FROM AFRICA TO THE AMERICAN WEST
By Allen L. Lee
Santa Barbara, California
Copyright 2005. Allen L. Lee, Santa Barbara,
California. Posted by permission.
A good friend of mine started a new job at a Santa
Barbara, Ca., museum. Iíve made presentations at Jeff's old place of
employment, The Autry Museum Of Western Heritage in Los Angeles many times
about the history of Black Cowboys, etc. I volunteered the ironic observation
of how the racial demographics of Santa Barbara has changed since the Spanish
days from a town with one of the highest Black populations per capita to one
of the lowest today. He asked for any information I had about Black history in
Santa Barbara so I rifled through some old notes. The following is the essence
of the correspondence I had with my friend.
A good place to start recognizing African contact
with Old West California near Santa Barbara is with the arrivals of New
Spain's ocean explorers Juan Cabrillo in 1542 and Sebastion Vizcaino in 1602.
Historians state that Blacks, (free Black Portuguese and African slaves), had
a major role both as sailors and shipbuilders on New Spain's ships of conquest
and exploration in the Pacific and both Cabrillo and Vizcaino were noted as
having Black sailors on their ships. Slaves were said to have fled the Spanish
ships that landed on the California coast and sought refuge among California
Indians like the Chumash of Santa Barbara. These early contacts in California
precede Anglo-American colonization contacts (Plymouth Rock and Jamestown) by
several years. I've often tried to discover stories from Native Californians
that might retell first sightings of a Black person, similar to that of Zuni
contact with Esteban, but unlike the Zuni, several California indigenous
cultures have become extinct since contact and the stories have been difficult
American Whalers began to show up on the California
coast about the same time as the Spanish Missions in the late 18th century.
People seldom associate the heyday of "Moby Dick" Pacific whaling with the
pastoral "Spanish Mission" era of California, but such is the case. The
American whaling ships had free Black northerners and escaped slaves from the
south as well as Blacks from the Azores Islands off the west coast of Africa.
The Azorean whalers on the Santa Barbara coast typically classified themselves
as Portuguese rather than Black or White, but other census takers noted the
differences. While Spanish settlers of African descent arrived from Mexico to
the towns and cattle ranches near the Santa Barbara mission, Black whalers
worked the associated trades of the sea. It is important to note that the
Chumash had a whaling society before contact, whether that translated into
cultural compatibility with European and African newcomers is not known. The
Bancroft Library interpreted the 1785 Spanish census of Santa Barbara at 19.3
percent Blacks and Mulattoes.
There are a few significant Black characters in
California history that have direct association with Santa Barbara, the first
is Luis Quintero. Luis Quintero was one of the original Spanish settlers to
establish Los Angeles. As the story goes he was evicted from the Pueblo for
not performing assigned duties and started ranching in the outskirts.
Historians basically discuss Luis Quintero not only because he was listed in
the Spanish census as a Negro but the fact that his granddaughter, Maria Rita
Valdez, owned the land which eventually became known as Beverly Hills. What
usually isn't discussed is what happened to him after he was evicted. Luis
Quintero is reported to have moved to Santa Barbara to be near his three
daughters who married soldiers stationed at the Presidio. He died in Santa
Barbara in 1810.
The second person is Allen Light, a Black "Sea
Otter," hunter, also known as "Black Steward." Allen Light arrived in Santa
Barbara in 1835 from Philadelphia. He was in possession of "Sailor Protection
Papers" which basically protected Black sailors from being claimed as slaves
anywhere. He started otter hunting around Santa Barbara and became fairly
prosperous working under the license of the famous Captain Dana, author of
"Two Years Before The Mast," 1840. Allen Light eventually became a Mexican
citizen after serving as a mercenary for the future Governor of California,
Juan Bautista Alvarado. Governor Alvarado appointed Allen Light "principal
arbiter of the National Armada" to help police the waters near Santa Barbara.
The third person is one of great historical note in
California, his name being James Beckworth. James Beckworth is the Black
equivalent of Kit Carson or Daniel Boone and has several claims to fame in
California, one being Beckworth Pass in the mountains northeast of Sacramento.
Another famous event was a horse-stealing raid he, Mountain man Peg-Leg Smith
and a Ute Indian Chief named Walkara committed on ranchers in the Riverside
San Bernardino area. His story is that of a runaway child slave who after
being captured by Crow Indians reportedly raised to the rank of War Chief. He
later rode with Pathfinder John C. Fremont and Kit Carson during the
California Bear Flag Revolt, which wrested California away from Mexico and
into the hands of the U.S. Beckworth worked a military dispatch and mail route
from Nipomo, Ca. to Monterey, Ca. after the conquest, reporting to then Lt.
William T. Sherman of later Civil War fame. In December of 1848, Beckworth was
riding from Dana's ranch near Nipomo to Monterey when he made a stop at
Mission San Miguel, privatized and occupied by the Reed Family, when he
discovered one of the most notorious murders in California history, ranking
with the Manson murders and the "mysterious" murders of OJ Simpson's wife and
companion. The entire Reed family, a Black cook, and an Indian sheepherder had
just been murdered by former soldiers of John C. Fremont. Beckworth reported
that he hid in the shadows and made a quick escape. The irony that both James
Beckworth and the murderers rode for Fremont and may have recognized each
other at the scene may raise an eyebrow, but to date there is no suspicion
directed towards Beckworth. Beckworth is reported to have told Sherman and
other military officers what happened when he arrived at Monterey and a Posse
was formed. The killers were caught near Summerland, a town just south of
Santa Barbara, two died while resisting arrest and two others were tried in
Santa Barbara and shot by a nine man firing squad, James Beckworth claims to
have been part of that firing squad.
Another notable reading is from a Black writer named
Thomas Fleming in 1923. He writes that Santa Barbara had a sizable Black
population more similar to a southern town rather than a predominately White
western town. In November of 1949, the performance of one of the first Negro
Ballet troupes in America hailed from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara for its
first professional show. They were well received according to newspaper
accounts in Santa Barbara while other California communities still placed
racial concerns above artistic merit.
Santa Barbara is a friendly community with a
renowned California university today. The housing market is exclusive to say
the least, and racial demographics are most likely affected by housing
affordability. The town is rich in history and still has the old Santa Barbara
Mission available for tourist and church service. If you ever visit Santa
Barbara, stop by the Museum of Natural History ask for Jeff Barber and tell
him that Allen Lee sent you.
Thanks for reading, Allen L. Lee