Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park


Surfacing over the horizon from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the coastal mountains of California's Channel Islands offer an extraordinary gateway to the past, spanning more than 12,000 years of human history.

The Channel Islands have attracted many explorers, scientists and historians during the past few centuries. Today, island visitors can explore the world of the native Chumash, walk the shores where European explorers landed, discover new tales from California's ranching history, and witness the remains of offshore shipwrecks.

Surfacing over the horizon from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the coastal mountains of California's Channel Islands offer an extraordinary gateway to the past, spanning more than 12,000 years of human history.

The Channel Islands have attracted many explorers, scientists and historians during the past few centuries. Today, island visitors can explore the world of the native Chumash, walk the shores where European explorers landed, discover new tales from California's ranching history, and witness the remains of offshore shipwrecks.

The northern Channel Islands were home to many native Chumash communities who are believed to have inhabited the islands for thousands of years. When Europeans first reached the islands in the 16th century, they discovered a rich culture dependent upon the resources of the land and the sea for sustenance and survival. By the nineteenth century, the islands were fulfilling different purposes: vast sheep and cattle ranches occupied Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel islands and the channel waters were aggressively harvested for fish and marine mammals. The remains of ancient Chumash villages are intermingled with historic ranch complexes and later military structures, testifying to the diverse heritage of human experience on these offshore islands.

Each of the five Channel Islands has a unique history. Channel Islands National Park invites you to learn more about the people, places, and stories associated with each of these islands and to experience the fascinating heritage of coastal southern California!


An Ancient String of Pearls

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his Spanish fleet first came upon San Miguel Island in 1542. In the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel they found an island chain with a long and rich history. The Chumash, who lived on the northern islands and along the coastline, had inhabited those lands for millennia, living off of the rich resources of the land and the sea. Cabrillo's fleet explored the California mainland and the offshore islands, producing the first accounts of Chumash culture and securing these ancient lands for the Spanish crown. In time, the four northern Channel Islands of Tuqan, Wi'ma, Limuw, and Anyapakh, as the Chumash knew them, were given their present names (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa).


Over the centuries, the islands saw several economic transformations. The Chumash food sources and trading patterns with the mainland were disrupted by European newcomers' otter and seal hunting, fishing, shellfish harvesting, and kelp production, which were some of the earliest European industries to develop among the Channel Islands. By the first quarter of the 19th century, the Chumash had vacated the islands to take up residence on the mainland, primarily in the Catholic missions established by the Spanish along the California coastline.


Mexican independence from Spain and California statehood saw a shift towards livestock ranching. Each of the five park islands supported sheep grazing during the early 20th century. Santa Rosa Island and Santa Cruz Island both had large cattle operations. World War II coastal defenses and the Cold War build-up both left remnants of their presence of the islands. The remains of numerous shipwrecks testify to the hazards the islands posed to California's busy mariners as they navigated the narrow channel. In 1932, the U.S. Coast Guard constructed a light station on Anacapa Island, whose lighthouse and fog signal are still in operation today.


On April 26, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands as the Channel Islands National Monument. The Monument was later enlarged to include the one-mile area around the islands that brought the offshore kelp beds and marine life under park protection.


The present Channel Islands National Park, which was created in 1980, includes the five islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel.


For over ten thousand years, the northern Channel Islands have hosted a diverse range of peoples and cultures. The large number and undisturbed condition of archeological sites on the islands are shedding light on coastal migration patterns of the earliest Americans and their subsistence in the marine environment. Human remains discovered in 1959 at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island have been dated to more than 13,000 years of age, among the oldest dated human remains in North America.


New information about the Island Chumash, the native population that inhabited these islands for thousands of years, continues to fascinate historians and visitors alike. These native people relied on the sea for much of their sustenance and manufactured tools and trade items from shells and stones. The Chumash were able to travel between the islands and the mainland in plank canoes, called tomols, which were constructed out of redwood trees drifting down the coast.


In 1542, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo reached San Miguel Island while voyaging along the American coast seeking new lands for conquest and development. For two hundred years, explorers and traders visited the islands where they hunted otters, seals, and sea lions for their pelts and oil, greatly increasing the exploitation of the marine resources and introducing diseases that decimated the native populations.


Claimed for Spain by the early explorers, the islands fell under Mexican rule in 1821. Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa were awarded as Mexican land grants with the intent of raising livestock. Initial ventures into sheep and cattle ranching began on these islands in the 1830s. With California statehood in 1850, the islands became part of the United States. Each of the five northern Channel Islands was developed for livestock ranching during some period of the 19th and 20th centuries. Taking advantage of the expansive fields and altering much of the natural environment, ranchers and vaqueros, or cowboys, built successful sheep and cattle ranches. Many historic ranch buildings remain on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands today.


The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard all established posts on the northern Channel Islands during the 20th century. Light towers were constructed on Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands in the 1910s, and a full light station was built on East Anacapa Island in 1932, run by the Coast Guard into the 1960s. Coastal defense build-up led to the establishment of an Army base in 1943 and an Air Force Base in 1950, both on Santa Rosa Island. The Navy managed San Miguel Island from 1948 until it transferred management to the National Park Service in 1967. The Navy also continues to maintain a small post on Santa Cruz Island.


Today National Park Service personnel and park visitors form the primary population of the five northern islands. Established as a National Monument in 1938, Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands were the first two islands under NPS management. In 1980 legislation creating Channel Islands National Park added the three remaining Northern Channel Islands. Today the National Park Service protects and preserves the historic resources associated with the various historic inhabitants of the islands to help tell their stories to the public.

Arlington Woman

The following was written by Dr. John R. Johnson, Curator of Anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Johnson's career has been devoted to understanding the culture and history of the Chumash Indians and their neighbors in south central California through the study of archeology, archival records, and interviews with contemporary Native Americans. Most recently, Dr. Johnson has headed the team that has been investigating the earliest evidence for people in our region at the Arlington Springs Site on Santa Rosa Island.

Arlington Springs: The Earliest Evidence for Paleo-Indian in Coastal California


Arlington Springs Woman broke into the news following the Fifth California Islands Symposium held at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in 1999.  Newspapers, magazines, television news, and radio programs around the world reported on what are arguably the earliest dated human remains in either North or South America. Using a small fragment of a human femur discovered by Phil Orr in 1959 on Santa Rosa Island, modern techniques of bone protein analysis and radiocarbon dating indicate that Arlington Springs Woman lived some 13,000 (calendar) years ago. Only one other find in North America, a child burial from the now-destroyed Anzick Site in Montana has ever been dated to this early age.


Arlington Springs Woman lived at the end of the Pleistocene when the four northern Channel Islands were all still united together as one mega-island, and the climate was much cooler than today.  The evidence that people had arrived on that island by 13,000 years ago demonstrates that watercraft were in use along the California coast at that early date and lends support for a theory that the earliest peoples to enter the Western Hemisphere may have migrated along the Pacific coast from Siberia and Alaska using boats.  Recent radiocarbon dating by Dr. Larry Agenbroad of pygmy mammoth fossils from Santa Rosa Island suggests that the last of these unique mammals may have been present on the island at the time the first humans arrived. 


An interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and geologists has been investigating the Arlington Springs locality over the past twelve years.  In 2001 detailed studies were conducted to date the geological layers at the site and collect information regarding the late Pleistocene environment on Santa Rosa Island.  New technologies, such as laser mapping and ground penetrating radar have been used to document the site and gather additional information to guide future research.  During the most recent field season, a series of soil cores were obtained that will yield invaluable information about the geological and environmental history of the island.

Native Inhabitants

Archeological evidence indicates that there has been a human presence in the northern Channel Islands for thousands of years. Human remains excavated by archeologist Phil Orr from Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island in 1959, recently yielded a radiocarbon date of over 13,000 years of age. Archeological sites on San Miguel Island show continuous occupation from 8,000 — 11,000 years ago.

The native populations of the Channel Islands were primarily Chumash. The word Michumash, from which the name Chumash is derived, means "makers of shell bead money" and is the term mainland Chumash used to refer to those inhabiting the islands. Traditionally the Chumash people lived in an area extending from San Luis Obispo to Malibu, including the four Northern Channel Islands. Today, with the exception of the Islands, Chumash people live in these territories and areas far beyond. Approximately 148 historic village sites have been identified, including 11 on Santa Cruz Island, eight on Santa Rosa Island, and two on San Miguel Island. Due to the lack of a consistent water source, Anacapa Island was likely inhabited on a seasonal basis. A true maritime culture, the Chumash hunted and gathered natural resources from both the ocean and the coastal mountains to maintain a highly developed way of life.

The southernmost park island, Santa Barbara Island, was associated with the Tongva people, also called Gabrieleno, although the Chumash also visited the island. Like the Chumash, they navigated the ocean and traded with their neighbors on the northern islands and the coast. Lacking a steady supply of fresh water, no permanent settlements were ever established on Santa Barbara Island. Tongva/Gabrieleno people lived primarily on the Southern Channel Islands (Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands) and the area in and around Los Angeles.

Navigation, Trade, and the Tomol:

These earliest inhabitants exploited the rich marine resources. Isolated from the mainland, they navigated between the islands and back and forth to the mainland using tomols. A plank canoe constructed from redwood logs that floated down the coast and held together by yop, a glue-like substance made from pine pitch and asphaltum, and cords made of plant materials and animal sinews, the tomol ranged from eight to thirty feet in length and held three to ten people. Sharkskin was used for sanding, red ochre for staining, and abalone for inlay and embellishment.

The use of the tomol allowed for an elaborate trade network between the islands and mainland, between natives and non-natives, and amongst the island communities themselves. 'Achum, or shell bead money was "minted" by the island Chumash using small discs shaped from olivella shells and drills manufactured from Santa Cruz Island chert. The shell bead money was exchanged with mainland villages for resources and manufactured goods that were otherwise unavailable on the islands.

Today, the Chumash Maritime Association, in partnership with Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park, continues the tradition of the tomol by conducting Channel crossings.


By the time European explorers arrived in the Santa Barbara Channel, there were some 21 villages on the three largest islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, with highly developed social hierarchies that featured an upper class of chiefs, shamans, boat builders, and artisans, a middle class of workers, fisherman, and hunters, and a lower class of the poor and outcast. Because of the scarcity of fresh water, Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands did not support permanent habitation.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was impressed by the friendliness of the Chumash people he encountered. However, diseases introduced by the European explorers began a decline in the native population. As European colonists began to settle along the coast, introducing new economic enterprises, exploiting the marine resources, and establishing Catholic missions, the native food sources were depleted, native economies were altered, and island populations declined even further. By the 1820s, the last of the island Chumash had moved to the mainland, many of them to the Missions at Santa Ynez, San Buenaventura, and Santa Barbara.

The mission system depended on the use of native labor to propel industry and the economy. The social organization of Chumash society was restructured, leading to the erosion of previous power bases and further assimilation. When California became part of Mexico, the government secularized the missions, and the Chumash sank into the depths of poverty. By the time of the California gold rush, the Chumash had become marginalized, and little was done to understand or help the remaining population.

Paleontological Resources

The Channel Islands, particularly San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz, contain numerous plant and animal fossils that illuminate the past natural history of the California coastal region. This fossil record offers the opportunity to study fauna speciation and evolution, the development of plant and animal communities, their adaptations to varying climate conditions, and the effects of human colonization on the fauna. As a result, the Channel Islands are of special interest to researchers, and a number of paleontological studies have been done on the islands.

Research indicates that the Pleistocene fauna of the Channel Islands is unique in several respects. First, it contains several extinct species, including pygmy mammoth, an owl, a flightless goose, a puffin, and a vampire bat, and two species of giant mouse. The park also contains the best representation of Pleistocene marine avifauna on the Pacific coast, with over 70 species having been discovered on San Miguel.

The most notable animal fossils, and the best-studied aspect of island paleontology, are the pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis). Remains of this species have been known on the Channel Islands since 1856 when they were discovered by a coast and geodetic survey. In 1994 a nearly complete adult skeleton was discovered and excavated on Santa Rosa. Pygmy mammoths descended from full-sized Columbia mammoths that swam across the Santa Barbara Channel to the islands during the Pleistocene. It is believed that during that period the northern Channel Islands were connected into one large island because of the lowered sea levels. Apparently pygmy mammoths died off at about the end of the Pleistocene (12,000 years ago). Pygmy mammoth fossil bones have been found on more than 140 sites on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz. These are the only known remains in the world. On Santa Rosa, fossils are often exposed in sands, silts, and gravels of Pleistocene age anywhere on the island. Most specimens have been found in the sediments comprising the coastal terraces of the island. Due to the numerous questions about many aspects of this species' evolution and development, any fossil may potentially be of crucial importance in answering important research questions.

Another important paleontological resource is the caliche fossil forests, or rhizoconcretions, on San Miguel. Three major caliche forests are found on the island. These fossils are calcium carbonate-encrusted casts of vegetation buried by sand dunes more than 14,000 years ago. They provide evidence that the island once supported large trees and shrubs. These caliche casts are fragile and easily broken.

The Channel Islands are a continuation of the Santa Monica Mountains on the mainland, though they were never connected above sea level, and are composed of many of the same Tertiary marine formations. As such, they also have many of the same marine invertebrate fossils. Although there are studies on the invertebrate paleontology of these formations in the Santa Monica Mountains, there has not been research done on their counterparts on the islands. There have been some studies of the Pleistocene invertebrate fauna of the islands, but as is the case of the invertebrates from the Tertiary marine sediments much remains to be done.

Although researchers have learned quite a bit about some of the park's fossils, such as the pygmy mammoth, paleontological resources on the Channel Islands have not been very well studied. Fossil localities containing smaller terrestrial species of Pleistocene age and invertebrate fossils embedded in the Miocene strata of the islands remain unstudied. In addition, natural and human-induced erosion probably has degraded or destroyed fossil sites; unless collected properly and promptly, bones that are exposed by erosion may be scattered and lost.