On February 18, 1850, the state Legislature approved a plan to divide California into 27 counties, one of which was to be called Santa Barbara. The new county covered almost 5,500 square miles and stretched from the Santa Maria River, which marked the border with San Luis Obispo County, south to the border with Los Angeles County. This remained the case until 1873 when, following years of controversy and political agitation and infighting, Ventura County was formed.
The first attempt to create a new county out of the southern portion of Santa Barbara County came as early as 1859. A petition with 130 signatures was sent to the state Legislature urging such a move. Opposition immediately coalesced against the idea. In Los Angeles County, fear developed that valuable real estate would be lost to this new creation to the north. Chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors Antonio de la Guerra sent representatives to Sacramento to ensure defeat of the proposal, which indeed was eventually dropped.
Nothing more was heard of the idea until the end of the 1860s. That decade had been full of economic disaster for California, wracked as it was by floods followed by massive drought. The backbone of Santa Barbara County’s economy, the cattle industry, was virtually destroyed and many of the great landowning ranchero families ended up losing all or a great part of their holdings. In the Ventura area, a number of the great ranchos were subdivided and many of the new owners were newly arrived Anglos. Both economic and political power in the county began to swing away from the old Californio families.
With the return of relative prosperity and an increase of population, there again was talk of a county split. For many Ventura residents a large part of the problem was that Santa Barbara, the county seat, was so far away. The Casitas Pass road was poor and the preferred coastal route was in some ways worse. Storms and high tides could render the route along the beach impassable in the Rincon area and stagecoaches often sank in the soft sand. A stagecoach trip from Santa Barbara to San Buenaventura could take six hours or more, which put a tremendous burden on those in the Ventura area who needed to journey northward to conduct business or attend court. By 1869 the cry for a new county was again heard and, as before, engendered opposition.
State Assemblyman Angel G. Escandon, a former saloon keeper, led the fight in Sacramento on behalf of Ventura. Opponents pointed out the increased cost of two county governments, bemoaned the loss of rich agricultural lands to the new county, and worried over the loss of tax revenue. Once again, the state Legislature turned down the proposal. That was not the end of it this time, however, as prominent builder and contractor W. D. Hobson took up the cause at the state Capitol.
Opposition in the rest of Santa Barbara County slowly melted away. There was one final controversy, when an idea was floated to extend the new county’s northern border up to Ortega Hill, which meant Santa Barbara County would lose Summerland and the agriculturally rich Carpinteria Valley. With the rejection of this scheme, the state in March 1872 passed a bill to create Ventura County, to take effect on January 1, 1873. In addition to the mainland acreage, Anacapa and San Nicolas islands also became part of the new county.
A special election was held in February 1873 to select county officials; Democrats swept the field, except for the coroner, Dr. C. L. Bard, who managed to run on both the Republican and Democratic tickets. County business was conducted in rented quarters in the Henry Spear Building in San Buenaventura until the new $10,000 courthouse was completed later in 1873. California’s 50th county was soon up and running.
by Michael Redmon
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 West Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.