Susan Morris

susan Morris
Susan Morris
Chapter 4

Susan Morris, historical researcher, discusses documents written by Russian American Company officers in the early 1800s (nineteenth century) that describe the fight between the Russian-led hunting group and the island people.

During the 1800s (nineteenth century), commercial sea otter hunting was in full force. Russians, as well as Americans and the British, engaged in the enterprise, trading their skins for goods in China. Russians initially hunted in Alaska, and required Alaska Natives to hunt with them.

When the sea otter populations diminished in Alaska, the Russian and Alaska Native hunters moved south to Spanish-held California. The Channel Islands, off the California coast, were ideal hunting grounds because of high sea otter populations and distance from the Spanish on the mainland.

We know that Russians brought Alaska Native hunters to San Nicolas Island because four documents from 1818 discuss a massacre on the island that involved a Russian-led hunting group. This group was sent to the island to hunt for the Russian American Company (RAC), a commercial enterprise (or business) that had exclusive rights granted by the Russian government to hunt fur-bearing animals in North America.

The Il’mena, a RAC ship, brought a crew of Alaska Native sea otter hunters and a Russian overseer, Iakov Babin, to San Nicolas Island in 1814. The ship then sailed away, planning to return after the hunters spent several months gathering otter skins.

The Alaska Natives began hunting otter, but the native inhabitants of San Nicolas Island may not have been happy about their intrusion on the island. According to a letter dated July 15, 1818, written by Ivan Kuskov, manager of Fort Ross, the Russian colony in northern California, the Nicoleños killed one of the Alaska Natives while they were on the island.

The remaining Alaskan hunters were angry about the death and killed many Nicoleños in return. The letter does not state how many Nicoleños died, or how many survived.

Russian officials learned of the massacre and were concerned about the violent events. Documents show that three RAC managers, Ivan Kuskov, Leontii Hagemeister, and Semen Ianovskij, asked for information about the deaths on San Nicolas Island. They held the Russian overseer, Iakov Babin, responsible for the massacre. Letters tell us that Babin was sent from California to Russian Alaska and was scheduled to sail to RAC headquarters in St. Petersburg, Russia, to answer questions about the murder and killings on San Nicolas Island in 1814.

Chapter 6

Susan Morris, historical researcher, describes the removal of the Nicolen᷈os from San Nicolas Island in 1835.

We don’t have direct evidence, like a ship log from the Peor es Nada, which tells us how many Nicoleños were removed from San Nicolas Island in 1835 and what route the schooner took from the island to mainland California. Nonetheless, we can piece together a lot of what happened by consulting a variety of primary sources.

One source that provides information about the 1835 removal is an 1878 memoir dictated by George Nidever, an otter hunter, to E. F. Murray, a research assistant for Hubert Howe Bancroft. Bancroft was a historian interested in gathering and publishing information about the history of California from people who he considered pioneers. Nidever has a connection to the Lone Woman story because he was captain of the ship that brought the Lone Woman to Santa Barbara in 1853.

Although Nidever did not participate in the 1835 journey that brought the other Nicoleños to the mainland, he spoke with another hunter, Isaac Sparks, who was involved in that trip. Sparks and Nidever went otter hunting on Santa Rosa Island in the winter of 1835, shortly after the Nicoleños were taken off the island. Sparks discussed the event with Nidever during their hunting trip.

According to Nidever’s memoir, about 17–18 men, women, and children were taken from San Nicolas Island in October 1835 on a Mexican schooner, the Peor es Nada, chartered by Sparks.

The Peor es Nada sailed to San Pedro Harbor near Los Angeles. After the Nicoleños arrived on the mainland, Nidever claimed they were brought to Los Angeles and San Gabriel. Church records dated December 1835 and April 1836 note the presence of at least two Nicoleños in Los Angeles, supporting the claim that the ship arrived at San Pedro with passengers from San Nicolas Island in fall of 1835.

Additional confirmation of Nidever’s recollections comes from two Mexican documents. A Provincial State Paper: Benicia, Military, 1767–1845, dated October 14, 1834, shows that Sparks was the captain of the Peor es Nada, and that the ship was in Santa Barbara in October of 1834. Another Mexican document from the Departmental State Papers of Los Angeles indicates that the Peor es Nada was at the harbor in San Pedro a year later, on November 21, 1835.

New research using original documents with primary information (eyewitness or event participants) shows that two Nicoleños were baptized at the Los Angeles Plaza Church in 1835 and 1836. Also, two women who were identified as Island Indians, who were baptized in Los Angeles in 1836, are highly likely to have come from San Nicolas Island in 1835.

No Nicoleños have been found in baptismal records at Mission San Gabriel. In addition, a newborn girl, baptized in at the Los Angeles Plaza Church in May 1836, had parents who may have come from San Nicolas Island. Those parents were identified as Island Indians, but the timing of their daughter’s baptism, and the fact that all the native people from San Clemente Island and Santa Catalina Island left those islands by 1820, makes it possible that the parents were Nicoleños, too.

One of those Nicoleños, a boy who was about five years old when he was baptized in December 1835, lived until at least 1860, according to Mexican and American census records. The name he was given upon his baptism was Tomás Guadalupe. He lived with his godmother’s family, and in 1860 Tomas married a young woman named Refugio Lopez. Tomas was alive and living on Spring Street in Los Angeles when the Lone Woman was brought to Santa Barbara in 1853.

Chapter 14

Susan Morris, historical researcher, discusses rock art on the Channel Islands.

Caves are found on all eight of California’s Channel Islands. They can range from caves that are hundreds of feet long and extend into total darkness to caves that are shallow rock shelters. Shallow caves might be created when sandstone is eroded by wind, but most caves on the Channel Islands are littoral, or sea caves, that are formed by the erosive action of waves along narrow fractures in the rock.

Sea caves sound like they would be wet, but sometimes they are completely dry. This happens when land rises above the active tidal zone over time. These caves then become known as “relict sea caves.” An example of a relict sea cave is Daisy Cave on San Miguel Island.

Native peoples of the Channel Islands used caves for a variety of purposes. Caves often served as a place of shelter. Deep caves like the Lone Woman’s cave on San Nicolas Island provided a place to live, while shallow rock shelters offered short-term protection from wind and hot or rainy weather. Island caves were also used as locations for making tools, processing and cooking food, and engaging in other daily tasks. Evidence of human activities in island caves, rock shelters, or sea caves is present on at least six of the eight Channel Islands.

Channel Islands caves and rock shelters also served as canvasses where early inhabitants expressed themselves by creating rock art. Indigenous people painted, carved, abraded (scraped), or pecked artwork onto stone walls and rock surfaces.

Charcoal, red ochre, or other powdered material was mixed with a liquid binder and used as paint. Hand-held rocks were used as tools to carve or peck lines to make shapes on stone surfaces. Native people created representational (that is, realistic) and abstract images on cave walls.

One Channel Islands cave that contains unusual rock art is Cave of the Whales on the south side of San Nicolas Island. The rock art found in Cave of the Whales depicts the marine animals that the Nicoleños encountered: whales, dolphins, and fish. Caves with rock art may have been sacred or religious sites. They were not usually used as living spaces. The Lone Woman would certainly have known about, and visited, Cave of the Whales.

Last updated: June 1, 2018