Understanding the history of the Bolsa Chica area is understanding why the wetlands look the way they do now. Take a deeper dive into the history of one of the largest remaining wetlands in California!

9500 – 8000 years ago: The first signs of human presence in Southern California appear. The Acjachmen and Tongva people are recognized as the Most Likely Descendants of those early inhabitants of Bolsa Chica.
7000 BC: The “Paleocoastal” era was characterized by human dependence on shellfish and other marine food sources.
6000 BC: Cogstones first appear. While unique to Southern California, historians are not in agreement about the purpose they served.


6000 BC – 1000 BC: Humans switch to plants as a significant food source. Seed processing implements, known as milling stones, became widely used and named this era the “Millingstone” period.
1000 BC – 700 AD: The appearance of small arrow points marked the next period, the “Intermediate” era, and suggested that hunting small animals may have provided a primary source of food for the first time.
700 AD – 1500s AD: The last period until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century is known as the “Late Prehistoric” era. This period is characterized by the reliance on acorns as a significant food source and the appearance of bigger arrow points, indicating that hunting had turned to larger animals*.

The Arrival of Europeans and Americans

1542: Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo embarked on a voyage along the Southern California coastline to seek trade possibilities and discover a passage to China. During his journey, he encountered the Tongva tribe.

Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

1602: Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno explored the California coast, meeting once again with the Tongva people.
1769: Nearly 170 years after Vizcaíno’s visit, expeditions into Alta California continued. The governor of Spain, Gaspar de Portolá, led a land expedition to establish a strong Spanish presence in the territory. Portola’s expedition led to the naming of several familiar places in Southern California and the establishment of two Catholic missions.
1771-1775: Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was established in the current city of San Gabriel. This drastically changed the lives of many natives who converted as they were required to live at the mission, move away from familiar settlements, wear European clothing, and eat unfamiliar diets. Additionally, the development of this mission gave the Tongva people their Europeanized name, Gabrielino.

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel by Henry Chapman Ford

1786: The California Ranchos were independently operated cattle and farming establishments that were made possible through grants and almost unlimited amounts of grazing land. In 1786, Bolsa Chica became part of Rancho Los Nietos.
1821: New Spain (Mexico) declared independence from Spain and took control of Alta California, including Bolsa Chica.
1833: The mission system was secularized, causing a significant change in the lives of all locals. Over the next decade, most Native Americans (Tongva) could not acquire land and had lost most of their cultural heritage.
1834: The Alta California governor granted Nieto’s children full title to Rancho Los Nietos. Catarina Ruiz, Nieto’s widowed daughter-in-law, received the Bolsa Chica area, which was later named Rancho Los Bolsas.
1850: California separated from Mexico and became an official part of the United States.

Bolsa Chica Development

1862: A wealthy landowner, Abel Stearns, accumulated over 90,000 acres of the original Nieto grant.

Abel Stearns

1895: A portion of Bolsa Chica land was sold to Count Jasco von Schmidt, forming the Bolsa Chica Gun Club by the end of the century.

Aerial view of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club property

1899: The Bolsa Chica Gun Club hired Tom Talbert to construct a dam across part of Bolsa Bay. The dam would prevent tidal flow from entering the wetlands for many years and create opportunities for more duck ponds**.
1920: Oil drilling began in Huntington Beach.

Oil wells along the Huntington Beach coast circa 1900

1940: Bolsa Chica joined the Oil Boom. Drilling occurred within the wetlands and in the lowlands of the mesa.
1942-1943: World War II begins, and the Gun Club is evacuated. Bolsa Chica became an important military site equipped with bunkers, gun emplacements, and other structures.

Bolsa Chica as a Protected Land

1960-1970: In the 1960s, 1700 acres of land owned by the Gun Club was purchased by Signal Landmark. Initially, the plan proposed a large-scale residential and commercial development, including plans for 5000 homes and a marina.
1973: Bolsa Chica became recognized for its viable wetlands. Approximately 310 acres of land were given to the state, then restored to its native habitat and vegetation by the Department of Fish and Game. The dam built by the Gun Club was replaced by a tide gate, allowing salt water to flow into Bolsa Bay once again!
1976: The Amigos of Bolsa Chica was created with the goal of saving more of the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Over the next decade, the Amigos would continue to fight to preserve the wetlands.
1980: The California Coastal Commission declared that the Bolsa Chica Wetlands were subject Coastal Act of 1976 protections.
1990: The Bolsa Chica Conservancy was established!
1997: The state purchased 880 acres of lowlands from developers through mitigation funds for the purpose of restoration.
2004 to Today: After years of planning, groundbreaking for the restoration of Bolsa Chica occurred in October 2004. The last sand berm was demolished two years later, allowing seawater to enter the Bolsa Chica wetland’s south end of the reserve again.

The Full Tidal Basin seen here to the left was reopened to tidal flow in 2007

*Evidence suggests that the early settlers of the Bolsa Chica area utilized the land for temporary habitation rather than permanent settlement. This is based on the observation that the clamshells discovered in a Bolsa Chica midden predominantly display winter markings, indicating seasonal habitation. It is believed that during other seasons, the Bolsa Chica residents occupied sites within the Santa Ana foothills, where seasonal sustenance and freshwater resources were abundant. There were, however, some permanent settlements that established in the area as well, primarily occupied by the Acjachemen people.

**The dam later caused the ocean inlet to create a sandbar that caused excess runoff to flow into neighboring farmland. Tom Talbert was again hired to create a channel allowing runoff waters from Bolsa Chica to drain. This channel now flows under the bridge at Warner Avenue, isolating the mesa where the Bolsa Chica Conservancy is today.

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