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Development of Santa Rosa Island

In the last years of Mexican ownership of California, land grants were awarded to Mexican citizens granting them ownership of large tracts of California, including many of the Channel Islands. When the United States gained possession of California and her Channel Islands in 1850, these land grants were tested in court, and if they met the requirements, were upheld as legal title to the land.

For Santa Rosa Island, the second largest in the Santa Barbara Channel, the Mexican Government granted the 84 square mile island that is 26.5 miles off the coast to two brothers, Jose and Carlos Carrillo.

The Carrillo brothers fought in court to gain full title to the island, originally given to them in 1837. This court battle was due to Juan Batista Alavardo, Governor of California, who began trying to yank title from the Carrillo brothers in 1938 to give to his friend Juan Castro. This was still during Mexican rule. In 1842, a new Governor replaced Alvarado, and this Governor, Manual Micheltorena, gave fresh consideration to the battle for title. His decision was to recognize both claims, and to have the Carrillos pay Castro $2,000 for the island and thus become the rightful owners. The Carrillos made the payment in 1843, and the island became theirs. With in a month, they ceded the island to Carlos’ daughters, Manuela Carrillo de Jones and Francisca Carrillo de Thompson. Their husbands - John Coffin Jones and Alpheus Basil Thompson - were shipping partners and entered into a partnership to manage Santa Rosa.

Another legal battle

The Thompson’s role was to manage the venture, and in the Fall of 1844, 270 cattle, 9 horses and 2 rams were brought to Santa Rosa, as well as wood to build the first house. A legal battle between Thompson and Jones began in 1856 and as result the livestock was divided between them - 4,000 head of cattle each, 1,150 sheep each, and 116 horses each. Jones sold his livestock to T. Wallace Moore, soon to become an owner of the island. In 1858, after the island had come under the jurisdiction of California, Thompson, unable to pay his debts, had to sell his share of the island. T. Wallace Moore was the main buyer for $3,000, with some shares still held by Thompson’s children.

The Moores

A year later, in 1856, Moore’s brother, Alexander, purchased the other half of the island from Jones for $18,000. By 1867, T.W. traded his portion to Alexander for land on the Rancho Sespe in Ventura County. Alexander then bought up the Thompson children’s shares, who felt lucky to sell at $1,000 each. Now Alexander Moore was the sole owner.

This was during the period of the Civil War when wool was in high demand for blankets and uniforms, and the herds grew to 100,000 sheep. Then in 1876 the wool market collapsed. Moore then resorted to extracting tallow and hides from the herd, dramatically reducing the number of sheep running on the island.

Murder on Santa Rosa

Moore gained notoriety for a unresolved murder case when he shot and killed Ah You, one of his Chinese workers. As the murder took place on a dock over the water, the court jurisdiction was never resolved, and he avoided prosecution. The murder took place when Ah You tried to leave the island due to his disgruntlement over Moor’s employment practices. Moore confronted Ah You on the dock, refused to let him leave the island, and when the angered Chinese worker who lunged at him, Moore shot him. Moore’s death in 1893 lead to his brother and relations managing the island. By 1901, shares began to sell, the first to Vail and Vickers who would become the next full owners.

Vail and Vicker

Vail and Vicker were cattlemen from Arizona who immediately moved sheep off Santa Rosa in order to encourage the native plants to recover from severe over grazing. They also brought onto the island 1,891 head of Empire Ranch cattle, with a value of $49.67 a head. It has been the Walter Vail family who have lived on the island and managed the livestock operations since 1901. The island was the only one on the Channel used productively as a cattle ranch, and this was feasible due to the less steep terrain and more manageable grazing areas.

National Park

In 1986 the National Park Service acquired Santa Rosa Island from Vail and Vicker, granting V&V ranching rights for 25 additional years. V&V’s careful land stewardship has helped preserve the island, and the Park remains an example of early California open landscape. In the last few years, the Park Service has expressed concern that the remaining grazing cattle are continuing to destroy too much of the island’s native plants, and the process of closing down the cattle operation is taking place far in advance of the 25 years promised to Vail and Vicker under the clause that the ranching must not be a detriment to the island’s ecosystem.

Vail and Vicker were the most conscientious stewards of the native landscape of any of the ranchers on the islands. This was in part due to their choice to run less destructive cattle rather than sheep on the island, leaving more of the native landscape intact than on San Miguel. Their ranch buildings remain on the island as a testament to a period of Channel Island development that is now a part of California history.