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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

02 November 2013

❖ BATTLESHIP ISLAND ❖ San Juan Archipelago

Battleship Island, WA.
48°37'26" N
The entire island is a State bird sanctuary.
Upper left corner; click to enlarge.
The emergence of this name on the charts is an example of a rare occurrence––the changing of names on San Juan Island from those that were settled on by the British and American surveyors before 1870.
      The original name of Morse Island was given by Wilkes, and it appeared on Admiralty and USC&GS charts for the following three-quarters of a century. About 1920, however, it was found by Professor  Meany and McLellan that, as the latter put it in a letter to Meany, 12 Feb. 1925; 
      'Morse Island...presents such a remarkable likeness to a modern battleship in its appearance, that it is locally known by no other name than Battleship Is...which appears in all the local advertising literature, and is so strikingly appropriate that it is very doubtful if any other name will ever come into common usage.' (Files of US Board on Geographic Names). These considerations, brought to the attention of the Board, resulted in the change of name on the charts about 1930.
      Meany relates that, following his arrangements for erecting monuments at American and English Camps on San Juan Is. in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt had ordered the monitor, WYOMING, Cdr. V. L. Cottman, to attend the ceremony at English Camp. Edmond Meany had been led to expect that a British battleship from the naval base at Esquimalt would attend the ceremonies, and so informed Cdr. Cottman. Meany later wrote to the Board on Geographic Names, 17 Feb. 1925, that 'in passing from American Camp around to British Camp on a misty morning, Commander Cottman received a notice, 'battleship ahead, Sir.' He said:
      'I gave orders for the saluting crews to go to their stations and in another moment would have fired the salute for that British battleship which Meany was so sure would appear. Just in time we discovered it was an island.' Commander Cottman in relating his experience to me made this statement: 'Meany, if I had given the order to fire that salute I would never live it down the rest of my days in the Navy, saluting an island for a battleship.' (Files of US Board on Geographic Names).
Battleship Island
Photographs by James A. McCormick
From the archives of the S. P. H. S.©

      It seems that what Richards in 1864 described as 'a small, flat, cliffy island' had nurtured trees that provided a superstructure for a rock whose outline as a whole, viewed from certain angles, looked like a battleship of the pre-WWI era. Shortly after the name was changed, however, Walter Arend reports that a fire destroyed the two trees that looked most like the lacy masts, and at the present time, the four remaining trees on the island provide no more than a fair suggestion of a bridge and deck house, when seen from a favorable easterly vantage point, such as on entering Spieden Channel from Roche Harbor. 
      It is interesting to note, however, that the principle on which the Board made its decision was that of the ultimate superiority of local usage over an explorer's designation. This principle seems to have become firmly established as paramount in the judgments made by the Board.
      Meany, in Origins of Washington Geographic Place Names (1923), lists Battleship both as a small islet north of San Juan Is., and Morse as north of Henry Is. He recognized they were the same only at a later date.
Above text from: San Juan Island, Coastal Place Names and Cartographic Nomenclature. Wood, Bryce;  University Microfilms International for the Washington State Historical Society, 1980.

The Morse family made a formal request to the US Board of Geographic Names to change the name of 3-acre Battleship Island to Morse Island. The board ruled in favor of keeping the name of Battleship.


  1. Seems folks want to change for the sake of changing. The island was named after a crew member by the Capt. of the Porpoise who first visited the area.

    Stafford-Ames Morse

  2. Folks like to make changes to history. this is one of them.
    Battleship Island name should be removed and Morse Island it should be for Capt of the Porpoise did name it after a crew member of his vessel.


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