California: Channel Islands National Park

Chumash man
Chumash man c. 1878

Public Domain

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 

Ennepah, which means “deception” or “mirage.” European inhabitants later named the island Anacapa. According to local legend, the Chumash people originally settled on Anacapa after a civil war on the mainland drove them there; however, they soon moved to the other islands and used Anacapa as a place for seasonal camping and fishing. Anacapa Island is closest to the mainland, and archeological evidence suggests that the Chumash people were visiting this island at least 5,000 years ago. Human artifacts such as bone tools, shell beads, projectile points, and fishhooks document the Chumash occupation of the island. 

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 Scottwas 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

Santa Cruz Island is the largest and most diverse of the Channel Islands. Archeological investigations suggest that the Chumash people inhabited Santa Cruz Island for over 9,000 years, and Europeans explored and ranched on the land for more than 150 years. The Chumash took advantage of their lush environment; they called the island Limuw, meaning “in the sea,” and developed a highly complex society that depended on marine harvest, specialized craftwork, and trade with mainland groups. On Santa Cruz, the Chumash mined chert deposits in order to make tools and shell bead money, which they used for trading with tribes throughout California. 

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. 

When Sebastian Vizcaino led the last Spanish expedition to California in 1602, his map marked the island Isla de Gente Barbuda, or Island of the Bearded People. The next recorded contact came in 1769, when Don Gaspar de la Portola and his missionaries made contact with the Chumash on the island. Father Palou wrote that the missionaries were “well received by the heathen and presented with fish, in return for which the Indians were given some strings of beads.” When the missionaries returned to their ship, they realized they had left their iron staff in the village. Knowing that the Chumash valued iron, the missionaries counted the staff as lost. At daybreak they noticed a small canoe approaching the ship carrying a Chumash who was returning the staff with the holy cross on it. Missionaries named the island Santa Cruz, or Island of the Holy Cross, for these friendly and honest natives. Across the channel on the mainland, the Catholic mission at San Buenaventura dates from 1782. Over the next 40 years, the Chumash slowly converted to Christianity and left the island for mainland California.

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.

In 1839, Captain Andres Castillero became the first private owner of Santa Cruz through a land grant from the Mexican government. He owned it until 1857, although his ownership was disputed in 1850 when California became a State. Castillero sold the island to William Barron, co-owner of Barron, Forbes & Co., and an English physician, James B. Shaw, managed the island and built a ranch house in 1855. The Sacramento Daily Union praised his sheep in 1859, writing, “Sheep of a much finer quality can be found in this county, and we doubt if anything superior can be found in the State than those owned by Dr. Shaw, on the island of Santa Cruz.” During the Civil War, the demand for wool increased, and by 1864, 24,000 sheep grazed on the hills and valleys of this island.

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.

San Miguel
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
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. 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. 

Santa Barbara

In 1602, explorer Sebastian Vizcaino named Santa Barbara Island in honor of the saint whose day is December 4th, the day he arrived. Santa Barbara, the smallest of the Channel Islands, may look barren, but it is home to an impressive variety of flora and fauna. Years of extensive ranching and farming led to a decline in habitat and species; however, the National Park Service’s resource management program has led to immense recovery of native plants. After the winter rains, the island comes alive with colorful blossoms from the tree sunflower, cream cups, chicory, and shrubby buckwheat. Seabirds and other nesting land birds have thus returned to the island, and the coast is alive with California sea lions, harbor seals and northern elephant seals. Visitors can explore this island and all it has to offer by hiking along six miles of trails, snorkeling, swimming, or kayaking along the coast.

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.

Channel Islands National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located off the coast of Southern California. On the mainland, the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center at 1901 Spinnaker Dr.,Ventura, CA and the Outdoor Santa Barbara Visitor Center, 113 Harbor Way 4th Floor, Santa Barbara, CA are accessible by car. The park is opened year round; for information on visitor centers click here. The park is free to enter, although there is a $15 fee to camp on the islands. The islands are only accessible by park concessionaire boats and planes or private boat. Advanced planning is highly recommended. To make reservations to visit the islands by plane or boat, please click here. No transportation is available on the islands; visitors reach all areas by foot, kayak, or private boat. For more information, visit the National Park Service Channel Islands National Parkwebsite or call 805-658-5730.

Click here for the Anacapa Island Light Station's National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The house and light tower at Anacapa’s Lighthouse have also been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Last updated: August 11, 2017