Art & Literature

GIS & Mapping


Base Camp

Development of San Miguel

San Miguel is the northernmost Channel Island off the Southern California Coast. Situated 26 miles south of Point Conception, the Island catches the strong blast of North Winds. The combination of its westernmost geographic position, exposure to harsher North Pacific weather, and the impact of destructive sheep ranching have been the primary factors that have shaped the San Miguel of history and of today.

Ranching on San Miguel began shortly before the 1850s, and by the 1930s, had so overgrazed the native vegetation that the barren sands swept from one side of the island to the other unchecked. Today environmentalists, scientists, and nature explorers are watching the 10,000 acre island recover for the ranching era that stripped it of vegetation, and are seeing the re-population of native plant and animal species.

When the earliest ranchers arrived, San Miguel offered them 10,000 undeveloped, pristine acres, lush with vegetation, and habitable thanks to several natural springs for reliable water. The first sheep rancher on the island was Samuel C. Bruce, who sold his operation to George Nidever, a famous mountainman, sea otter hunter, and later renowned as the man who discovered The Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island, about whom the book and movie Island of the Blue Dolphins was based.

Nidever worked on a U.S. coastal survey ship in the waters around San Miguel, and after traveling to purchase a 17 ton schooner - the largest ship at that time in the region - he purchased San Miguel. With a safe method of passage to the remote island - the furthest in the northern chain from the port in Santa Barbara, Nidever began to invest in improvements on the island. He sent his two sons out to the island to manage sheep ranching operations. The boys did not enjoy the isolation and urged their father to sell so they could return to the mainland to live. Their original adobe cabin now stands in ruins above Cuyler Harbor.

In 1850, Nidever had 45 sheep, 17 cattle, 2 hogs, and 7 horses on the island. This original stock grew to 6,000 sheep, 200 cattle, 100 hogs and 32 horses twelve years later. But the prosperity of the early ranch did not last.

1863-64 saw the Great Drought hit the region, causing mainland ranchers to lose half of their stock. Nideverís 6,000 island sheep were already well over twice what the native vegetation could sustain. When the dry north winds, year round heat, and an entire winter without rain hit, the animals consumed every bush and tree down to the roots and still faced starvation. 5,000 sheep perished - 83% of Nideverís herd. In 1869 Nidever sold his island, stock and improvements for $10-$15,000. The buyer was Hiram Mills of San Francisco who operated under the title Pacific Wool Growing Company. He built a two story residence at Cuyler Harbor. When the wool market collapsed in 1876, he struggled for ten more years and the sold 50% interest in the island to William G. Water of Can Francisco for $10,000.

Waters moved to the island enthusiastic about the new ranching business opportunity and outdoors life. His wife, who financed the entire purchase, suffered from tuberculosis and moved with him to the island with their adopted 14 ear old daughter. There were 4,000 sheep and 30 cattle when they arrived. Mrs./. Waterís health did not improve and they returned to the mainland in 1888. The other shares of the island changed hand several times until 1890, when waters became the sole owner of the island, purchasing the remaining half from William Schilling who had paid $10,000 for it a year earlier.

By 1890, the island was at 3,000 sheep, 150 cattle, with assorted hogs, poultry, goats, buildings, tools, a dock, and a sloop - Liberty. Waters formed the San Miguel Island Company with four Los Angeles business men in 1897, but it was forced by the courts to dissolve in 1908 due to the fact that a land claim had never bee officially filed for the land itself.

This I s the island t hat was not mentioned in the treaty of Guadalupe de Hidalgo when America annexed California from Mexico in the 1840s. Its ownership was disputed until President Taft signed a bill in 1909 reserving the island for lighthouse use. The U.S government then took possession of the island, offering Waters leasing rights which he took. By this time the over grazing was of serious concern, and complaints were filed by visiting pleasure craft and fishermen concern by the destruction of the islandís natural resources as a result of an unsustainable scale of sheep ranching.

Waters died in 1917, having spent 30 years of his life developing the ranch on San Miguel - a length of time longer than any other person had spent creating a livelihood since the Native American habitation.

1934 - President Franklin Roosevelt moved jurisdiction of the island from the Secretary of Commerce to the Secretary of the Navy.

1938 - Anacapa and Santa Barbara became a national monument, but San Miguel was turned down for inclusion

1939 - The National Park Service conducted a study of the island and ordered all sheep to be removed inorder to begin a replanting program island wide.

1940 - Life Magazine publishes a story about the Swiss Family Lester - the ranch mangers living in isolation on the island with their two daughters. This family also discovered the first Pygmy Mammoth bones in the Channel Islands.

1941 - The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.

1948 - Current leasee, Brooks, has his leased revoked and given 72 hours to clear the island so the Navy could turn it into a naval missile and bombing target range.

1966 - Last sheep are finally gathered up and removed from the island

1967 - The original ranch buildings burn

1980 - The island becomes part of The Channel Islands National Park

HMS Bounty off San Miguel during the Filming of Mutiny on the Bounty