Mission Santa Barbara

3 minutes read

Mission Santa Barbara is the 10th of 21 missions established by the Franciscans along El Camino Real. Located on a crest between the Santa Ynes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, let’s explore the “Queen of the Missions” focusing on its development.

A pinch of history

  • The area has been inhabited for at least 13,000 years by the Chumash Native American people.
  • The site of the mission was called “Tanayan” by the Chumash, meaning “rocky place.”
  • On December 4th, 1786, Father Fray Fermin Francisco De Lasuén (1736-1803) established Mission Santa Barbara
  • Mission Santa Barbara is the only mission that has been in service since its founding.

The Mission and its Church

Original building structures included a chapel, a kitchen, living quarters, and storerooms. Early on, constructions were rudimentary. The walls were a mix of logs, mud, and stones; the roof was made of grass. Spaniards reinforced and improved edifices over the years. They covered adobe bricks with lime plaster to protect them from rain. Lime plaster was a combination of seashells, sand, and water.

View of the mission, circa 1880.

See below the original plastered bricks from the 1790s.

Did you know?

Adobe, from Spanish “Adobar”, means “to plaster.”
View of the mission from photographer Norman Hall Reed, circa 1890.

The Mission was damaged during the 1812 and 1925 earthquakes but rebuilt and strengthened. The convent is one of the oldest edifices of the Mission. Wall surfaces, with layers of plaster and paints, provide historical indications about materials and room usage.

Did you know?

Queen Elizabeth II visited the Mission on March 1, 1983.

Built in 1787, the church has been extended over three periods: 1789, 1794, and 1820. During the secularization of the Missions in the 1830s, Mission Santa Barbara was leased to Daniel Hill and his son-in-law, Nicholas Den. Contrary to other Missions, the new owners allowed Friars to stay on-site and hold masses.

The Chumash Artisans

The Chumash were accomplished musicians, and artisans. Friars used and incorporated Chumash’s expertise during the Mission period. There are payment records indicating that Friars employed Chumash masons to work on statues and reservoirs. Friars also integrated many native people as choristers for the mass.

Santa Barbara Pslam Tone, early 19th century.

For the Mission’s economic development, Friar Fermin Lasuen introduced a training program for baptized native people. Between 1792 and 1795, 20 artisans from New Spain stayed in the Mission for four to five years contracts. During this period, they taught their skills and expertise. Baptized native people became accomplished carpenters, tailors, etc. It gave them a higher social status during the mission area.

Santa Barbara Account Book, 1793-1805.

Did you know?

Chumash society was matrilocal. They were women chiefs like Maria Thomasa.
Raphael Solares,  Chief of the Ineseno Chumash Community, circa 1878.
Justo and his wife Cecilia, the last Chumash living at the Mission, circa 1880.

Did you know?

With a population of 1500 people, S’axpilil, Helo’, Heliyak, and Alakash (Goleta Slough) were the largest Chumash villages next to Santa Barbara.

Water at the Mission

Chumash life was based on hunting, fishing, and gathering fruits & vegetables. Agriculture and farming were introduced by the Spaniards. They brought new plant varieties and livestock and developed irrigating systems.

Designed by Friars and built by skilled Chumash, the system of two and a half miles of aqueducts and two reservoirs was elaborated. It provided water for the Mission and irrigated field crops. The Sacred Garden also included a water tank and hydrology system to drain water.

The lavanderia was completed in 1818.
The Sacred Garden/ Inner Quadrangle

Did you know?

The main reservoir could hold half a million gallons of water.
Upper reservoir

The Cemetery

Established in 1786, the cemetery has been a resting place for Franciscan Friars, local families, and Chumash. In the late 19th century, new Friars (Friars from Midwestern states) transformed the cemetery. Their landscaping project included flowering, planted trees, and walkways.

Cemetery before the landscaping project
Cemetery today

The giant Moreton Bay Fig, native to Australia, was planted around 1890.

Look closely at the picture below. The skull and crossbones carving above the door symbolize funeral practices in early Christianity: “all earthly things are transitory, [and that] the salvation of the soul is most important.” [source: Santa Barbara Museum]. 

Article based on my visit in July 2022

Sounds like a must-see?


  • Location: 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, CA  93105
  • Hours:9:30 am – 4:00 pm daily
  • Duration: I spent 2 hours discovering it.
  • Admission: $15 for adults (18-64), and $10 for youth (5-17).
  • Parking: free parking lot, and unmetered street parking
  • More information is available at https://www.santabarbaramission.org/

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