The State Board of Natural Resources of Washington has approved the renaming of the waterway that runs between Shaw Island and Orcas Island, changing the name from Harney Channel to Cayou Channel. The name change is the result of a substantial community effort from San Juan County residents. After reviewing the mostly negative historical information surrounding William S. Harney, a local history aficionado spurred the name change to honor a local figure of a more admirable character, that of Henry Cayou. The approved name will be added to the Washington Administrative Code, after which the Board will pass the name on to the United States Board of Geographic Names for federal review.

Who was William S. Harney? Harney’s life was somewhat of an enigma, being an “Indian Fighter” and later acting as a defender of Indian Treaties. Harney began his military service in the Army in 1818. During the Second Seminole War (1835-1845), he gained a reputation as an Indian fighter for daring and ruthless raids. He was also known to have beaten a family female slave to death, named Hannah, but he was later acquitted.

In 1854, Harney led a punitive expedition against the Sioux after they killed a small US Army detachment in Nebraska Territory, an event called the Grattan Massacre. At Blue Water Creek (now known as Ash Hollow), Harney’s troops killed many band members, including women and children, which became known as the “Harney Massacre” of 1855.

Harney was next assigned command of the Department of Oregon in 1858. Following the shooting of a Hudson Bay Company’s pig by an American citizen, Harney sent troops to occupy San Juan Island, a disputed area of ownership between America and Britain. This incident antagonized Great Britain which nearly led to war. Commanding General Winfield Scott relieved Harney of his departmental command on June 8, 1860.

Harney returned to the Great Plains in 1865 and 1867 to negotiate treaties after being appointed to the Indian Peace Commission by President Andrew Johnson. Harney helped secure the Little Arkansas Treaty with the Comanche and Kiowa in 1865; the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867; and the Fort Laramie Treaty with the Brule Sioux in 1868.

Today, various geographic locations in Oregon, Nevada, Nebraska, Kansas, and Florida take the Harney name. Harney Peak in South Dakota was renamed to Black Elk Peak, and now Harney Channel in the San Juan Islands will take on the name of Cayou Channel.

Who was Henry T. Cayou? One of the first Indigenous elected officials in Washington State, Henry Cayou served as a San Juan County Commissioner for nearly 30 years and helped organize the Orcas Power and Light Co.

He was of mixed parentage, and it is said that he helped bridge the gap between Native and European cultures. Henry Thomas Cayou was the oldest son of Louis and Mary Anne Cayou, who lived on Orcas Island. Henry along with his brothers-in-law, William and Joseph Reed, operated Reed Brothers Shipyard on Decatur Island; together they built some 40 boats and worked on numerous other boats during the 1890’s.

Historic photo of Henry Cayou's house at Deer Harbor on Orcas Island

In 1913, Henry built a home for his English bride, which is now a bed and breakfast called “The Place at Cayou Cove” located in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. Henry was foremost a fisherman, with a fleet of boats and a cannery that ultimately employed over 300 island residents even throughout the Depression of the 1930’s. The cannery was located across the slough from Deer Harbor on the west side. Henry Cayou (born 1869) learned to fish from his Salish stepfather (or uncle depending on the source) and was reputed to be an excellent fisherman and fish trap designer.

Henry and his wife Elizabeth lived in the San Juan Islands for nearly forty years, splitting their time between Cayou Cove and their farm on Waldron Island. Henry died at the age of 89 in 1959.

Photo: Cayou’s house in Deer Harbor – Orcas Island Historical Museum