The Spanish period is divided into the Franciscan Mission Period and Rancho Period. Each reflects a distinct stage of history, and consequent relationship with the land.
The late 18th Century saw the rise of these missions, pueblos and presidios in California. Romanticized by many, twenty-one Spanish mission sites still mark The Royal Road (El Camino Real) as it wends its way north from San Diego to San Francisco. Three missions were built in our immediate bioregion. Santa Barbara Mission, the tenth to be established, was founded in 1786, La Purisima in Lompoc was the eleventh in 1787 and Santa Ynez, the nineteenth was built across the mountains in the valley in 1804.
Spanish soldiers and missionaries were sent both to fortify the region against expansion by England and Russia, and to convert the natives to Christianity. The Mission Period changed native life permanently, Chumash culture was eroded and European disease introduced.
The Franciscan Mission Period introduced well-managed, large-scale agriculture to the bioregion: An 1817 inventory of Mission Santa Inés alone listed 6,000 head of cattle, 5,000 sheep, 120 goats, 150 pigs, 120 pack mules, and 770 horses. In that year, mission lands produced 4,160 bushels of wheat, 4,330 bushels of corn, and 300 bushels of beans. Olive oil, wine, tallow, hides and grain were traded locally, and shipped to Mexico. After 67 years of operation the missions were nationalized by Spain.
The land grants mark the beginning of the Rancho Period. The population remained sparse, with enormous cattle operations run by wealthy families. (Research Richard Henry Dana Jr. and his book Two Years Before The Mast for more on this period.)
The most dramatic event of the Spanish Period was the powerful 1812 earthquake and tsunami. With an estimated magnitude of 7.1 it destroyed the town along with the mission. The discovery of gold in California brought greater hardship to native tribes in northern California than in the Santa Ynez watershed, but since the land had agricultural potential, local Chumash were often indentured for labor on the ranchos.
Download the San Julian article linked above to read about the still living history of one of the most prominent working ranchos in the bioregion. The article provides insight into rancho lore. San Julian ranch extends along much of Highway 1 between Highway 101 and Lompoc. The Santa Ynez River ride takes cyclists behind the ranch.
The region has grown steadily in an urban sense since the twenties, a time when Santa Barbara became a glamorous retreat for Hollywood stars. Now home to a well-established electronics industry, colleges and hospitals, much of the bioregion's economy still depends on the beauty and environmental integrity of the land.