A+ A A-

Mike Vouri: The Battle for Battleship Island

  • Written by Mike Vouri

Morse,Morse, Bo-borse, Banana-fana, Fo-force, Fee-Fi-mo-Morse. Morse! (Adapted from “The Name Game,” with apologies to Shirley Ellis)

On a boat trip more than 40 years ago a friend pointed out a flat straw-colored rock sprouting a few struggling Douglas firs off the tip of Henry Island. It was the first I’d seen of it.

“That’s Battleship Island,” he shouted over the roar of the engine.

“Battleship???”I hollered back. “It looks more like a barge!” I later asked him about the name’s origin. He didn’t know, but we agreed that it didn’t look like any battleship we’d ever seen, with the possible exception of the wreck of the USS Maine, poking out of Havana Harbor.

Battleship Island is shown at far right in these image taken by Captain John Gilbert of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1894 and Doug McCutchen of the San Juan County Land Bank, c. 2014. The island was once named for William H. Morse, the purser’s steward aboard the USS Porpoise, one of five vessels of the U.S. Exploring Expedition.

The name did not cross my bow again until 2006 when the national park superintendent at the time, Peter Dederich, forwarded an e-mail from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. They wanted our opinion on a petition suggesting a name change for none other than Battleship Island, a three-acre dot on an accompanying map. That kicked off my own foray into a naming issue in the San Juan Islands following, however modestly, in the wake of explorers and namers Charles Wilkes, James Alden and George Richards and perhaps even Jose Maria Narvaez.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names) was created in 1890. It was reorganized in its present form in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the United States and its possessions. The Board commonly works with similar state boards to maintain consistency and ensure no one gets lost.

Before 1925, Battleship Island was called Morse's and then Morse Island, named for William H. Morse. He was a purser's steward aboard the U.S. Brig Porpoise, one of five vessels of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.). The Ex. Ex. spent only three days surveying the San Juans in July 1841. But that was all it took for its leader, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, to name every island and feature for War of 1812 naval battles, heroes, warships, captured warships and expedition crews. Although Wilkes knew the Spanish and British had surveyed these waters more than 50 years before, he had assumed the role of first discoverer. Considered a breach of custom among this special breed, his actions were eventually set right by surveyors from both Great Britain and the United States over the next 20 years.

Charles Wilkes as a young officer. He named the San Juans after naval heroes and members of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, including William H. Morse, a purser’s steward.

A few of Wilkes's names were retained, namely Shaw, Decatur, Waldron, Blakely, and smaller islands such as Henry, named for Midshipman Wilkes Henry, Brown for the USS Vincennes's mathematical instrument maker, John G. Brown and Morse.

An explanation of the purser's steward job is in order here: The purser was responsible for obtaining and issuing food, clothing and other supplies essential to running a ship. The purser's steward was the frontline man who kept the books and dispensed the goods, particularly the food and drink, which may account for his popularity. The more modest the job, the smaller the island evidently, although a cape and glacier are named for Morse on Porpoise Bay in Antarctica, which Wilkes and his officers were the first to identify as a continent. It always paid to maintain good relations with the guy who controlled the grog and Morse must have been very good at his job. Unfortunately, the glacier was called “Mose Glacier” on the charts, a mistake that persisted for a number of years.

But just when Morse’s descendants and clan members thought the name was assured in perpetuity in both northern and southern hemispheres, along came an imaginative post-graduate student from the University of Washington named Roy D. McLellan. Best known locally as the author of the first geologic history of the archipelago, McLellan was intellectually and emotionally invested in place names as well. Over a two-year period he flooded the Names Board with more than 20 petitions involving name changes to islands, peaks, points and bays and most of them were approved. This is because he was backed by none other than Professor Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935), a name well-known to Pacific Northwesterners. It appears on a University of Washington building, a peak in the Olympic Mountains, a crest on Mount Rainier and a Seattle middle school.

Professor Edmond S.Meany of the University of Washington supported a proposal to rename Morse Island because it looked like a battleship.

One of those petitions involved Morse Island and here it was a little tricky, as it represented the first case of changing a name in the San Juan Islands settled on by British and American surveyors. McLellan insisted that the island looked like a pre-dreadnought warship because of its high freeboard, raked escarpment at one end and two towering Douglas firs that resembled the caged masts of the era. And plenty of local folks agreed, he claimed. Whether their opinions on this matter were volunteered or solicited is anyone’s guess. No affidavits or testimonials are included in the record. But McLellan hardly needed backing because he had Meany, the author of a multi-part series on Washington place names in the Washington Historical Quarterly (which, incidentally, he also founded). Meany was as imaginative as McLellan, recalling how President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched a U.S. warship for a dedication ceremony for the monuments Meany had arranged to be erected at American and English camps in 1904. The British were expected to respond in kind with a battleship. More than 20 years removed from the event, Meany warmed to his story in this account:

"In passing from American Camp around to British Camp one misty morning, [the Admiral] received a notice, ‘battleship ahead, sir.’ He said, ‘I gave orders for the saluting crews to go to their stations and in other 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.’ The Admiral, in relating the story later, said, ‘Meany if I had given the order to fire that salute I could never live it down the rest of my days in the Navy, saluting an island for a battleship.’” 

After a yarn like that from a man considered to be the father of the University we know today, poor old William H. Morse, purveyor of rum, tobacco and underpants, never stood a chance. The Navy didn’t care and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, while reluctant to change any name connected to the Wilkes Expedition, stated,: "The next edition of our Coast Pilot will give also the name by which it is locally best known." The Names Board followed suit, ruling that "local usage" was the deciding factor in choosing “Battleship” over the explorer's designation. If San Juan Islanders commonly referred to the island as “Battleship,” then the name must be accurate.

It should be noted that Meany listed both Battleship Island and Morse Island in his 1923 "Origin of Washington Geographic Names” before he intervened on behalf of McLellan. He thought they were two distinct islands at that time, but later backfilled and recognized that they were "the same" island a few years later.

He made the same mistake on another decision in 1926 involving Cowlitz Bay on Waldron Island. He had again joined McLellan in insisting that the common local usage was Mail Bay, even though San Juan County Clerk, H.C. McMillen pointed out that the bay was, in fact, located on the opposite side of the island. Wielding his Place Names as a cudgel, Meany next argued that “Cowlitz” should more properly be associated with the home of the Cowlitz Nation in the Southwestern region of the state. That’s when U.S. Coast Survey Captain John Gilbert emerged from retirement and put an end to the ah contre. Gilbert had meticulously surveyed the San Juans from 1894 to 1899, creating in the process the San Juan Island Topographic Sheets and accompanying photographs and narratives. He defended his work and the work of those who came before with vigor. Cowlitz Bay was named for the Hudson’s Bay Company steamer of that name, he wrote. Case closed. The Names Board went with Gilbert.

However, the new name, Battleship Island, remained intact even after a wildfire swept the island a few months after renaming and destroyed the “masts.” Its visage had returned to the “flat” and “cliffy” aspect described by Captain George Richards in the 1850s. The island now more resembled the bare flat-top of the USS Langley, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1922.

Did the Morse family take this new name lying down? They did...for about 81 years. And then Stafford-Ames Morse, president of a group called The Morse Society filed the proposal to restore the ancestral name to the island. Several agencies were asked to comment and this is where I entered the story. I learned a lot while researching exploration of the islands and naming protocols and ended up siding with Wilkes and the Morses in the essay I sent to the Names Board in 2006, concluding:

“In my opinion, if Brown is still Brown and Henry is still Henry, then Battleship should be Morse (not Morse’s). But whatever the Names Board should decide, Assistant Purser Morse, not "Mose,” still has his magnificent cape and glacier down under, even if the latter may melt away sooner than later.”

Two years later the Board declared that Battleship Island will forever be Battleship Island.

Rest well, Professor Meany.

University of Washington Professor Edmond S. Meany claimed that the captain of the monitor U.S.S. Wyoming almost mistook Morse Island for a British battleship, which was also on the way to the dedication of the English Camp “Pig War” monument in October 21, 1904. He cited this story in support the island being renamed Battleship Island.

Next time: English or British Camp; the Name Board Prevails

For further reading:

Charles Wilkes and the Exploration of Inland Washington Waters: Journals from the Explorations of 1841 by Richard W. Blumenthal;

Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest: Maps of Exploration and Discovery by Derek Hayes;

San Juan Islands Coastal Place Names and Cartographic Nomenclature by Bryce Wood;

Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1841 by Nathaniel Philbrick.


Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.  

Last modified onSaturday, 05 September 2020 16:51

Related items