Tsunami, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanic Eruptions and other Natural and Man-Made Hazards and Disasters - by Dr. George Pararas Carayannis

Tsunami, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanic Eruptions and other Natural and Man-Made Hazards and Disasters

The Santa Barbara, California, Earthquakes and Tsunami(s) of December 1812

George Pararas-Carayannis

(Excerpts from a study of historical tsunamis in California undertaken under contract with Marine Advisors, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the U. S. Army Coastal Engineering Research Center in connection with the licencing of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant and subsequent licencing of Units 2 and 3)

©) Copyright 1967 George Pararas-Carayannis


As mentioned elsewhere in these pages, the relative tsunami threat for local tsunamis in California can be considered as being relatively low because of the low recurrence frequencies. Large, locally-generated tsunamis in California are estimated to occur once every 100 years. Thirteen possible tsunamis have been observed or recorded from local earthquakes between 1812 and 1988. These tsunami events were poorly documented and some are very questionable. There is no doubt that earthquakes occurring along submarine faults off Santa Barbara, could generate large destructive local tsunamis. In fact in December of 1812, local earthquakes occured, each capable of tsunami generation. Perhaps the size of the 1812 tsunami was exaggerated in the historical records, but one and possibly two large tsunami events did occur in the area.

Santa Barbara Tsunami(s) of 1812 - A Source of Controversy

There greatest controversy regarding the generation of tsunamis from local earthquakes in California has been about events which occurred along the Santa Barbara coast region in December of 1812. The December 1812 earthquakes and resulting tsunami waves have been the subject of research by many scientists. Historical accounts reported large tsunami waves with no clear documentation on the chronology of events. There is no doubt that one and possibly two large tsunami events were generated by the December 1812 earthquakes in the Santa Barbara region. However, the tsunamis could not have been as large as they have been described in the historical accounts. Furthermore, tsunami events of such magnitude would place in different perspective the suseptibility of Southern California to the tsunami hazard (from local earthquakes)

Because of the importance of these events, a thorough investigation of the literature was undertaken, initially in the early 1960's under contract with Marine Advisers in connection with the design and licensing of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, near San Clemente. Subsequent historical research was conducted in the early 1970's in connection with assessing the local tsunami hazard for the design and licencing of Units 2 and 3 of the same San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant.

Accounts of the 1812 Santa Barbara earthquakes and tsunami waves can be found in numerous publications, including mission records. Some of the existing historical descriptions of events which occurred in December of l8l2 in the Santa Barbara region are presented here to illustrate the difficulty of analyzing such conflicting historical information and reaching definite conclusions.

Historical Accounts of the Effects of the December 1812 Santa Barbara Earthquakes on the Fransiscan Missions of Southern California

The intensity of the Santa Barbara earthquake described by Wood and Heck was given as 10 on the Rossi/Forel scale of 10 grades and the epicenter of the earthquake was stated to be in the offshore region in the vicinity of the Transverse Ranges. In the same publication, the description of the earthquake effects of the 1812 events are as follows:

"Damage to Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Northern Los Angeles Counties. The Church of Purissima Mission was destroyed , together with many mission buildings. The strong fore-shock at about 10:30 am, which did alarming damage, caused the people to leave the building, and undoubtedly saved many lives when the main shock came. There were no deaths, but some injuries. At Santa Ynez Mission, a corner of the church fell and many new homes were destroyed. At Santa Barbara, old mission buildings were severely damaged, and the church was later rebuilt; some buildings were ruined, and the remaining structures damaged at the Presidio. At Santa Buena Ventura Mission, the tower was wrecked and much of the facade of the church had to be rebuilt. At San Fernando Mission, thirty beams were used to keep the walls from falling. Strong aftershocks occurred until February, and lesser shocks continued until April, 1813."

There is no reference of a tsunami in this entry.

The following account of the effects of the the Santa Barbara, December 1812 earthquakes on the California Spanish Missions can be found in Padre Señan's Biennial Report from Mission San Buenaventura, 1811-1812 (translated from Spanish). Severe damage from the earthquake was also reported from Mission Santa Ines, Mission Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Presidio, Mission San Buenaventura (Ventura), and Mission San Fernando, covering a distance of over 100 miles.

The already severe conditions have been rendered even more severe by the horrible temblors and earthquakes that have been experienced in this province and which will constitute a special epoch in it because of the great resulting damages. The violence of these occurrences have been extraordinary.

As a result of the ruinous events we have to build anew the churches of Missions San Fernando and Santa Barbara. ... Mission San Gabriel suffered somewhat. At Missions Santa Ines (Santa Ynez, CA)and San Buenaventura (Ventura, CA) quite some time will be required to repair the damage which I consider annoying to describe in detail. Concerning the last named mission I will say only that the tower partially fell and that the wall of the sanctuary was cracked from top to bottom. ...

At Mission Purisima (Lompoc, CA) the bells rang out without the aid of a bell ringer and in a few minutes the mission was reduced to rubble and ruin presenting the picture of a destroyed Jerusalem. With the permission of the government the mission is to be rebuilt at a place about a leagueand a fourth distant called Los Berroswhich offers notable and known advantages.

Earthquake Effects at Mission La Purisima

The most serious damage from this earthquake was reported at Mission La Purisima, located at Lompoc Valley. On December 21, 1812, around 10:00 or 10:15 in the morning, a strong eartquake and ground motions frightened the mission's residents - - priests, Indians and soldiers-- who rushed out of the mission buildings. This first shock turned out to be only a foreshock. Fifteen minutes later, a still stronger earthquake occurred. The shaking of this second earthquake was so intense that the mission's church bells rang out. The adobe walls of the mission buildings were shattered, and in some instances collapsed, reducing Mission La Purisima to "rubble.

Photograph(1935): Ruins of Mission La Purisima

Regarding specific earthquake effects of th 1812 Santa Barbara Earthquake at Mission La Purisima, Fathers Payéras and Ripoll reported:


The extraordinary and horrible earthquake, which this Mission suffered on the memorable day of the glorious Apostle St. Thomas, entirely destroyed the church and vestry, buried under the walls the various images and paintings, and ruined the greater part of the furniture. ... Some of the work shops went down ... One hundred houses of neophyte Indians and the community kitchen, the walls of which were an adobe and a half thick, and roofed with tiles, have become inserviceable. The garden walls of adobe, covered with tiles, have collapsed or threaten to fall. ... Experience may teach us the best method of constructing other buildings.

In a letter to the Spanish governor of California, Father Payéras wrote:

We have observed with sorrow that all of the structures are ruined from the foundations to the roof: that the church is demolished from the foundation up: and that neither Fathers, nor soldiers, nor neophytes will or can, without terror or risk, live in their habitations, which have partly fallen, are partly out of plumb, and are in many parts seriously cracked.

According to a report and letter from Mission La Concepcion Purisima de Maria Santisima, by Zeyphyrin Engelhardt, Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, 1932.

At the time of the disaster 999 Indians, two Padres, and ahandful of soldiers resided at Mission La Purisima. These missions were working ranches: at the time of the earthquake, Mission La Purisima had 4000 cattle,12000 sheep, 1150 horses, and grew wheat, corn, and beans. The Mission even had vineyards, from which the good Padres made wine.

Earthquake Effects at Presidio Santa Barbara

The soldiers at the presidio in Santa Barbara were so disturbed by the earthquake that they abandoned the presidio, building thatched huts near the Santa Barbara Mission, where the shaking from the earthquakes was said to be more moderate. Strong earthquakes continued to rock the region through February of 1813. The Spanish soldiers from the presidio did not return to their former home until March, almost three months after the first earthquake. (Photograph: Santa Barbara Mission presently)


(PARENTHETICAL NOTES: Repairs to the Missions made subsequently to the 1812 Earthquakes: The church at Mission Santa Barbara was rebuilt with thicker walls and was completed in 1820. The church was damaged again in the 1925 earthquake and repaired . The San Fernando Mission was repaired, but destroyed by the February 9, 1971, San Fernando earthquake. It has also been rebuilt. Mission La Purisima was moved from its original site in Lompoc, California to a site a few miles away. This mission is now a California historical monument and is preserved roughly as it appeared around 1820 (see photo above). The earthquake damages at Mission San Gabriel could not have been too much of a surprise to the Spanish--the full name of that mission is Mission San Gabriel de los Temblores, or Saint Gabriel's Mission of the Earthquakes - a name quite appropriately given)

Historical Accounts with Reference to the December 1812 Tsunami Waves

The following account of the 1812 tsunami is being quoted from a 1961 revised edition of the publication entitled "Earthquake History of the United States: Part II, Stronger Earthquakes of California and Western Nevada," by H.O. Wood and N.H. Heck, originally published in 1951.

"This earthquake was associated with by far the largest seismic sea wave ever reported for one originating in California. Descriptive accounts indicate that it may have reached elevations of 15 feet at Gaviota, 30 to 35 feet at Santa Barbara, and 15 feet or more in Ventura. It may have even shown visible effects in the San Francisco harbor. "

Reference to Bancroft's History of California, which has used original mission records, found in Holden's Catalog of Earthquakes, gives the following entry regarding the earthquake and tsunami of December 21, 1812, with the following item on the tsunami stated as follows:

"P. Gil reported that there was a huge earthquake wave at sea. A stick with a pendant ball was set up at the mission (Santa Barbara), and that the ball vibrated continuously for eight days, and later at intervals for fifteen days. A ship at Refugio was carried up a canyon by the wave and returned to the sea. "

According to Bancroft's History of California, P. Gill was in charge of Mission Santa Barbara until 1813, and according to the records, he was born on May 1, 1773 and died December 1833.

An item in a San Francisco newspaper stated that:

"Senora Juana Priones relates that in 1812, the earthquakes were so severe as to cause tidal waves which covered the ground where the plaza now is. "

Also, under the heading, "1812 September, October, or December ? Sunday? " appears a report credited to J.B. Trask's register of earthquakes in California from 1800 to 1863, stating :

"A Spanish ship anchored 38 miles from Santa Barbara was injured by the shock. "

Tsunami Effects at Gaviota Canyon

Gaviota Canyon is not far from Lompoc, California. It is located at the northwestern end of the Santa Barbara Channel. At the time of the 1812 earthquakes, the coast along the northwestern shore of the Santa Barbara Channel was part of the Rancho del Refugio, a tract of ranch land that had been given to the first commandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio, upon the commandante's retirement. It was a favorite place for American smugglers to trade their goods for otter pelts. These American smuggling ships traveled between the Spanish-controlled coast of southern and central California, the Russian-controlled coasts of Alaska and northern California, and the Hawaiian Islands (then known as the Sandwich Islands).

There is a report of a tsunami at Gaviota Canyon (San Francisco Bulletin, March 16, 1864)

A Boston ship, the Thomas Newland, known before as the Charon, commanded by Capt. Isaac Whittemore, was lying off anchorage, not far from the Gaviota Pass, Santa Barbara County, when the sea was seen to retire all at once and return in an immense wave, which came roaring and plunging back, tearing over the beach fit to crack everything to pieces. This wave penetrated the low lands of the gulches a mile from the shore, forming one of the most terrific sights possible to conceive. That old ship, then under the name Charon, afterwards got 1,800 otter skins to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands), and landed them, too; but a few days afterwards she was captured by the English man-o-war Cherub and taken as a prize to London.

The 1812 Earthquake and Tsunami at Santa Rosa Island

One of the last outposts for the Chumash Indians was Santa Rosa Island which the Chumash called Mascui. At the time of the 1812 earthquakes, the Franciscan priests were trying to convince the remaining Chumash Indians to relocate to the missions on the mainland. When the 1812 tsunami at Santa Rosa caused the waters to recede several hundred yards from the island, the Indians became fearful that the island was about to be engulfed, so they abandoned totally their villages. They rowed out to in their oceangoing canoes to the mainland and settled in bands of three or four hundred at the several missions in the area. The Chumash Indians who moved to the missions did not fare well, many of them succumbing to European diseases. (H. W. Henshaw, quoted in Anthropological Records, California Linguistic Records, v. 15, no. 2)

Conflicts of Historical Accounts on the Tsunami Event(s)

Obviously, there was some confusion in the literature about the dating of the 1812 earthquakes, but it is assumed that this account relates to the December 21, 1812, earthquake. Another interesting account of the 1812 tsunami appears in a 1921 paper entitled, "Early Records of Earthquakes in Southern California" by Ford A. Carpenter, which had been compiled from the records of the "mission fathers" and from Englehardt's Franciscans in California. This paper gives a lengthy account of the 1812 earthquakes in Southern California with one item of interest, related to San Buenaventura, during the earthquake of December 21;

"The whole mission site appeared to settle, and the fear of being engulfed by the sea, drove all away to San Joaquin in Santa Anna, where they remained until April, 1813. "

Another account in a 1960 paper, "California Earthquakes" by Harry O. Wood states that;

"The sea wave at Refugio and the strong shock experienced by the ship 38 miles from Santa Barbara point emphatically to an earthquake of great energy having a submarine origin. "

There is also another item dated 1812, in the San Francisco papers relating to the origin of the earthquake and the tsunami. It reads:

"Severe shocks with tidal waves. Tidal waves from the great shock in the south entered San Francisco Bay, and washed over the sides of the plaza at Point Arena. The San Joaquin segment of the San Andreas Fault, or the Hayward Fault are the more probable places of origin for these earthquakes. Mention of tidal waves makes the San Andreas Fault the more probable source in this instance. "

If this is true or not, is not known, but it is doubtful that the earthquake that produced the largest tsunami in California had its origin on land where the Hayward Fault was. Suggestions have been made in the literature that this is a possibly mislocated report of December 21 waves at Santa Barbara, while others have claimed that the waves observed in 1812 in San Francisco originated from a different quake on a fault across the San Francisco Bay.

Review of additional references shows extensive descriptions of the earthquake of 1812 at Santa Barbara, but little information relating to the tsunami. Various references and accounts of these events can be found, but these descriptions are somewhat unclear as to the size of the tsunami in Southern California. Bancroft's History of California documents the 1812 - 1813 and the 1956 translation of the manuscript of Angustias De Li Guerra Ord, entitled "Occurrences in Hispanic California as related by Mrs. James L. Ord to Thomas Savage for the H. Bancroft Collection in 1878." Mrs. Ord was the daughter of Don Jose De La Guerray Norieja, who replaced Jose Arguello as Commandant of Santa Barbara Presidio in the autumn of 1815. She had been borne on the 11th of June of the same year. In this account she relates:

"When I went to the north in 1833, several of the northern missions were in charge of Fernandinos namely, San Louis Obisbo and Padre Louis Gil Taboada ( a Mexican by birth, but very Spanish in sentiments). In speaking to Padre Louis Gil Toboada, he told me that in 1812 there had been very strong earthquakes at Santa Barbara while he was there. That on the eighth of December while at the Presidio, there occurred an earthquake so violent that the sea receded and rose like a high mountain. He, with all the people of the Presidio, went running to the mission chanting supplications to the virgin. I asked him humorously, why he had not gone to see if there was a ship at the foot of the mountain of water. He also assured me that they had placed a pole with the ball to it. It was fastened to the ground where the air would not move it, and it was in continuous motion for eight days. After eight days the ball was still for two or three hours and then started to move again, and this lasted for about 15 days. "

Obviously, this account throws more confusion because the date is given as 8 th December. This account would indicate that two major earthquakes occurred on 8 and 21 December, both producing large tsunamis.

John Boardman Trask, a medical doctor, who was appointed President of the California Academy of Sciences in 1864, gave the following description of the tsunami at Santa Barbara in a paper he presented on the history of the 1812 earthquake as obtained from accounts of native inhabitants of the coast.

" The sea was observed to recede from the shore during the continuance of the shocks, and left the latter dry for a considerable distance, when it returned in five or six heavy rollers, which overflowed the plain on which Santa Barbara is built. Inhabitants saw the recession of the sea and, being aware of the danger on its return, fled to the adjoining hills near the town to escape the probable deluge. The sea on its return flowed inland a little more than a half of a mile, and reached the lower part of town, doing but trifling damage destroying three small adobe buildings."

In the same paper, Trask, making reference to a writer unknown to him, quotes him and adds this account.

" The sea was seen to retire all at once, and return in an immense wave, which came roaring and plunging back over the beach. This wave penetrated the lowlands and gulches a mile from the shore, forming one of the most terrific sights possible to conceive. "


It is obvious from these accounts that one, and possibly two large tsunamis were generated from two major earthquakes in the Santa Barbara region in December of 1812. The size of these tsunamis may never be known with certainty, but the estimates of 15 feet at Gaviota, 30-35 feet at Santa Barbara, and 15 feet or more at Ventura, seem somewhat exaggerated. Which of the two earthquakes produced the bigger tsunami, or whether indeed there were two separate events, may never be known with certainty, as all the historical accounts are sketchy and ambiguous.

Major faults of the San Andreas fault zone, although capable of strong earthquakes, cannot generate any significant tsunamis. Only earthquakes in the Transverse Ranges, specifically the seaward extensions in the Santa Barbara Channel and offshore area from Point Arguello, can generate local tsunamis of any significance. The reason for this may be that earthquakes occurring in these regions result in a significant vertical displacement of the crust along these faults. Such tectonic displacements are necessary for tsunami generation. The area offshore of Point Arguello has sea-floor features which suggest such displacements, so local tsunamis from this area as well as in Santa Barbara, can be expected in the future.


IIDA, K., D.C. Cox, and Pararas--Carayannis, George, 1967. Preliminary Catalog of Tsunamis Occurring in the Pacific Ocean. Data Report No. 5. Honolulu: Hawaii Inst.Geophys.Aug. 1967.

PARARAS-CARAYANNIS George, THE BIG ONE (from a Book in Preparation - and Unpublished Reports on the San Onofre Nuclear Plant)

PARARAS-CARAYANNIS George. American National Standard:Tsunami Guidelines at Power Reactor Sites, American Nuclear Society, Nuclear Power Engineering Committee, Working Group 2, April 1974.

PADRE José Señan, O.F.M., The Biennial Report from Mission San Buenaventura, 1811-1812, translated by Maynard Geiger, O.F.M., Old Mission, Santa Barbara, California, 1974.

HENSHAW, H. W. Anthropological Records, California Linguistic Records, v. 15, no. 2.

CARPENTER Ford A. 1921, "Early Records of Earthquakes in Southern California" (Paper compiled from the records of the "mission fathers" and from Englehardt's Franciscans in California) (No complete citation available).


See also: A Brief History of California


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