By Edward Mackie, Daily Nexus, April 23, 1974
This article is the first of a series on the history of the [UCSB] Campus Lagoon.
Of all the scenes that go familiarly among us, perhaps none is more resplendent than the campus lagoon. At once a pond and maricultural breeding ground, the lagoon has long delighted students with an idyllic fascination. Biologists have unromantically pigeonholed it as an artificial eutrophic salt pond and theorize over the predominance of aquatic angiosperms. But such was not always the case. Its history is rich in turmoil, its future far from certain.
On October 16, 1542, the lagoon was reportedly first sighted from the crow’s nest of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s flagship, La Victoria. Of Cabrillo’s subsequent death little is known. Ancient chronicles record that Cabrillo suffered a broken arm on San Miguel Island and died of blood poisoning on January 3, 1543. Historians concur that the conquistador was interred where he died, perhaps on San Miguel Island. Yet his grave has never been found. A Chumash Indian legend dating from the 16th century recalls that two ocean-going vessels set anchor within Goleta Slough — a deep water port at the time and their crews marched ashore to bury their dead leader. The Slough area offered the only navigable anchorage between San Diego Bay and the yet-unknown San Francisco Bay. Cabrillo’s sailors might well have abandoned the tempestuous San Miguel Island for the placid haven of Goleta Estuary. Might the crew then have buried their dead captain within a stone’s throw of the lagoon where waves would sound out an eternal requiem?
Cabrillo’s logbook was lost in Mexico more than four hundred years ago, so the mystery has never been resolved. Skeptics dismiss his Goleta burial though human skeletons have been unearthed nearby. And in 1891 laborers of a Spanish rancher, Aventino Cavalletto, uncovered a wrought iron anchor at the base of the cliff opposite Campbell Hall parking lot. Its archaic design dates it from the era of Columbus and Cabrillo.
Nonetheless, it was not until the fall of 1769 that the first white men crossed the lagoon area on horseback and on foot. Governor Gaspar de Portola dispatched an expedition overland with five dozen Spaniards and a company of Indians. Sergeant Francisco de Ortega blazed the way.
A jungle of oak groves and willow thickets dotted the tiny enclave they had entered. Overwhelmed by the scene, an attendant Franciscan friar wrote, “We came in sight of a long bare point of land (Campus Point)… a large Estuary enters by two different mouths, distant half a league from each other. The whole country is extremely delightful.” In 1769 the lagoon was still connected to the Pacific by two arms which probably closed around 1782 when the land surged upward in relation to the sea.
The lagoon and its neighborhood comprised a solid forest of oaks teeming with wildlife. Flocks of ducks and wild geese darkened the local sky. Raccoons, elk, and grizzlies shared common watering holes unmolested. The nearby Canalino Indians accommodatingly ate only seafood.
Within forty years of Ortega’s first visit, the oaks were felled, and the game was driven away.
When the Republic of Mexico was established by the overthrow of Spanish rule in 1822, the land in the vicinity of Goleta Slough was sectioned into small parcels, records one historian.
An Irishman, Nicolas Den, who had ventured to America in search of wealth, took up residency in the Goleta area and was later granted Mexican citizenship. He married into a family of Spanish bluebloods and therein gained a parcel of land encompassing the campus lagoon.