On November 24, 1602, the eve of St. Catherine’s Day, Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno sighted three islands. He renamed Pimu, the largest island, Santa Catalina. Pimu—so-called by its native inhabitants, the Pimungan (or Pimuvit) people, was first discovered by Spaniards in October 1542, when the explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed the island for his king. He named the island San Salvador, after his ship.
“Twenty-six miles across the sea,
Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me…”
“26 Miles” (Santa Catalina)
Sung by the Four Preps,
Words and music by Glen Larson and Bruce Belland
Beechwood Music Corp., 1957
Archaeological evidence shows that the island was inhabited by maritime hunter-gatherers at least 7,000 years ago. Members of the Takic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, the residents developed a strong seagoing trade with the peoples of both nearby islands (Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, and probably San Clemente) and the mainland.
Aleut, Russian, and American hunters trapped sea 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 terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Santa Catalina became part of the United States.
In his 1898 book Happy Days in Southern California, Frederick Hastings Rindge wrote lyrically of the island:
In the distance the islands—Santa Catalina (Saint Catherine’s Isle), Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz—hold up their haughty heads, proud of their victories over the storms.
On San Miguel Island, off Santa Barbara City, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first explorer of the California coast, was buried. In aboriginal days, these islands were more populous than the mainland.
But Catalina is the isle that appeals to the people. Her rock-bound coasts are jeweled with abalones: she is the queen of the sea’s domain. Wonderful is she for her submarine gardens in the still waters.
The abalone shells are sent to New York to be made into buttons, and are brought back to California for sale. They should be made here and give wages to our own.
In the twentieth century, Santa Catalina became a vacation spot. Tourists traveled to the island to visit its hotels and watch its famous flying fish. Avalon, the island’s only city, was incorporated in 1913. In 1972, most of the island’s interior and forty-eight miles of coastline were deeded to the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy.
Although the popular 1950s song said Santa Catalina is “Twenty-six miles across the sea,” it is only approximately twenty miles from Los Angeles.
- View more images of the island. Search the Library of Congress collections containing photographs on the term Santa Catalina. Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 and Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991 contain photographs of the island’s early resort days.
- A 1720 map of California by Nicolas de Fer is available through the Discovery and Exploration section of Map Collections (1500-Present). Zoom in on the cluster of islands to see the Isla d. Sa. Catalina — Santa Catalina Island.
- “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 offers two versions of a California regional map that includes Santa Catalina. Examine the small file (80k jpg) version, or view the large file (500k jpg) version.