San Clemente Island is located 68 miles west of the coast of San Diego, California. Legend has it that Spanish explorers left goats on the island as a food source for future sailors. For the next 500 years, these goats lived, died, and multiplied—isolated on the island with virtually no human contact. At least, that's what we've always heard. This may be a myth. Evidence indicates that San Clemente Island goats were brought to San Clemente Island in 1875 by Salvador Ramirez, who claimed to have brought them from Santa Catalina Island. According to the reputable J.S. Dixon's report that Salvador Ramirez claimed to have brought the original goats to San Clemente Island with him from Santa Catalina Island as a newcomer in 1875, it seems about right.
Joseph Scattergood Dixon (1884-1952), was a Kansas-born ornithologist and field collector by Joseph Grinnell in 1908. Dixon collected on Santa Catalina Island April 6-12, 1920, and on San Clemente Island April 12-17, 1920. One of his most significant notations is that of information he recorded in an interview with Salvador Ramirez, who relocated Santa Catalina Island foxes to San Clemente Island in 1875, and who also placed goats on that island the same year:
“Salvador Ramirez, a Spaniard of the old school who came to San Clemente in 1875 as a young man to tend sheep and who has lived for the most part on the island since then gave me the following information regarding foxes on Clemente: There were no foxes on the island (Clemente) previous to this time (1875), so being naturally interested in birds and animals, he asked and received permission from his employers on Catalina Island, to catch and bring over some foxes and goats. One pair (male & Female) were caught, brought over and turned loose near Wilson Cove and from this pair have sprung the entire present population of foxes on Clemente. Ramirez says that the foxes varied in color somewhat on Catalina, that some were brighter (redder) than others and that he picked good ones hence the bright foxes on Clemente.”
Dixon’s field notes are on file at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkeley. Dixon died in San Diego on June 23, 1952 at age 68. He is buried in Oak Hill Memorial Park, Escondido, CA.
Let's go way, way back to the beginning. Well, maybe not. Let's just go back to where the myths start and clear it all up for San Clemente Island goat enthusiasts. We've all heard the story that the goats were dropped off on the island by Spanish explorers as a food source for future travelers. Sound familiar? It was a myth. Here's the real story. . .
Cabrillo, the great Spanish explorer, was sailing near San Clemente Island in 1542. He was also sailing near Santa Catalina Island. Santa Catalina Island has two peaks, and kind of looks as if it's two seperate islands. It is suggested that Cabrillo couldn't see San Clemente Island, and mistook Santa Catalina Island for two islands. Anyway, he named the 'second island' Victoria (or "Vittoria"). Whether or not it really was San Clemente Island that he saw and named or not, we'll never know.
Along comes Sir Francis Drake. He sailed right by San Clemente Island and never mentioned it.
Sebastian Vizcaino, in 1602, sailed by the island. He was the one who named it San Clemente. As was traditional, Vizcaino named the island after the saint whose feastday it was at the time of discovery. Saint Clement was the fourth pope, and is known for the miracle of providing water for 2,000 men on a dry island. Vizcaino never set foot on San Clemente Island, and was unaware that it has no natural springs, either.
In 1769, Juan Perez explored the Channel Islands. He saw that the available maps were full of errors, and wanted to fix them. He was the first European to set foot on San Clemente Island, between the 16th and 19th of March in 1769. There he met the natives—a people known as the Gabrieleno. The Gabrieleno, your average nice natives living off the land and harming nothing, gave Vizcaino a couple of sea otter pelts that they had hunted off the beach. The sea otters were about 4 or 5 feet long, and weighed 50–80 lbs. Vizcaino didn't realize that the furs were worth about $100 apiece in China. It didn't take long for others to figure this out, though, and by the early 1800's the fur trade was decimating the otter population in the Channel Islands despite the Mexican government's efforts to curb it. Russians brought Aleutans to San Clemente Island to hunt the otters.
In the early 1800's, California was still controlled by the Mexican government, which imposed heavy import tariffs. Smuggling began, and the Contrabandistas used Santa Catalina Island as a home base. It was far enough from the mainland to provide seclusion, but close enough to allow for easy trading. San Clemente Island was a little too remote for these activities. Throughout the 1800's, San Clemente Island was only used as a smuggler's base as a last resort. Smuggling from Mexico occured mostly on the mainland. But when border enforcement would tighten up, or when Santa Catalina Island was under the gun, activities would move to San Clemente Island for awhile.
So, what kind of activities transpired on San Clemente Island? Otter hunting. Fishing. Ships also dropped off illegal Chinese immigrants who could then be smuggled onto the mainland. In the late 1800's, smugglers were sailing past San Clemente Island with goat hides, bat guano, and live goats from Mexico. The Spanish goats we have in the southwest were apparently NOT the ancestors to the San Clemente Island goats on our farms. And where did that ear mite come from, found in San Clemente Island goats in 1980 by Phyllis Larsen—a mite that had never before been discovered?
Breeder Carole Coates has been investigating the early importation of goats to The Channel Islands. So far, it seems that missionaries brought goats up the coast from the south to Santa Catalina Island, and it's possible that the Santa Catalina Island goats predated the purebred, centuries-old Spanish goats that we have on the mainland. But in the mid 1800's those goats still hadn't made it onto San Clemente Island.
San Clemente Island was granted by the Governor of California to Andres Pico and Don Julian Workman in 1846. In 1848, control of California went from Mexico to the United States. Due to red tape and lack of proper filing, Pico and Workman lost their claim. That left San Clemente Island in the hands of the United States Government. It seems that at this time, ranchers were sneaking sheep onto San Clemente Island. Santa Catalina Island already had sheep, and Santa Catalina was also home to thousands of feral goats.
By the 1860's San Clemente Island was used extensively for sheep ranching. The ranchers did not buy or lease the island, but no one seemed to mind until the 1890's when other people wanted to graze sheep there also. But let's look a little further into the early sheep ranching. This gets good. . .
Tom Gallagher was stationed on Santa Catalina Island during the Civil War, and moved to San Clemente Island in 1868. He was the first person to raise sheep on San Clemente Island. When he first set foot on San Clemente Island, the grass grew down to the tideline. After 20 years he had increased his flock to 20,000 sheep. On September 17, 1896, the San Diego Union reported, "Gallagher, who has seen seventy-five years, sat in his straight-backed goatskin-seated rocking chair, a goatskin cap on the back of his venerable head, and his body tilting eagerly forward. . ." Gallagher had obviously found a use for island goats. He died in 1899. Tom Gallagher was reported to have shared the island with other sheep ranchers before his death.
In the mid 1980s, the U.S. Navy, who owned the island, began to exterminate the goats. The goats were destroying the indigenous endangered plants, and negatively affecting the ecology of San Clemente Island. Not surprising—there were at least 15,000 goats on 57 square miles. Thousands of goats were exterminated.
The Fund for Animals stepped in to litigate for the live removal of the remaining goats from the island. Over 6,000 goats were trapped and resettled on the mainland. Many goats were adopted out as pets, and many of these were neutered first.
Thanks to a few foresighted rescuers, breeders, and the intervention of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a handful of breeding stock was saved, and efforts to save this unique breed began.
Limited technology in the 1980's affected the availability of information and the means to spark nationwide public interest in San Clemente Island goats as a heritage breed. San Clemente Island goats exist in only a few states and Canadian provinces. Their wide geographical distribution has been a biological safeguard, but hasn't helped their popularity. Now they can be brought to the public eye. And when they are, they will undoubtedly be loved. Presently, there are approximately 750 San Clemente Island goats left worldwide.