The tale of Santa Barbara’s Canon Perdido Street

It’s not exactly Game of Thrones, but get ready for an intriguing story of two warring families

Photo by Ted Mills

Most streets in Santa Barbara are named after our towns’ forefathers, geographic locations (like Laguna, where a lagoon used to be), or Native American terms, like Anapamu (“the rising place”). But one of the oddest street names in town is Canon Perdido, which translates to “Lost Cannon.”

It’s named after an event that nearly led to violence, pitted two families against each other, and was solved in typical Santa Barbaran fashion: a huge, raging party.

The tale of the Lost Cannon is actually the tale of a stolen cannon. It went missing in 1848, two years after the end of the Mexican-American War. Santa Barbara, like many other towns in California, was under American occupation.

It was an uneasy peace that had been kept by Captain Lippitt and his small regiment out of New York with the help of the main family in town, the De la Guerras. For decades, Don Jose de la Guerra, a former Spanish military officer, helped rule Santa Barbara from the Presidio, of which he was once captain. He owned a half-million acres of land here and elsewhere in California, and was also a benevolent patriarch, helping Santa Barbara set up various industries like a bakery and dry goods store.

Pablo de la Guerra. Credit: Santa Barbara Historical Museum

But by 1848, de la Guerra’s son, Pablo, was in charge, and when the Americans asked him to pledge allegiance to the United States, he declined.

Another family said yes, however. The Carrillo family saw the de la Guerra’s decision as foolish and decided to pledge fealty to America, hoping that when California became a state, they would win favor in Santa Barbara.

Pedro Carrillo stoked rumors about the de la Guerras, suggesting they were waiting for a chance to overthrow the American occupation.

This was the political backdrop when, in February of 1848, a ship called The Elizabeth wrecked offshore. Sailors salvaged what they could by dragging it on the beach and leaving it there for a future brig to pick up. One of those items was a 10 or 11-foot cannon. It sat there for months until one April night, it disappeared.

We only know what happened that night from a confession of sorts, an oral history written down 30 years later by Hubert Howe Bancroft, one of Santa Barbara’s earliest historians. He wrote that a man named Jose E. Garcia, along with four other young men, all from prominent Californio families, got it in their heads to steal the cannon. Jose Antonio de la Guerra, Pablo’s brother, helped hatch the plan, which he said could help foment an uprising against the Americans.

“The motive in hiding the cannon was, according to my recollection, the desire to have a piece of artillery for our defense in case of an opportunity for a revolt against the Americans, as we had known that in Los Angeles they had hidden a cannon which later was very useful in the engagements they had with the Americanos at Rancho Dominguez,” said Garcia, according to Bancroft’s transcription.

So the five young men headed down to the beach on horse, with two oxen in tow. They secured the cannon, dragged it up the beach and buried it near the lagoon that is now the area near Chase Palm Park. They then erased their tracks.

Artist Theodore Van Cina’s rendition of five youths stealing the cannon in 1848. Credit: Santa Barbara Historical Museum

The next morning the cannon was discovered missing. Captain Lippitt, who already suspected the de la Guerras and others of planning an uprising, worried.

Capt. Lippitt got the military governor of California, Richard Barnes Mason, involved, and he issued Order. 36, which levied a $500 fine (that’s about $13000 today) –the perceived value of the cannon–on the residents of Santa Barbara. If they didn’t comply, the government could confiscate property or possessions.

That didn’t sit well with the townsfolk, who knew nothing about the cannon’s whereabouts. How did they even know it was in Santa Barbara? Why should they pay for it?

Meanwhile, Capt. Lippitt started investigating all the rumors Carrillo had been spreading, but nobody would speak.

So in June, Pedro de la Guerra met with Capt. Lippitt’s commanding officer, Col. J.D. Stevenson. To calm tensions (and to hide the fact that the de la Guerras know exactly why the cannon was stoel and where it’s hiding), Pedro de la Guerra accepts the fine on behalf of the town. But how to pay for it?

They decided to throw a party to show that the de la Guerras and the Americans can get along just fine. Stevenson brought his army band to town and they marched up to the de la Guerra house, serenading everybody along the way.

On July 3rd, 1848, and continuing for two whole days, the de la Guerras threw a grand ball with music and dancing and carousing. For this, the townsfolk ponied up the money the Americans said they owed, and by the time people are nursing hangovers, the fine had been paid off. The de la Guerras emerged looking benevolent once again.

They only man who refused to pay up is Pedro Carrillo, and some of his property is taken away as punishment.

Casa de la Guerra. Via Wikimedia.

The crisis of the stolen cannon was over…except, what happened to the cannon?

Ten years later, a storm raged through the estuary and uncovered the cannon- and the townsfolk carry it back to the de la Guerra’s home, wondering what to do with it. Said one of the conspirators, Jose E. Garcia:

“On the day of the discovery, I went to look and found some people gathered around the cannon. Among them was Don Pablo de la Guerra. He said to those present, ‘Who can say whether among us is one of those who stole the canon?’ Each looked at the other and to cover up I left… On parting from the others, Don Pablo, pointing at me with a finger, said ‘There he goes.’ Later, I demanded of Don Pablo why he had disclosed me to the people, and that it could only have a bad outcome, but he assured me that I need not be careful, that no one could do anything to me.”

Santa Barbara’s city seal from 1850, which shows the cannon along with a line in Spanish that translates to “worth 500 pesos.”

He was right. Nothing happened to those who originally stole the cannon and toyed with the idea of an uprising. By now, California was a state in the union. The cannon was sold for scrap metal, and the State returned the $500 to Santa Barbara, where, rumor has it, a town official squandered it on gambling.

The event might seem trivial now, but it was a big enough story back then that ten years or so later, when town leaders were deciding on street names for our brand new grid system, Canon Perdido was chosen for one of the main streets, as was Quinientos, Spanish for 500, the amount of the fine.

Military governor Mason got a street named after him, too. And it might just be coincidence, but Canon Perdido runs parallel between two streets named after the families at the center of the affair: Carrillo and De la Guerra.

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