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Catalina Island

(aka Santa Catalina Island) an island about 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, in the Channel Islands archipelago

satellite view of Catalina Island

Channel Islands

Catalina Island has an extreme length of about 22 miles and extreme width of about eight miles. It is quite hilly, with a few almost mountainous peaks; the highest point is Mt. Orizaba, at 2,097 feet above sea level. There are no natural springs, creeks or rivers on the island.

Catalina is home to hundreds of varieties of plants and animals, including six plants and five animals found nowhere else -- Catalina manzanita, Catalina mahogany, Catalina dudleya, St. Catherine's lace, Santa Catalina bedstraw, and Santa Catalina Island ironwood; and, California ground squirrel, Santa Catalina Island harvest mouse, Santa Catalina Island deer mouse, and ornate shrew. The island is also home to a small herd of bison (the origins of which are a matter of legend), sport fish abound in the surrounding waters, and bald eagles have been known to nest on some of the island's many cliffs.

Catalina has a permanent population of just 3,696 residents, the vast majority of whom live in the resort city of Avalon and the village of Two Harbors. The rest of the permanent population is scattered among a few minor resort areas and several relatively isolated farms and ranches. There are few paved roads and motor vehicle use is strctly regulated, so bicycles and golf carts are the principal modes of transportation. Since most of the island is set aside as a nature conservancy, tourists must have permits to travel outside of Avalon.

Los Angeles County has governmental jurisdiction over the island and is responsible for providing law enforcement, fire, and other public services, while the Catalina Island Conservancy maintains the island's natural beauty.


Santa Catalina has been inhabited for at least 7000 years. Early inhabitants traded sea products and steatite (aka soapstone, an easily carvable rock) with mainland peoples for food and other goods, with islanders making the voyage to the mainland and other islands in well-made plank canoes. Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to record the island's existence, which he did on October 7, 1542; he named it San Salvador (the name of his ship) and claimed it for Spain, but he made no effort to explore the island, nor did he have more than passing contact with its inhabitants. Sebastian Viscaino became the second European to record a visit to the island, which he renamed Santa Catalina in honor of Saint Catherine, on November 24, 1602. Although his party camped on the island for a few days and did some exploring, they also avoided having more than passing contact with the native population.

The native inhabitants of Santa Catalina did not begin to suffer at the hands of Europeans until after the Spanish established a series of missions along the mainland coast, starting in 1769. Although no missions were ever built on the island itself, the natives began to get visitors. Spain did not allow its colonies to trade with other nations, but sea otters were then plentiful around the Channel Islands, and traders were eager to obtain their pelts, which brought high prices in China. By 1805 otter hunters began appearing in Channel waters, and since the Spanish did not have enough ships to patrol their territory they were able to camp on the island and hunt with little worry of detection. Merchant ships also began appearing in droves, as traders ignored Spanish law to trade only with the inhabitants of Spanish missions and towns. On the rare occasion when Spanish ships actually posed a threat to such commerce, the trade ships simply took refuge in one of Catalina's sheltered coves and waited until the "coast was clear." When New Spain revolted from its mother country and became Mexico in 1820, California became a province in the new country. Although Mexico allowed trade with foreigners, it levied a tariff on all imported goods. To avoid this tariff merchant ships simply offloaded most of their cargo at Santa Catalina before docking at the customs port to pay the duty on the remaining cargo. The ships were then free to trade up and down the coast, and to stop at Catalina as often as necessary to replenish their inventories with undeclared goods. Since the Mexican government had no ships to patrol the coast, many smugglers blatantly established warehouses on the island and operated virtually unchallenged. All of this activity severely disrupted the social and trade networks of the native inhabitants, and by the mid-1820's all of the island's natives had either migrated to the mainland and become assimilated into other cultures or had succumbed to one of the many diseases introduced by the Europeans.

Mexican Governor Pio Pico awarded Santa Catalina Island to Thomas Robbins as a land grant in 1846, just four days before U.S. forces invaded California, during the Mexican-American War. Robbins was a naturalized Mexican citizen who had been living in California for about 20 years and had performed various services for the government, and the land grant was payment for those services. Robbins established a small ranch on the island, but sold it to Jose Maria Covarrubias in 1850, two years after California became part of the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo.

When California became part of the United States, the American government promised to honor all land titles issued under Mexican rule, provided the deed holders could prove rightful ownership. A Land Commission was established to verify claims and settle disputes, but it often took years to resolve disputes. Robbins submitted his claim to ownership of Santa Catalina Island to the Land Commission, but no decision had yet been made when he sold the island to Covarrubias, and the island was soon overrun with squatters attempting to claim parcels by virtue of possession. At the same time, speculators on the mainland were busy buying and selling parcels of Santa Catalina land, often ignoring the validity or invalidity of such sales. In January of 1864, a company of Union soldiers arrived on the island to survey its resources and suitability as an Indian reservation. While on the island, the Army evicted all persons with questionable land claims. No reservation was ever established on the island, and the soldiers departed in September of the same year.

All of the various sections, as well as most of the squatter claims, were eventually bought by James Lick, whose title to the island was formally confirmed by patent in 1867. Although Robbins's claim was also deemed legitimate at this time, the records do not show if either he or Covarrubias were ever compensated for their troubles. Lick evicted everyone the Army had allowed to remain on the island who refused to enter into a lease agreement with him, and for the next 20 years the island was inhabited by sheep, cattle, and a few herders. Over the years, however, mainlanders began making the journey across the Channel to picnic on the shore or camp in one of the pleasant coves; the island was now developing into a tourist destination.

Real estate speculator George Shatto purchased Catalina Island from the Lick estate in 1887, with the intention of taking advantage of the island's growing reputation as a vacation spot. He subsequently laid out the town of Avalon, built a hotel, and purchased a small steamer ship to ferry vacationers to and from the mainland. Shatto was unable to turn a profit, however, and defaulted on his loan; the island was returned to the Lick estate after just a few years. The island changed hands again in 1891, when it was bought by the sons of Phineas Banning. They, too, had dreams of turning the island into a vacation destination and made improvements to the hotel and beachfront, built a dance pavillion, and created the Pilgrim Club (a gambling club for men); they also built roads into the interior so they could host hunting parties. Fire destroyed half of Avalon on November 29, 1915, however, and World War I had a negative impact on tourism across the country. The brothers were subsequently forced to sell the island off in shares in order to pay their debts.

Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., ultimately bought the majority of the land shares, and by 1919 was making major improvements to the island's infrastructure and attractions, and built the Catalina Casino in 1929. The island has been attracting tourists ever since, especially to the casino, which boasts one of the largest ballrooms in the world. The Catalina Airport was completed in 1946. The Wrigley family has since deeded its shares to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which today has stewardship over 88 percent of the island and maintains tight control over tourist access to the island's most fragile ecosystems.

Official Website

Catalina Chamber of Commerce

See Also

Los Angeles
Mexican-American War
World War I

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The Robinson Library >> California

This page was last updated on October 07, 2018.