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Salvador Ramirez on San Clemente Island
Photograph by J. S. Dixon, April 1920

RAMIREZ, Salvador L. a.k.a. “Chinetti” [Chenetti] (Feb. 1854-1923) was born in Mexico. He immigrated to California as a young child in 1859 (age 5). Ramirez was an occupant of both Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands off and on from at least 1875 until his death in 1923 on San Clemente Island where he lived in a shack on the south west side of the island. The canyon now bears his name.

In the 1900 census Ramirez (46) is widowed and living in Wilmington with his cousin, Antonia Higuera (54) and her daughter, Clara Graham (18).

Twenty years later, Ramirez is listed in the 1920 Santa Catalina Island census with a birthplace of Mexico; widowed; native tongue Spanish; able to speak English; farm laborer on a sheep ranch; living with Fulmer Oyer (68), Manuel Mendoza (45), Frank B. Ferrer (25), Carmen W. Ferrer (19) and J. Martin Wilson (73).

Salvador Ramirez who planted foxes from
Santa Catalina Island onto San Clemente Islandin 1875

©2007 Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
East End Camp, Pyramid Cove, 1933, San Clemente Island

Several accounts describe Chinetti: Charles Frederick Holder (1910); Joseph S. Dixon (1920); Joseph A. Beek (1922); and Buster Hyder (1986). His death is reported in the Santa Ana Register May 17, 1923:

1910 Charles Frederick Holder: “[San Clemente Island] ...From here for eight or ten miles the country grew more difficult, wilder, with more lava, but at last we came out on a mesa, beyond which through the dusk we could see a long line of beating sea, gleaming in silvery phosphorescence, and away inland a light. How the horses found the way is a problem, but we had kept up the regular Mexican fox-trot since eight in the morning, and it was now seven-thirty. A few more climbs, a few more drops, a sand dune, a beach or two, and the cavalcade ascended a mesa and was at Chinetti's ranch. Chinetti himself came out to greet us and bid us welcome. Here we uncinched the saddles, led the horses down to the corrals, and then watched Chinetti prepare a meal for four men he had not expected. San Clemente is a great sheep ranch, eighteen miles long as the raven flies. The Chinetti ranch includes about ten miles of the most God-forsaken country I have ever seen, and I know the Mohave Desert in various parts, — have ridden over it when the thermometer indicated 130 degrees in the shade, when it would have taken a sixth son of a sixth son to discover shade — not to speak of the drier and arid portions of Arizona and Mexico. Chinetti lived alone in a little shanty which was that rare thing for a Mexican herder, immaculate. The shanty was just large enough for a stove, a table, a bed, and some chairs. This man did not see a human being perhaps once a month. He did not leave the island but once or twice a year, and then for but a few days. He could not read or write, but he had the virtue of neatness, which covers a multitude of sins. The ground for yards about the cabin was swept as clean as if it were a floor; the bed had a covering of white, and over it hung in graceful folds an American flag made from a woman's dresses, which someone had given him. Later, when the rest of our cavalcade had turned in, in the hay at the corral, after Chinetti had cleaned up, I sat down with him and asked if he was every lonely. "Lonely?" repeated the vaquero. "No, indeed. Why listen, señor." The sea was pounding on the long sandy beach with a deep and ominous roar that had never ceased since time began. "Sometime," he said, 'he shake the house; he talk, he growl, he get mad. Then my home — " he continued, looking around, "I sweep, I cook, take care of things, I look out for the sheep all day; they come in from five or six miles every morning to drink. I watch them; take care of the stock."

"Pleasure? ah, there is lots of pleasure if you are alone; it is to have a contented mind, eh? After the work I take my dog and my colt and we go down on the beach and run races; they like it. In the afternoon I take a ride over the range to see if the sheep are all right, then I cook my supper; and my friends, the wild foxes, come around. In? Sure. First they came only near the house and cried; then they came to the door; now they come in and take bits of meat from my hands. Fine little animals." On the wall hung an olive bottle filled with what I supposed to be gin or gasoline, so clear and crystal - like was it. I asked him what it was. "Why, water," he replied. "I hang him there, he 's so beautiful." A bottle of clear, pure water! Who but Chinetti would have thought of using it as a picture? A bottle of water! I began to see that my companion was a poet. "And what do you do after dinner?" I asked. "Oh," replied Chinetti, "I go out sometime and look at the stars and listen to the wind and sea. You hear him?" We both listened, and the strange weird roar was like the deep notes of an organ, the requiem of the sea; it shook the very house.

"You like the sea, eh?" "Yes," I repeated. "I like it, and I see how you make company out of it." "It not always good," laughed Chinetti. Then he told me how he was nearly wrecked here, and finally blown away to San Diego. And I told him of a cyclone I hammered out once in a full-rigged ship when we expected to have to cut away the masts.

"Then," said Chinetti, "I play my guitar to the foxes, yes, and then, before I turn in, I read my books. Yes, look at the pictures and laugh. It's a good thing to laugh, senor." I agreed with Chinetti on this; also, that there is music and companionship in the surf, and that a bottle of water makes a very good picture. Then Chinetti took out his library, and we pulled up to the table. There were two large volumes; one was the bound history of one "Willie Westinghouse Smith"; the other, the life and adventures of a colored gentleman who was continually applying for a position with the remark, "I seen yo' ad in the paper." There were pictures which had appeared in lurid colors in some Eastern Sunday paper, and which constituted the delight and perennial joy of Chinetti, who began to laugh at the very sight of the book, roared as I opened it, and laughed himself almost into hysterics as I read the lines. Then I began to laugh at Chinetti 's pleasure, and forgot that I had been nearly twelve hours in the saddle; forgot that I was away out on the end of a lava bed, nearly a hundred miles from anywhere; forgot that my friends were down in the alfalfa, and laughed with Chinetti at the laughter of the dark person in the book. At times Chinetti would look behind him at the open door and jerk his thumb at it, and say "Foxes laugh too."

This free public library of San Clemente is not much to look at, but I doubt if any collection in the country affords more delight to its patrons than does the two-or-three-volume library of Chinetti. Previous to this I confess I never could exactly see the value of such works of art, but I am a convert. They make joyous the life of a man cast in one of the most desolate and barren of regions. My compliments, and apologies, to the authors of "Willie Westinghouse Smith" and his colored colleague.

At last Chinetti laughed out. All night I heard the cry of his foxes up the canon, and I could fancy, as he said, they were laughing too. In the morning our host took us up a canon, which we named after Chinetti (the raven), a crack in the lava worth going to see, as a marvellous and weird freak of nature. I believe at no point is it over eight or ten feet wide, as far as we went, yet so deep that the sky above, when we could see it, appeared like a blue river. It wound about reaching upward, and everywhere its walls were perforated with weird caves of large size, drooping from which were masses of the snake cactus (Cereus Emoryi), which fell down in clusters like gigantic green serpents. One could well imagine that some Medusa lay sleeping in the cave, with sea-green hair unfolding and writhing over the edge. So wholly unnatural was this cave, that one could not shake off the impression that it was a part of some weird scene in a play. When we came out into the sunlight again Chinetti was loading our saddles on the pack horses, and later took them down to the landing, a lava-flow that reached out into the sea. Mexican Joe, one of the best surfmen in California, was lying off with the launch, and came in, riding the surf with his skiff, to take us off. For an interval of ten minutes the landing was safe, and the men were rushed down, and with flying leaps made for the boat. As I reached her I saw a big roller coming in followed by others, and when we boarded the launch our landing had disappeared from sight under a smoking mass of foam, the big seas making a clear breach over it...

Smugglers’ Cove near Cape Paez, which I named after one of the officers of Cabrillo, is the port of Chinetti’s station or ranch, and lies under Mount Cortez (Pyramid Head). For about two and a half miles west on the south shore a long sandy beach extends from the east end. Midway there is a sunken rock over which the sea shows. Chinetti’s house is seen, up from the beach, and the landing anchorage lies about a mile north — close under the cliffs in water forty or fifty feet deep. At Christmas, in 1907, Mr. [Gifford] Pinchot gave Chinetti a fine American flag to take the place of the pathetic one he had made of pieces of dresses; and in 1908, when the yacht rounded to, up went the big flag, and it will doubtless greet all comers. Also from Washington at this time came the latest editions of those remarkable books which constitute the only library on the island…” [Holder, C. F. Channel Islands of California, 1910, p. 136; 147.]

1920 Joseph S. Dixon interviewed Ramirez on San Clemente Island and took his picture:

“Salvador Ramirez, a Spaniard of the old school who came to San Clemente in 1875 as a young man to tend sheep and who has lived for the most part on the island since then gave me the following information regarding foxes on Clemente: There were no foxes on the island (Clemente) previous to this time (1875), so being naturally interested in birds and animals, he asked and received permission from his employers on Catalina Island, to catch and bring over some foxes and goats. One pair (male & Female) were caught, brought over and turned loose near Wilson Cove and from this pair have sprung the entire present population of foxes on Clemente. Ramirez says that the foxes varied in color somewhat on Catalina, that some were brighter (redder) than others and that he picked good ones hence the bright foxes on Clemente.”
“Ramirez is widely known and his veracity unquestioned by men who have known him for years. See Holder's Channel Isl. As a lad he was always after birds and was nicknamed Chinetta which is Spanish for our Brewer blackbird. He goes by this name still.”

1922 Joseph Allen Beek, Newport Harbor Yacht Club commodore, visited Chinetti in 1922:

“At Wilson's Cove the yachtsmen found a picturesque old character in the person of Chinetti, the Mexican sheel herder who has spent some forty years on the island, and whose name appears frequently in Charles Frederick Holder's book, The Channel Islands of California...”

1986 Buster Hyder: removed Chinetti's dead body from his shack on San Clemente Island in 1923. In an oral history interview with Buster Hyder on August 1, 1986, he described Chinetti:

“To me he looked like he might be half Spanish or maybe half Mexican. I wasn’t sure. He was a guy about 5’ 10” — a very jolly sort of fellow. I met him about a year before we found him dead. I took him to the island when he went to work for Mr. Blair. He always stayed on the east end. He would get on his horse and come up every two weeks to this camp — ride up — and get supplies, see the fellows and visit, and go back on down to Red Rock [Chinetti Canyon]. At that time there was a little house, a little corral and a windmill sticking up. So the last time he went to the beach [town] he stayed about three days and I brought him back. He was drunker than $700 and he used to call me ‘Busso’ all the time when he got drunk. He had his arms around me when I walked up the pier with him, and that was the last time I ever saw him alive.”
“The next time I went and got him as a skeleton. He was a watchman on the east end to keep the fishermen off. That’s what he did. He was down there with his horse and he had a little dog — a little tiny dog. He had his horse saddled, had his lunch in a paper bag tied to the saddle, and the horse was in the corral. It had plenty to eat and drink. So, he didn’t show up. They let a whole week go, and they thought there was something wrong. The foreman — he was kind of a sissy sort of a guy — kind of timid. He rode down there and he got there just after it got dark, and figured he was going to stay all night. Well, as he goes into the door, the bed was over here and in the corner there was a little shelf where there was a lantern. So he lit it and he looked down, and boy, he rode all night long clear back up to the ranch to Gallagher’s.”
“Well, they send word over with a fisherman for me to make a pine coffin and go down there and get him. So I go down there, me and this other fellow, Louie Ross, who was with me. So we go down there figuring we were going to find a lot of — it didn’t sound very good to go get him. When we got there, that building was nothing but green flies all over the whole side of the house. We go in there, and here he is. He’s laying in the bed — a little bed in the corner. It had two army blankets. He’s laying there kind of crossways and one leg was hanging over the bed. He had a red t-shirt on with a pair of woolen underwear below. The foot that was hanging over — the bottom of his feet — the calluses on his toes had hit the floor and it looked like the mice had started eating on some of it. Anyway, I thought, heck, man! Here we had just carried that coffin out there. He wasn’t heavy, and so we just took him right from the bed like that and off we went. Put it all in the dory and took him out there and just stuck him in the coffin after we got there. Took him to 5th Street in San Pedro and the coroners were there and they took him away. That was the last I saw of old Chinetti. That was about 1919 [1923].”

In the News~

September 14, 1899 [SFCall]: “Pasadena, September 13. San Clemente, a desert island so called, which lies in the Pacific in the Santa Barbara channel group, is to be colonized, if the plans of Mr. Bolton and forty odd families of this neighborhood he has interested do not fall through. These families have pooled their belongings and propose to squat on 160 acres each… San Clemente is frostless. There is water standing in pools in the canyons. Wild goats and quail are there in abundance. Years ago a sheepherder [Salvador Ramirez] brought over three brown goats and left them corralled while he visited Los Angeles a hundred miles away. When he returned to the island the goats had broken away and were never caught. They multiplied and today hundreds of them dwell in the caves or rock shelters and scurry up the canyons. The only inhabitants of San Clemente are a few sheep and cattle herders and a hermit, Aleck O’Leary, who lives with his goats and cat and dog miles from human beings. Sometimes he comes to the mainland, making the trip in a skiff with a flour sack for a sail… There is but one obstacle in the way of settlement by farmers. This island, together with Santa Barbara and San Nicolas Island and several of the Santa Barbara group, was set aside by the Government for lighthouse and naval purposes. A very plain title cannot be secured by the settlers, but the would-be colonists think that their rights, if they cultivate the soil, will receive as much respect as those of the sheep herders and eventually the Government will grant them titles.”

May 17, 1923 [Santa Ana Register]: “Clemente hermit dies in old home. Avalon, Catalina Island, May 17. — Salvador Ramirez, oldest pioneer of the Channel Islands, was found dead recently in his little camp at Smuggler's Cove, San Clemente Island, by a party of fishermen from the mainland. Ramirez, who was 74 when he died, sent most of his life as a hermit on one or another of the small cluster of islands off the Southern California coast. It was one of his ancestors who sold Catalina Island to a Santa Barbara attorney for a horse and saddle. Many years ago when Catalina was becoming too populous for the recluse, he moved to San Clemente Island. In his little sail boat he took three goats to start a goat farm. There are now more than 5000 goats on San Clemente, all direct descendants of the three little animals he took away from Catalina Island.”

October 1942 [USNIP]: “…The other hidden treasure on San Clemente Island was left by Chennetti, who worked for Mr. Holland [Howland] in the early eighties. Mr. Chennetti received $40 per month in gold and buried his wages somewhere in the vicinity of Pyramid Cove; he worked for Mr. Holland for many years and never went to town. He could neither read nor write and had no relatives. Mr. Chennetti was found dead at Red Canyon by Mr. Holland and he took his secret hiding place where he had buried his savings with him. Treasure hunters have often dug about Pyramid Cove for his small fortune, but to date the gold is still there…” » Flynn, S. E. The History of San Clemente Island in U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings 68(476):1417-1426 October 1942.

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