King County, Washington’s Vashon (or Vashon-Maury) Island sits in the midst of Puget Sound thwarting the onslaught of urbanization that affects other regions so near to big cities like Seattle and Tacoma. The waters of the sound and the lack of any bridges between the island and the mainland have kept the islanders in relative isolation. While modernization has come, the unique and interesting history of Vashon Island lives on. Small local farmers perpetuate an organic diet, the 10,000 inhabitants proudly celebrate the annual strawberry festival in July, and the residents will be quick to point out the numerous famous artists, musicians, and writers who have lived on the island and found in it an inspiration for their works. Growth has been slow and steady here on Vashon Island from the earliest pioneer days up to the present, and visiting Vashon seems at times a little like stepping back in time to an earlier, more rustic day.
Vashon Island sits in the midpoint of southern Puget Sound, between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. The first non-American Indian to chart this island was Captain George Vancouver, during his surveys of the Puget Sound area with the British Royal Navy. Originally, a smaller isle sat to Vashon Island’s southeast side. Captain Vancouver named the main island Vashon after a fellow captain in 1792. Fifty years later, the smaller isle was given the name Maury Island after a British navy crewmate. These two landmasses remained separated by water until local landowners decided to build an earth bridge, or isthmus, linking them together in 1916. Therefore, the two-piece isle was renamed Vashon-Maury Island. Between the two sections, it covers nearly 40 square miles.
The First Native American Inhabitants
Historical data from the era when the first Native Americans settled Vashon-Maury Island is limited. However, archaeological discoveries and cultural histories point to human activity in the region as far back as 10,000 years ago. Tulalip Indians were one tribe that populated the villages along the shores of both islands. Fishing was abundant in the cold saltwater of the Central Puget Sound Basin, which helped many Native American tribes to thrive here. Moreover, the many waterways and inlets provided easy travel by way of canoe.
Up until the late 1700s, Vashon-Maury Island was only inhabited by American Indians. Today, lasting reminders of previous Native American Indian tribes exist through the Indian names given to many landmarks, bodies of water and communities on Vashon Island. One such tiny village sits on the southern shore and sports the Native American name, Tahlequah. Other American Indian names, which are still in use on the island today include Manzanita Beach, Kitsap Peninsula and Chautauqua Elementary School.
The Hunt For The Mysterious Northwest Passage
During the 1790s, the initial exploratory crew of the British Navy, aboard the sailing ship known as the Discovery, sailed into Puget Sound. The European’s mission was to find the mysterious Northwest Passage. This, the thinking went, would provide a shortcut to the Orient. However, the British gave up their hopes after discovering the rough terrain, excruciatingly cold winters and other hardships that made it an impractical route.
Not until 1841 did Vashon Island see new visitors arrive upon its shores. This time it was an American team of explorers led by Captain Charles Wilkes. They mapped the region and noted that there was a smaller atoll, later named Maury Island, which was unattached to the main island but less than one-quarter of a mile away.
Farmers on Vashon Island toiled to create better methods of transportation for delivering their produce to nearby Seattle and Tacoma vendors. Crossing the south and the central portions of Puget Sound with cargo was only by steamship. Therefore, the farmers on Vashon Island were instrumental in securing better roadways leading to their boat landings. Farmers saw their highest produce yields during the first half of the 20th century, thanks to the high amount of acreage that was devoted to farmland.
Japanese-American Immigrants Farmed The Land
Beginning in the 1880s, immigrants from Japan reached Vashon Island and began toiling as laborers. Soon, Japanese-American families started their own strawberry growing operations and became instrumental in the success of berry farms in the region. These immigrants included some from China and Australia as well. Even though these Asians were wholly responsible for introducing strawberry farming to Vashon Island, Japanese-American immigrants were only permitted to lease land, not purchase it for themselves. In 1924, the Immigration Act became law and fortified the ban on selling land to Asian immigrants.
Sadly, the eruption of World War II prompted President Roosevelt to send Japanese-American families to internment camps. Executive Order 9066 caused many American citizens to be removed from their homes on Vashon-Maury Island, leaving almost all of their belongings behind. Four years later, the war ended, and some of the detainees returned to their strawberry fields on the beautiful island in the Pacific Northwest, known as Vashon.
Dockton Village – Home Of Shipbuilding Dry Docks
For a brief period, the village of Dockton, located on the previously separated island called Maury, operated as a shipbuilding and repair center for the region. In fact, Dockton built and maintained the largest dry dock on the west coast from 1892 to 1909. At that time, Dockton was home to two hotels and housing for the resident shipbuilding community. This continued until 1929, but by then shipbuilding had begun to slow in the area.
After the dry dock pulled up its roots and moved, a fish cannery took its place for several years. However, the fish catches began to dwindle and the cannery had to close. Today, Dockton is a tiny community that is surrounded by petite farms, forest and open fields.
Self-Styled Photographer Makes Home On Vashon Island
One local inventor and photographer, Norman Edson, took thousands of photographs in an effort to document life on the island. From 1921 until his death in 1968, Edson caught glimpses of everyday life on film using his invention that colorized photographic images. This very talented entrepreneur fell in love with Vashon-Maury Island, which resulted in him moving his family from Canada to a new home on the isle. He was very successful at taking pictures of local Native Americans at work and at play, as well as preserving images of typical logging camps, fishing villages and the natural beauty of the area.
Today, Norman Edson’s Vashon Island home, which is located in the tiny town of Burton, is available as a vacation rental. In addition, his adjoining photography studio is designated as a King County Community Heritage site, and it commemorates his life as a gifted citizen. Thanks to Edson, the daily struggles in the life of the pioneer are documented in visual media for generations to come.