History of Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, like San Diego and Monterey, was listed on the Spanish maps of California long before the arrival of the Franciscans. It had been so named by Sebastian Vizcaíño some 60 years after its discovery by Cabrillo in 1542. From the time of the first march of the Portolá expedition, it had been warmly regarded as a likely spot for mission settlement.

Old painting of Mission Santa Barbara

The padres, however, were 13 years in California before an opportunity for founding a mission at Santa Barbara occurred. By then, Governor Felipe de Neve was their arch enemy, who openly preferred civil colonists to mission neophytes. Nevertheless, he had agreed at a meeting in San Gabriel to allow the fathers to place a mission at San Buenaventura and at Santa Barbara, although his own interest was in the new presidio he planned to establish on the latter site. It was agreed that all three establishments would be instituted by one expedition. The padres and their military escort started out from San Gabriel in the spring of 1782, but circumstances prevented the governor from participating in the founding of San Buenaventura.

When the governor finally met the expedition at Santa Barbara, the new presidio was quickly established with Father Serra an eager participant in preparing the military chapel. After this had been completed and the governor did not make a move toward the creation of the projected mission, Fr. Junípero approached de Neve and asked him when he intended to order the work on the mission. The governor replied that Santa Barbara could wait until the Franciscans were willing to follow the new Reglamento, which had been ignored at San Buenaventura. In their hearts each probably knew that the other would never give in and since the governor had clearly won the field at Santa Barbara, there was nothing for the defeated padre to do but return to his own mission at Carmel.

It was five years before the Father Presidente received word that a mission would at last be placed at Santa Barbara. By that time, de Neve was gone and his place had been taken by the former governor, Pedro Fages. Some years before, Fr. Serra had made the long trip to Mexico in order to secure Fages’ removal and it must have been a discouraging experience for the aging padre to learn that his former enemy had returned. The old father did not survive Fages’ appointment for long, as he passed away on August 28, 1784, leaving the burden of mission problems to be shouldered by the able and willing Father Lasuén.

The administration of Father Fermín Lasuén has often been called the “golden Age” of California’s mission system. Although this period extended considerably beyond the 18 years of Fr. Lasuén’s presidency, it was his constructive energy and executive ability that set the pattern for prosperity.

Santa Barbara became an active mission on December 4, 1786, and was the first to be established by Fr. Lasuén. Launched on the threshold of the prosperous years, the mission enjoyed singular good fortune from the very beginning. Its first permanent church, finished in 1789, was a well-constructed adobe with a red tile roof. Within five years, the church was too small for the increasing mission population and a larger edifice was built. This structure was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and the existing stone church was begun shortly thereafter. Completed in 1820, it remained intact for 105 years. In 1925, an earthquake shook the building so severely that restoration required more than two years to complete.

The beautiful garden inside Mission Santa Barbara

The design on the facade of Santa Barbara’s church, strongly resembling an ancient Latin temple, was inspired by one of the buildings in Rome of the pre-Christian era. One of the Franciscans had brought from Spain a reprint of a book on architecture, originally published 27 years before the birth of Christ by the Roman architect, Vitruvio Polion.

The Indians of the Santa Barbara region found the mission system much to their liking. Shortly after the beginning of the nineteenth century, the mission had more than 1,700 neophytes living in some 250 adobe houses. They were, like those at Ventura, a more adaptable and energetic tribe than any with whom the padres had previously dealt. With the ready assistance of their neophytes, the Franciscans soon made the mission self-sustaining. Part of their industry, a large stone reservoir, is still an active unit in the Santa Barbara city water supply system.

In 1818, one of the padres at the mission was warned of the approach of the French pirate, Bouchard. He armed and drilled 150 of his Indian neophytes in preparation for the expected attack. With the aid of these colorful reinforcements, the presidio guard was able to impress the usually reckless Bouchard, and the pirate sailed out of the harbor without venturing to attack the settlement. This was, however, the last instance of cooperation between the Indians and the military.

News of the Mexican revolt arrived in 1822 and from that time onward the Franciscan fathers had increasing difficulties with the presidio. One of the causes of the friction had little to do with the contemporary problems, but was deeply rooted in the past. For more than 200 years, those who had been born in the Americas had harbored a smoldering antagonism toward the Spanish-born. This resulted from the fact that the Spanish kings, feeling that Spaniards would be more loyal than colonials, had always sent from Spain the officers who occupied positions of authority. The Spanish-American “creoles,” no matter how wealthy or influential, were kept out of the profitable positions of administration.

After the Mexican revolution, creole resentment was reflected in an active campaign against the Spanish born, and one of the first official pronouncements to reach California was a law ordering all Spaniards under 60 to leave the province. Although the order was never carried out, it added considerably to the problems of the padres, for they were all from Spain. Their authority over the Indians was subjected to attack, and soldiers were encouraged to assume the work of policing the natives. Trouble between the Indians and the military was inevitable.

In the spring of 1824, an Indian uprising against the increasing violence of the soldiers occurred at three missions including Santa Barbara. Here, the Indians broke into the almost forgotten armory and succeeded in overcoming the mission guard. In the struggle, two soldiers were wounded and the Spanish reprisals were so severe that all the Indians who were not caught fled from the area. It was not until more than six months later, after a general pardon for all the Indians had been secured by the Franciscan father presidente, that any of the neophytes returned to the mission.

The great days enjoyed by Santa Barbara were fast coming to an end. The withering effect of secularization soon overtook the settlement, although there were two men destined to save it from the complete destruction that fell upon most of the other missions. In 1833, the Spanish exclusion policy was followed by the introduction of American-born Franciscans. The new governor, José Figueroa, brought with him 10 Zacatecan friars, who were placed in charge of all the missions north of San Antonio. Shortly after this, Father Narcisco Durán, then presidente of the missions, moved his office to Santa Barbara. Here the courageous padre conducted a last struggle to save the mission system. In 1842, Francisco Garcia Diego, first bishop of the Californias, moved his headquarters to the mission at Santa Barbara. The presence of both the bishop and the father presidente saved this mission from complete expropriation until 1846, when both good men died within a month of each other.

At that time, the ever eager Pio Pico rushed in to make a final sale. He was too late, however, for California became a territory of the United States before the buyer could occupy his newly acquired property. Santa Barbara, the Queen of the Missions, thus became the only mission to remain in constant occupation by the Franciscan Order from the day of its founding down to the present time.

Having been in continuous occupancy, the mission closely resembles its original appearance. This is especially true of the interior where even the rooms which house the mission’s museum have been in uninterrupted use for more than 200 years. It is logical that the museum’s collection, as the result of these long years of accumulation, should be the best organized and documented. Each room in the museum has a central theme. The music room, as an example, contains an extensive collection of instruments and music manuscripts with most of the latter bearing distinctive hand-lettered square notes. The music from which the Indians were taught to sing has each note of the scale lettered In a different color. Other rooms have Indian exhibits of the pre-mission era such as hollowed stone vessels and ancient tools.

A fountain at Santa Barbara

At the back of the old church is the choir loft, in which the Indian neophytes once sang. The beauty of the interior from this height is most impressive. The unusual decorative effects which give the impression of marble are nowhere more striking than here at Santa Barbara. Beautiful candelabra are suspended from the ceiling by ingenious “S” shaped chains. At the point where the chains are fixed into the ceiling, one sees the startling “flash of lightning” design resembling the Aztec Indian motif. It is hard to believe that its weird, arresting beauty once graced some ancient Roman wall and that its presence on the mission ceiling reflects the debt of some Franciscan padre to Polion’s work of 2,000 years before.