Ken Carrasco was reading about the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow when he came across a familiar name: Gen. William Harney.
The Harney Channel that his Orcas Island home overlooks, he realized, was named after a man who once tried to defend the San Juan Islands from British rule but also was responsible for the murders of Indigenous people and an enslaved woman.
Washington State Ferries and other vessels travel along the little-known strait — about a half-mile wide and 2 miles long — between Orcas and Shaw islands in San Juan County.
Now three years later, Carrasco and Shaw Island resident Stephanie Buffum are leading an effort to rename the channel to honor Henry Cayou, an Indigenous San Juan County commissioner and commercial fisherman who lived in the San Juan Islands.
The proposal to rename the waterway Cayou Channel was approved by the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names in April and is now under consideration by the Washington Board on Geographic Names. If approved, the proposal will go to the federal Board on Geographic Names for a final decision.
In recent years, there have been efforts to rename sites to honor Indigenous people both locally and nationally. This year, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced an effort to rename places in Washington and other states whose names contain a slur used to refer to Indigenous women.
While the effort to rename Harney Channel is part of the trend, Carrasco said it was “never designed that way.”
“We’re changing this name because I woke up and realized that this can’t stand,” he said. “It just really started to offend me at some point that we’re honoring this person that killed people.”
Cayou is a stark contrast to the man whose name his would replace.
Cayou was an active community member who lived his entire life on Orcas Island between 1869 and 1959. Cayou was a county commissioner for 29 years and among the first Indigenous elected officials in Washington state, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
According to Carrasco, Cayou’s father was French and his mother was from the local tribe. Cayou was a member of the school board and helped incorporate the town of Friday Harbor, he said.
“He was a bridge between the Indigenous and white cultures, and adopting his name will honor the First Peoples who lived in harmony with the natural world for millennia before us,” the proposal says.
Harney, on the other hand, committed reprehensible acts against humanity, Carrasco said, even by 1800s standards.
In addition to killing dozens of Sioux people in Nebraska during the Battle of Ash Hallow in 1855 — also known as the Harney Massacre — after false peace talks, he forced survivors to march 140 miles. In 1834, Harney killed an enslaved Black woman with a whip over misplaced keys, Carrasco said.
Harney was indicted on a charge of murder for this act and though he was found not guilty after a trial, newspaper editorials called him a “monster,” and he was run out of Missouri, Carrasco said.
How the strait came to be named after Harney is unclear, Carrasco said. The name first appears on 1861 British naval charts. Harney is only known to have been to the San Juan Islands once during an inspection trip, he said. But he almost used the island to fight a war.
At the time, both the U.S. and Great Britain had claim to San Juan, one of the islands that makes up an archipelago of the same name off the northern coast of what is now Washington. Both had settlers there.
Conflict arose when an American farmer shot and killed a British-owned pig. When the British threatened to arrest him and evict Americans from the island, Harney escalated tensions by ordering soldiers to the islands. Although the so-called “Pig War” was resolved without bloodshed, Harney was recalled and ordered back to Missouri in 1860.
Carrasco said he told everyone he knows about the channel’s name and published guest columns in all three of the island newspapers calling for changing the name of the channel. The support has been overwhelming, he said, and an online petition has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
Supporters include Harney’s descendants and Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a Native American Democrat from the 40th District, he said.
Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Kenny Ocker said he expects the state board to approve the proposal and codify the change in state law.
“This proposal would remove a name who is responsible for terrible acts and terrible decisions, both inside the state of Washington and outside of it, and replace it with the name honoring one of San Juan County’s most notable residents post-statehood,” Ocker said.