It is a glorious spring day in Santa Cruz, golden sunshine and a light breeze coming from the ocean, and I am walking on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River—or, more accurately, along its western levee—with Kyle Gilmore, an intense and purposeful man of Hawaiian descent who is fascinated by the connectivity between Santa Cruz and the place of his familial roots on the island of Oahu. Gilmore, now in his late forties, was raised in foster homes and juvenile detention centers on the island, and spent the past 30 years or so “wandering the globe,” as he puts it. He is in search of connectivity to lives that have come before his.
Gilmore has recently discovered the now celebrated tale of the three Hawaiian princes who visited Santa Cruz in the 1880s and brought the royal sport of surfing to the Americas. He is drawn to it, passionately, resolutely.
For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a quick summation: In the summer of 1885, three Hawaiian princes—David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliiahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole—used traditional styled olo boards made of redwood from the Santa Cruz Mountains and surfed at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Their activities, described in the local press at the time as “interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands,” provided the first known account of Polynesian-styled surfing in the Americas. (See GT’s cover story, July 1, 2015.)
Perhaps even more significantly, their cultural activities caught hold here in Santa Cruz. A decade later, a local newspaper item declared that “the boys who go in swimming at Seabright Beach use surfboards to ride the breakers, like the Hawaiians.” By the 1890s, surfing had taken root in Santa Cruz.
At the center of that story—and the reason that the princes stayed here in Santa Cruz—was a woman named Antoinette “Akoni” Swan, of royal Hawaiian lineage and who served as a catalyst to the princes’ historic activities here.
Surf historian Kim Stoner and I have been tracking and researching this story for most of our adult lives. Several years ago, we uncovered a remarkable archive of materials in Hawaii—letters and photographs— that significantly expanded our understanding of the critical role Antoinette Swan played in this story. She has subsequently been featured in several of our articles, as well as in exhibits at the Museum of Art & History—including one that featured a pair of the princes’ original olo surfboards on loan from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Slowly but surely, the fascinating, once-forgotten figure Antoinette Swan has been rewoven into the fabric of Santa Cruz history.
Gilmore, staying in Santa Cruz at the invitation of our mutual friend (and Good Times CEO) Dan Pulcrano, was so intrigued by the princes’ and Antoinette Swan’s tale that he went to visit Swan’s gravesite at Santa Cruz Memorial Park (also known as Odd Fellows Cemetery) on the eastern banks of the San Lorenzo, on Ocean Street Extension. What Gilmore discovered is that Swan’s graveside had no marker. Nothing.
Hawaiian bloodlines can be difficult to trace, sometimes nearly impossible to follow. For years, there have been lawsuits and trails of broken dreams trying to prove them in court. But it has generally been understood that Antoinette Swan had royal, or ali’i, lineage, which explained not only her close ties to the three princes, but also to King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiʻolani in the late 19th century, even when she was residing here in Santa Cruz.
Upon discovering her story, Gilmore felt an immediate kinship to Antoinette. 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 that he showed me provide possible links not only to Antoinette, but 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 set up a GoFundMe account to help fund the creation of a marker. He is also hosting a concert at the Catalyst on Saturday, May 6, (see below) to raise funds for a gravestone.
“When I went to the cemetery and saw no marker there,” he 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’.”
Twenty years after the princes arrived here 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 [today Pearl Harbor] 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 12 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.
Not all of the information in the Surf obituary was accurate, but it was 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.
According to baptismal records in Hawaii and her death certificate here in Santa Cruz, Antoinette Marin, nicknamed “Akoni” when she was young, was born on the island of Oahu on Oct. 6, 1832. Contrary to the reference in the obituary, her mother, Kaikuloa, is believed to be a full-blooded Hawaiian and 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 consigliere 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 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.
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.)
A ship manifest I recently discovered from 1848 raises some interesting questions. Listed on board the barkentine Elliot Libbey on July 11, 1848, departing from Tahiti to the “Sandwich Islands” [Hawaii], are Swan and his “wife,” listed as though she were from “Tahiti.” Also on board was his chandlery partner, Ornan Clifford, along with his wife. Were Swan and the 15-year-old Antoinette already living together as a married couple well before their marriage? Or had he taken a Tahitian bride that he left before marrying Antoinette? The answers remain uncertain.
Business records in the Hawaiian Archives indicate that while the Swan & Clifford chandlery was doing a booming business, income was not keeping up with expenses. Apparently, unbeknownst to his partner, Swan began forging “bills of exchange” (or checks) with several whaling ships. The partners were also accused of short-selling coal.
On April 13, 1855, authorities in Hawaii issued 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 snuck 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.
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 court cases against him in San Francisco (he was found guilty on several, but not all counts). The records of his many court cases, located today at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, do not reveal if he was sentenced to any time in prison.
Somehow during this time, he managed to bring Antoinette and his daughter Lily to California, where the family first resided in San Jose, and then moved to Santa Cruz in the mid-1860s. By that time, there were five children in the Swan household.
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 then 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—though 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.
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, particularly in Hawaii.
In 1884, the popular Hawaiian monarchs King David Kalakaua and his wife, Queen Consort Esther Julia Kapiʻolani, who were childless, adopted the three princes after the deaths of both their parents. By blood, the three brothers were Kapiʻolani’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 at St. Mathew’s Hall, a full-fledged military school for boys, located in San Mateo.
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 Avenue and Cathcart Street.
It would be doing a significant disservice to the historical record to suggest that life at the Swan house was a bed of white ginger blossoms—for the princes or for themselves. 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.
According to records in the Hawaiian Archives, Antoinette decided to return to the islands for lengthy periods of time, where she served as a special assistant to the Royal Family—her official title was chamberlain (not “chambermaid” as the local press occasionally referred to it) and often traveled with them abroad.
In a remarkable, albeit somewhat melancholy, letter written by Lily Swan to her mother in October of 1886, Lily lamented 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 younger 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.”
The other two brothers, however, David (“Koa”) and Jonah (“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 from Hawaii and was also a frequent visitor to Santa Cruz with the princes.
Ironically, it was in December of 1941, only a week following the bombing of Pearl Harbor (a property that had once belonged to Swan’s father), that Santa Cruz briefly paid attention to the Hawaiian links to its history. Two prominent Santa Cruz Sentinel historians, Leon Rowland and Ernest Otto, both paid homage to Swan and her family. Rowland described Antoinette as “a native woman of royal blood” (he identified her mother as “Lahihali”), while Otto, who almost certainly knew “Akoni” when he was a young boy, described her as “courteous and gracious,” and declared that she would “never be forgotten by those that knew her.”
Until recent years, however, she had been completely forgotten by Santa Cruz history.
Three-quarters of a century after Antoinette Swan’s last hurrah, Kyle Gilmore and I are continuing our walk along the San Lorenzo. Life around the river is bustling: mallards are engaged in an exotic mating ritual on the water; swallows nesting on the Soquel Avenue bridge are darting and diving toward the river; crows are swarming overhead. At one point, as we head south along the levee, I realize we are near the location of the Swan family home, the place where Antoinette died on Oct. 1, 1905.
Gilmore honors this realization with a moment of silence.
As we draw closer to the beach, we notice 20 young sea lions sunning themselves on a ledge just above the water. A few swim near us and monitor our movements. Gilmore takes these as signs.
Earlier in the day, he and I had visited with Santa Cruz Memorial cemetery owner Randy Krassow, who is as affable as he is informative. He took us to the unmarked Swan family burial plot and showed us records indicating that a dozen members of the Swan family, including Lyman Swan, were buried there—all unmarked. It was a stunning discovery. Several years ago, I had happened upon the Swan family photo album in Honolulu, with virtually all of these family member’s carte de visite images, and now I was connecting with their spirits at the cemetery.
Gilmore says there is something he needs to explain to me. He speaks to me in a measured tone about the Hawaiian concept of mana, or spiritual energy, and why he felt that Antoinette Swan was possessed of a powerful version of this spirit, which she had obtained through her birth.
“Whatever is revealed through all of this,” he says, “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.”
On the distant horizon, just beyond where the three Hawaiian princes first surfed at the river mouth 132 years ago next month, a flock of pelicans is forming a “V” above the water. They seem to be moving in slow motion. “I know there was something I had to do here in Santa Cruz,” Gilmore says to me. “I look around and see the anxiety and pain we all live in as part of the modern world. The insanity. We need to honor our mana, and to remember the past. That is how we are going to heal our people.”
Geoffrey Dunn is the author of ‘Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II,’ and ‘Images of America: The Santa Cruz Wharf,’ both available locally.
Saturday Night Benefit in Honor of Antoinette Swan
There will be a benefit concert, featuring reggae and world music, at the Catalyst this Saturday night, May 6, beginning at 8 p.m. This is an all-ages show.
Bands playing include Killer Queens, Santa Cruz Reggae Allstars, Hallway Ballers, and the Feldthouse Band.
Tickets are $15 presale, and $20 day of show. Doors open at 8 p.m. All funds will benefit the placement of a grave marker at the burial site of Antoinette “Akoni” Marin Swan and her family.