Alpheus Thompson was one of Santa Barbara’s most prominent 19th-century citizens. His large two-story adobe residence was a Santa Barbara landmark for decades and was one of the first of its kind in California.
Thompson was born in Maine in 1797. His brother, Francis, would later captain the brig Pilgrim, made famous by Richard Henry Dana’s book Two Years Before the Mast. An uncle, Dixie Wildes, helped found one of the most important companies engaged in the China trade in the 1820s and 1830s. The China trade was a complex mercantile system involving the movement of goods among the U.S., California, Europe, China, and the Pacific Islands. Traded goods included a variety of items including cattle hides and tallow from California, Chinese silks and fireworks, camphor, and castor oil.
Thompson began his career as a trader in Canton in 1821 and then moved to Oahu four years later to help run his uncle’s firm. He served on a number of ships plying Pacific waters and, since Santa Barbara was a major port for Mexican California, made more than one visit here. In 1830, he met 15-year-old Francisca Carrillo, member of one of the most influential Santa Barbara families. The couple fell in love, were betrothed, and finally married in November 1834.
By then, Thompson already had made plans to build a large, two-story adobe residence and warehouse with a wrap-around balcony at what would be today’s 803-805 State Street. In 1833, he ordered 2,000 wooden roof shingles from San Francisco, and construction began in late summer of 1834. By the spring of 1835, the first floor was complete enough for Thompson to begin using it as a combined warehouse and mercantile establishment. One of the outstanding features of the house was the use of french doors, very unusual for the period. The Thompson home was one of the most elegant residences in Santa Barbara and today is thought to be one of the first Monterey-style adobes built in California, predating the Thomas Larkin adobe in Monterey by about two years.
When John C. Frémont came through Santa Barbara in 1846 during the U.S. war with Mexico, he headquartered in the Thompson adobe, and shortly thereafter a portion of another U.S. regiment billeted in the house. Thompson filed a $2,000 claim against the U.S. government for damages sustained during Fremont’s stay; he lost the suit.
In the mid-1840s, Thompson entered into a partnership that operated a successful cattle and sheep ranch on Santa Rosa Island. He also owned ranching property up in San Joaquin County, all the while continuing his successful mercantile concerns. Thompson was visiting in Los Angeles when he suffered a fatal stroke at age 74 in 1869.
His Santa Barbara adobe housed a variety of businesses after his death, including a butcher shop, saloon, general store, and the St. Charles Hotel. For a time in the 1890s, the upper floor housed the justice court. By the early 1900s, the building had fallen on hard times. In 1913, the Alpheus Thompson adobe was torn down.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 122 West Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.