Santa Cruz Island is the largest privately owned island off the continental United States. The island, located off the coast of California, is 22 miles (35 km) long and from 2 to 6 miles (3 to 10 km) wide. It is part of the northern group of the Channel Islands of California, and at 61,764.6 acres (249.95 km² or 96.507 sq mi) is the largest of the eight islands in the chain. Santa Cruz Island is located within Santa Barbara County, California. The coastline has steep cliffs, gigantic sea caves, coves, and sandy beaches. Defined by the United States Census Bureau as Block 3000, Block Group 3, Census Tract 29.10 of Santa Barbara County, the 2000 census showed an official population of 2 persons. Highest peak is Devils Peak, at 2450+ feet (747+ m).
A central valley splits the island along the Santa Cruz Island Fault, with volcanic rock on the north and older sedimentary rock on the south.
Santa Cruz is the only place where the Island Scrub Jay is found.
In 1602, Sebastián 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. Finally, in 1769, the land-and-sea expedition of Don Gaspar de Portolà 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.” The island was considered for establishment of a Catholic mission to serve the large Chumash population. When Mission 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.
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.
Shaw’s island sheep ranch was well known by 1869, the year he left Santa Cruz. He imported cattle, horses, and sheep to the island and erected one of the earliest wharves along the California coast at Prisoners Harbor by 1869. He built corrals and houses for himself and his employees and expanded the road system. Shaw was the first rancher to ship sheep to San Francisco by steamer, some selling at $30 per animal. When Barron sold the island in 1869 to ten investors from San Francisco for $150,000, Shaw left for San Francisco and Los Alamos where he continued ranching. At that time, the gross proceeds from the ranch on Santa Cruz Island were supposedly $50,000.
One of the investors, Justinian Caire, was a French immigrant and founder of a successful San Francisco hardware business that sold equipment to miners. By the late 1880s Caire had acquired all of the shares of the Santa Cruz Island Company which he and his colleagues had founded in 1869. He continued a successful livestock and ranching industry on the island for many years.
An extended and complicated series of litigation among Caire family members resulted in the division of the island and the sale of most of it in 1937. Justinian Caire's descendents retained 6,000 acres on the east end of the island, on which they continued the sheep ranching operation. Other family members sold the remaining 90 percent of the island to Los Angeles oilman Edwin Stanton in 1937.
Edwin Stanton’s purchase of the major part of Santa Cruz Island brought a major shift in agricultural production on the island. After trying for a short time to continue the sheep operation, he decided to switch to beef production. At the time, the beef industry in California was growing rapidly, with Santa Barbara County among the top ten beef producers in the state.
Edwin Stanton’s ranch on Santa Cruz Island saw changes that reflected the evolution of cattle ranching in a working landscape. While retaining most of the 19th century structures dating from the Caire period, Stanton constructed a few buildings to meet the needs of his cattle ranch, the most notable of which is Rancho del Norte on the isthmus. Pasture fencing and corrals were altered to suit the cattle operation and an extensive water system was added to provide water to the cattle.
The Gherini family, descendents of Justinian Caire, continued their sheep ranching operations on the east end of Santa Cruz Island until 1984, using Scorpion Ranch as their base. They managed the island with resident managers and laborers and often worked as a family during shearing and during the summer. Production dropped during the 1970s and 80s and the expense of ranching on a remote island rose. By 1984 the last ranch lessee vacated the island and a newly formed hunting club called Island Adventures leased the facilities from the Gherinis. The hunt club used the ranch houses at Scorpion and Smugglers to house guests who came to hunt the feral pigs and remaining sheep.The fight between the Gherinis and the federal government started in 1980, when the northern Channel Islands were designated a national park and Congress authorized the purchase of the family's remaining acreage. But the purchase agreement stalled for years as family members pushed the federal government to pay what they believed was the appropriate amount for the land.In the early 1990s, the government managed to buy the interests of Francis Gherini's three siblings for about $4 million apiece. But the former Oxnard attorney rejected the offer as too low, keeping his 25% interest in the 6,264-acre ranch and leaving the park service with 75%. Park officials continued negotiations in recent years, but said they were constrained by law from paying more than fair market value. In 1995, park officials were still reviewing appraisals of the land, hoping they could meet Gherini's price and snatch up the last privately owned land in the national park. Then in November 1996, frustrated government officials decided to force Gherini to sell the ranch.
With Edwin Stanton’s death in 1964, his widow and son, Carey, re-incorporated the Santa Cruz Island Company and continued the cattle operations on the island. Carey Stanton died unexpectedly in 1987 at the ranch and was buried in the family plot in the island chapel yard at the Main Ranch. The real property passed to The Nature Conservancy through a prior agreement that Carey Stanton had established with the non-profit organization. The Nature Conservancy rapidly liquidated the cattle operation and ended the ranching era on the island.
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.
The military forces of the United States took notice of Santa Cruz Island during World War II, and since that time have constructed and maintained strategic installations in the name of national security. Like all its neighbors, Santa Cruz Island served as an early warning outpost watching for enemy planes and ships during World War II. The Cold War brought the communications station as a part of the Pacific Missile Range Facility. This station remains in operation, although not at the levels of its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.
Channel Islands National Park owns and operates approximately 24% of Santa Cruz Island. The remaining land is managed by a combination of organizations which includes The Nature Conservancy, the University of California Field Station, and the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.
Native species include:
Bald Eagles were once numerous on California's Channel Islands. Because of eggshell thinning caused by DDT and other factors, the last known successful Bald Eagle nesting in the northern Channel Islands was in 1949. By the 1960s Bald Eagles could no longer be found on any of the Channel Islands.
The Institute for Wildlife Studies started a program in 2002 to reintroduce Bald Eagles to the Channel Islands, funded by money from a $25 million fund to deal with the lingering effects of tons of DDT dumped by the Montrose Chemical Corporation into the ocean near Santa Catalina Island. Since June 2002 46 young bald eagles have been released on Santa Cruz Island. On 17 March 2006 wildlife biologists for the Institute announced that for the first time in over 50 years there has been a successful hatching on Santa Cruz Island.
In April 2007, the Nature Conservancy announced another successful chick hatching.The chick broke free of its shell on April 13, 2007. The parents were one of the two nesting pairs who had returned to the island after making history last year. Both pairs were born in captivity. This second birth represents a turning point in the struggle to return the eagles to their former habitat on the island.