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Droughts were often multi-year events in Southern California. In the 19th century the following droughts occurred:

  • 1827-1829
  • 1843-1844
  • 1856-1857
  • 1859 June 12 ~ simoon
  • 1863-1864
  • 1877-1878
  • 1878 December 31 Typhoon and southeast storm took out Chapala Street Wharf
  • 1887-1888
  • 1897-1900
  • 1912-1913
  • 1948

In the News~

May 29, 1856 [SBG]: “We learn from Captain Phillips that the whole amount of produce shipped this year from the island of Santa Catalina consists of three sacks of potatoes. The drought has been so severe that their fields are parched up. The settlers, fourteen in number, begin to fear that they shall be compelled to abandon their settlements and return to the mainland. The island abounds with wild goats, which do not appear to be sensibly diminished in number, though several thousand have already been caught and sold to butchers.”

October 13, 1857 [DAC]: “Santa Barbara items. From the Gazette we learn that on the 6th, Santa Barbara was favored with a succession of showers. The atmosphere is now cool and moist. The distant islands of Anacapa and Santa Cruz are distinctly visible to the naked eye. Everything indicates a wet winter.”

1863-1864 Due to the heavier than normal rainfalls of 1861 and 1862 which resulted in unusually lush rangelands, Santa Barbara County’s cattle population increased to over 250,000. When no rain fell during the following years of 1863 or 1864, the resulting record-breaking drought forced the slaughter of all but about 5000 head of cattle. The value of land dropped to ten cents an acre, and today’s ranchers say the cattle business never recovered. Cattle died by the thousands, and the cattle barons, whose wealth was in their flocks and herds, saw themselves reduced to the verge of poverty.

March 22, 1877 [SBIndex]: “About 25 thousand sheep will be slaughtered today on Santa Cruz Island. The hides and tallow will be preserved, but the mutton will be a loss. Scarcity of food induced by the want of rain compels the sacrifice.”

March 26, 1877 [SBDP]: “…owing to dry weather and consequent short grass, the yield [of wool] was far below average… It is stated that parties will give sheep to anyone who will return the pelts. On Santa Cruz Island the same condition of things exists, with the difference that there is nobody accessible to give the flesh to, and it goes to the fishes. It would be a great thing if it could be dried or canned for shipment to points where meat is less plentiful…”

April 17, 1877 [SBDP]: “Captain C. Thomas, of the Star of Freedom, arrived in port from the islands this morning, and will leave again tomorrow morning for the islands, taking with him a reinforcement of butchers.”

April 28, 1877 [SBDP]: “The slaughter of sheep on Santa Rosa Island is being prosecuted with much vigor.”

May 21, 1878 [SBMP]: “A man just returned from San Clemente Island, reports that fully 9000 sheep perished there last season on account of the drought. About 7000 still remain on the Island, all of which are in a flourishing condition, the grasses being very luxuriant.”

November 20, 1877 [SBMP]: “The Santa Cruz Island Company lost 1000 head of sheep last week. They were running in a band that was not herded, and the place where they got water was overflowed by the extreme high tides. Nearly one third of the whole band died from drinking the salt water. The company has already fed 150 tons of hay because of scarcity of feed. The sheep are in good condition.”

January 2, 1878 [SBDP]: “Professor Paul Schumacher, of the Smithsonian Institute, recently spent some time on Santa Catalina Island, which lies a few miles seaward of Wilmington Harbor… There are on it [Santa Catalina] probably seven or eight thousand wild goats, a few wild bulls and cows and about eighteen thousand sheep. The latter were very poor and weak prior to the late rains, and probability is that many of them have since died. Those which have survived, however, will form the nucleus of a profitable business venture.”

May 21, 1878 [SBDP]: “A man just returned from San Clemente Island, reports that fully 9000 sheep perished there last season on account of the drouth. About 7000 still remain on the island, all of which are in a flourishing condition, the grasses being very luxuriant.”

June 22, 1878 [SBDP]: “The little schooner H. W. Almy arrived in port this morning, having made since the 14th instant a complete tour of all the islands lying off Santa Barbara… Grass is very good on the islands, though now growing brown, and sheep are doing well. Shearing at San Miguel, San Nicolas and Anacapa islands has been finished, and a good yield made. The sheep on the smaller of the Anacapa islands having died during the dry season of last year, they are now being stocked from the larger islands. Captain Mullett says the weather on the islands has been delightful and not a bit foggy.”

July 24, 1898 [LAT/SB]: “San Miguel Island. On account of the dry season, it has been necessary to either ship or sell the stock on most of the large ranches of Southern California and on the islands, in order that feed might be obtained for them. One striking exception to this is the island of San Miguel, from which not a solitary head has been taken. The Santa Barbara Independent says: ‘…Captain Waters is very thankful that he has not been compelled to take advantage of the very low prices and the high transportation rates in order to save his stock’… It is told by some of the inhabitants of this city that away back in the forties there was not a grain of sand visible on the whole island, but that a hard year had come on and there were too many sheep for the amount of feed…”

September 10, 1898 [DMN]: “Fort Worth, Texas. J. H. Charles, a prominent cattleman of Wichita, Kansas, is at the yards today… Mr. Charles is on of the best-known cattlemen in the west and southwest. Last spring he went to Santa Rosa, an island in the Pacific, thirty-two miles from Santa Barbara, California, and bought an immense herd of cattle, which he shipped first to the mainland and then north to the big markets, realizing a handsome profit on his venture. This Santa Rosa Island contains about 70,000 acres and was formerly the property of the More brothers of San Francisco, who were well-known Pacific slope stockmen. On their death the island reverted to the state. [?] Mr. Charles has recently returned from a visit to the Pacific coast, and says that the drought there is the worst since 1864. Cattle, hogs and sheep are dying by the thousands for lack of water, and unless the drought is broken soon hundreds of stockmen will be impoverished.”

April 6, 1901 [LAT]: “For the first time in several years San Clemente Island sheep are being sent to the market in considerable quantities for slaughter. Seventeen carloads were brought over this week by boat to San Pedro and thence by rail to this city. Part of them were sent north and the rest went to Simon Maier’s slaughter-house east of the city, where they were speedily converted into mutton and are now being served as savory roasts and chops on the tables of Los Angeles. Island mutton is reputed to be of a superior quality — the best there is, say some of the meat eaters, but very little of it was to be had during the last few years, owing to the prolonged drought, which almost denuded the Channel Islands of pasturage and made it hard for sheep to pick up a living, let alone getting fat enough to be converted into mutton. But this season’s copious rainfall has made the islands lush with forage, so that the island’s sheep are in prime condition for slaughter. Mr. Maier says other shipments of sheep from an Clemente will follow that of this week, as the demand for the island mutton is growing.”

February 2, 1908 [SBMP]: “Captain Waters sent a crew of sheep shearers to his San Miguel Island ranch yesterday in the Gussie M. Seafaring men who have returned from the islands report the rainfall on the Channel Islands opposite Santa Barbara about four times as heavy as at Santa Catalina Island, which before the recent rain was suffering from drought to such an extent that water had to be shipped from the mainland to keep the sheep from dying. The feed on the northern islands was never better.”

January 22, 1911 [LAT]: “More than 5000 head of cattle, valued at about $200,000, and owned by Vail & Vickers of Los Angeles, are said to be famishing for water on Santa Rosa Island, one of the channel group. Notwithstanding that Santa Barbara has had more than eight inches of rain this winter and the islands are only thirty miles away, it is said they have only received a quarter of an inch of rain. As a result, the cattle are suffering and if there is no relief in the immediate future the owners will be compelled to bring the stock to the mainland.”

January 13, 1912 [SBI]: “Island sheep are not dying by hundreds. Nevada men return from inspection trip to Santa Cruz. The report that 10,000 sheep are dying and in danger of complete extermination because of drought on Santa Cruz Island was flatly contradicted this morning by two of the state of Nevada’s most extensive and best known flock masters, R. Harry Dunn and Assemblyman W. E. Staunton, who crossed the channel from Santa Cruz on the island schooner last evening and left this morning for San Francisco…”

January 15, 1918 [VPD]: “Islands are driest in 37 years… While there have been arguments and comparisons drawn between this year and other dry years, it would appear that this season gets the record if the history of the Channel Islands can be taken as a just gauge. S. L. Knauss of Hueneme, who has herded sheep on every single one of the Channel Islands, says that this year for the first time, much of the area which was formerly in good shape even in dry years on the mainland is now arid and without enough substance to provide for a goat. He has just returned from a trip looking for pasture for stock and failed to find conditions as good as they were in other dry years…”

March 8, 1948 [LAT]: “No change in the weather. Starvation rode herd on this drought scourged island today. So down from the parched brown slopes the lean white-face cattle are being driven in a race with time of an ‘ocean round-up’ and loading on a giant barge to be taken to the mainland for shipment to greener pastures in Oklahoma. All day, every day, the cowboys headed by owner Ed Vail of Vail & Vickers, great friend of Will Rogers, are driving the 2500 head of Herefords amid the dust of the bare hills to get them to the long dock by the big red barns and the white ranch house. The cowboys ride horses one minute and ocean swells the next, for this is an extraordinary cattle venture out here with 25 miles of open sea between this 40,000 acre [54,000 acres] island and the Santa Barbara coast. The island, which was once the home of a queer little prehistoric pygmy elephant, literally has dried up in the record-breaking California drought. The rounded hills rising to 1561 foot [1574 feet] Mt. Soledad are as brown as a monk’s robe. Hardly a sprig of green is to be seen. The tiny tufts of grass that have escaped the hungry mouths of the herd are stunted and dead. Shrubs have perished. Trees look sick, with their leaves handing in parched dejection. ‘It’s the worst in history,’ says Ed Vail, with the dust of the roundup on his face. ‘These are going to be the travellingest cattle we ever had before we get through. We brought them down from Montana last fall and shipped them out here on the barge, now they are going back by barge to [Port] Hueneme, then to Roy Benton’s feeder lot at Puente, and then by train to Oklahoma. We hope to put 300 pounds a piece back on the poor steers by August 1 when we will dispose of them. We don’t want our friend, Clyde Forsythe, the artist, to be painting our cattle as just skin and bones…’”

August 29-September 14, 1948 [O. P. Pearson Field Notes]: “… Because of drought almost all the cattle have been moved off Stanton’s end (west) of the island [Santa Cruz Island.] They have only a half dozen cattle (all around the ranch buildings)…”