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Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures
Explore their Stories in the National Park System
Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park off the coast of southern California protects five special islands – Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara and their surrounding ocean. These isolated islands are a world away from the mainland with their remarkably preserved natural and cultural resources that let visitors experience what it would have been like for the earliest peoples who encountered this unique place. Today, the National Park Service preserves the islands and helps to tell the stories of the various historic inhabitants.
The Chumash were the first people to settle the Channel Islands and called their island home
In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made contact with the natives on the Channel Islands, but perhaps because of the lack of fresh water on Anacapa, he and his crew did not stop there long. During an expedition in 1793, Englishman George Vancouver named the island “Enecapa,” and it was recorded as that in 1854.
Anacapa gained international significance with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Traffic up and down the Pacific seaboard increased as ships delivered mail, travelers, and resources. In their haste to reach their destination, many ships risked taking a route through the Santa Barbara Channel, and between 1850 and 1900, at least 33 ships wrecked in this area. The SS Winfield Scott was carrying 300 passengers and crew members, as well as bags of mail, and a million dollars in gold, when it struck a large rock and sank on December 2, 1853. Wrecks such as these prompted Congress to approve and provide funds to build a lighthouse on Anacapa Island—the last permanent lighthouse constructed on the west coast. The lighthouse boasted a Fresnel lens, one of the most advanced lighthouse beacons in the world at the time. Although visitors cannot visit the lighthouse for safety reasons, the National Park Service encourages them to enjoy the spectacular views from the island, dive to explore the SS Winfield Scott shipwreck, and view the original Fresnel lens on display at the Anacapa Island visitor center.
Santa Cruz’s incredible landscape includes two rugged mountain ranges, the highest peaks on the islands (rising above 2,000 feet), deep canyons with year-round springs and streams, and 77 miles of craggy coastline cliffs, giant sea caves, pristine tide pools, and expansive beaches. Painted Cave, one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world, gets its name from the colorful rock types, lichens, and algaes; its 160 foot entrance and waterfall make it a spectacular destination. Because of the island’s geographical isolation, plants and animals have adapted to the unique environment there; the island scrub jay and several plant species are found nowhere else in the world except on this island.
After the last members of the Chumash departed, Santa Cruz experienced a variety of diverse visitors and owners. In the 19th century, Santa Cruz served as a base for otter hunters, fishermen, and smugglers. Smugglers Cove was an ideal hideaway for smugglers and bootleggers to store their prohibited goods.
When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government sent a group of 40 convicts to Santa Barbara. The residents there convinced the Mexican government to move them to Santa Cruz.
Barron sold the island to investors for $150,000. One of the ranchers, Justinian Caire, expanded the products on the island to include wool, beef, wine, fruit, nuts, and products from sustainable gardens, orchards, and fowl. Caire brought French, American, Mexican Californian, and Indian immigrants to work at the ranch as blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, painters, sheep-shearers, team drivers, vintners, butchers, dairymen and sailors. When oilman Edwin Stanton bought a major part of Santa Cruz in 1937, production changed again to beef.
The United States military forces used Santa Cruz and the surrounding islands during World War II as a place to watch for enemy planes and ships. During the Cold War, the government built a communications station on the island, and has since used it as a center for US military strategic installations.
The Chumash made use of San Miguel’s profoundly beautiful environment for at least 11,000 years before Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew came upon the island in 1542. Cabrillo claimed the island for the Spanish crown and named it La Posesion, or The Possession. Rumor has it that Cabrillo lived and died on San Miguel Island, and a memorial commemorating him stands on a bluff overlooking Cuyler Harbor.
At San Miguel, visitors can view remains of the island’s rich history. Numerous shipwrecks are reminders of a more recent past, while fossil bones of the Pleistocene pygmy mammoth that stood 4 to 6 feet tall and the caliche forest (sand-castings of ancient vegetation) reveal the island’s ancient history. The island also provides ranger-guided, 16-mile round trip hikes where, during certain seasons, visitors have the chance to see the spectacular wildlife display of over 30,000 seals and sea lions on the beach.
Santa Rosa Island is home to a vast array of plant and animal species, some of them extremely rare. The Chumash called this island Wima. Archeological investigators at Arlington Springs found evidence that humans used the island as far back as 13,000 years ago—argued to be the earliest dated human remains in North or South America! Click here to read the story of Arlington Man. Santa Rosa contains thousands of significant federally protected archeological sites, which have helped researchers to gain a better understanding of how the Chumash lived.
In addition to the native Chumash, European explorers, Aleut sea otter hunters, Chinese abalone fishermen, Spanish missionaries, Mexican and American ranchers, and the US military all have left their mark on the Santa Rosa landscape.
Hundreds of years ago, the Chumash used tomols, or canoes, to travel between islands and the mainland in order to hunt, fish, and trade. Today, descendants of the Chumash keep their heritage alive by continuing this tradition. Learn more about the Chumash tomol crossing here.
The Channel Islands offer a rich variety of outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy. Visit these islands to discover more about the remarkable contact between different cultures and their natural environment.