History of Santa Barbara
One of Santa Barbara’s most cherished assets is its colorful history - a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Portuguese and American Indian influences blended with some film-industry flavor. Santa Barbara visitors and residents alike still enjoy many gifts from our past like the Spanish Revival architecture seen in the Santa Barbara Courthouse, archeological sites like the Chumash Indian ruins surrounding the Old Mission, and silent-era Hollywood lore from our days as “the backlot by the sea.”
Santa Barbara got its name from Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo when he happened upon the area in 1542. Before and after Cabrillo’s visit, the Chumash Indians populated our coastline, cruising coastal waters and living off the land, until Spanish Franciscan monks arrived in the 18th century on their mission-building quest through California.
The Franciscans built 21 missions in California, including three in Santa Barbara County: Mission Santa Ines in Solvang, La Purisima Mission in Lompoc and Mission Santa Barbara, known as the “Queen of the Missions.” After coming under Mexican rule for 24 years, Santa Barbara became a U.S. territory in 1846.
In the early 1900s, the pre-Hollywood silent-film studios set up shop in Santa Barbara, and more than 1,200 movies (mostly Westerns) were produced during a ten-year period. Legendary film stars including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin made Santa Barbara their playground, and location scouts continue to feature Santa Barbara in modern-day movies. (Follow the stars and the movies that made them great with our Film Tourism Itineraries.)
In 1925, an earthquake leveled much of the city, and Santa Barbara was rebuilt in the spirit of its heritage. The resulting “Spanish Revival” architecture can be seen in some of the city’s most iconic buildings, like the Santa Barbara Courthouse, and is responsible for giving us the stunning skyline that we enjoy today.
Visitors can uncover these historical sites and bygone eras with Santa Barbara’s Red Tile Walking Tour, offering a scenic stroll through historic downtown Santa Barbara. For visitors who want a sneak peek of all there is to see, you can preview our picturesque paseos and beautiful architecture with our informative video, Beyond the Rooftops, Santa Barbara’s Red Tile Walking Tour. Once you’ve arrived in Santa Barbara, be sure download the handy Red Tile Walking Tour map, or drop in for a visit at our Visitors Center to pick up a printed copy. When you’re done with your walking tour, be sure to check out El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, Santa Barbara’s 18th century birthplace, and Casa de La Guerra, an historic adobe chock full of original furnishings and rotating exhibits.
These exciting and informative historical attractions are but a taste of the rich history of Santa Barbara. For more information on these, and many other historic locales, be sure check out our History Buff itinerary.