There are no trees on Santa Barbara Island, and only a few shrubs. The vegetation aspect is that of herbaceous plants and grasses, verdant in the spring and appearing dry and brown during the hot summer. The island supports about 120 different species of plant, about 30 percent of which are introduced weeds.
There are fourteen endemic plant species or subspecies which occur on Santa Barbara Island and at least one other California Channel Island. The three plants restricted to Santa Barbara Island are a low shrubby buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum compactum), a small succulent (Dudleya traskiae), and an annual poppy (Platystemon californicus ciliatus).
Santa Barbara Island is roughly triangular in outline and emerges from the ocean as a giant twin peaked mesa with step cliffs. Marine terraces slope away from the two rounded hills, Signal Peak and North Peak. Off shore, there are two named rocks, Shag Rock of the northerly shore, and Sutil Rock of the southwest end. Santa Barbara Island has no well-developed sandy beaches. A few narrow rocky beaches surround the island at various points, and most of these are submerged at high tide. Along the eastern side of the island are a few named canyons. Precipitous cliffs drop to sea around most of the island.
Geologists think this island was formed by under water volcanic activity. Pressure beneath the earth’s surface uplifted this island, which has never had a land bridge to the mainland or the other islands. During different periods of the uplifting process, wave erosion caused several marine terraces, which are evident today. The island was submerged during the Pliocene or early Pleistocene eras, and therefore the colonization by plants and animals began only within the last several hundred thousand years. The island is made up of tuffs and breccias. The soils of the terraces consist mostly of silt and clay.
Santa Barbara Island Timeline:
Pre-historic years: Santa Barbara Island is known to have been occupied seasonally by Native Americans.
1769-1821: Santa Barbara Island and all of California was claimed for the King of Spain.
1792: Sutil Rock, Santa Barbara Island (Sutil Island), about 10 acres in size and located off the island’s southwest quarter, was named by the Geographic Board for the ship, Sutil, of the Dionisio Alcalá Galiano (1760-1805) Spanish expedition of 1792. Sutil Rock’s highest point above sea level is 301 feet.
1821-1848: With Mexico's successful revolt agains Spain, Santa Barbara Island and all of California became Mexican lands.
December 4, 1602: the feast day of Saint Barbara, is the date Santa Barbara Island was named by explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino.
With the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Santa Barbara Island passed from Mexican ownership to U.S. Government property.
In 1856, W. E. Greenwell (1824-1886) of the U. S. Coast Survey, erected a signal on Santa Barbara Island. The following year he wrote to Survey superintendent, A. D. Bache: "There is something remarkable about this little island of Santa Barbara. It is constantly enveloped in fog, and even when the rest are bright and clear the fog seems to hang over this isolated rock without ever lifting…”
In 1863, naturalist James Graham Cooper (1830-1902) camped on the island for 20 days (May 24-June 12, 1863) with a party engaged in hunting sea lions, and during that time he made the first known botanical collection from that island.
The island was surveyed by the U.S. Coast Survey, and in 1871 a survey signal station point was established atop the island's highest point, Signal Peak. For the remainder of the 19th century, this small oceanic outpost was occupied by various seasonal fishermen, transient seal hunters and Chinese lobster trappers.
In the 1890s, Heman Bayfield Webster (1866-1950), lessee of Anacapa Island, built a cabin on a Santa Barbara Island promontory which today bears his name.
Until 1909 however, the government took little interest in what went on on the island. In 1909, these possessory interests stopped when the Government instituted a formal lease agreement policy.
Lessees of record:
1909-1914 J. G. Howland (sublet to Clarence Brockman Linton)
1914-1919 Alvin Hyder
1919-1920 Abbott Kinney (lease revoked)
1920-1929 No lease; Hyders occupied the island
1929 Arthur McLelland and Harry Cupit (lease cancelled)
Of all the lessees, Alvin Hyder and his family are the only ones to have lived on the island for an extensive period of time—15 years (1914-1929). They worked hard, farming potatoes, corn, oats and barley, and running up to 300 hundred head of sheep. Hyder hauled all of their drinking and irrigation water from the mainland.
Al Hyder was drowned at San Nicolas Island on March 24, 1938 when his boat, Nora II, capsized during a sheep-hauling run. His son, Buster, made it safely to shore.
Denton Ozias “Buster” Hyder (1906-1994), Missouri-born, in his own words: “I was born in San Pedro, California on May 20, 1906. The doctor says I’m goin’ to live to be over a hundred. When I was 10 years old I went to Santa Barbara Island to live. My dad leased the island for about $50 a year. That ain’t the first island I had been to. I had been to all the islands when I was a little kid. See, I was working with my dad when I was five years old. I was boxing the compass—I was working.” Buster Hyder grew up tough and poor. His father was hard on him, and Buster worked every day of his life. Buster Hyder died on February 28, 1994. He is buried in Green Hills Memorial Park, Rancho Palos Verdes. » Daily, Marla, ed. Santa Barbara Island. Santa Cruz Island Foundation Occasional Paper #6, 1993.
In 1938, Santa Barbara Island was designated a National Monument under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act of 1938. During World War II, the U.S. Navy used the island as an early warning outpost, and in the 1950s they established a missile tracking station. In 1980, the island’s designation was elevated to National Park status.
In 1980 Santa Barbara Island became one of five islands included in Channel Islands National Park.