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Ethnohistory - Reports & Articles

-The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island
-What was the Fate of the Chumash Islanders?
-Secrets of Chumash Social Life
 

  What was the Fate of the Chumash Islanders?

John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
Curator of Anthropology, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

From the outset of Spanish colonization of upper California in 1769, the government moved slowly in its attempts to "missionize" the Chumash islanders. The Viceroy of New Spain, Francisco Carlos de Croix, wrote Friar Junipero Serra that the Indians were not to be transferred to mainland missions, in part because their presence prevented other nations from settling off the California coast.

Forty-five years passed before the islanders joined their linguistic relatives at missions established on the mainland. By that time their numbers had been greatly diminished because of disease epidemics. In particular, the measles outbreak of 1806 may have taken the lives of one-fifth or more of the northern Channel Islands' population.

The immediate cause for the massive wave of migration of islanders to the mainland missions in 1814-1816 was apparently related to food shortages. These years were characterized by a major El Niño event, probably the most severe experienced in the 180 years since then. The influx of significantly warmer waters into the Santa Barbara Channel would have adversely affected the fishery surrounding the islands.

Indications of this are reflected in the correspondence of a missionary stationed at San Buenaventura, who reported that famine conditions existed on the islands by 1816. By then there were no native mainland towns with which the islanders could trade to offset their shortfall.

The missions' dependable supply of agricultural produce seemed an attractive choice to islanders greatly reduced in numbers and beset by hunger. More than 90 percent of the remaining islanders joined the mission communities by the end of 1816. A few remained in their traditional homes, but in 1822 the last of these reunited with families already living at the missions.

When large numbers of Chumash islanders arrived in this period, they were not immediately integrated into established mission Indian communities. By then, the mainland population had become acculturated to Spanish lifeways.

Cultural boundaries between the mainland and island subpopulations at mission communities were reinforced by linguistic distinctiveness that existed between their respective populations.

Evidence for their existence mostly comes to us from anthropologist John Harrington's early 20th century interviews with elderly Chumash Indians. One 1824 manuscript in the Santa Barbara Mission Archives mentions that some islanders were living adjacent to the Goleta estuary when the Chumash Revolt broke out. They fled in their canoes to the islands, where they resided for some months before returning to the mainland.

This mainland settlement of islanders was located on More Mesa. It was called Qwa', the Chumash name for a species of heron. Its leader was Jose Crespin ("Sudon") Kamuliyatset, the former chief of Santa Cruz Island's capital village of Liyam.

At San Buenaventura, another settlement composed mostly of islanders was formed in post-mission times. This was Kamexmey, established just west of the mouth of the Ventura River by Evaristo, a native of Swaxil, once the largest town on Santa Cruz Island.

The Kamexmey community seems to have persisted until the 1860s, when the last of its residents died. Similar communities also existed at missions La Purísima (Lompoc) and Santa Inés (Solvang), which were composed of Santa Rosa and San Miguel island families.

The existence of residential subgroups of islanders within the larger Indian community at each mission preserved aspects of traditional island society that mirrored pre-European conditions. These settlements featured tule houses, sweatlodges (temescals), acorn granaries, and other traditional shelters. Traditional economic activities, such as fishing, canoe-building, and bead money-making also took place. Shrines, where offerings were made, were located near these communities, and pre-European rituals and ceremonies were revived and maintained.

Because of high infant mortality, the Chumash population continued to decline after the Mission Period to the end of the 19th century. Eventually the Chumash subgroups combined through intermarriage, but island Chumash lineages have persisted and may be traced in many family trees of modern descendants of the original people to inhabit the Channel region.

[Originally published in Alolkoy: The Publication of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 6-7]

 

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