Knowing our past: A proposal to rename Harney Channel to Cayou Channel |Guest Column

By Ken Carrasco (Orcas Island) and Stephanie Buffum (Shaw Island)

The naming of landmarks and bodies of water is a necessity for orientation and navigation, but also serves as an opportunity to honor people who have had a lasting influence culturally and economically on the land and the community. The names we choose help tell the story of a place.

We propose that our community apply to the State of Washington to rename Harney Channel to Cayou Channel, in honor of Henry Cayou (1869-1959), a 20th century political, fishing and maritime leader in the San Juan Islands. We realize that renaming a water feature used for navigation is a serious matter, but we have come to feel that the current namesake, US Army General William S. Harney, is not suitable for such an honor.

This channel is, of course, between Orcas and Shaw Islands and extends west only to Orcas Village according to the Coast Pilot. It is roughly two miles long and averages a half-mile wide.

General Harney only visited the San Juan Islands once for several days as part of his military duties. During the Pig War of 1859-60, Harney is widely considered to have needlessly escalated the potential for armed conflict with Great Britain.

General Harney is also known for the following incidents and we encourage readers to learn more about these and others online:

– In Missouri in 1834, then-Major Harney killed a Black woman with a rawhide whip and had to flee the state; the Cincinnati newspaper called him “… a monster!”

– In Nebraska, in 1855, Harney commanded his soldiers to kill Sicangu Lakota men, women, and children at Ash Hollow. This violence could have been avoided at several points beforehand and succeeded militarily because Harney engaged in false peace talks with the Sicangu Lakota while his troops were placed behind them.

In contrast, Henry Cayou was a lifelong resident of the San Juan Islands; he was both born and interred on Orcas Island. His father was a very early settler on Orcas Island and his mother was Lummi and Saanich. His first wife was Tlingit and many Native people in our area consider him their ancestor.

Cayou bridged the indigenous and white communities. He was a successful commercial fisherman, a local maritime leader, a farmer on Decatur Island, and was a co-founder of OPALCO. Henry Cayou was a member of the San Juan County Board of County Commissioners for 29 years – the only Native American to have served on the commission – and was its chairman for a significant time. In fact, his signature is on Friday Harbor’s incorporation documents.

Naturally, we feel it is important that this proposal have the approval of Mr. Cayou’s family and the tribal communities, and we are grateful that several have expressed their approval.

An important component of this application is community support. If you support this application we ask you to sign the online petition online at where you may also view our more complete statement. Our email address is