The History of Bolsa Chica

Once part of a 165,000 acre Spanish land grant, the Bolsa Chica presently consists of approximately 1550 acres of undeveloped coastal wetland and adjacent upland areas. Native Americans once lived on the upland mesas, gathering shellfish and other edibles from the wetlands. In 1900, the tidal nature of the wetland was essentially destroyed when the natural ocean inlet to the wetland was closed to improve duck hunting. Since then, the area has been used for agriculture, cattle grazing, military coastal artillery emplacements and oil production.

In 1973, as part of a controversial land swap, the State of California acquired approximately 300 acres of wetlands adjacent to Pacific Coast Highway. A portion of this was restored by the state in 1979 to become the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. The remaining acreage was retained in private hands. Planning for the construction of a massive marina, commercial and residential development was quickly underway. The plan was drastically reduced in 1989 through the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Amigos.

In 1997 the state acquired 880 acres of Bolsa Chica wetlands and another 41 acres was acquired in 2005, bringing public ownership of the Bolsa Chica to over 1200 acres. Wetland restoration of nearly 600 acres of Bolsa Chica was begun in 2004. In the summer of 2006 seawater flowed into the restored wetland for the first time in over 100 years. The Bolsa Chica wetland restoration was the largest coastal wetland restorations ever undertaken in Southern California.

An Overview of the History of Bolsa Chica

Gabrielenos/Tongvas - Native Americans before the Arrival of Europeans

  • When farmers plowed the ground on the Bolsa Chica Mesa in the late 1800’s, they unearthed curious, round, carved stones. We now call these stones “cogged stones” or “cogstones”. Since then, hundreds of cogstones have been found at Bolsa Chica. Archeologists tell us the cogstones were made between 6000 to 3500 B.C. Nothing is known of the prehistoric makers of the unique stones, and no one knows for certain how they used the stones.
  • The most recent Native American inhabitants in Bolsa Chica were of Shoshone linguistic stock. One group’s land, the Tongva, extended into Los Angeles County, the other, the Acjachemen settled primarily in south Orange County.
  • They lived in seasonal settlements on mesa.
  • They were primarily hunters/gatherers, their food consisting of game, fruit, nuts and seafood.
  • They were accomplished craftsmen who built fine canoes.
  • Their shelters, made from reed and grass, were hemispherical huts called wikiups or kiicha.
  • Their clothing consisted of animal skin or yucca aprons, rabbit skin capes.
  • They had a great reverence for nature.

Spanish/Mexican period 1768 – 1848

  • 1771 - San Gabriel Mission was established. The Native Americans became laborers for the missionaries and were coerced into converting to the European religion.
  • 1784 - vast land grant was given to Manuel Nieto.
  • 1821 - Mexico became independent of Spain.
  • 1834 - The Missions were secularized. The Nieto land grant was divided. Rancho Las Bolsas, consisting of pockets of land surrounded by marshes, was given to his daughter-in-law, Catarina Ruiz.. A smaller grant, Rancho Bolsa Chica (little pocket), was given to Joaquin Ruiz, the brother of Nieto's daughter in law. It was later acquired by an American, Abel Stearns.
  • Americans were the next owners and the first to significantly modify the wetlands. They drained some of them and used them for farming and grazing.

California acquired after Mexican War of 1848

  • California statehood 1850
  • Farming: celery, potatoes, lima beans; grazing: cattle and sheep
  • 1895 Gun Club bought Bolsa Chica
  • 1899 Dam constructed separating inner and outer Bolsa Bay, preventing tidal flushing in the inner bay
  • 1920 oil strike, land leased to Standard Oil, then Signal Oil for drilling
  • World War II artillery mounts and bunkers
  • 1970 Signal Oil bought land for development
  • 1972 The Coastal Act becomes California law
  • 1976 Amigos de Bolsa Chica formed to save wetlands from development
  • 1979 Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve developed; tide gates installed in the dam allowing muted tidal action in the inner bay
  • 1980's 90% of California's wetlands lost to development and farming
  • 1997 State purchased 880 acres from Signal using mitigation credit
  • 2000 Public ownership now about 1200 acres
  • 2001 Beginning of planning process to restore 550 acres of historic Bolsa Chica lowlands
  • 2004 Groundbreaking of restoration construction
  • 2006 Restoration project completed, tidal waters enter parts of Bolsa Chica for first time in more than 100 years