The legend of Prisoners Harbor at Santa Cruz Island | Judith Dale | Columnist

ByTommie C. Curtis

May 1, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

We recently had relatives visiting from Kansas. To get a taste of our area, I suggested they visit the Channel Islands. I recommended Santa Cruz as it is the largest, has a diverse topography, is a national park and has great hiking trails.

They had a great time and, upon returning, asked why the harbor where the tour boat docked was named Prisoners Harbor. I had no idea but said I would look it up. What I found was fascinating and a little-known fact of our Santa Barbara County history.

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government decided to establish penal colonies in California, which was sparsely populated. Penal colonies would expand the Mexican government’s presence in Alta California, add to the population and provide a solution on what to do with Mexican prisoners.

In 1825, a small group of prisoners was transported north to Alta California to “improve the morals of convicts and for colonizing California.” Of course, the people living in California were against this idea, so the plan was dropped.

However, in 1830, the Mexican government tried again. This time, the Mexican government contracted with Capt. John Cristian Holmes, skipper of the American ship Maria Ester, to pick up 80 criminals in Acapulco and deliver them to California. Holmes tried to drop them off in San Diego and San Pedro but was denied both times. So next, he tried Santa Barbara.

At the time, Don Romualdo Pacheco was the acting comandante of Santa Barbara’s Royal Presidio. Holmes requested permission to discharge his cargo — a routine request. However, once Pacheco learned the cargo was 80 criminals, he said he had to inspect the ship to stall for time.


Prisoners’ Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, circa 1869.

After going below decks of the Maria Ester, Pacheco was horrified at what he saw. The prisoners were living in rat-infested filth, looked half-starved and were barely clothed. He told Homes that under no circumstances could the prisoners be dumped on the beach at Santa Barbara, even if it meant bringing down the wrath of the Mexican authorities.

The Maria Ester remained anchored off the Santa Barbara shore for several weeks. After being turned down three times, Holmes figured he would be equally unwelcome at Monterey or Yerba Buena. This stalemate went on for many weeks. Eventually, Jose de la Guerra, Santa Barbara’s leading citizen, persuaded Pacheco to allow a few prisoners ashore to work doing odd jobs. In addition, de la Guerra provided the men with baths, delousing and new clothes, all at his expense. These acts of kindness reportedly earned de la Guerra the prisoners’ everlasting gratitude. As a result, they eventually became upstanding citizens of the Santa Barbara area. But what to do with the remaining prisoners?

Meanwhile, since the Chumash had been removed from Santa Cruz Island to the mainland missions in the early 1800s, the only visitors to the island were fishermen, hunters and travelers who occasionally stopped or squatted on its shores. What better place to make a penal colony?

In April 1830, with the approval of California Gov. Jose Echeandia, Holmes transported and discharged 30 convicts to what today is called Prisoners Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island.

This location was a perfect, isolated location to establish a penal colony. The Canada del Puerto, a seasonal creek, provided fresh water and created a lush wetland with plentiful birds and animals. The Santa Barbara Mission provided food, supplies, medicine, tools and livestock. The prisoners were left to survive and build a shelter using tools and local trees and brush. All went well until November, when fire destroyed the shelter and all their supplies.

Faced with starvation, the men realized they had to try to make it to the mainland. They built a crude raft and set out without sails, oars or paddles. They were totally dependent on the wind and currents. The men did not realize it, but ships were rare in the Santa Barbara Channel in the 1830s, especially in the fall and winter when southeast storms raged along the Southern California coastline.

There was small hope of the raft being sighted and the men rescued. Legend has it that the raft drifted for days, and the water supply brought from the island gave out. Things were looking grim. However, it was one of these storms that saved them. A howling gale drove the raft toward the coast. It held together until it hit the churning surf off what today is Carpinteria. The raft broke apart, throwing all the men into the sea. They were a determined bunch and were close to shore. They all made it to the beach alive.

Prisoners Harbor 3.png

An aerial of Prisoners’ Harbor, Santa Cruz Island.

The exhausted convicts were rounded up and imprisoned for a time in the Santa Barbara presidio guardhouse. Records show some were flogged as punishment for escaping the island. Eventually, they all were freed and absorbed into the community.

According to historian H.H. Bancroft, their descendants still live in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties.

I now have a great story to tell my relatives from Kansas.

NOTE: 1930 was not the last time Santa Cruz Island was considered a possible prison. In the 1880s, the U.S. Army suggested exiling troublesome members of the Apache tribe to the island. Fortunately, nothing came of this idea. Today, only the name Prisoners Harbor reminds us of the bizarre events of over 190 years ago.

However, the saga of Prisoners Harbor is not over.

Today, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to restore the 60-acre wetland created by the Canada del Puerto Creek, the mouth of which is at Prisoners Harbor. This area was altered by 19th and 20th century landowners who constructed a pier, buildings and other structures. Then, to facilitate the island ranching operations and protect their investments at the harbor, ranchers channelized the creek and filled in the adjacent wetland with gravel from the surrounding hills and creekbed. Unfortunately, this effectively eliminated the ecological value of the coastal wetland system, its floodplain functions and much of its biological diversity.

Before this, the Prisoners Harbor area was one of the largest coastal wetlands of the Channel Islands.

According to the National Park Service, “This rare habitat, comprised of a freshwater stream, coastal lagoon/wetland and riparian woodland, provided respite from the long dry summers for a diverse array of species, including the island fox. The wetland most likely served as a resting and feeding stop for migratory birds and nesting habitat for resident waterfowl.”

Filling in the wetland reduced its environmental value and biological diversity. This resulted in reduced habitat for island species, such as the Santa Cruz Island silver lotus, Santa Cruz Island fox, island scrub jay and migratory birds like bald eagles.

However, a planned restoration will restore the creek, remove the gravel fill and replace nonnative vegetation such as eucalyptus trees with native vegetation. It will increase the population of woodland birds, migratory waterfowl, and amphibians such as Pacific tree frogs and salamanders.

Thanks to the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy, not only the native plants, animals and birds will benefit, but visitors can enjoy the area in its original state.

Now you know the story of Prisoners Harbor. I hope you get a chance to visit it in the future. 

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Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]