Sebastián Vizcaíno Names Santa Catalina
On November 25, 1602 explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno gave its present name.
The native Pimungan people called their island Pimu. In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to encounter the island, referred to it as San Salvador. When Vizcaíno sheltered on the island in 1602 he renamed it Catalina, in honor of the feast day of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
Archaeological evidence shows the island was inhabited by maritime hunter-gatherers for at least six thousand years. Members of the Uto-Aztecan language family, these people developed a strong seagoing trade with residents of both nearby islands and the mainland.
Aleut, Russian, and American hunters trapped otters in Santa Catalina waters while the island was controlled by Spain. Under subsequent Mexican rule, smugglers used Santa Catalina as a warehouse for undeclared cargo. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Santa Catalina became part of the United States.
The first European to set foot on the island was Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing for Spain. On October 7, 1542, he claimed the island for Spain and christened it San Salvador after his ship (Catalina has also been identified as one of the many possible burial sites for Cabrillo). Over half a century later, another Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, rediscovered the island on the eve of Saint Catherine's day (November 24) in 1602. He renamed it Santa Catalina to honor the feast day of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
During the next 300 years, the island served as home or base of operation for many visitors, including Russian otter hunters, Yankee smugglers and itinerant fishermen. Among these visitors, the Aleuts of Russian Alaska probably had the largest effect on the island and its people. These otter-hunters from the Aleutian Islands set up camps on Santa Catalina, and the surrounding Channel Islands, trading with the native peoples in exchange for permission to hunt otters and seals around the island for their pelts. The Aleuts brought diseases to the natives of Santa Catalina Island, for which they had no immunity. This, ultimately, led to the demise of the Pimugnan people. Although these hunters had been known to lead attacks on the native people of surrounding islands, such as the massacre that took place on San Nicolas Island, there is no evidence of such an event on Santa Catalina. (See Nicoleno). Sea otters are now extinct on Santa Catalina Island and surrounding waters due to the effects of the Aleut hunts. These brutal hunts took place for months, with the slaughtering of close to one hundred otters per night. Today, the only substantial population of sea otters is off of the northern Channel Islands. Smuggling also took place on the island for a long period of time. Pirates found that the island's abundance of hidden coves, as well as its short distance to the mainland and its small population, made it suitable for smuggling activities. Once used by smugglers of illegal Chinese immigrants, China Point, located on the south western end of Catalina, still bears its namesake.
Twenty-six miles across the sea,
Santa Catalina is awaitin' for me…”— sung by the Four Preps words and music by G. Larson & B. Belland