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The Beginning

All Aboard for San Clemente Island

Let's go way, way back to the beginning. Well, maybe not. Let's just go back to where the myths start and clear it all up for San Clemente Island goat enthusiasts. We've all heard the story that the goats were dropped off on the island by Spanish explorers as a food source for future travelers. Sound familiar? It was a myth. Here's the real story. . .

Spanish Explorers
Cabrillo, the great Spanish explorer, was sailing near San Clemente Island in 1542. He was also sailing near Santa Catalina Island. Santa Catalina Island has two peaks, and kind of looks as if it's two seperate islands. It is suggested that Cabrillo couldn't see San Clemente Island, and mistook Santa Catalina Island for two islands. Anyway, he named the 'second island' Victoria (or "Vittoria"). Whether or not it really was San Clemente Island that he saw and named or not, we'll never know.

Along comes Sir Francis Drake. He sailed right by San Clemente Island and never mentioned it.

Sebastian Vizcaino, in 1602, sailed by the island. He was the one who named it San Clemente. As was traditional, Vizcaino named the island after the saint whose feastday it was at the time of discovery. Saint Clement was the fourth pope, and is known for the miracle of providing water for 2,000 men on a dry island. Vizcaino never set foot on San Clemente Island, and was unaware that it has no natural springs, either.

In 1769, Juan Perez explored the Channel Islands. He saw that the available maps were full of errors, and wanted to fix them. He was the first european to set foot on San Clemente Island, between the 16th and 19th of March in 1769. There he met the natives—a people known as the Gabrieleno. The Gabrieleno, your average nice natives living off the land and harming nothing, gave Vizcaino a couple of sea otter pelts that they had hunted off the beach. The sea otters were about 4 or 5 feet long, and weighed 50–80 lbs. Vizcaino didn't realize that the furs were worth about $100 apiece in China. It didn't take long for others to figure this out, though, and by the early 1800's the fur trade was decimating the otter population in the Channel Islands despite the Mexican government's efforts to curb it. Russians brought Aleutans to San Clemente Island to hunt the otters.

In the early 1800's, California was still controlled by the Mexican government, which imposed heavy import tariffs. Smuggling began, and the Contrabandistas used Santa Catalina Island as a home base. It was far enough from the mainland to provide seclusion, but close enough to allow for easy trading. San Clemente Island was a little too remote for these activities. Throughout the 1800's, San Clemente Island was only used as a smuggler's base as a last resort. Smuggling from Mexico occured mostly on the mainland. But when border enforcement would tighten up, or when Santa Catalina Island was under the gun, activities would move to San Clemente Island for awhile.

So, what kind of activities transpired on San Clemente Island? Otter hunting. Fishing. Ships also dropped off illegal Chinese immigrants who could then be smuggled onto the mainland. In the late 1800's, smugglers were sailing past San Clemente Island with goat hides, bat guano, and live goats from Mexico. The Spanish goats we have in the southwest were apparently NOT the ancestors to the San Clemente Island goats on our farms. And where did that ear mite come from, found in San Clemente Island goats in 1980 by Phyllis Larsen—a mite that had never before been discovered?

Breeder Carole Coates has been investigating the early importation of goats to The Channel Islands. So far, it seems that missionaries brought goats up the coast from the south to Santa Catalina Island, and it's possible that the Santa Catalina Island goats predated the purebred, centuries-old Spanish goats that we have on the mainland. But in the mid 1800's those goats still hadn't made it onto San Clemente Island.

Sheep Sneakers
San Clemente Island was granted by the Governor of California to Andres Pico and Don Julian Workman in 1846. In 1848, control of California went from Mexico to the United States. Due to red tape and lack of proper filing, Pico and Workman lost their claim. That left San Clemente Island in the hands of the United States Government. It seems that at this time, ranchers were sneaking sheep onto San Clemente Island. Santa Catalina Island already had sheep, and Santa Catalina was also home to thousands of feral goats.

By the 1860's San Clemente Island was used extensively for sheep ranching. The ranchers did not buy or lease the island, but no one seemed to mind until the 1890's when other people wanted to graze sheep there also. But let's look a little further into the early sheep ranching. This gets good. . .

Goatskin Gallagher
Tom Gallagher was stationed on Santa Catalina Island during the Civil War, and moved to San Clemente Island in 1868. He was the first person to raise sheep on San Clemente Island. When he first set foot on San Clemente Island, the grass grew down to the tideline. After 20 years he had increased his flock to 20,000 sheep. On September 17, 1896, the San Diego Union reported, "Gallagher, who has seen seventy-five years, sat in his straight-backed goatskin-seated rocking chair, a goatskin cap on the back of his venerable head, and his body tilting eagerly forward. . ." Gallagher had obviously found a use for island goats. He died in 1899. Tom Gallagher was reported to have shared the island with other sheep ranchers before his death.

Now if we look at the reputable J.S. Dixon's report that Salvador Ramirez claimed to have brought the original goats to San Clemente Island with him from Santa Catalina Island as a newcomer in 1875, it seems about right.

Gallagher Ranch on San Clemente Island, 1912, courtesy of National Archives

End of Ranching
San Clemente Island remained a sheep ranch for some years. Norwegian and Russian fisherman also set up camps there, catching fish and lobsters, and San Clemente Island played a part in contributing to the Chinese-dominated abalone market. Official leasing of the island began in 1900 by the San Clemente Wool Company (Staffordshire sheep), which was bought out in 1903 by Charles T. Howland. Howland let the sheep roam the island, and some were stolen by the fisherman. In 1916, Howland reported that the fisherman were eating his sheep and goats. So at this time, the goats were running free on the island but still officially owned by Howland. Howland sold the sheep operation, including 25,000 sheep, stallions, mules, and jacks to Lewis Penwell (San Clemente Island Sheep Company) in 1916. Penwell ran the company until the Navy took over the island in 1934, but they let the company stay there for an extra year due to Penwell's petition based on "financial hardship." The sheep went to Delano. We do not know whether or not goats were brought there, too. Coincidently, Delano is in Kern County, where later the Clapps would bring San Clemente Island goats in their rescue mission in the 1980's. Another conincidence is that Grumbles and House petitioned for a lease on San Clemente Island to start a game farm and marine biology reserve in 1934. Grumbles returned in the 1980's to help round up the goats.

Navy Influence
The Navy took over San Clemente Island in 1934. It's a good place for an airstrip and a training base. At first, the goats were tolerated.
When we look back to the 1950's, we need to keep things in perspective. In the 1950's, lead-based paint was a good choice for the children's room, and asbestos was a great way to make your house safer. Back then, a lot of things were OK, and so in 1955 when the U.S. Navy proposed importing deer and pigs to San Clemente Island for hunting, the California Department of Fish and Game said it was "OK." Coastal mule (black-tailed) deer were brought from the mainland. The first introduction of deer did not "take," but a subsequent effort a few years later in 1962 did, and the deer population reached about 150. The deer occupied the less precipitous terrain of the northern third of the island. They didn't roam with the goats, but they shared the same ground. The pigs rooted around, tilling up the ground under the trees, eating acorns and such. The goat population escalated. By the 1970's the island was starting to look a little desolate. Native wildlife was looking a little scant. The Navy began to take notice. It was time to act.

This story continues with the story of goat removal and extermination at    Exit Stage Left

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Credit for the research on the early SCI history goes to Stewart Cameron Bruce, whose thesis "A Historical Geography of San Clemente Island 1542–1935" was presented to California State University, Long Beach, May 1994. The paper discusses everything except goats, but provides enough background for us to piece together their history. And thank you, J., for your unending help. Carole Coates has done amazing research into Channel Island goat history, and will be the key to our finally discovering the true story behind the goats.

San Clemente Island Goat Association