Greater Ancestors

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San Clemete, San Nicholas, San Catalina – Giants


The deserted Channel Islands of the Pacific have at last undergone a thorough exploration by Professor Charles Frederick Holden, says the Glasgow Mail, with the result that much of absorbing interest regarding the extinct inhabitants of these lovely isles has been discovered. He visited San Nicolas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente, and made many excavations and many rich finds.

Giants once lived in the exquisitely lovely Channel Islands, for many skeletons have been found there more than seven feet high. Tradition has it that the warlike tribes of the Aleutian Islands came down in boats more than a century ago and practically exterminated the Channel Islanders. Certain is it that most of the unhappy wretches met death by violence, for nearly all the skulls discovered are crushed by blows from blunt instruments. The club is the weapon of the Aleutian savage, and this seems to fit the tradition.

A few escaped, and up to about sixty years ago the remnants of the tribe were still living on San Nicolas. In 1836 the Franciscans of the Santa Barbara mission, learning that there were but sixteen of the strange Indian race then living, determined to rescue them. They went over in a sloop and succeeded in getting all on board. At the last moment, an Indian woman returned for her child, and one of the frequent storms of the Channel Islands springing up, the sloop was driven away. It went on the rocks of Point Conception, and all on board were lost. So only this woman was left, and she was soon forgotten.

In 1851, however, Captain George Nidever visited the island to hunt sea otter, and was amazed to find human footprints in the sand. Two years later he returned to investigate the matter, and succeeded in capturing the remaining Indian, now an old woman. She was dressed in birdskins, and was engaged in scraping blubber from a seal. They took her to Santa Barbara, where she lived for several years, and was known far and wide as “the one woman of St. Nicholas.” But she never learned enough English to be able to tell anything of the life and tradition of her strange race.

Professor Holden, in his exploration just concluded, found many large mounds in San Nicolas, one 300 feet long by 50 feet wide, composed of abalone shells, which were brought from the sea two miles distant, thus showing evidence of a large population. He found objects of stone, bone, and shell piled in heaps. There were pendants, rings, beads, and curious objects in pottery among them, proving that the extinct people loved ornamentation. That they played games was shown by the finding of perforated and oval stones, and many small and peculiarly shaped instruments. Some of the mortars picked up were very high and narrow, others so heavy there was great difficulty in rolling them down to the ship. One showed evidence of ornamentation with abalone. Sculptured forms of miniature sea lions and whales carved from serpentine prove a love of art in the aborigines. According to Professor Holden, the islanders depended for food on abalone, fish, and possibly roots. Consequently, they belonged to an advanced period of the stone age.

San Clemente, twenty miles long by three wide, Professor Holden found contained much evidence of ancient habitation. Possibly 300 years ago,

“It had a large population. One square mile of its area was covered with skeletons, shells, and ancient implements and mortars, some weighing one hundred pounds. Santa Catalina is a high mountain ridge, the only landing places being the mouths of canyons. Professor Holden declares that the islands were inhabited for many centuries, for he found heaps of abalone shells on the seashore, covered with twenty feet of a deposit, which he calculates required centuries for its formation.

The islands have been a mine of archaeological treasure ever since 1872, when the first systematic exploration was made by Mr. W. G. W. Harford. From the graveyards were unearthed a large number of skeletons, each surrounded by marvellous examples of the products and handiwork of the long past dead. The graves, as described by these investigators and others, make an interesting story of themselves. The skeletons lay crowded together in every conceivable position, sometimes superimposed three or four deep, those below forgotten and unmarked, ruthlessly disturbed to make room for the last interment. Some of the graves had rude boxes constructed of the huge flat bones of whales, in which the dead were deposited.

The early sea captains related gruesome tales of the islands, where within yawning skeletons of whales lay the grinning And bleached bones of men, exposed to view by the ceaseless shifting of the sands. One type of the remarkable finds made in the graves is the gigantic soapstone, or steatite, pots, which stand absolutely alone as monuments to the cleverness of the early inhabitants of these islands. Some of them are fully two and a half feet in diameter, almost globular in form, with very thin walls, and carefully polished over their entire inner and outer surfaces. It is astounding how these ancient peoples carved and modelled such symmetrical and fragile vases from this material, but nevertheless fully three-fourths of the vessels used for cooking and ceremonial purposes were adroitly fashioned from it. For most of the pipes, gorgels, mortars, animal figures, pendants, net sinkers, and the like, the same stone was utilised. A shudderingly facetious use for some of these colossal stone jars was as a headgear for the dead. Numbers of skeletons were unearthed with skulls completely encased in the orifices of the vases. Half a dozen hairbrushes were unearthed from graves. They are made of the fibre of the soap plant or articles of yucca, bunched together in the semblance of a miniature whisk broom, the top or handle formed by heavily coating one end for several inches with bitumen. San Clemente is the only one of the islands that is still visited. A few sportsmen go there yearly for the magnificent bird shooting and unsurpassed sea fishing. The others are rarely ever approached. St. Nicholas is the most interesting of them all. It is a melancholy spot for the visitor, for every acre of it has its tale or tales of an extinct civilization. That the people that once enlivened its shores and cliffs were peaceful is shown by the absence of weapons of offence. The weapons found there are those used in the household and the chase. These gentle savages were fishermen by choice, and they must have been sturdy and persistent whalers, judging by the myriad remains of these deep-sea leviathans that Professor Holden found upon the islands. The great bones of whales were built into rudely artistic structures so compactly that they have withstood the ravages of storm and sand for centuries. The only actual record of this interesting savage race that we have previous to the disastrous attempt by the missionaries to remove the remnants of it, as told above, is the log of Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Portuguese navigator, who sailed up the Californian coast in 1542. He stopped a day or two at each of the Channel Islands and reported that they were inhabited by a “vigorous and lusty race of natives, who thronged the shores of the bays and headlands and seemed greatly mystified by the ship. The islands remain, but the natives are no more.

  1. Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954) View title info Tue 16 Feb 1897 Page 6 THE ISLANDS OF MYSTERY.

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