California and the Mexican War
The Occupation of Santa Barbara
by Justin Ruhge

Santa Barbara was first occupied in August of 1846. Commodore Stockton sailed from Monterey on August 1, 1849 on the Congress with 360 marines and seamen for San Pedro with the intention of occupying Los Angeles. On the way down the coast he touched at Santa Barbara, perhaps on the 4th or 5th, and raised the Stars and Stripes there, leaving a small garrison of 10 Marines under the command of Midshipman William Mitchell.
At the time there was no resistance. The Presidio had been dismantled and out of use for a number of years. The arriving soldiers found three old iron cannon lying on the berm at the Castillo or Fort to the southwest of the town on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. Commodore Stockton returned to Santa Barbara in the Congress on September 7, 1846 and took on the garrison left there the month before. With the absence of the American occupiers, the locals took down the flag and replaced it with the Mexican flag. At about that time, Captain Charles C. Fremont road into town with a column of troops heading north to Monterey to join Commodore Stockton. The flag was raised again and a garrison of nine men commanded by a Lieutenant Theodore Talbott was left at Santa Barbara to protect the American conquest.
A revolt of the Mexicans in Los Angeles in late September threatened the lives of the local garrison so they departed at night and hid in Mission Canyon for a number of weeks before proceeding north to join up with now Lieutenant Colonel Fremont who was proceeding south again to attack Los Angeles.
Fremont's column of 500 troops crossed the Santa Ynez Mountains in a drenching Southeaster torrent on Christmas Day 1846. Santa Barbara was again occupied two days later and the flag again raised this time for good. Fremont commandeered quarters for himself and staff in the San Carlos Hotel at State and De La Guerra Streets owned by Captain Alpheus Thompson. A week was spent resting up after the ordeal before this small army proceeded on to Los Angeles.
The once Mexican capital of Southern California remained unoccupied until April of 1847 when three companies from the First Regiment of New York Volunteers were sent from San Francisco on the bark Moscow. Companies A, B and F were sent to Santa Barbara arriving on April 8, 1847. After two weeks Companies A and B were sent to Los Angeles. This left about 70 American volunteers under the command of Captain Francis J. Lippitt. Company F was quartered in the same building on State Street as Fremont a few months earlier, the two-story adobe San Carlos or Saint Charles Hotel owned by Alpheus Thompson. Back of this building was a court, formed by high adobe walls, with a double gate. Around two sides of this court were erected quarters for the troops and loopholes were cut in the walls for muskets. The front of the building was used for officers' quarters and storerooms. In addition, a large tent was set up in front of the building in the middle of State Street. A 90-foot high flagpole was constructed using spars from the wreck of the Fama near the Goleta Slough and placed in the middle of State Street. Company F brought one brass six-pounder field gun with grape, canister and round shot. Thus a fort or redoubt was built out of this hotel. Santa Barbara was so occupied until the end of the war when the men were mustered out in September of 1848.

Headquarters of Company F, First Regiment of New York Volunteers, 1847 to 1848 at the San Carlos or Saint Charles Hotel, once located at the corner of State and De la Guerra Streets, owned by Sea Captain Alpheus Thompson. Note 90 foot high flag pole, made from the wreck of the ship Elizabeth. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Historical Society Library, Santa Barbara, California.

An enduring national and local story resulted from the disappearance of a brass cannon at the end of the occupation. This is referred to as the "Cannon Perdido" legend. We will not recount it here but the interested reader can learn all the details in the author's earlier book entitled Gunpowder and Canvas, Chapter 15.
With the end of the war the town was turned over to the civil government and the army disappeared. Many went to the gold fields, other parts of California or returned to the East Coast. Captain Lippitt was well trained in military matters and a lawyer by education. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1849 and took part in the Civil War as a Colonel of the 1st California Volunteer Infantry.


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Updated 8 February 2016