The Race without Competitors: Santa Barbara’s Political Woes, 1856

While many debate history’s trajectory–– Does it repeat itself? Is it cyclical? Does it maybe rhyme, not repeat?–– there is one consistency that few would dispute: the government is often challenged and works laboriously slow. Whether you consider global, national, or even local politics, it’s as true now as it was in Santa Barbara in 1856, when the search for a new mayor frustratingly faced setback after setback.

Of course, it is first important to acknowledge that this was not the Santa Barbara we know today. There was no State Street, no millionaires living in the hills, and no top-tier public university. Rather, this was a fledgling Santa Barbara. Of course, this area had been inhabited by Indigenous folks for centuries, but in the 17th century, this area was colonized by the Spanish who established a mission here. However, by 1856 Santa Barbara was still a town in flux. Its population had boomed following the discovery of gold in California and the resulting migration to the state. It did not have a lot of infrastructure nor well-trained law enforcement that effectively prevented robberies and murders (which were reported in almost every issue of The Santa Barbara Gazette in 1856, including this one). This area was increasingly diverse because of its varied history, and at this time, its residents were trying to figure out the best system to govern the increasingly complicated population.

One facet of this system included the political branch, such as having a mayor and other supporting officials. However, the burgeoning Santa Barbara struggled to accomplish this, as seen in the February 1856 issues of The Santa Barbara Gazette. The election of city officials, including the mayor, turned out to be complicated: as the reporter writes, “The cause assigned for this failure is, a lack of candidates—a remarkably uncommon occurrence in other portions of this State.” Santa Barbara seemingly had a unique problem: no one wanted to help run the city.

This struggle continued in the weeks to come, as seen in the February 28th issue, in which the exasperated author laments, “How much longer is this city to remain without a mayor?” Without a mayor to lead the rest of the local government, the rest of the offices remain useless, and Santa Barbara remains ineffective. For example, the marshal is still arresting criminals and vagabonds, but what is the point if there is no one to punish the offenders?

But why did no one rise up to the task? The author of this complaint does not identify any specific political or local factor, but they do claim “apathy.” This is interesting because this is often given as a reason for younger generations not running for political office today, with the argument often stemming from feeling blasé and feeling like one can’t make a difference. However, the author provides a fascinating  counterargument: in every other city, a governmental vacancy typically inspires competition and desire to affect political change. But despite Santa Barbara’s growing populations and needs, not a single “man styles himself a candidate,” perhaps because no one cares enough. 

However, no matter how long political machinations take to work, things somehow always work out. Eventually, Santa Barbara found its mayor. H.B. Blake was elected later that month, on March 24th, but his term was short and would be overshadowed by the mayoral reign of Antonio María De La Guerra (it is unclear from the newspapers why Blake had such a short run). Elected on May 6th of the same year  De La Guerra came from a prominent Santa Barbara family who had gotten rich through their rancheros and land holdings. He would be elected three more times in the following years, and his family name left its mark on Santa Barbara, with many streets, buildings, and even the best dining hall at UCSB carrying the De La Guerra name.

Victoria Korotchenko. Victoria is a fourth-year English, History, and Russian Studies major and a managing editor at the UCSB Undergraduate Journal of History. In her free time, she enjoys reading, especially at Santa Barbara’s cafes and beaches.

Works Consulted:

Castillo-Muñoz, Veronica. History 168A: Chicano History. UCSB. Fall 2022. 

List of Mayors of Santa Barbara, California. Wikipedia. Last modified December 25, 2022.

“Santa Barbara: Thursday, February 14, 1856.” The Santa Barbara Gazette (Santa Barbara, CA), Feb. 14, 1856.

“Santa Barbara: Thursday, February 28, 1856.” The Santa Barbara Gazette (Santa Barbara, CA), Feb. 28, 1856.