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Santa Barbara History

Like many American cities, Santa Barbara's history begins long before it was officially recorded by European settlers. The temperate, fertile area that became Santa Barbara County was occupied for thousands of years by the Chumash Indians. Then one day in 1542, Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo’s ship arrived. He briefly exchanged gifts with one of the villages, claimed the land for Spain, and left. Sixty years later a Spanish friar on a passing ship named the area Santa Barbara, but the name existed only on Spanish maps. The Chumash certainly didn’t know they were Spanish minions living in Santa Barbara. Finally, in 1782, the industrious mission-building Franciscan friar Father Junipero Serra, with the Governor of Alta California, founded Santa Barbara’s Presidio (fort), one of the four most important garrisons in Alta California. Four years later the Mission was built. In short order, the Chumash were devastated by diseases to which they had no immunity. In their zeal to convert the Chumash, the Mission friars succeeded in suppressing their culture and religion. After the Mexicans overthrew the Spanish in 1810, Alta California became a Mexican state. But just over a quarter of a century later, following the Mexican-American War, the U.S. purchased California and New Mexico for $10 million, and Santa Barbara’s Californios reluctantly learned to speak English. In 1850, California became the 31st state. In those days, the Santa Ynez mountains made Santa Barbara relatively inaccessible by land (except by slow, bumpy stage coach), but in 1887, rail was laid into Goleta, and wealthy Easterners began to winter in the area, building mansions and cottages in a variety of styles. Then, in 1925, a devastating earthquake hit, destroying much of Santa Barbara. Before people could begin rebuilding, the city formed an Architectural Board of Review, which required all buildings downtown to adhere to Spanish, Moorish, Mission and Mediterranean architectural styles, including sloping red terra cotta tile roofs, wrought iron, white adobe (or plaster) and hand-painted tiles. So was born one of the most coherently beautiful cities in the U.S.—that, and one of the country’s most environmentally aware regions. A disastrous spill from an offshore oil platform in 1969 inspired Santa Barbara’s green movement, and today it’s more active than ever.