Prisoner’s Harbor

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Prisoner’s Harbor

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island is the home of Prisoner Harbor.  In February of 1830, a United States ship called Maria Ester anchored off Santa Barbara, California.  John Holmes, the captain, asked permission from Romualdo Pacheco, the commander of the Presidio, to drop off his cargo.  His cargo was eighty convicted criminals.  The idea was to start a sort of penal colony for the prisoners on the deserted Santa Cruz Island.  Rumors speculate that the Mexican government was also seeking to expand its population by expanding into the United States.

(images:erictrumbauer//flickr) Prisoner's Harbor

(images:erictrumbauer//flickr)
Prisoner’s Harbor

Holmes was transporting the prisoners to Alta, California to start a penal colony, founded by the Mexican government.  This was not the first time Holmes had attempted to discard prisoners.  Holmes’ plan failed on the first attempt because of protestors who prevented his ship being able to dock on the island.  Because of the negative attention, the government decided to postpone the efforts.  The first attempt was made in 1925 and was not tried again until the February 1930 voyage.  He had also been denied from the San Diego area.

When Holmes arrived in California, Pacheco was invited back to the ship to look at the cargo.  Pacheco was shocked to see a ship filled with prisoners.  They were living in filth, with inadequate food, starving, and many were naked or donning shredded clothing.  Pacheco was disgusted and refused to let the prisoners be dropped on the island.

Weeks later, Jose de la Guerra, a prominent citizen of Alta, California, convinced Pacheco to let some prisoners on the island to employ them with odd jobs.  He ensured their conditions were tolerable and gained the respect of many of the prisoners.  In April, thirty convicts were transported to the island and allowed to dock.  A camp was set up on Santa Cruz Island to house the prisoners.  Santa Cruz was considered for the prison because long time legends indicated other tribes and prisoners had previously been sent there for punishment.  The section that housed prisoners, Prisoners Harbor Island, reminds people of the horrors that occurred on Santa Cruz Island during the 1800s.

(images:erictrumbauer/flickr) Prisoner's Harbor

(images:erictrumbauer/flickr)
Prisoner’s Harbor

In November, a fire raged through the camp, destroying everything in its path.  The stranded prisoners built rafts with whatever odds and ends they could find in an attempt to save themselves.  Those who made it off the island were at the ocean’s whims and were victim to the traveling waves of the ocean.  Some drown, some were killed by other prisoners in their struggled to get off the island, and others were likely eaten by sharks.  Survivors faced a storm that pushed them to Carpiniteria Valley.  Locals found the prisoners and they were beaten for trying to escape the island that originally homed them.  They were later released however, and allowed to make their own lives freely in society.

People visiting the island report hearing moans and screams.  Some have even seen a a faint fire, never finding the source.  Many report an overall negative feeling and uneasiness.  Even more spooked people report feeling pushed or shoved while exploring, suggesting that prisoners may linger, still trying desperately to get off the island.

Megan Borchert
Megan Borchert
Lover of all things unusual, Megan is a staff attorney for the state of South Dakota. When she's not stuffed in an office writing case synopses, you can find her at home with her army of Schnauzers, snuggled up with some strong wine and a good book.

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