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Image from Goleta History

Mexcaltitan Island (Helo')

Prior to European contact, this site was known as Helo' which translates to ‘The Water’ and was home to hundreds of Chumash people. It was one of the most populated sites in the entire Goleta Valley located on an island which reminded the Spanish explorers of a similar location in Mexico known as Mexcaltitan Island. This name has stuck all the way through to today and underwent various changes in use from agriculture to an airstrip. Since then, it has fallen under the ownership of Southern California Gas Company and much of the island has been flattened but can still be seen when driving by the airport.


Cabrillo Expedition, during the time of the 1st European exploration of this site, there were several hundreds of Chumash living on the 64 acre island which is one of the largest Native American settlements in California.


Martinez Expedition, No presidio had been established due to thousands of Chumash being present and the Spanish’s unwillingness to try and relocate them​.


Portolá Expedition, Spanish soldiers were very impressed by the site which reminded them of Mexcaltitan Island of Mexico which gave the site the name it goes by today. At the time the island was covered in oak trees and held a hundred houses which made up two large villages.


There were significant ecological changes as all trees were cut down to allow room for agriculture fields.


Grazing animals quickly ate away at most vegetation in the area which, after heavy rainfall, led to a flooding of the area and the creation of a salty marsh.


John Moore purchased the island and used it as a bean field which he later built a house on to serve as his sister’s new home.


At this time, the first well known aerial photograph of the island was taken which showed the water level to be very shallow, unlike what had been reported by explorers in the past.

spanish map.PNG

Drawing by sailor named Pantoja on the 1782 Martinez Expedition: Image from Goleta History

island 1.jpg

The first known aerial photograph of the island taken in 1928:

Image from Goleta History


The United States government issued a program which would call for the building of 250 new airports. Thomas M. Storke was the man who got Santa Barbara to become a part of this initiative which led to the drastic altering of the island. Much of the land mass was used to level the surrounding area to serve as runways which involved disrupting buried Chumash remains.


The remains of a woman were found near a large whale bone which was ornately decorated with beads and abalone. Following this more of the island was removed to allow for the construction of Ward Memorial Highway.


The site of what was formerly known as Helo’ is under the current ownership of Southern California Gas Company & Goleta Sanitary District and sits very close to the entrance of the Santa Barbara Airport.


Special Research Collections, UCSB Library, University of California Santa Barbara

May 20, 2003 Flight ID: PW-SB-14


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