Santa Cruz Island lay deserted for several years after the native Chumash had gone to the mainland. Fishermen, hunters and travelers occasionally stopped or squatted on its shores. After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government renewed its interest in Alta California and the Channel Islands. In 1830, a series of events, now steeped in myth, left one of the more evocative names on the Island of Santa Cruz.
The Mexican government wished to expand its presence and increase its population in the Santa Barbara area. Since 1825, it had been sending prisoners northward to populate the area. In 1830, a band of approximately 40 Mexican convicts left Acapulco for Santa Barbara. Outraged and afraid, the people of Santa Barbara searched for a way to make the men leave. They convinced the men that there was promising work in developing a cattle ranch on Santa Cruz Island and raised enough money to purchase livestock and tools for the men to bring to Santa Cruz.
The prisoners landed in a cove now known as Prisoners Harbor. There they found that developing a ranch would never be prosperous. Some accounts report that a fire destroyed most of their provisions and forced them to leave the island, and others say that the prisoners consumed all that was given to them and then decided to leave. The cattle were slaughtered and their hides were lashed around logs to form rafts. Some believe that the hides attracted sharks on the journey back to Santa Barbara, killing many of the men. One supposed eyewitness told a historian that the escaped prisoners “were rounded up again, dealt with at the whipping post and distributed under supervision of officers at Santa Barbara and Monterey.” A third story says they safely arrived in Carpinteria and dispersed.
The true story of the prisoners at Santa Cruz Island may never be known, but their mysterious legacy lends its name to Prisoners Harbor.
Did You Know?
Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island is one of the world’s largest known sea caves. The cave measures 1215 feet in length (the size of more than four football fields), has a 160 foot entrance, and is almost 100 feet wide.