How three young Hawaiian princes first introduced surfing to Santa Cruz—and to the mainland of the Americas
By all accounts, the middle week of July in 1885 was a glorious one in Santa Cruz. Tourists from throughout the Central Valley were flocking to the bustling seaside community to escape the sweltering summer heat of the interior. The city’s hotels and boarding houses were bulging with visitors, and so, too, were the bourgeoning businesses along Santa Cruz’s fabled waterfront—the Dolphin, Neptune and Liddell bathhouses, and the beachside Free Museum.
The South Pacific Coast Railroad had been completed in 1880—linking Santa Cruz not only to the far reaches of the state, but to the entire country—and, suddenly, summertime tourism was emerging as an important piston in the city’s economic engine.
The weather had been absolutely splendid during the week. The delightfully named Santa Cruz Daily Surf, edited by the talented A.A. Taylor, noted that the blanket of fog that traditionally cooled the Monterey Bay region had lifted well before noontime each day—leaving temperatures in the high-70s to mid-80s. It was a golden summer.
In the early edition of the Surf on Monday, July 20, 1885, the newspaper carried lengthy accounts of all the previous weekend’s festivities on the Santa Cruz waterfront under a detailed, page-two column entitled “Beach Breezes.”
The Surf reported that “Sunday afternoon at the beach was one of the liveliest of the season. It was warm, very warm, but tempered by a breeze, which made the heat endurable and kept people good-natured.” It described the promenade along the beach as a “bright and moving picture of itself,” as each of the local streetcars brought “a full load to join the gay groups already on the sand.”
On no other Sunday of the season, the Surf assessed, “have so many bathers, both ladies and gentlemen, been in the water, and all pronounced it delightful.”
There was an exciting ocean race that afternoon between a pair of swimming brothers—William and Irvine Jones—with William winning by twenty yards and collecting $40, a substantial purse for that era. A small theatrical troupe, including a small donkey pulling a miniature cart, performed a comedy routine along the breakers and “afforded much merriment to the spectators.”
Further east along the beach, however, at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, history was about to be made. Three Hawaiian princes—David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliiahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole—were in the water with long surfboards made of local redwoods, and milled in the shape of traditional Hawaiian o’lo boards, reserved in the Islands traditionally for royalty. Their uncle, King David Kalakaua, a renowned surfer at the long break along Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu, had taught them to surf there as well.
According to the Surf, “The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine and here occurred the very primest of fun, at least, so said those who were ‘in the swim.’” As many as 30 or 40 swimmers were out in the water with them, “dashing and tossing, and plunging through the breakers, going out only to be tossed back apparently at the will of the waves and making some nervous onlookers feel sure that they were about to be dashed against the rocks.”
And then came the first account of surfing anywhere in the Americas:
The young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands.
What is interesting about the description, is that the writer was not only familiar with the princes—and assumed his readership to be as well—but he or she was also aware of the term “surf-board” and that their ocean escapade was a cultural activity they had brought with them from Hawaii.
One of the princes, the Surf noted, later injured himself jumping from the “railway bridge” a few hundred yards up the river, “but the water proved too shallow, and he was stunned and breathless for some time after.”
Power of Three The Three Princes while students at St. Mathew’s Hall, circa 1885. Courtesy Hawaii State Archives.
The day, however, ended triumphantly. “The evening was quite as delightful as the afternoon,” the newspaper reported. At the mouth of the San Lorenzo, where the princes had earlier performed their surfing exhibition, “the Santa Cruz City Band played its finest airs by the light of an immense bonfire and boating was the order of the evening. Guitar music and singing added to the charm of the scene and the hours sped all too rapidly.”
The story of the three princes surfing here in Santa Cruz has become woven into local lore. It has been repeated in several news items and a handful of surfing histories and magazines, but for the most part, the intricate details and historic complexities of this event have long escaped careful scrutiny.
Moreover, many surfing historians—particularly those from Southern California intent on asserting that surfing was first introduced to California in the early 1900s by George Freeth—have dismissed the account of the three Hawaiian princes surfing in Santa Cruz by either denying that the event ever happened or deriding it as a one-off occurrence without long-lasting historic or cultural significance.
In fact, the history of the three princes in Santa Cruz is an extraordinary Pacific Rim saga that spans generations and involves a complex and complicated network of familial relationships and friendships, with a dramatic arc that stretches across centuries. It is delightful in its nuances—involving desertion and larceny, forgery and fraud, imperial power and political overthrow, and perhaps, most importantly, the spirit of mana, the divine power with which the ali’i, or Hawaiian royalty, governed the islands.
The three princes were not some casual day-trip visitors to Santa Cruz. The family they stayed with here—Lyman and Antoinette Swan—also had complex links to Hawaiian history and, in the case of Antoinette Swan, direct lineage to royal Hawaiian bloodlines.
Perhaps most importantly, the experiences of the three princes surfing here in Santa Cruz played a significant role in the history of surfing. A decade after their departure, there are verified accounts that their surfing exhibition “stuck” here in Santa Cruz long after they were gone. And the redwood o’lo boards that they rode here in Santa Cruz—milled from first-growth redwood trees from the Santa Cruz Mountains—went back with them to Honolulu—where, for the next 40 years or more, redwood shipped from Northern California across the Pacific became the primary material for the construction of Hawaiian surfboards.
A “one-off” this was not.
Who were these three princes? Why were they here? What was their connection to the Swan family? How did they come to be surfing at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in the summer of 1885? What happened to them after they left?
Long forgotten documents and photographs recently discovered at the Hawaiian Archives in Honolulu and at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, now, for the first time, provide fascinating explanations and historic insight into this only-in-Santa-Cruz story.
Santa Cruz Waterfront in the mid-1880s. The Neptune Bath House and Free Museum are located to the left. The South Pacific Coast Railroad and horse-drawn trolley lines brought swarms of tourists to the main beach in order to escape the sweltering heat of California’s inland valleys. The river mouth, where The Three Princes surfed, is located far right. Courtesy Geoffrey Dunn Collection
Twenty years after the princes arrived here in Santa Cruz, an obituary appeared in the Surf on Oct. 2, 1905, for “Mrs. Antoinette Don Paul Marie Swan,” who had died the day before at her family home on Cathcart Street. The obituary noted that Swan “was courtly in manner, and had a charm in her dealing with people that won many friends. She was a kind neighbor and a devoted mother, loved by her children.” She was clearly a well-liked and widely respected member of the community.
The obituary also included some detailed information about Antoinette’s lineage, rather unique to Santa Cruz at this time:
She was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, of Spanish parentage on her father’s side, he being for many years consul from Spain at Honolulu, and owner of the island at the mouth of the Pearl River, and was very prominent in the islands. He was the first to introduce many of the flowers in that land. Her mother was of Scotch and Hawaiian ancestry. She married Lyman Swan in the islands, and they came to California in 1846, and about twelve years after their arrival came to Santa Cruz, where she has since resided, except for a number of years spent at the islands, where she dwelt with the royalty at the palace, being a member of the King’s household, as she was secretary to Queen Lillioukalani, wife of King Kalakau [sic].
Not all of the information in the Surf obituary is accurate, but it is close enough to provide both an open window into her life story and enough clues to put the various pieces of this intricate historic puzzle back together. In many respects, Antoinette Swan serves as the social and cultural linchpin to the three princes story and to the origins of surfing in the Americas.
According to baptismal records in Hawaii and her death certificate here in Santa Cruz, Antoinette “Akoni” Marin was born on the island of Oahu on Oct. 6, 1832. Contrary to the reference in the obituary, her mother, Kaikuloa, was a full-blooded Hawaiian and a “chiefess,” which made Antoinette, by birth, of ali’i or noble Hawaiian lineage.
Queen Consort Esther Julia Kapi’olani with Prince David Kawananakoa, circa 1883, shortly before the latter was sent off to St. Mathew’s Hall in San Mateo. Courtesy Hawaii State Archive
Her father, Don Francisco de Paula Marin, was a legendary figure in Hawaiian history, from his first arrival in the islands in the early 1790s until his death in Honolulu in 1837. While he was never “consul from Spain,” as would later be claimed (indeed he deserted the Spanish army), he served in the role of unofficial consigliore to kings Kamehameha III & IV and played a major role as liaison between European and American vessels and native Hawaiian authorities.
While some aspects of his life remain sketchy, many letters both to and by Marin, along with copied fragments of his journal, are located at the Hawaiian Archives in Honolulu. They allow us to piece together a fairly detailed biography of this fascinating figure whose legacy in Hawaii remains vast.
Born in 1774 in Jerez, in the Andalusian region of Spain, Marin joined the Spanish navy, sailed the Pacific coast of New Spain (including California) and apparently jumped ship in Nootka (near present day Vancouver Island), before making his way to Honolulu. Although not formally schooled, Marin was as enterprising as he was ambitious. He quickly earned his way into the favor of Hawaiian King Kamehameha I and served him in a variety of capacities—from private physician to political consultant to bootlegger.
Marin was also a noted botanist, and one of his principal legacies in Hawaii was the introduction of a vast number of fruits, flowers and vegetables to the island. He established the first vineyard in the islands and accumulated large and significant tracks of land around Honolulu. In 1819, Kamehameha commissioned Marin as a captain in the Hawaiian Army.
Records clearly indicate that Marin was a polygamist in Hawaii and that later in his life his surviving wives were much younger than he. In one fascinating letter sent to Marin from Monterey in 1823 by Luis Antonio Arghello, the first governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, Arguello suggests that Marin had expressed interest in relocating to the California coast. “As to settling in this province, you alone could very well do it,” Arguello intones, “but by no means can I approve of your bringing four wives that are not legitimate, as I [am] informed that you have, and consequently some twenty children of theirs.”
By the time Marin died in 1837, he had fathered, according to some accounts, as many as 27 different children. His last daughter, Antoinette, had just reached her fifth birthday.
Following Marin’s death, Antoinette was adopted by Dr. Thomas Charles Byde Rooke, a prominent British physician who had also married into an ali’i family.
It’s hard for foreigners to fully grasp the significance of hanai (adopted) relationships in Hawaiian culture. Western traditions of genealogy simply do not translate. But a hanai relationship is very much equal to blood lineage. In her autobiography, Queen Lydia Liliuokalani offered that hanai "is not easy to explain to those alien to our national life, but it seems perfectly natural to us.”
As a result of her adoption, Antoinette was raised in one of the most wealthy homes in all of Hawaii. Located in Honolulu, the venue was used for Rooke’s medical practice and also included a large library, a coach house and servants’ quarters. The upstairs living quarters were elegantly decorated in the style of a 19th century English manor, replete with red Kashmir carpets, elaborate mahogany and dark oak furniture, and gold-framed English oil paintings.
Antoinette was thus raised in a style of both comfort and privilege. She attended the best private schools (including the Royal School, which had been founded by American missionaries), and her younger hanai sister Emma Rooke, would later become Queen Consort of Hawaii as the wife of King Kamehameha IV.
Portraits Antoinette Swan, taken in Santa Cruz, circa 1870s, by E.P. Butler. Antoinette provided the historic linchpin to The Three Princes story; Lyman had larceny in his heart. Courtesy Hawaii State Archives.
In November of 1851, an item in the Honolulu Polynesian newspaper noted that Antoinette had married Lyman Swan, then a young businessman on the Honolulu waterfront. He was a partner in Swan & Clifford, a seemingly-successful chandlery business that fitted out whaling ships during the heyday of the Pacific whaling industry and the era of Moby Dick. (Indeed, a young Herman Melville had worked for Antoinette’s hanai brother-in-law, Isaac Montgomery, during his four-month sojourn in Honolulu.)
In April of 1853, Antoinette gave birth to the couple’s first child, Olivia (“Lily”), and the young Swan family appeared to be living a life of prosperity and promise in Honolulu. But as often would be the case with Lyman Swan throughout his life, appearances were often deceiving. Business records for Swan & Clifford in the Hawaiian Archives indicate that while the chandlery was doing a booming business, income was not keeping up with expenses.
Apparently, unbeknownst to his partner, Ornan Clifford, Swan began forging “bills of exchange” (or checks) with several whaling ships. On April 13, 1855, authorities in Hawaii issued a detailed circular (akin to a wanted poster) charging both Swan and Clifford with forging $40,000 in promissory notes and leaving more than $80,000 in unpaid bills just after Swan had sneaked out of Honolulu on the sailing ship, George, in March of 1854. It was a huge amount of money during that era—the equivalent of millions today—and the case quickly garnered international attention. A $5,000 reward was offered for information about their whereabouts.
Swan was once a member of the firm Eveleth & Co. San Francisco, and for a short time resided in California … [He] is a man of about five feet ten inches, rather spare, stoops considerable.
While Clifford immediately returned to Honolulu and declared his innocence (several supporters in Hawaii signed a letter on his behalf), Swan was apprehended in Alameda. All of the forged bills had been executed in his handwriting. While Hawaiian authorities tried to extradite Swan, he was never to return to the islands. He endured several years of both civil and criminal cases against him in San Francisco (he was found guilty on several, but not all, counts), though it’s uncertain if he was sentenced to any time in prison.
Somehow, he managed to bring Antoinette and his daughter Lily to California during his court cases, where the family first resided in San Jose, and then moved to Santa Cruz in the mid-1860s. By that time, there were four more children in the Swan household— Frank, Alexander, Frederick and Alfred Lyman.
A native of New York and originally a baker by trade, Swan returned to his roots and opened a bakery on Pacific Avenue. By the time of the arrival of the three princes in 1885, the Swans were popular and widely respected pillars of the Santa Cruz business community. The family purchased a large plot of land in downtown Santa Cruz, at what is now the corner of Front and Cathcart Streets, that backed up to the San Lorenzo River. At least two of the Swan sons, Frank and Alfred, then in their twenties, had joined in the family business.
In fact, Lyman Swan was so respected in Santa Cruz that he was the “ninth signer” of the Constitution and Roll of Members of the Society of Pioneers of Santa Cruz County. There was never any mention in any local documents or newspaper accounts of the criminal activity that forced him to leave Hawaii and led to his quiet relocation to the northern sweep of Monterey Bay.
Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole, popularly known as “Prince Cupid,” as a member of the Honolulu Cycling Club, circa 1892, three years before he was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow American rule in the islands. Jonah was an expert sportsman—surfer, cycler, baseball and football player, rower, and, even, hula dancer. Courtesy Hawaii State Archives.
The second half of the 19th Century was a time of profound cultural and political transition in the Hawaiian Islands. The globalization of the world economy brought ever- increasing outside pressure on the islands and forged changes internally as well. In particular, the United States was emerging as a Pacific power and aggressively asserting its political and military influence throughout the Pacific Rim and particularly in Hawaii.
In 1884, the popular Hawaiian monarchs, King David Kalakaua and his wife, Queen Consort Esther Julia Kapi’olani, who were childless, adopted the three princes after the deaths of both their parents. By blood, the three brothers were Kapi’olani’s nephews, the sons of ali’i from Kauai, and they had been sent to Hawaii’s finest schools. Now they were being prepped for the monarchy.
David, the oldest (and nicknamed “Koa”), was born in 1868. Strong and handsome, at the age of 16, in the fall of 1884, he was first sent to St. Mathew’s Hall, a full-fledged military school for boys, located in San Mateo, and founded by the stern and “never smiling” Episcopalian taskmaster, Rev. Alfred Lee Brewer.
The following year, Edward, born in 1870 and the frailest of the three brothers; and Jonah, nicknamed “Cupid,” born in 1871 and a brilliant athlete in all sports, joined their brother in California.
When not at St. Mathew’s, the three princes were placed under the careful eye of Antoinette Swan—not her husband—and her children, who were considered older “cousins” of the princes. The Southern Pacific connected San Mateo to Santa Cruz, making their commute to the seaside resort an easy one.
When the Swan home became too crowded, the princes boarded at the nearby Wilkins House, located half a block away, on Pacific and Cathcart streets.
According to records kept by the waterfront historian Warren “Skip” Littlefield (1906-1985)—and based on years of conversations he had with the legendary Santa Cruz journalist Ernest Otto (1871-1955), who was 14 at the time of the princes arrival here and who was to recount their exploits locally several times in historical columns for the Santa Cruz Sentinel in the 1940s and ‘50s—the princes rode surfboards made of “solid redwood planks and milled locally by the Grover Lumber Company. They were over 100 pounds in weight and 15 feet in length.”
During the mid-1880s, the glorious first-growth redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains were being lumbered by several fledgling timber businesses. Indeed, the lumber industry was by far the largest in Santa Cruz County during the 1870s and 1880s, with enormous amounts of redwood being transported out of the region by both rail and shipping lines.
Santa Cruz Main Beach, 1880s. Rare, hand-colored lithograph rendered by noted graphic artist Arthur Ignatius Keller. Note the swim-line extending out into the water. Courtesy Geoffrey Dunn Collection.
While some have speculated that the boards were transported to the river mouth by elaborate horse-drawn carriages, given the location of the Swan home on the edge of the San Lorenzo, it is more than likely that the princes simply floated them down the short span of the river to the beach.
The river mouth itself had long been a popular location for “surf-bathing” activity on the Santa Cruz waterfront. As early as the 1860s, “life ropes” or “swim lines” (thick ropes attached at the beach by tall poles and extending out to floating rafts or anchors beyond the surf break) had been established at various points along both the main beach and Seabright Beach east of the river.
The beaches and surf line, of course, were much different than they are today in the aftermath of the Army Corps of Engineers’ two major projects in Santa Cruz (the building of the river jetties in the 1950s and the construction of the Small Craft Harbor in the 1960s), as the flow of sand has been forever altered along the waterfront. But early accounts of the waves at the river mouth indicate that they were, at times, rolling breakers similar to those along Waikiki in Honolulu, where the princes had first learned to surf.
It would be doing a significant disservice to the historical record to suggest that life at the Swan house for the princes—or for the Swans themselves, for that matter—was a bed of white ginger blossoms.
In fact, the Swan marriage was a decidedly unhappy one. Lyman Swan’s larceny may have long been hidden from the Santa Cruz community, but he couldn’t hide it from himself or from Antoinette, whom he had shamed with his activities in Honolulu.
She decided to return to the islands for lengthy periods of time, where she served as a special assistant to the royal family and traveled with them abroad.
In a remarkable, albeit somewhat melancholy, letter written by Lily Swan to her mother in October of 1886 (and recently located in the Hawaiian archives), Lily laments that her father “has been drinking nearly all the time” and that the previous evening “he came home awfully full, and in consequence, he was sick the next day.” She complains that her brother Alfred “is also drinking now.”
Apparently, Prince Edward had accused Lyman Swan of stealing money from him, though Lily took the side of her father and described Edward as a “nasty little cuss” and further noted that “I hate him” and “if he comes here again I shall surely snub him good.”
Surf City Lineup
Unveiling of Three Princes Plaque
Surf City Santa Cruz:
Santa Cruz Surfing:
Historical talk by Kim Stoner, Matt Micuda, Harry Mayo highlighting redwood connection to local surfing history. Book signing by Tom Hickenbottom. $5/family
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
The other two brothers, however, Koa and Cupid, she was fond of, and she describes how they had given her potted “tuber roses” for her garden. In return, she made “pretty hat crowns” for them, and for their cousin Richard Gilliland, who was also attending St. Mathew’s.
The following year, Prince Edward was sent home ill from St. Mathews in September of 1887 and died a short time later in Honlulu from scarlet fever.
As for the other two princes, David and Jonah, they would carve out significant niches for themselves in Hawaiian history. The eldest brother, David, would eventually become the immediate first heir to the throne. His youngest brother Jonah, who had been Queen Lili'uokalani’s personal favorite, was second. Neither of them, however, would ever become king.
In January of 1893, a group of American and European businessman, aided by the U.S. military, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. Queen Lili'uokalani was deposed on Jan. 17, 1893, relinquishing her throne to "the superior military forces of the United States."
Two years later, then-24-year-old Jonah, a fierce advocate for Hawaiian independence, fought in a rebellion against the U.S.-supported republic and was sentenced to a year in prison. While Kuhio was incarcerated across the Pacific, the weekly edition of the Santa Cruz Surf in July 1896 made the fascinating observation that “the boys who go in swimming at Seabright Beach use surfboards to ride the breakers, like the Hawaiians.”
A decade after their departure from Santa Cruz, the princes’ legacy had taken hold.
Kuhio left Hawaii immediately upon his release from prison and traveled the world. In 1902, he returned from exile to participate in Hawaiian politics.
While his brother David headed up the state’s Democratic Party (and was a delegate to the 1900 Democratic National Convention), Jonah joined the Republican Party and was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1903 as a “delegate” from the Territory of Hawaii, where he served until his death in 1922.
Today, the memory of Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole is woven into the memory of Hawaiian culture. There are streets, beaches, plazas, highways, businesses, resorts, and a federal building named for him, along with a state holiday.
A well-known Hawaiian chant, “Hui Hololio,” was written in his honor:
This is the name song for Kalaniana`ole
Leader of the riders like the sea spray …
We call to thee, o answer
To your name song o Kalaniana`ole
Geoffrey Dunn is the author of “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart;” Kim Stoner is a board member of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society. They went to Bay View School together in the 1960s. The authors would like to thank Kristin Zambucka, Stan Stevens, Barry Brown, Laurel Brinkman, Marc Sproule, Stacey Vreeken, Dylan Dunn, Mia Righetti; Kris Reyes and Bonnie Minford of the Seaside Company; David Kessler of the Bancroft Library; and Dainan Skeem of the Hawaii State Archive for their research assistance with this article. They would also like to acknowledge the work of the late Ernest Otto, Warren “Skip” Littlefield and James D. Houston. Mahalo.
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