San Juan is the cultural and commercial hub of the archipelago that shares its name. Friday Harbor, the county seat, is larger and both more vibrant and crowded than any of the towns on Orcas or Lopez, yet San Juan still has miles of rural roads, uncrowded beaches, and rolling woodlands. It's easy to get here, too, making San Juan the preferred destination for travelers who have time to visit only one island.
Several different Coast Salish tribes first settled on San Juan, establishing encampments along the north end of the island. North-end beaches were especially busy during the annual salmon migration, when hundreds of tribal members would gather along the shoreline to fish, cook, and exchange news. Many of the indigenous early inhabitants were killed by smallpox and other imported diseases in the 18th and 19th centuries. Smallpox Bay was where tribal members plunged into the icy water to cool the fevers that came with the disease.
The 18th century brought explorers from England and Spain, but the island remained sparsely populated until the mid-1800s. From the 1880s Roche Harbor and its newspaper were controlled by lime-company owner and Republican bigwig John S. McMillin, who virtually ran this part of the island as a personal fiefdom from 1886 until his death in 1936. Friday Harbor ultimately emerged as the island's largest community. The town's main street, rising from the harbor and ferry landing up the slopes of a modest hill, hasn't changed much in the past few decades, though the cafés, inns, and shops have become increasingly urbane.