One of the southern Channel Islands, Santa Catalina lies the closest of the group to mainland California. Its rugged landscape boasts peaks reaching 2,000 feet above sea level, while its beaches are limited, adhering primarily to the mouths of canyons. The tiny island has nevertheless been inhabited for nearly 7,000 years, with its original Native American occupants probably having paddled their plank canoes from the mainland’s shores to settle the rocky land mass and develop a marine-based culture.
The Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to visit the island in 1542. During the next several centuries, other Spaniards stopped at the island, but it was not until the late 1700s that life was dramatically altered for the island’s native peoples, when Spanish colonization of the California coast began in earnest and most of the island’s population, by choice or compulsion, relocated to the mainland during the following decades.
In 1846, shortly before the United States assumed control of California and its islands, the Mexican government granted ownership of the island to a private citizen. Changing hands a number of times during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the island has belonged to the Wrigley family since 1919. Settlers on Catalina Island raised sheep and cattle in the mid 1800s, introducing a ranching industry that continued in some form until the mid 1950s. Mining and the occasional use of the island by the U.S. government during wartime have also colored its history.
Most importantly for its future, in the late 1880s owner George Shatto embarked on a campaign to turn Catalina Island into a tourist destination, planning and building the town of Avalon as the focal point of the island and hub of this activity. Successive owners have nurtured his idea, constructing hotels, golf courses, and new tourist attractions and encouraging hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits, helping to make Catalina Island the resort it is today.