We rarely consider the names of things with which we are extremely familiar, just as we rarely think about the derivation of words we use in everyday speech. Taking a moment to think about why a street is called a street might be fascinating for a linguist, but not terribly rewarding for anyone else.
On the other hand, some of the street names in Santa Barbara are so bizarre that they demand an explanation. Two of the oddest, perhaps, are Canon Perdido and Salsipuedes. They translate to “Lost Cannon” and “Get Out If You Can,” neither of them especially appealing as an address at which to live Salsipuedes in particular, as it brings images of all kinds of disasters to mind.
Somewhat to my disappointment, however, it does not have a grisly or terrifying story behind it. Before Santa Barbara expanded and the area was paved, the section of town beneath where Salsipuedes St. runs now was a swamp. The name refers simply to the difficulty in extricating feet, carts, and horses from boggy ground.
If Salsipuedes is an accurate summation of the territory, Canon Perdido St. is actually somewhat of a misnomer. The cannon referred to in the name was not simply lost, but quite possibly stolen under mysterious circumstances, and the loss became a major incident involving officials throughout California.
In 1848, Captain Francis J. Lippitt was the Presidio’s commander. When the cannon disappeared from its position on the beach, he panicked and wrote to the Governor of California – who promptly blamed the town as a whole, and fined Santa Barbara $500. Assuming that someone would turn in the cannon thief out of frustration at having to pay what was then an enormous sum of money, Governor Richard Barnes Mason assessed each male over the age of 20 with a $2 fine. There were protests and grumblings; eventually, with several other officers and gentlemen of the area called in to consult, it was determined that a parade would probably settle the populace.
It did. On July 3, 1848, the Los Angeles Regimental Band took to State Street – and oddly, this display, and the likely drunken party that followed, actually did resign the Santa Barbarans to paying for the cannon’s loss.
Ten years later, a cannon washed up on the beach, and there was some speculation that it might have been the same one. No one knows for sure, and the disposition of the five hundred dollars is also still unknown. It seems that 159 years ago, public officials were just as prone to misplacing large sums of money as they are now. Perhaps some things just never change.