The magical natural offerings of California’s Channel Islands rival any landscape on the planet, but the archipelago’s assembled histories are almost equally fascinating. The prehistoric and modern pioneers who’ve tended to their shores over the past 15,000 years endured all manners of triumphs and tragedies, leaving a lush fabric of stories in their wake.
Weaving all the tales together in the new book California’s Channel Islands: A History is Frederic Caire Chiles, whose great-grandfather Justinian Caire owned Santa Cruz Island around the turn of the 20th century. Chiles covered his family’s story in his last book and was asked by his publisher, the University of Oklahoma Press, to expand that work into this exhaustive and entertaining examination, which hits every island from San Miguel to San Clemente.
“In doing the Justinian Caire and Santa Cruz Island book, the story was the people: They were center stage, and the island was the background,” Chiles told me over the phone from his home in London. “In this book, the islands and all their rich history are the stars, and it’s not just a story of the last 150 years. It is a story of the last 15,000 years, and an exciting one it is.” An edited version of our interview is below, and excerpts of the book can be found on the pages that follow.
How were you introduced to the islands? I was initially inoculated by my mother. As kids, we were raised on stories of this island kingdom that had been bought by her grandfather, and it was all a very special history, a pretty unusual, unique experience. Yet somehow it was a story that you didn’t dig too far into. As long as you stuck to the level of “Wasn’t it a wonderful place?” and “Weren’t they heroic?” it was great. But if you really started to probe down through the layers and wonder, “If it was so great, why’d they get rid of it?” then we were always told, “When you’re a little older, kids.” That time never came.
What led to the books? My mother’s oldest sister had been the family lawyer, so she really knew what the story was and where all the bodies were buried. When she died, a lot of this history went with her. But fortunately, although she was dead-set against digging it all up again, she had kept very meticulous records and put them all away as though they were meant to be found after that whole generation was gone.
When did you first get to visit the island? It wasn’t until I was a graduate student at UCSB that my mother’s sister engineered a meeting with Carey Stanton in the early 1970s. He had a thing about the Caires, always wanted to cultivate and be friendly with them, but they had mixed feelings. By and large, they refused to ever go out there, but they never shut him out of the picture. He maintained a cordial relationship with them, usually at arm’s length. My younger brother was an undergrad, as well, so we met with Carey Stanton in Isla Vista, and that led to an invitation to spend some time on the island.
We spent three to four days out there and were very much taken with it. Having been [raised] on stories of this hyperactive place with 20-30 vaqueros running around as it had been, it seemed pretty sparse and lonesome. When the generator shut off, it was the quietest, darkest place within about 100 miles of Los Angeles. It was strangely beautiful and calm and quiet but different.
What did you learn in researching the book? One thing that really stuck out for me was the kind of motion that people would take on these islands to fashion them into a kingdom. Certainly, [Herbert] Lester was obvious about it, and loved calling himself the “King of San Miguel.” But on Santa Rosa, A.P. More was a self-styled king, as well. In fact, he got away with murder. He killed the Chinese cook, but the court wouldn’t convict him because it happened over water on the pier.
The Vails stand out from all of this by just being really sensible, running things as a business, not falling out with each other, and getting people to work for them for decades.
And like Frenchy LeDreau — the clown prince of Anacapa Island who lived in a quiet alcoholic haze — the islands have space for people to express their eccentricities. Not forever, and sometimes they only last five or six years, like the Hyders on Santa Barbara, which is a story I didn’t know anything about. Their dilemma encapsulated that allure and mystique of having an island to call your own, but it was just a life of unremitting toil.
Was there more heartache or pleasure for those involved with the islands? There was probably more pleasure. The heartache would come in the walking away. I didn’t come across any story where people voluntarily left. They were forced to leave by circumstances, whether it was tragedy of the Lesters or the lawsuits of the Caires and the Vails. I overheard one of the Vails saying, “I don’t care if we got $30 million. I’d give it all back if we could have the island.”
Which island is your favorite? I’ve gotta say Santa Cruz because of its unique geology. All things being equal, Santa Cruz Island is really the only one where you can get out of the wind. That wind really picks up a head of steam across the Pacific. It’s just one of these things that defines the islands. They are shaped by the wind.
Do you expect the military to ever open San Clemente or San Nicolas to the public? Those facilities are probably pretty expensive to maintain, so it really depends on the role of the military in America. If the world situation changes for the better, which is a very big “if,” then it could be that the American people would like to repurpose those islands for recreational purposes, much the same way as they have for all the military land around the San Francisco Bay. But the Navy continues to invest in San Clemente, where there’s a whole mocked up American embassy that the SEALs can practice storming. That doesn’t indicate they’re likely or want to move.
Is there a greater American lesson in how these islands were developed? They do reflect that pioneering, gung-ho, take-on-nature-on-its-own-terms spirit of the westerly movement of American history. The Lester family became minor celebrities in the 1930s; they were the Swiss Family Lester, the blue-blood pioneers, which charmed America.
But I hope to communicate that the 15,000 years of human activity on these islands is every bit as interesting and important as the last 400 or 500 years of Western, written-down history. I got swept up in the notion that, just under the surface of these islands, there’s the proof that humans spread into North and South America not only down the traditional understanding of the middle of the continent, but by following the coast, as well.
The fact that the proof hasn’t been paved over is really exciting. It’s something that Southern Californians, and Santa Barbarans, in particular, can take real pride in. They can see this great historical resource sitting there on the horizon. Even if they don’t go out and enjoy it, they can still get the reflected glory of what’s there on their doorstep.
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