Jarrell Jackman: Spain in Santa Barbara was more than a piece of history | Homes and Lifestyle

[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a series. Click here for the first column.]

In this article on El Real Presidio de Santa Bárbara, I try to summarize four decades of Presidio history in our community (1782-1820).

The Spanish period can be extended to five decades if the period when Alta California was first established in 1769 is included. The Spaniards crisscrossed Santa Barbara during this time and first developed El Camino Real across the region.

Some have told me over the years that too much emphasis has been placed on this “sparkle” of Santa Barbara history, which manifested itself in the Spanish colonial architecture which became a signature of the city afterwards. the 1925 earthquake, not to mention the annual Old Spanish. Days of celebration.

In fact, the changes made in Santa Barbara during the Spanish period were profound. While the Spanish population of Santa Barbara was just over 500 in 1820, the introduction of thousands of domestic animals – cattle, sheep, horses, mules and pigs – and the agricultural transformation of the landscape to make growing European crops have covered literally thousands of acres.

At the same time, all of the Indian villages of Santa Barbara had been abandoned by 1820 and the Chumash had moved to the California missions out of necessity.

The Santa Barbara Military / Administrative District covered the area from the Pueblo de los Ángeles to the Santa Maria River and included the Santa Bárbara, Santa Inés, La Purísima Concepción, San Buenaventura and San Fernando Rey de España missions.

A tremendous amount of rich history, both positive and tragic, has taken place in Spanish Santa Barbara.

As well as being the last Presidio founded in Alta California (1782) – the others being San Diego de Alcalá (1769), San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo near Monterey (1770) and San Francisco de Asís (1776) – the beginnings of the history of Santa Barbara provide a window into the history of the Spanish Empire in North America.

Presidio soldier
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A colorized version of a Presidio soldier, from an original drawing of a Spanish soldier in California. (Harry and Ellen Knill Collection)

The Spanish Empire extended to the Mississippi River and Florida. While it collapsed in 10 short years, its lasting impact has been the continued migration of Hispanic peoples from then until today to the United States. Its linguistic, cultural and political influence continues to shape America, as does its history.

Perhaps an interesting way to try to capture the history of the Santa Barbara Presidio is to apply a modern approach to its interpretation.

Lately, with the country’s social movements, the concept of JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusiveness) is making a lot of talk. What I did was try to explain the history of the Presidio in these terms.

The following is a consolidation of my research over the years into primary and secondary sources in libraries and archives in California, New Mexico, Mexico, and Spain.


The Spaniards had a legal system that was not entirely different from ours today, except that there was no jury trial. All crimes were brought before the District Commander of Santa Barbara Presidio.

If brought to justice, especially the more serious crimes that we would call crimes, the cases proceeded as follows: The commander was the judge and appointed two officers, one to prosecute the case, the other to defend the accused.

Most of the trials were related to violence committed by soldiers against Indians and crimes between Indians. There have been murder trials and cases of capital crimes committed by Indians. The surviving documents of the trials are sometimes tens of pages long.

Among those found guilty, Indians were sentenced to prison; they were never executed. There was the case of a soldier who was convicted of a blatant sex crime based on the testimony of two Chumash women and sentenced to death despite an elegant defense by José Maria Ortega that the accused was an orphan from a troubled background.

Before the sentence was carried out, it had to be approved by the viceroy in Mexico City, and ultimately was. This is one of two executions of a Spanish soldier in Santa Barbara, the other being a soldier convicted of murder.

The commander was also a judge in civil cases. For example, two citizens of the Los Angeles pueblo had a dispute over the possession of sheep. The captain heard the case and made a decision. It was possible to appeal to the governor of Monterey.


The Spanish Empire operated under the Christian doctrine that all mankind was equal before God, and that included the Indians.

The Santa Barbara Presidio functioned as a military hierarchy similar to most military personnel, with officers and enlisted men. To protect enlisted soldiers from exploitation by officers, the Spaniards had a system in which, at each presidio, the soldiers elected the habilitado or the payer. This person supervised the distribution of salaries and expenses.

The commander could be the payer, but the soldiers had to elect him. This was the case in Santa Barbaram where Commander Felipe de Goicoechea was the payer.

While the social structure of the Presidio was based on racial lines, over time soldiers who began in the enlisted ranks were able to achieve officer status. You usually had to be listed as “Español” to gain this status, but there have been cases where the racial designation of soldiers has been changed so that they can become officers.

As mentioned earlier, the legal system puts all equals before the law, but in the case of Indians, the Spanish authorities thought it wise to limit the harsh punishments of Indian peoples unfamiliar with social mores and the political system. the Spanish.

During the Mexican period, significant land grants were made to a few of the upper class during the Spanish period in California (1769-1820). The viceroys granted only a few large grants of land, instead granting small grants of land to retired soldiers in the hope of maintaining a more equitable society.

The diversity

The Presidio soldiers and their families were a diverse group, many of whom were people of color, including of African and Native American descent – more than half, in fact.

It was the result of a 250-year border experience that began in Mexico and moved up North America to include what are today the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico. and Texas.

Many descendants of the early Hispanic settlers of Alta California carry Native American DNA. Armando Quintero, the recently appointed director of California State Parks, mentioned in one of his interviews that his tests showed he had a significant percentage of native DNA.

Most Chumash Indians today carry Hispanic names and, like the Presidio soldiers and their families, are a mixed group of people who carry the biodiversity that is part of their heritage.

Very little of this social history is known, and consolidating genealogical studies of early Californian families would be a great contribution to our understanding of the social and ethnic origins of Santa Barbara and Hispanic California.


One of the key elements of the Hispanic history of Santa Barbara was the unique approach of integrating indigenous peoples into the Spanish system. Santa Barbara was the only place in California where a Presidio was originally founded without a mission, and there was a direct link between civil and military authorities and the Chumash.

Under the influence of the Enlightenment, Governor Felipe de Neve and others brought a new approach to Indo-Spanish relations, allowing Indians to stay in their villages and not requiring them to be brought to the missions.

This ploy was used in California until around 1810, when the Spanish Empire began to collapse due to the occupation of Spain by Napoleon Bonaparte and insurgent movements in the New World. From that point on, the Indians were brought into the missions, but at the same time the Indians became military auxiliaries who served under the commanders and in the missions.

Historians have speculated on how the socio-political world of Santa Barbara might have evolved had the Spanish settlers of Santa Barbara been able to adopt the Enlightenment approach in their dealings with the Chumash natives who were more secular.

Overall, if you look closely, there is a lot of JEDI evidence at the start of the Santa Barbara story. Previously mentioned was de Goicoechea, who served as a comandante from 1784 to 1802. He was one of the most important historical dignitaries of Spanish Santa Barbara but – compared to names like Ortega, Carrillo, Cota and De la Guerra – one in knows a lot less about him. .

In an upcoming column, you’ll learn more about Goicoechea, the leather-jacket soldiers he commanded, and the construction of the adobe fort he oversaw.

– Jarrell Jackman is the former executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. After obtaining his doctorate. in UC Santa Barbara history, he taught for six years in Europe and Washington, DC In 2015, he was honored as a Knight of the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic by the Spanish King Felipe VI and was named Honorary State Park Ranger by the California State Park Rangers Association in 2016. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Edward K. Thompson