This thoroughfare on Santa Barbara’s Eastside is named after Colonel Richard Mason, U.S. military governor of California, 1847-1849. He merits a local street named after him because he played a key role in one of the most famous incidents in Santa Barbara history-the saga of the Lost Cannon.
In the spring of 1848, Santa Barbara was an occupied town. Although the Treaty of Cahuenga had halted the fighting between the U.S. and Mexico in California, full peace between the combatants had yet to be achieved. A company of New York volunteers, Company F under the command of Captain Francis Lippitt, were thus stationed in Santa Barbara, and there were tensions between the populace and the soldiers. Certainly, there were some among the citizenry who still hoped that somehow the American yoke could be thrown off. It did not help that locals considered the ambitious, rather self-serving Lippitt to be a bit of a martinet.
The catalyst for direct confrontation occurred on the evening of February 11, 1848, when the cargo brig Elizabeth foundered just to the west of the port of Santa Barbara. Efforts to save the ship failed, and the following days were spent in getting everything that could be salvaged onto the beach-including a cannon of now indeterminate size that the crew of the ill-fated ship considered useless.
There matters stood until April, when five youths, Jose E. Garc-a, Jose Antonio de la Guerra, Jose Lugo, Jose D. Garc-a, and Pac-fico Cota, decided to steal the cannon. Did they believe the cannon could prove useful should there be a rising against the American garrison? Was it just a mischievous prank? Maybe it was a little of both. In any case, the five hitched the gun to a pair of oxen and dragged it to the swampy estero at the foot of today’s Laguna Street (hence the name of the street) and buried it in the sand.
Captain Lippitt was outraged, and perhaps a little panicky. He fired off a note to Governor Mason in Monterey, indicating that an uprising might be imminent. By doing so, he bypassed his immediate superior, Colonel J. D. Stevenson, stationed in Los Angeles. Governor Mason issued Order No. 36, instructing Santa Barbara to pay $500, to be assessed by a head tax of $2 on every male over 20 as well as a tax on real and personal property. The money was to be collected by Col. Stevenson no later than July 1. Failure to comply could result in the confiscation of property of the townspeople.
Stevenson was unhappy about the breach in the chain of command and about the uncertain situation he now faced. He arrived here on June 23, and, to get a handle on the local mood, immediately opened a dialogue with Pablo de la Guerra, a member of probably the most influential family in Santa Barbara. De la Guerra voiced his misgivings over the enforcement of Order No. 36; trouble might very well ensue. The two hatched an unusual plan.
On July 4, at Stevenson’s behest, the regimental band arrived from Los Angeles. What followed were two days of music, dancing, and merrymaking, at the end of which the well-mollified citizens of Santa Barbara ponied up the fine. Crisis averted.
The following spring, the U.S. authorities returned the money, instructing Santa Barbara to use it to build a jail. This order was ignored and the final disposition of the $500 remains a mystery; one rumor had it that a local official gambled it away. The buried cannon eventually resurfaced, only to finally be sold to a scrap dealer in San Francisco.
The tale of the Lost Cannon is commemorated not only in the name of Mason Street but also in the street names Quinientos (Five Hundred) and, of course, Canon Perdido, and at the center of the saga is Governor Mason and his Order No. 36.
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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 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.