written by Boyd Pratt



Belle Vue farm was initially put under the charge of Robert Firth (1831-1901), a native of Scotland who was listed as a shepherd in the Company records.  Firth was born in Kirkwall on Pomona, the largest of the Orkney Islands.  When he was 19, he went to Edinborough to become engaged in the Hudson’s Bay Company.  On May 12, 1851, he arrived in Victoria, where he farmed at Fern Hill.  In 1857, he requested a leave of absence to return to Scotland to marry Jessie Grant (1830-1889), returning with her the next year.  (They would eventually have nine children, two of whom were born in Victoria and the rest at Belle Vue Farm.) Firth arrived on San Juan Island on January 7, 1862 to assume management of the farm.  In the spring of 1864, the Company leased the farm to him for three years, and subsequent leases ran up to the year 1873—coincident with the 1872 decision for the United States in regard to the possession of the Islands.  Firth became an American citizen on February 5, 1878, and applied for and was awarded two land patents: a cash sale of 40 acres in 1880 and a homestead entry of 186.1 acres in 1884.[i]


Robert Firth kept diaries, and the years 1865 and 1866 are extant.  Written in a nice hand with often unconventional spelling, the entries record his continuation of many of the farming practices of his predecessor.  He mentions both the little and big fields, which he planted in oats, peas, and potatoes.  Place names such Sheep Station, New Station, Chandler’s Prairie, and Bald Hill indicate that Firth was still using many of the original Belle Vue Farm pastures and stations.  However, the introduction of a growing number of new names of American settlers—Fleming, Hannah, Hubbs—as well as San Juan Town—the rough grouping of stores, bars, and brothels that serviced the soldiers of American Camp—indicates the future outcome in the settlement of San Juan Island.[ii] 


After his wife Jessie died in 1889, Firth rented the farm to his son, Robert Jr., and lived in the American officer’s quarters (‘Pickett’s House’) with his youngest daughter, Mary Jane (Maimie). One of his grandchildren recollected that Belle Vue Farm at that time consisted of “a number of log houses in a hollow square with quite an orchard in the center”.[iii]  Eventually, the buildings were used for storage of equipment as well as hay and other crops.  On October ??, 1927, Mary Jane and her husband Joe Chapelle sold the farm to Robert McRae for $13,000.  The property included 160 acres along with all the livestock and farm equipment.


[i] Several of the Firth children married into local families; for instance, Robert Firth, Jr., married Lila Hannah, the daughter of an American farmer on the island (Firth Family file, San Juan Historical Museum, Friday Harbor).


[ii] “Diary of Robert Firth”, PABC.


[iii] “Inez Calhoun Shaffer”, 1960 paper in Firth Family file, San Juan Historical Museum, Friday Harbor.