An Island on the Land

Long, long ago it was Vineland, then in 1776 it was branded by the founding fathers as the United States of America. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw an explosion of branded territories - henceforth known as nations: briefly, California was one such.

William B. Ide issued a proclamation of independence on June 15, 1846, it read in part:

"The Commander in Chief of the Troops assembled at the Fortress of Sonoma gives his inviolable pledge to all persons in California not found under arms that they shall not be disturbed in their persons, their property or social relations one to another by men under his command.....
........He further declares that he believes that a Government to be prosperous and happyfying in its tendency must originate with its people who are friendly to its existence. That its Citizens are its Guardians, its officers are its Servants, and its Glory their reward."

Thus was born the Republic of California. It lasted twenty five days.

California's coast was first populated more than 13,000 years ago. Daisy Cave (official site designation CA-SMI-26) is a rock shelter on the former Chumash burial grounds of San Miguel, the western most island of the four in the Channel Island chain that stretches out off the coast of Ventura (Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa are the other three). Here Jon Erlandson of Oregon University has discovered evidence of a kind of kelp culture that could have sustained the first human arrivals. He writes,

"By about 16,000 years ago, the North Pacific Coast offered a linear migration route, essentially unobstructed and entirely at sea level, from northeast Asia into the Americas....With reduced wave energy, holdfasts for boats, and productive fishing, these linear kelp forest ecosystems may have provided a kind of kelp highway for early maritime peoples colonizing the New World."

At Daisy Cave, Erlandson found evidence of human occupations extending from ca.12,000 to 700 Before Present. The oldest artifacts include the remains of kelp resources and small quantities of chipped stone artifacts and marine shells all of which indicate, he suggests, an occupation by an early maritime people during the terminal Pleistocene.

European interest in the lands emerged in the sixteenth century when Spain dubbed their south western and west coast holdings in New Spain as Las Californias, but what is now called California remained an island in cartographers imaginations until 1705 when the Jesuit Missionary, Father Kino, by walking from New Mexico to the California Pacific coast, confirmed that California was indeed part of the North American mainland, but it was not until 1747, that King Ferdinand VII of Spain finally decreed that California was not an island.

Still under this mythic spell, Cabrillo's quest in 1542 was to discover the north-west passage - the imagined link between the Atlantic and the Pacific which would allow Spain direct ocean access to the riches of the Orient - a geographical miscalculation that was the motivation for much of the exploration of the New World on both sides of the continent.

San Miguel re-entered the history of California when Cabrillo broke his arm there while exploring the island. He continued his voyage and reached as far as Point Reyes in what is now Marin County but was forced to return by heavy weather and his gangrenous wound. On the return voyage he again put in at San Miguel where he died and was subsequently buried on the nearby island of Santa Rosa in 1543.

Later in the century, in 1577,  Francis Drake ventured up the coast reaching the present state of Washington; on his return he too put in at Point Reyes for repairs to his ship the Golden Hinde, and took the opportunity to claim the land he called Nova Albion (New England) for his Queen, Elizabeth I.

Despite Spain's interest in developing a west coast port as a lay-over on the arduous voyage from Mexico (Acupulco) to the Phillipines and further sporadic, exploration, California remained safely in the hands of its indigenous people until 1769 when threats of Russian encroachment spurred Spain to establish its military and religious presence (Blowback).

California continued, during the Mission period and through its annexation to a newly independent Mexico in 1824 to be both explored and peopled along a north-south axis, with settlers arriving either overland or by sea. Voyagers along the Kelp Highway had originally arrived from the north; in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the Russians followed this maritime route from their established settlements in Alaska and by 1808 were hunting and trading in Bodega Bay - a few miles north of Drakes Bay at Point Reyes.

California then, if not an island, was most certainly a land of the Pacific littoral connected with Mexico but entirely separate from the historical development of the United States until moments after its brief incarnation as the Bear Flag Republic.

Successive waves of migration from the east then fell upon the land (initially drawn by the lure of gold) and in short order the Grizzly and the indigenous peoples were gone, so too were much of the coastal wetlands, dunes, and sage scrub. The kelp survives in relict stands around the Channel Islands; in the cool currents of Catalina they support a unique marine eco-system (and the glass-bottomed boat tourist industry).

But in this month when the blossoming ceanothus veils the hillsides and its honeyed scent lies heavy in the air, I am reminded that the one inviolable connection to our pre-human history is The Democratic Republic of Chaparral. Fractured, disjunct and absent from the public imagination until it burns, chaparral remains the defining characteristic of the land we now call California and renders it, in an echo of how it was long imagined, An Island on the Land (Mission Creep).