Welcome to Santa Barbara

Even after 9 months of living in Santa Barbara, it’s still difficult to remember which street is Castillo, Cabrillo, or Carrillo. The similarity in the street names might make them difficult to differentiate, but they weren’t named just to confuse newcomers and tourists. In fact, there’s a rich history behind the street names and the city of Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara Namesake

European explorers first arrived in 1542 when Portuguese explorer João Rodrigues Cabrilho sailed through the Santa Barbara Channel and stopped in Goleta. In Spanish, he is called Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and the seaside boulevard through Santa Barbara carries his surname. Sixty years after Cabrilho’s brief visit, Spanish explorers traveled through Santa Barbara Channel and bestowed its namesake after surviving a storm on December 3rd, the day before the Saint Barbara’s feast day.

The venerated saint is said to have escaped being murdered by her pagan father and was transported to a narrow valley in the mountains. She was captured after a shepherd betrayed her (he was subsequently turned to stone and his flock became locusts) and was to be beheaded. While imprisoned, she was tortured, but her wounds healed every morning. The legend emphasizes her relentless faith, which led to her martyrdom.

Nearly two centuries later, missionaries traveled to Santa Barbara by land and made camp by a freshwater pond. The pond (in Spanish: laguna) was in the vicinity of what is now, appropriately, Laguna Street. These missionaries were the first of many to come as the Spanish attempted to defend California against other settlers. As a result, soldiers and their families were stationed in the Presidio in Santa Barbara.

Garrisoned at the Presidio

José Francisco Ortega left his warehouse clerk job in Mexico to join the army, and, after a brief hiatus to work in mining camps, Ortega climbed through the ranks and was named the first commandant of the Presidio of Santa Barbara. He retired after 40 years of service, during which he garnered accolades that led to the naming of Ortega Street. Ortega’s bloodline is also responsible for naming other California locales; El Capitán State Beach is named in his honor, and his granddaughter married Scot John Gilroy.

Captain José Raimundo Carrillo also brought his family to the Presidio of Santa Barbara. Among the Carrillo family was Carlos Antonio Carrillo, who later became governor of the Alta California territory, and José Antonio Carrillo, who served as mayor of the settlement that is now Los Angeles. Whether by the elder Carrillo’s own achievements or those of his sons, one of the busiest streets in Santa Barbara celebrates the Carrillo legacy.

José Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega was a prominent figure in early Santa Barbara history. He also served as commandant of the Presidio after guarding San Diego and Monterey. When he retired, he had 52 years of army service under his belt and held ½ million acres across California. When he died, he was buried with his wife in the Santa Barbara Mission. His house, which is on De La Guerra Street, still exists today as a historic landmark.

Alta California Governors

Various pre-US-owned-California governors may have lent their names for current Santa Barbara streets, including José Joaquín de Arrillaga, Manual Micheltorena, Pablo Vicente de Sola, Nicolás Gutiérrez, and José Figueroa. Manuel Victoria was another Alta California governor but didn’t serve a full term. He attempted to nullify an order to secularize the missions and distribute the land holdings as ranchos. This led to a revolt, his removal from office, and subsequent exile. Despite this, a small street in Santa Barbara could hold his name.

Mexican-American War

With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, Mexico ceded a large portion of what is now the southwestern United States. The treaty stipulated that Mexican land grants, or ranchos, must be honored by the US government. Many individuals were given land grants, including some of the aforementioned Spanish and Mexican soldiers. Some ranchos still retain their original names, like the upscale neighborhood Rancho Bernardo outside of San Diego. Other ranchos were given to eminent soldiers, like Francisco Cota, who shares his name with another Santa Barbara street.

The city of Santa Barbara was officially established after the Mexican-American War but was sparsely populated for the first few years. Americans demanded wooden homes instead of the adobe dwellings and wanted a better city layout. Salisbury Haley was tasked with surveying the city and developing a square street grid to replace the scattered roads. Haley measured the city blocks with a survey chain that had been broken in several places. He repaired his chains with oxhide, which expanded on dewy, cool mornings and shrunk in the warm sun. Measurements that were made at different times of the day caused errors as great as 45 feet. Instead of well-ordered 450 feet square blocks, Haley had measured city blocks anywhere from 457 to 464 feet. The results were misalignments and dog legs in current city streets, like a major curve in Mission Street when crossing De La Vina. Still, Haley’s efforts warranted a downtown street to hold his name.

The rich history of California runs through Santa Barbara, with city streets likely named after famous (or infamous) soldiers, governors, and bungling surveyors. The naming origins are often justifiably overlooked in favor of the interesting stories offered by the Santa Barbara Mission or the Chumash Indians, but the city streets still deserve some recognition. And perhaps a little historical trivia will help in remembering the similar-sounding names or at least give an interesting perspective on California history.


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