Asphaltum

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Asphaltum is a sticky tar-like petroleum substance which occurs naturally on and around the California Channel Islands, and which had many uses by early native inhabitants. Vancouver noted the presence of this “thick, slimy substance” as early as 1793. In 1839 in the account of his voyage, Sir Edward Belcher commented on its strong scent from both the shore and occasionally aboard ship where the smell was “experienced quite far from land.” [Vol. 1:320].

In 1868 T. F. Cronise wrote of the Santa Barbara area in The Natural Wealth of California: “The extensive deposits of asphaltum which exist on this section of the coast give employment to several vessels in supplying the demand for the San Francisco market, where it is largely used for paving and other purposes. The vessels engaged in this business load from the beach, where they collect the material. The following plan for loading asphaltum will explain the nature of the coast in this vicinity, and be interesting as an illustration of Yankee inventiveness. The proprietor of a large deposit of this mineral found it impossible to get it on board vessels to send to a market. The breakers, which curl with great fury for miles along the coast, stove all the boats he used, and the shore was so hard and rocky that piles could not be driven to make a wharf, and the vessels were compelled to lay too far out to make a connection with the shore. As a last resource, he hit upon an expedient. Having a number of yoke of well trained oxen, they are made to haul a large cart containing three or four tons of asphaltum through the surf beyond the breakers, where boats from the vessel are in waiting to receive it, the oxen standing up to their ears in the salt water while the boats are being loaded. About 20 tons a day are loaded in this manner.”

In May of 1889 May 1889 geologist William Goodyear visited Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island where he reported: “flakes of asphaltum are scattered over the beach.” [Goodyear 1890:159.] A hand-drawn map (#48) dated June 1890 of Punta West, Santa Cruz Island, shows extensive asphaltum deposits along the island’s shore between Fraser Point and West Point.

» Heizer, Robert F. Aboriginal Use of Bitumen by the California Indians in California Division of Mines Bulletin 118 (74) 1943.


March 18, 1876 [SBDP]: “The schooner Annie Stoffer will sail this afternoon from Stearn’s Wharf for More’s Landing for a cargo of asphaltum.”


April 5, 1876 [SBDP]: “…Vancouver is the first who calls attention to the bitumen, in the following language, Vol. II, page 449: ‘The surface of the sea, which was perfectly smooth and tranquil, was covered with a thick slimy substance, which, when separated or disturbed by any little agitation, became very luminous, whilst the light breeze that came principally from the shore brought with it a strong smell of tar, or of some such substance. The next morning the sea had the appearance of dissolved tar floating upon its surface, which covered the ocean in all directions within the limits of our view…”


October 18, 1876 [SBDP]: “The schooner May Queen, loaded with beans and asphaltum from More’s Landing, came into this port yesterday, and will sail for San Francisco tomorrow.”


July 29, 1877 [BowersFN]: “San Miguel Island. At the north side or apex quantities of asphaltum occur.”


October 25, 1881 [SBDP]: “The Santa Cruz sailed from Goleta yesterday with 100 tons of asphaltum.”


February 23, 1884 [SBDP]: “The schooner Santa Rosa set sail today for More’s Landing, where she will take a cargo of asphaltum for San Francisco.”


April 13, 1884 [DAC]: “Arrived. April 12. Schooner Santa Rosa, [Captain] Burtis, 3 days from Santa Rosa Island; 45 tons asphaltum to J. H. Congdon.”


April 1884 [SBWI]: “Great hulks of crude asphaltum, that particular product of Santa , is transported to San Francisco.”


January 5, 1885 [SBDI]: “The schooner Santa Rosa goes to More’s Wharf in a day or two to load asphaltum for the San Francisco market.”


August 27, 1885 [DAC]: “Importations. Per Bonita. Santa Rosa Island. 68 cattle, 125 tons asphaltum, 20 calves, 83 hogs, 1020 sheep, 6 bundles pelts.”


May 1889: Geologist William Goodyear visited Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island where he reported: “flakes of asphaltum are scattered over the beach.” [Goodyear 1890:159.]


August 7, 1889 [SBDI]: “A few facts relative to the petroleum and asphaltum prospects in those days (1865-1870)… There also exists south of Santa Barbara, in the channel of Santa Barbara, and about six miles this side of Prisoners’ Harbor off the island of Santa Cruz, another oil spring equally large…”


June 1890: A hand-drawn map (#48) dated June 1890 of Punta West, Santa Cruz Island, shows extensive asphaltum deposits along the island’s shore between Fraser Point and West Point.


May 13, 1895 [SBDI]: “The Alcatraz Mining Company of Carpinteria have just shipped ninety-five tons of refined asphaltum to Pomona.”


December 5, 1895 [SFCall]: “Importations. Per Bonita. Santa Rosa Island. 55 tons asphaltum, 103 head cattle, 368 bales wool.”


October 17, 1897 [LAT/SB]: “Asphaltum is being shipped to San Francisco from the More Rancho near Goleta, at the rate of seventy-five tons a week, and commands from $12 to $15 per ton.”


June 30, 1900 [OC]: “The Anacapa oil explorers returned Saturday. They report splendid oil indications on the island. John Barry surveyed the island, and claims to the number of 7 were located, making 1120 acres. The asphaltum found on this island is the best in the world. The boys brought sacks of samples of oil rock, etc. … The ocean around Anacapa Island is covered with oil and no doubt the island will prove a bonanza to the locators.”


November 12, 1901 [SBMP]: “The steamer Santa Cruz will stop at Carpinteria today for a cargo of asphalt for San Francisco.”


April 9, 1904 [LAT]: “William E. Ritter, professional zoologist, has just returned from a month’s voyage spent collecting specimens of sea life… Bitumen was found in large quantities at great depths.”


August 7, 1915 [SBMP]: “Artistic race dwelt on Santa Isles: Dr. Alliot says relics found indicate form of culture… evidence of the artistic temperament of this prehistoric race is shown in the collection of whistles and pipes, presumably used in the ceremonial rites of the tribe, and in the large collection of clubs, fight implements and even crude statuary gathered by Dr. Alliot. The deposits of asphaltum were advantageously used by the inhabitants. Practically every object collected has been treated with a coating of asphaltum, with broken bits of abalone shell inlaid in fantastic designs… casks were coated with asphaltum and, in some cases, decorated with abalone shells.”


In 1921, George G. Heye wrote that pre historically, asphaltum was used to line graves, to coat mortar, to cover skulls, to use as a base for decorative shell and bone inlays, and to repair vessels. On San Miguel Island, Heye stated: “A little to the east of north from Point Bennett and two miles away is Wescott Shoal in which is found an oil well that discharges quantities of asphaltum, formed by the action of waves and water into roughly globular masses from the size of a pea to some weighing several pounds. Great numbers of these cast upon the beach afforded the ancient inhabitants of San Miguel Island ready access to material used by them largely for manufacturing and ornamenting various objects.” (Heye 1921, Pp. 20).


March 11, 1921 [SBMP]: “The stranding of the oil tanker Liebre on Anacapa Island during a dense fog recently has proved an event of scientific significance. When the bow of the vessel drove into the beach, it uncovered asphaltum deposits in which were found a number of bones. These, according to advices from Ventura, are the fossil remains of mastadons and sabre-tooth tigers. The theory is held that the asphaltum deposit was once in a more liquid state and acted as a trap for the prehistoric monsters, and the asphaltum has kept the bones in an excellent state of preservation, and they will be sent to the Smithsonian Institute at Washington.”