Santa Barbara History

Santa Barbara History: A unique blend of Chumash, Spanish, Mexican and American heritage

The Chumash Indians thrived in this area until just over 200 years ago. They lived in clusters of small villages along the Santa Barbara coast and Channel Islands. For thousands of years, protected by the rugged mountains and ocean, they enjoyed a comfortable, easy lifestyle afforded by an abundance of wildlife and natural resources. Then, in the short time span of two centuries, these peaceful, secluded villages developed into a world-famous resort. How did this happen?

In 1542 the first Europeans arrived when Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo entered the Channel and claimed the land for Spain. The Spanish did not come back for another century. In 1602, after weathering a severe storm, Sebastian Vizcaino’s ships entered the Santa Barbara Channel. Thankful to God for answering their prayers to guide the ships through the storm, one of the Carmetlite friars on board named the bay and nearby shore after Saint Barbara.

In 1782, the Spaniards came to stay. From then on life was different in Santa Barbara. The Spaniards governed the area until 1822, when California became a Mexican territory. In 1846, Colonel John Fremont and his soldiers took Santa Barbara for the United States.

In the late 1800s wealthy easterners, after reading rave newspaper descriptions of the wonderful climate, hot and cold springs, and relaxing atmosphere, came for vacation. For a short period, Santa Barbara was the film capital of the world. In l919, before the motion picture industry centralized in Hollywood, the American Film Company opened the Flying A Studio on the corner of State and Mission Streets. The studio was the largest of its kind in the world for many years. More than 1200 movies (mostly westerns) were made in the studio’s ten-year life span.

In 1928, Charlie Chaplin built the Montecito Inn to cater to the Hollywood crowd of the roaring twenties. Actor Ronald Coleman and Alvin Weingand bought the stylish San Ysidro Ranch resort in 1935, operating it as an exclusive hideaway for friends and guests such as Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Audrey Hepburn and Groucho Marx.

There are many reminders of Santa Barbara’s colorful past: old adobes with quiet courtyards; streets that bear names of historical figures; and the Mediterranean-style architecture that dominates the town, inspired by the Spanish residences of the city’s early years. All these pay tribute to the unique circumstances that created the Santa Barbara we know today – a resort known around the world for its very special character.