Founded April 21, 1782, the Santa Barbara Royal Presidio was the last in a chain of four military fortresses built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California, then the frontier of New Spain. Others had been established at San Diego, San Francisco and Monterey. Padre Junípero Serra, well known for his leadership in founding the California missions, blessed the site of the Santa Barbara Presidio four years prior to the establishment of the Mission of Santa Barbara in 1786. El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park encompasses much of the original Presidio site and is located in modern downtown Santa Barbara at the intersection of Santa Barbara and East Canon Perdido Streets.
The presidios played a vital role in the occupation of New Spain. They protected the missions and settlers against attack, provided a seat of government, and guarded the country against foreign invasion. The Santa Barbara Presidio was both military headquarters and governmental center of the entire region extending from the southern limits of present day San Luis Obispo County to and including the Pueblo of Los Angeles.
The whitewashed buildings were constructed of sun-dried adobe bricks laid upon foundations of sandstone boulders. Timbers from nearby Figueroa Mountain supported roofs of red tile. The buildings of the Presidio formed a quadrangle enclosing a central parade ground, the whole surrounded by an outer defense wall with two cannon bastions. The most prominent structure was the Chapel, Santa Barbara's first church. The Christianized Indian population worshipped at the mission.
The first Comandante of the new Presidio was Lt. José Francisco de Ortega. He was succeeded in 1784 by Lt. Felipe de Goicoechea, who supervised construction of the adobe fortifications and living quarters for the soldiers and their families and remained in command until 1802. The need for the military at the Santa Barbara Presidio was never actually tested. However, fifth Comandante José de la Guerra’s soldiers did quell skirmishes with Argentinian Hipolito Bouchard as well as an uprising of neophytes from local missions.
In 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain. Those Spanish soldiers and settlers who would not pledge loyalty to the Mexican government were then expelled from the Presidio, so the Presidio fell into disrepair. By the 1840s, the compound stood in partial ruins. The Presidio’s military role ended in 1846 when Colonel John C. Frémont’s troops claimed the city for the United States. Santa Barbara’s streets were surveyed in the 1850s and laid directly through the Presidio site in the 1870s. Although several portions of the Presidio quadrangle survived into the 20th century, most original structures were lost to the forces of nature and to Santa Barbara’s growth as a city.
The Santa Barbara Presidio Quadrangle overlaid on contemporary downtown Santa Barbara. Created by Michael Imwalle.
The Santa Barbara Presidio in 1792, By Russell A. Ruiz. Courtesy of the Presidio Research Center, gift of Cliff Smith.