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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.

09 November 2013

❖ CAPTAIN E. H. SMITH OF MATIA ISLAND ❖ San Juan Archipelago.

Home to Capt. Elvin Smith from 1892-1921
His home was at the head of the bay on the left;
 he called it 'Southeast Bay.'
 Nearby was his vegetable garden and orchard.

Photo by Erling Manley for the author.
Original from the archives of the S. P. H. S.© 
"Old newspapers and other sources dealing with pioneer days in the San Juan Islands contain only brief references to Capt. E. H. Smith of Matia Island. Rarely are there details about a man who preferred to live out his solitary life on one of the San Juans' most secluded islands.
      But with the help of some old diaries, and the recollections of a few old-timers who knew him, we can piece together the story of Smith, whom The San Juan Islander newspaper called 'the hermit of Matia Island.'
      Elvin Haworth Smith was a Civil War veteran who rose from a private in the ranks to become commanding officer of his infantry company in the Union Army. After the war, this strong, quiet, six-footer lived in Wisconsin for awhile, then came west and made his home at Fairhaven (Bellingham). He became a Master Mason and was the first secretary of Fairhaven Lodge.
      Smith settled on Matia in 1892. At the time, there were two squatters, Evans and Lovering, living on the island. Smith and a lawyer friend in Fairhaven bought them out, and Smith moved to the island.
      Although the government had not released Matia for settlement, since it was considering establishing a lighthouse there, Smith and his lawyer partner believed the island soon would be opened. It was their plan to file for a homestead, which later could be subdivided and sold for a profit.
      After two years, Smith had so fallen in love with Matia, he decided he didn't care about profits––all he wanted was the island for his permanent home. He paid the lawyer $1,150 for his share in the island, although the 'improvements' on Matia were worth far less than that.
      The government never did open Matia for homesteading. In 1937 the Lighthouse plans were abandoned, but the island then was redesignated as a refuge for migratory birds.
      Smith sometimes had visitors when he made Matia his home. He especially liked to see his old Civil War comrades. One of these was his best friend, Capt. George Carrier. Carrier used to joke with him that the two were going to live to be the oldest Civil War veterans.
      In February 1921, Smith––still a healthy, vigorous man at 86––went over to Orcas on his regular Saturday trip. Carrier was with him. The water was rough and the boat rose and fell with the huge, black swells. They made it to Point Thompson, where Smith looked up his old friend, R. H. Anthony.
      The storm lasted for ten days, during which Smith and Carrier stayed with Anthony and his wife.
      Smith admitted he might soon be getting too old for his solitary, pioneer life on Matia, and told of his plans to build a retirement cabin on Orcas.
      On the tenth day, the weather calmed. The two men said good-bye to the Anthonys and left. Before setting out for Matia, they stopped by another friend's house and played cards for a few hours, waiting for a favorable tide change. When they did start out in the small boat, the wind was rising again.
      Anthony heard their motor start up; he and a friend went to the beach and stood there, watching the small boat appear and disappear behind the growing swells. After awhile they lost sight of the boat. By putting an ear close to the ground, they could hear the motor for awhile longer, and then––silence.
      Anthony called the USCG of Friday Harbor but they had no boat in the area just then. The next morning Cap Harnden, from Sucia Island, went across to Matia and found the pair had not arrived home.
      The CG began searching, but no trace was found.
      The next spring Indians found pieces of Smith's broken boat near Blaine with the outboard motor still attached to the transom. The bodies never were found.
      So ended the career of Matia's pioneer 'hermit'. Today [1961] his cabins' ruins still are visible on the island, along with what is left of his orchard and the clearing where his sheep used to graze.
      Now, except for the campers who come and go in the summertime, only the birds populate the good captain's 'Matty". 
Above words by the late David Richardson for The Seattle Times, 1961.

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