The 1812 Santa Barbara Earthquake: Chumash on Santa Rosa Island

In 1812 the great earthquake occurred on the California coast and at that time every soul [Indian] left the island of Santa Rosa. The waters receded from the island several hundred yards. This so alarmed the Indians that, fearful that the island was about to be engulfed, they departed and were settled in bands of three or four hundred at the several missions. The above is the story told by the Indian. It is not difficult to read the power of the priests in this abandonment. Doubtless predictions of heavy punishment in case the islanders still proved contumacious, had often been made by the priests, and this earthquake was interpreted by the superstitious Indians as the first of a series of fatal catastrophes.

-H. W. Henshaw, quoted in Anthropological Records, California Linguistic Records, v. 15, no. 2.

At the time of the 1812 earthquakes, the Franciscan padres were busy trying to convince the remaining Indians, the Chumash, to relocate to the missions. One of the last outposts for the Chumash was Santa Rosa Island, which the Chumash called Mascui, and which they rowed out to in their oceangoing canoes. The Chumash who moved to the missions did not fare well, many of them succumbing to European diseases. No Chumash of pure ancestry lives today. The Indian referred to in the above quote was named Anisetto Pajilacheet, one of the last remaining Chumash, who was interviewed by ethnographer H. W. Henshaw in 1884.

John Johnson, Curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, agrees that times were tough in those days, but he disagrees with Henshaw that there was any kind of a wholesale, flight of fear. His studies indicate that the Chumash were leaving the Channel Islands now and then and for good several years before the earthquake, and that bands were still there several years afterward.

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