A name like Deadman’s Island evokes at least a couple of images. For one there’s the theatrical/fanciful/cartoon/amusement park kind of pirate lair. But for another, there’s the historical chance that the name developed from its very real inhabitants.
There was a Deadman’s Island at the entrance to the harbor at San Pedro—well before it was Los Angeles Harbor. For decades it was a landmark for mariners. But it didn’t have a name until about 1810 when a body was found on it. The body belonged to someone who apparently had made his way to the island, but was unable to get across the wide channel to the mainland, and who probably died from exhaustion, exposure, thirst, or all of the above.
The body was discovered by local fishermen, who buried him atop the island and from that day forward named the site (depending on the source), “Isla del Muerto” or “Isla de los Muertos.” It was later translated to the English Deadman’s Island.
In his book, Two Years Before the Mast published in 1840, Richard Henry Dana wrote about visiting Deadman’s Island in San Pedro Bay in 1835 and mentions the burial there of a British whaling captain, whose cause of death was unknown.
The logs of Capt. Augustus Timms, founder of the harbor at San Pedro, also mention that a British mariner’s body was taken off his ship and buried. But there is no word about how he died.
It was in 1901, though, when four local boys—identified by the Los Angeles Times as Mark and Howard Kelsey, Chester Silent, and Roy Bancroft—found the mariner’s coffin and bones. They were fishing when the exposed bones caught their attention.
The exposure of the bones was a long time coming and had been the cause of discussion for quite some time.
Over the years the ocean’s waves had worn away at the island’s rock and soil, exposing at least one major hole that continued to be enlarged by nature’s forces, eventually resulting in the coffin and bones coming to the surface.
The boys said the coffin was in good shape, although its boards had fallen apart. And the bones had did not scatter much from the coffin. Also, the relatively dry conditions under the surface of Deadman’s Island appeared to help preserve the bones—and a rope.
The rope was found between the deceased’s head and ribs and was apparently fashioned as a hangman’s noose. None of the long-time local residents could recall the victim of a hanging being buried on the island and the cause of death of the ship’s captain had been a mystery for a century. It was inferred from the evidence that the bones were those of the captain of the British whaling brig, that the ship’s crew had hanged the captain during a mutiny, and that the sailors had buried his body on the island.
The overthrown captain was not, however, the only dead man on the island.
On October 7, 1846, the frigate USS Savannah arrived after helping to secure northern California for the U.S. It came to San Pedro to try to recapture Los Angeles, which had been taken over by the Californios.
The first casualty from the Savannah was William Smith who died from the accidental discharge of a pistol soon after the ship arrived.
An expedition would set out for the pueblo and would encounter an opposition force on the Dominguez Rancho, about 10 miles north of San Pedro. This battle, called either the Battle of Dominguez Rancho or the Battle of Old Woman’s Gun, would result in five more deaths.
These came about from a cannon named “Old Woman’s Gun” that the local forces fired several times. It was a brass cannon with a bore of a little more than three inches that fired four-pound shot and was used for ceremonies. It was a very small gun, as cannons go, and had been a decoration in Dominguez family daughter-in-law Inocencia Reyes’ garden. It was retrieved and mounted for battle. The first shot was reported to be ineffective because of faulty, locally produced, gun powder. But several subsequent shots hit their marks.
At the end, on October 9, the bodies of Michael Hoy, David Johnson, Charles Somers, and William B. Berry, were interred on Deadman’s Island. On October 22, the body of Marine Henry Lewis was also buried there, although there is no record of how he died. It is presumed he died from disease on board the Savannah.
Perhaps ironically or perhaps fittingly, the cannon that killed the five men was brought to Deadman’s Island on July 4, 1853 to fire a salute on Independence Day.
As the bodies were exposed in those later years, the remains of the military members were relocated to the Presidio in San Francisco; the remains of the civilians were reinterred at San Pedro’s Harbor View Cemetery.
Finally by 1928, as traffic in the harbor increased and the government decided various other enhancements to the facilities were needed, Deadman’s Island became an impediment. It was viewed as a navigational hazard and, although it had at a couple of times in its history served as a whaling station, the rock itself served no real purpose.
It took the power of eight dredging barges, a steam shovel, and 20 train cars of dynamite and blasting powder to level the island. It gave up 2.3 million cubic yards of rock and dirt, which were used in the construction in surrounding areas of a customs house, Coast Guard station, and prison on the adjacent end of Rattlesnake Island, by then renamed Terminal Island. The new land created in part from Deadman’s Island is called Reservation Point.
Head down to the south end of the harbor and look to the east. You’re likely to see one or more Coast Guard vessels there. They’re at Coast Guard Base Los Angeles/Long Beach. And perhaps on a particularly dark and maybe foggy night, you just might see the ghosts of the dead men of Deadman’s Island.
From the October 2018 issue of San Pedro & Peninsula Visitor magazine. Used with permission of Visit San Pedro. Click here for the issue the article appeared in (PDF).