Historic Courthouse Plaques Recognize Santa Barbara’s ‘First White’ Men and Women

County Supervisor Gregg Hart Objects to ‘Offensive, Racist Language’

Credit: Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts

This story was originally published on Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts.

A few yards from a busy entrance to the historic Santa Barbara County Courthouse, two weather-worn plaques, affixed to a sandstone boulder, attest to California’s Spanish Colonial period ― in words that seem painful and problematic in our present moment.

The inscription on the older of the two plaques, rendered in all capital letters, reads as follows:

“IN HONOR OF GOV. GASPAR DE PORTOLA
HIS OFFICERS AND SOLDIERS AND FRAY JUAN CRESPI (DIARIST) THE FIRST WHITE MEN TO MARCH THROUGH THE WILDERNESS OF CALIFORNIA, ARRIVED AT SANTA BARBARA AUG. 18-20, 1769 AND CAMPED IN THIS VICINITY. SANTA BARBARA CHAPTER DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION 1927”

The second, attached to the opposite side of the stone, reads:

“IN HONOR OF THE FIRST WHITE WOMEN AND CHILDREN OF THE THIRTY FAMILIES WHO MARCHED THROUGH CALIFORNIA WITH THE COLONIZATION EXPEDITION OF JUAN BAUTISTA DE ANZA AND CAMPED NEAR HERE MAY 1776 SANTA BARBARA CHAPTER DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION 1938”

An alert Newsmakers reader, who requested anonymity, sent us an image of one of the panels, concerned about the message it sends, particularly at a time of nationwide unrest over racism and the removal and tearing down of Confederate statues and other historic markers.

“Plaque greeting visitors to the Courthouse!” they wrote, protesting the presence of the marker on the grounds of Santa Barbara’s most iconic landmark, visited by thousands of tourists a year.


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GREGG’S OUTRAGED:  Objecting to “the offensive, racist language” of the plaques, Board of Supervisors President Gregg Hart told us last night that he intends to see they are “removed as soon as possible” from the Courthouse grounds.

“I’d like them removed as soon as tomorrow,” Hart told Newsmakers.

The 1927 plaque, dated two years before the Courthouse was completed, is catalogued on the Historical Marker Database, which describes more than 115,000 historical markers in the nation; the listing notes other plaques on the grounds, including “The First Ruling Sovereign of Europe to Visit America,” “President Reagan Meets Queen Elizabeth II” and “Tympanum.”

Portola was a soldier and administrator of Spain’s Viceroyalty of New Spain colony, who explored and expanded its Las Californias province far north, from Baja California to San Francisco Bay.

The 1938 plaque is along the route of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which recalls the 1,200-mile expedition of the New Spain military officer that established the first colonial settlement near San Francisco. The trail is managed by the National Park Service; the Courthouse marker, however, is not listed on its website, although five other sites in Santa Barbara County, including El Presidio de Santa Barbara, are.

“My first reaction to seeing the plaques was total confusion,” said City Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, who kindly took fresh photos of both plaques for a quarantined Newsmakers geezer after we showed him the image we were sent.

“Why would the Daughters of the American Revolution be honoring a Spanish colonizer’s religious mission on public and state land? Why are those facts not noted on the plaques but their skin color is?” he said. “The plaques don’t seem to be completely historically accurate or acknowledge the consequences of the colonizers’ actions. I’m glad the county is taking action.”

THE DAR:  California members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) have been active in sponsoring other markers and sites of the historic trail around the state.

Founded in 1890, after women were rejected for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution, the DAR is a nonprofit that, among other activities, promotes historic preservation. Membership, which the group claims at more than one million women, is based on genealogy: new members must prove “lineal descent from a patriot of the American Revolution.”

Viewed as a conservative organization, the DAR in the last century had a fraught history of racism, and did not admit a Black member until 1977.

Last month, however, amid the protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, the organization released a statement called “The DAR’s continuing commitment to equality,” which stated that “our organization condemns racism. Bias, prejudice and intolerance have no place in the DAR or America.”

Efforts to reach a DAR representative Sunday night were unsuccessful.


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