The Region: A Brief History

Southern California’s coastal region was home to hunter-gatherer societies as far back as 35,000 years ago. As long ago as five thousand years ago the Chumash lived in the region stretching from today’s Malibu to San Luis Obispo.

Their invention of the plank canoe allowed the Chumash to fish the Channel Island waters. They hunted the abundant local game and fashioned tools for collecting and processing plants, nuts and roots, making cultivation of crops unnecessary. The benign climate and varied resources allowed them to enjoy a complex village and religious life and develop a high level of craftsmanship.

Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made the first European contact with the Chumash in 1542 and his diaries note their friendliness. In 1769 Gaspar de Portola’s expedition established the chain of missions in California, which served to convert local tribes to Christianity and employ them as labor. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought Mexican independence from Spain and a few years later the mission system was abandoned and the land holdings passed into the hands of private citizens.

Prior to the treaty, Jose Tapia was awarded the last Spanish land grant, Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit. He built a home on Malibu Creek, where he grazed horses and cattle. His heirs sold the Malibu acreage in1857 and it was bought by millionaire Frederick Rindge in 1891.When Rindge died, his wife May fought an ongoing battle to preserve the land from development. In 1906 she built 15 miles of railroad track from the private pier to Hueneme to thwart the Southern Pacific Railroad’s agenda for development. When her Marblehead Land Co. went bankrupt during the Depression, bond holders took control, subdividing and selling the land.

Following the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, Jesus Santa Maria and his wife Elena became the first settlers of the upper Topanga Canyon area, followed by the Trujillos, who settled in the Old Canyon. Other small ranches and homesteads sprang up gradually throughout the Canyon.

During World War I the road from the ocean to the valley was completed, bringing a steady stream of traffic on weekends and by 1923 small resorts were established for visitors. The period from 1940 to 1960 was one of substantial population growth and change in both Topanga and Malibu. From that time forward the coast and canyon lifestyle has attracted celebrities, artists, musicians and lovers of the beauty and wildlife of the Santa Monica Mountains.