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
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
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.