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The Santa Barbara area was originally settled by a large number of Native Americans. Some estimates set the number of tribes upwards of 150, going back several thousand years. The Chumash were the most recent, and they met the Spanish explorers. The combination of rich farm soil and ocean waters made the area desirable to tribes and settlers.
The area was surveyed by Spanish, Russian and British explorers in the 1500s and 1600s. Several Spanish galleon shipwrecks lie off the coast. Interestingly, several Spanish cannon were unearthed near the shore under the local television station's towers in 1981. Were they from a shipwreck? Were they important to an undocumented settlement?
The first settlers came in the 1780s. This became known as the “Mission Period” when many of California's 21 now-famous missions were built, including the "Queen of the Missions" Santa Barbara, founded in 1786. The existing Indian tribes were introduced to Christianity, the Spanish military Presidios and later, enormous ranchos. Santa Barbara remained settled by the "Spanish" until 1822 when Mexico, including California, separated from Spain. Although the "Spanish" became "Mexican", to this day, the oldest families still harken back to the old Spanish days. The Spanish influence prevailed and today much of the architecture and appeal of the city is owed to the early Spanish settlers. Today the influences of each of the Indians and the Spanish can be seen.
In June of 1925, a significant earthquake leveled most of the Victorian homes and buildings that were built after the Civil War. Noting that the Spanish Colonial buildings and housings were still standing after the earthquake, the town passed a local ordinance requiring that all downtown buildings be designed in the Spanish Colonial style, which still stands today.
Following the earthquake and subsequent rebuilding, Santa Barbara was “discovered” by vacationers and people looking for a temperate, solid, pretty, peaceful place to live. Many of Hollywood’s first westerns were filmed here, and many famous celebrities stayed in old hotels that stand today. Many of them decided to stay. President Ronald Reagan chose the ridgetop of the Santa Ynez range for his western White House. Today, homes in Montecito, Hope Ranch and Riviera areas are among the richest in the world.
Ironically, the Chumash, long thought to be a lost tribe, recently opened the Chumash Casino in the Santa Ynez Valley behind Santa Barbara, which flourishes.