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The 40 Years that Shaped Santa Barbara: 1782-1822

Birth of a Town


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Spain had claimed California 242 years before the Spanish finally paid attention to Santa Barbara. But Russian hunters from the north were showing interest in the area’s fur-bearing animals, the English were beginning to explore California’s shores, and it was time to protect Santa Barbara from foreign invasion. In 1782, King Carlos ordered that a presidio be built, the last of four such fortresses to be erected in New Spain (the others were in San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco). The soldiers and their families who were to inhabit the new presidio came from Sinaloa, Mexico, and were of Spanish and Mexican Indian heritage.

The king’s plan called for the construction of a mission to follow the building of the presidio. The Chumash Indians would be Christianized and “civilized” at the mission. They would learn to cultivate the earth, build with stone and wood, wear clothing, and pay taxes to the king.

Not all the Chumash people went along with this plan, but many willingly attempted to live as the Spanish padres and soldiers wished. Under Spanish direction, the Indians built the adobe fortress-the presidio-the mission, and an aqueduct system in Mission and Rattlesnake canyons. They also attended the Catholic Church, where they learned the Christian faith. Four thousand Chumash people were buried at the mission, most of them killed by pleuro-pneumonia, smallpox, syphilis, and hard work.

When King Carlos found it difficult to continue supplying this little outpost so far away from the cities of New Spain, the arduous life of hardship and deprivation intensified for the Chumash and Spanish alike.

Then, in 1812, a great earthquake shattered the presidio and mission, a tidal wave washed through the present-day lower Eastside, and aftershocks continued for months. The mission was rebuilt in 1820 with the stone fa§ade we know today; the fortress was not rebuilt, and only a remnant of the original structure remains. Santa Barbara’s stunned inhabitants picked up the pieces and the struggle for survival went on.

The colonists triumphed over this hard life, however. A saint’s day, a nameday, a successful hunt provided the pueblo with an occasion for a fiesta. The whole village often turned out for a barbecue and dance. In August, the birthday of Mary, mother of Jesus, was celebrated in grand style.

The town plaza, which we now know as De la Guerra Plaza, became the scene of high revelry. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes, brought their guitars and castanets, danced the fandango, and tossed blown eggs filled with cologne at each other. The good times rolled.

Although Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1822 and Santa Barbara became a Mexican possession, the Spanish way of life continued its influence. Today, Santa Barbarans come from a broad spectrum of humanity, wear another style of clothes, live in a different way, and have different struggles. But once a year, we recreate those days long ago when the stamping of feet to the rhythmic strumming of the guitar released the soul of the earth-bound Barbare±os and a cry rang out-¡Viva!

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