By all accounts, the middle week of July in 1885 was a glorious one in the seaside community of Santa Cruz. Tourists from throughout the Santa Clara, Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys flocked to the beach via the narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad, with stops in San Jose and Los Gatos, to escape the interior’s sweltering summer heat.
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.
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.” 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.”
At the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, beyond the eastern swath of the beach, 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 olo 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 ocean-goers were out in the water with them, “dashing and tossing, and plunging through the breakers.”
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 surfboard 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.
The history of the three princes surfing in Santa Cruz is an extraordinary Pacific Rim tale that spans generations and involves a complex and complicated network of familial relationships and friendships—including many links to the Santa Clara Valley and the San Francisco Peninsula. It is equally delightful in its nuances, which involve desertion and larceny, forgery and fraud, imperial power and political overthrow and, perhaps most important, 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 over a period of three years—Lyman and Antoinette Swan—also had complex links to Hawaiian history and, in the case of Antoinette Swan, direct lineage to royal Hawaiian bloodlines. The Swans also lived for a number of years in San Jose.
Perhaps most important, the experiences of the three princes surfing 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” in Santa Cruz long after they were gone. And the redwood olo boards that they rode 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.
Even today, an entrepreneur of Hawaiian descent with roots in San Jose’s music scene, Kyle Gilmore, is trying to make sure that the significance of this history—and those who made it—is properly honored and respected.
Twenty years after the princes first arrived in Santa Cruz, an obituary appeared in the Santa Cruz 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.
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 story of the three-princes and to the origins of surfing in the Americas.
According to baptismal records in Hawaii and her death certificate 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 “chiefess,” which made Antoinette, by birth, of “ali’i” or noble Hawaiian lineage. 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.
By the time Marin had died in 1837, he had fatWd, according to some accounts, as many as 27 children. His last daughter, Antoinette, has 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.
Antoinette was thus raised in comfort and privilege. She received the best private education (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.
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 nautical supply 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 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 supply enterprise 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” 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 on the island of Alameda in San Francisco Bay. 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 he ever served time in prison.
Somehow, he managed to bring Antoinette and daughter Lily to California during his court cases, where the family first resided in San Jose until the late 1850s, before moving to Santa Cruz. By that time, there were four more children in the Swan household— Frank, Alexander, Frederick and Alfred Lyman.
Originally a baker by trade, Swan gave up his larcenous past and returned to his roots, opening up a bakery and restaurant on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz. By the time the three princes arrived 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, at what is now the intersection of Front and Cathcart streets, that backed up to the San Lorenzo River.
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 local documents or newspaper accounts of the criminal activity that forced him to leave Hawaii and led to his relocation to San Jose.
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 brothers’ parents died. By blood, the three 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 the Rev. Alfred Lee Brewer.
Edward, the frailest of the three brothers, was born in 1870. Jonah, nicknamed “Cupid” and a brilliant athlete in all sports, was born the following year.
When not at St. Mathew’s, the three princes were placed under the careful eye of Antoinette Swan in Santa Cruz and her children, who were considered older “cousins” of the princes. When the Swan home became too crowded, the princes boarded at the nearby Wilkins House, located half a block away.
According to records kept by the waterfront historian Warren “Skip” Littlefield (1906-1985), 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.” Given the location of the Swan home on the edge of the San Lorenzo, the princes likely floated their boards down the short span of the river to the beach.
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 and her family, 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.
In a remarkable, somewhat melancholy letter written by Lily Swan to her mother in October of 1886 (and recently discovered by the authors 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.” 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. Mathew’s in September of 1887 and died a short time later in Honolulu 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. The youngest, 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 businessmen, 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 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’ surfing legacy had taken hold on the California Coast.
Kuhio left Hawaii immediately upon his release 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.
The linchpin of this story, however, Antoinette Swan, has long been a forgotten figure in Pacific Rim history. When San Jose music promoter Kyle Gilmore—who believes he may be a relative of Swan’s through her mother’s side—visited a bronze plaque honoring the three princes at Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz, he decided to locate the gravesite of Antoinette Swan at Santa Cruz Memorial Park, a mile or so up the San Lorenzo River from where the princes made surfing history.
Upon encountering Antoinette Swan’s story, Gilmore—who helped launch The Ritz in San Jose’s downtown SoFA district—felt an immediate kinship to her. According to his own family lore, he is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, of a line similar to that of Antoinette’s. Recent DNA tests provide possible links not only to Antoinette, but also to the three princes as well, along with at least two other ali’i bloodlines. All of them were distant cousins—the same way that Antoinette and the princes were believed to be related.
Gilmore met with officials at the Memorial Park cemetery, and has subsequently set up [ https://www.gofundme.com/mrs-antoinette-akoni-marin-swan ]a GoFundMe account to help fund the creation of a marker to honor Antoinette and members of the Swan family who are also buried there in unmarked graves.
“When I went to the cemetery and saw no marker there,” Gilmore says, “I felt compelled to act, to do something about it. My mother had directed me to always protect the bones of those with superior mana, or spirit. I felt as though it was my calling to honor ‘Akoni.’
“Whatever is revealed through all of this,” he continues, “I will accept the responsibility—to deal with all that presents itself in a righteous manner. This is a central part of my Hawaiian heritage—to be accountable to all that is sacred and forgotten. She is here. I can feel her.” For Gilmore, this is more than an academic or symbolic enterprise.
“I know there was something I had to do here in Santa Cruz,” he says. “I look around and see the anxiety and pain we all live in as part of the modern world—the drug and alcohol abuse, the general depression and broken families, the homelessness of traditional native peoples, their economic and political subordination. Broken spirits. The insanity. We need to honor our mana and to remember the past. That is how we are going to heal our people.”