acquired the name "Peter" [Pierre]. Records of the marriage are in St. Andrews Cathedral in Victoria, BC. Thereafter, the San Juan County, Washington Territory census records him as "Peter" Friday. Peter Friday also had two other children with Mary of the Songhees tribe: John (1872) and Emma (1875). 

Then came the infamous Pig War. When it was over, San Juan Island was awarded to the United States (1872) and HBC closed down Belle Vue Farm. The Hawaiians, who by now were British subjects, were out of jobs and left the island. The exception was Joe Friday, who had been born an American citizen in the Washington Territory. Joe and Peter stayed on the island working their homestead. The petition for this land was submitted in Joe's name because he alone qualified as an American citizen. Peter's wife Mary looked after cattle, presumably cows. According to the 1880 census Peter Friday had lost the use of one leg due to syphilis. Eventually, Peter left the homestead due to his crippled leg, and moved to Victoria where he joined the large colony of Hawaiians relocated there due to the closure of HBC. 

From there on little is known about Peter. As to his death, according to the British Columbia Vital Statistics, Peter Friday died April 11, 1894 and was buried on April 13, two days later. There was an attendant Catholic priest on both occasions. Along with those of other Hawaiians, his bones lie in a remote corner of the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, Canada. His wife Mary and two sons Lassel and John were also eventually laid to rest with him. As for Joe Friday, he continued to work his homestead until he left to work as the cook on the Walter A. Earle, which was a schooner of the Victoria Sealing Fleet. The Walter A. Earle capsized off the coast of Alaska with the loss of all hands in a gale and snowstorm on April 14, 1895. Joe Friday's remaining provisions were sent to San Juan Island. There is no record of who received these items. 

The memory of Peter faded on San Juan Island. After his death he was forgotten. As time passed it was his son, Joe, who was erroneously remembered as the shepherd whose smoke from the shack served as a landmark for "Friday's Harbor."


1880 Federal Census, San Juan Island; Charles Griffin, Post Journals, Belle Vue Sheep Farm, 1854, 1858-1862; Vital Statistics, British Columbia; Tom Koppel, Kanaka: The Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest (North Vancouver, BC: Whitecap Books Ltd, 1995); Jean Barman and Bruce McIntyre Watson, Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest, 1787-1898 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006).

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