My setter Iris and I hiked the Frazer-Homestead trail recently at American Camp for the first time together in more than a year. We started out on the South Beach trail, but a bitter southeast wind off the Strait of Juan de Fuca turned us back moments after we broke into the open at the Laundress Quarters. We were not disappointed, however.
The American Camp/Frazer Homestead trail begins and ends at the new American Camp visitor center, where park visitors can learn “Untold Stories,” about Indigenous homesteaders such as Anna Pike Rosler, as well as Coast Salish people, the first settlers on the island.
Well…I wasn’t anyway. I can’t speak for Iris.
The 2.8-mile round trip (depending on your device) from the Park Visitor Center to Rosler Road was designed and built in 2012-13 by work parties from San Juan Island National Historical Park, San Juan Trails and the San Juan County Land Bank. The trail traces the route of the old Cowichan and Military Road tracks that began separately from the American Camp flagpole and Belle Vue Sheep Farm and joined roughly where the Park boundary ends south of the old Frazer place, now the Land Bank’s Frazer Homestead Preserve.
Somewhere on the grounds of the preserve is the site of the potato patch where the Hudson’s Bay Company pig (actually a Berkshire boar) met its doom on June 15, 1859 at the hands of Lyman Cutlar, an American whom the company considered a “squatter.” The pig murderer, future limestone miner and finally a deputy sheriff eventually sold his claim to Robert Frazer, late of Louisiana, who built a two-story white house across the road from the trail. It is still occupied by a family descendent, San Juan’s own Mary Jane Anderson.
Mary Jane Fleming Frazer and son Norman greet visitors at the family home (still standing) on Cattle Point Road. She landed on the San Juan Town dock in 1863 with her parents, who farmed in San Juan Valley. (San Juan Historical Museum)
The trail was designed to be the terminal leg of the six-mile “American Camp Trail” as well as the starting and ending stretch of the proposed “Old Military Road Trail,” which will link the American and English camps via a broad corridor of public lands.
The American Camp version begins on Spring Street across from the Hartmann Field baseball park, passes through the Aeronautical Services parking area, traces the fence bordering the airport taxiway and continues through Port of Friday Harbor properties to Cattle Point Road. From there it circles the golf course, via Golf Course Road and Fairway Drive, and then does an on again/off again slog along the shoulder of Cattle Point Road, depending on the largess of private property owners. Fortunately, five of nine owners and folks on Fairway Drive bought into the project, setting an example of how federal and local entities can combine to create a healthy and fairly safe walking environment on a combination of public, private and trust lands.
First Lieutenant Thomas Casey’s 1860 map reveals the original Cowichan trail (left) running from Belle Vue Sheep Farm, and the Military Road portion from the military flagpole, joining just north of today’s national park boundary. (Author’s highlight in yellow.) The Frazer Homestead trail forms the first (and last) 1.5 miles of the American Camp trail between the park and Friday Harbor. (Historical map, National Park Service/Color map, San Juan Trails)
Don’t get me wrong. While I deeply appreciate those property owners who consented to a right of way on the fringes of their lands, I also respect those who chose to opt out. After all, this is the United States of America, not the United Kingdom, where the public has a legal right to “pass and repass” on foot and bridle paths and other trails considered public right of ways (essentially easements granted by the government). Landowners there may still choose to opt out under a clause that exempts farms and household yards. However, most of those that I encountered on my walk across England a few years ago granted permission, including the farmers who extended a cheerful “You’re all right” as I passed through their fields and asked directions. In fact, more than 900 landowners altogether bought into the Hadrian’s Wall Path since its establishment in 2001. Some have even established honor-system ice chests with salty snacks, candy and water for tired and thirsty hikers.
As the chief of interpretation & historian of the National Park at the time, I was allowed some input on the American Camp trail beyond the construction of our portion. Among the issues to be determined was the name. Several ideas were proposed, including “Camptown Trail.” This brought to mind (my mind, anyway) the 19th century minstrel ditty, “Camptown Races” by Stephen Foster, which referred to a racetrack venue in Pennsylvania. As a park ranger, I immediately feared questions such as, “Is this where Stephen Foster wrote the song?” After all, more than once I was asked if this is where Teddy Roosevelt stormed San Juan Hill. I also dreaded hearing “Doo-dah, doo-dah, oh de doo-dah day” from the same visitors who almost daily in the summer season asked, “Who ate the pig?” (We don’t know!)
Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and the name chosen was the Frazer-Homestead trail because, well, it crosses the old Frazer farm!
The Frazer Homestead trail crosses the Frazer Homestead Preserve, which occupies, in part, the prairie lands once farmed by the Frazer and Rosler families. In historical photo, a young Chris Rosler drives a manure spreader. (San Juan Historical Museum)
I confess that I’ve only once hiked the trail in its entirety. I usually hike with Iris, and it can be dangerous negotiating a narrow shoulder with a dog in the teeth of oncoming (and trailing) vehicular traffic that includes cars, trucks, mopeds, Scoot Coupes and bicycles, especially on the blind hill at the Portland Fair intersection.
Iris pauses on the wooden walkways.
However, the woodland portion of the path can also be tricky as it winds through the marshy area between the Cattle Point Road crossing, adjoining the Visitor Center entrance driveway, and the park boundary. But you won’t sink in the mud, thanks to the prescience of the work crews who were able to divine where to install puncheons (wooden walkways) that today span a series of bogs in the rainy season. They also corkscrewed the track to skirt roots and bypass glacial erratics. Still, you must mind your feet at all times as you move uphill (deceptively) through a long-dead pine plantation, clumps of ocean spray, rose hips, hawthorn and Himalayan blackberries, then across the two open fields that were once cleared for planting, as evidenced by the rock piles on the peripheries.
(above) Along the Homestead trail you will see rocks clustered around glacial erratics, such this enormous pile near Cattle Point Road. (below) Clearing the rocks in the 19th century required hearty souls with pickaxes, pry bars and a wooden sled—called a “stone boat”—harnessed to a couple of sturdy dray horses such as Percherons or Clydesdales. (San Juan Historical Museum)
You will also see rocks clustered around glacial erratics, which, according to my friend Boyd Pratt, were too darned big to move! Clearing the rocks in the 19th century required hearty souls with pickaxes, pry bars and a wooden sled—called a “stone boat”—harnessed to a couple of sturdy dray horses such as Percherons or Clydesdales. The practice was so celebrated that competitions were staged at the County fair to determine whose horse could haul the heaviest load over a prescribed distance.
From the national park boundary, the trail passes this old-growth Douglas fir before entering the open prairie and broad vistas of the Frazer Homestead Preserve. These trees undoubtedly witnessed the events that kicked off the Pig War crisis and joint military occupation that lasted more than 12 years.
From the boundary, the trail passes two old-growth Douglas firs before entering the open prairie and broad vistas of the Preserve. There is no doubt in my mind that these trees witnessed the events that kicked off the international crisis and joint military occupation that lasted more than 12 years. If you stop and look east along the treeline, try to imagine the gin mill that sprang up to slake the thirst of some of the farmers.
Christophe Rosler (far left), his youngest daughter, Laurena and wife Anna enjoy their home near American Camp around 1895.
The path next makes a beeline between the preserve and Cattle Point Road right-of-way, channeled by fencing woven with brambles on one side and partially overgrown on the other. On a hillock off to the east is the Rosler house, painted white with green trim. Although the house dates “only” to the 1890s, Christophe and his Indigenous wife, Anna Pike Rosler, homesteaded there in 1861 shortly after Christophe was discharged from Company D, 9th U.S. Infantry at Camp Pickett (now American Camp).
On clear days Mount Baker and the Sisters rise to the east over fields turned blond during the summer months, with woodland breaks and the waters of Griffin Bay in the distance as you make way steadily uphill to a stand of second growth firs and Rosler Road beyond. Just before the firs is an exhibit wayside erected by the Land Bank that outlines the preserve and the Rosler place. Hopefully in the near future another wayside, erected by the Old Military Road Trail Committee, will appear alongside offering brief accounts and illustrations of the people, Indigenous and Euro-American, who settled this portion of the island.
South San Juan Island neighbors pose with their automobiles for a photograph during a weekend celebration at the Thrones/Rosler places flanking Rosler Road sometime in the nineteen-tens. Bill Rosler*, the son of Christophe and Anna, stands between the two cars, hatless and in shirtsleeves and a tie. (San Juan Historical Museum)
There are many stories to tell. I always take a break at trail’s end and look up Rosler Road toward the farmhouse that is still owned by a family descendent, local attorney Carla Higginson. It was there that the Roslers and their friends and neighbors posed with their automobiles for a photograph during a weekend celebration sometime in the nineteen-tens. Bill Rosler*, the son of Christophe and Anna, stands between the two cars, hatless and in shirtsleeves and a tie. Lizzie Lawson, jaunty in a pork pie hat, is perched on a running board at left center, while Tony Thrones, son-in-law of Christophe and Anna, plays with his dog. His wife Adeline Rosler, wearing an ankle-length white dress, smiles at his side.
Same place, different time. A way of life long past, but still available to us through the magic of a footpath and a little imagination.
Check it out.
*Bill Rosler’s connections among San Juan’s pioneer families were unique. He married Louise Bellevue, the daughter of Harriet “Tillie” Bellevue Rosler. Bill’s brother Rudolph was Louise’s step-father. Thus Louise was Tillie’s sister-in-law as well as her daughter, and Bill was not only Tillie’s brother-in-law, but also her son-in-law. Tillie was known for her extensive garden as well as colorful metaphors when her temper was up. Clyde Sundstrom once told me that the local boys would toss fruit at Tillie when she came to the feed store, just to hear her cuss.
For more information, see: Images of America: San Juan Island and Friday Harbor by Mike and Julia Vouri; Island Farming and The Disputed Islands by Boyd Pratt. Websites: https://www.oldmilitaryroadtrail.org, https://sanjuanislandtrails.org/trailsw/act-trail/ and https://www.nps.gov/sajh/index.htm.