Santa Cruz Island, the largest and most diverse of the eight Channel Islands, has a long and varied history that is tied closely to its physical attributes. Its vast grasslands, coastal scrub vegetation, oak woodlands, and rich coastline sustained the Chumash for millennia and they maintained a number of villages and seasonal settlements on the island. For most of the nineteenth century, mariners found shelter in its coves and hunters and fishermen exploited the marine life. Immigrant ranchers grazed livestock, and the military took advantage of the island’s strategic location.
Chumash Civilization and European Contact
Archeological investigations indicate that Santa Cruz Island has been occupied for at least 9,000 years. The island was home to the largest population of island Chumash and developed a highly complex society dependent on marine harvest, craft specialization and trade with mainland groups. The Santa Cruz Island Chumash produced shell beads that they used for currency, which formed an important part of the overall Chumash economy. Those living on the east end of the island mined chert from the numerous island outcroppings to make tiny blades for drilling holes to make the shell disc beads. Native villagers had no known contact with outsiders until the 16th and early 17th centuries. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who is credited with the first European exploration of the California coast, observed at least six villages, though he and his crew never stopped at the island. The villages were called Niquipos, Mazul, Xuga, Nitel, Macamo, and Nimitapal. Cabrillo named the island San Lucas, although the Chumash called it Limuw. Read about the legend of Limuw here.
In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaíno led the last Spanish expedition to California. His map named Santa Cruz Island the Isla de Gente Barbuda (island of the bearded people). Between 1602 and 1769 there was no recorded European contact with the island. Considering, however, the amount of traffic passing the islands, a number of unrecorded visits were probably made. Finally, in 1769, the land-and-sea expedition of Don Gaspar de la Portola reached Santa Cruz Island. Traveling with him were Father Juan González Vizcaíno and Father Francisco Palóu. Father Palóu wrote of Father Vizcaíno’s visit to the Santa Cruz village of Xaxas that the missionaries on ship went ashore and “they were well received by the heathen and presented with fish, in return for which the Indians were given some strings of beads.” Upon returning to their ship the missionaries soon realized that they had forgotten their staff in the village. Father Palóu wrote:
They immediately gave it up as lost, on account of the cross that it carried for it was of iron, and it was known how the Indians coveted this metal. But they were so honest that at daybreak it was discovered that one of the little canoes of the island was coming to the ship, and that one of the heathen was carrying in his hand the staff with the holy cross. Climbing on board he delivered it to the father and after being rewarded returned to the island. For this reason it was called the Island of the Holy Cross (Santa Cruz), and as such it has been known ever since.
The island was considered for establishment of a Catholic mission to serve the large Chumash population. When the mission at San Buenaventura was founded across the channel in 1782, it commenced the slow religious conversion of the Santa Cruz Chumash. In 1822, the last of the Chumash left the island for mainland California.
Santa Cruz served as a base for otter hunters, fishermen, and smugglers. Smugglers Cove, for instance, derived its name from these illicit activities. The Channel Islands often provided smugglers and bootleggers with convenient and isolated hideaways in which to store their goods for a time.
George Nidever recalled hunting otter at Santa Cruz in the winter of 1835-1836. Working from a base camp at Santa Rosa Island, he and two others obtained 60 skins that season. Fishermen encamped on the island, trading fish for other goods from passing boats.
With Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government asserted its control over California. In an effort to increase the Mexican presence, the government began sending convicted criminals to populate many areas. Around 40 prisoners were sent to Santa Barbara where, upon arrival, they were sent to Santa Cruz Island. They lived for a short time in an area now known as Prisoners Harbor. Read more about their interesting story by following this link.
Through a land grant from the Mexican government, Captain Andres Castillero became the first private owner of Santa Cruz Island from 1839 to 1857. When California became a state in 1850, the United States government required that land previously granted by Spanish and Mexican governments be proved before the Board of Land Commissioners. For twelve years Castillero’s claim to Santa Cruz Island was disputed, even after his property had been sold. During Castillero’s ownership, Dr. James B. Shaw, an English physician, acted as manager of the island. He built the island’s first ranch house by 1855 and is thought to have brought the first French Merino sheep to the island.
Ranching on Santa Cruz Island
Andres Castillero sold the island to William Barron, a San Francisco businessman and co-owner of the company Barron, Forbes & Co., in 1857. During the twelve years that Barron owned the island, Dr. Shaw continued manage it as superintendent and was charged by Barron to expand the sheep ranching operation begun during the Castillero era. The Civil War significantly increased the demand for wool and by 1864 some 24,000 sheep grazed the hills and valleys of Santa Cruz Island.