Short answer: It’s a schooner.
Why is our town named after a schooner?
There are a few schools of thought on that question.
One thing’s for sure, a lot of schooners were in and around the slough throughout the years. In Spanish times, this area was referred to by Californians as “the place of the goleta”. The map above from 1870 shows how big the slough used to be.
During winter months, when floods from the mountains and high surf widened the channel, large ships could take refuge in the slough. In the summer months, small ships could slip over the sandspit at high tide and move cautiously to the back of the slough, where they could restock their supplies. So Goleta was at least a nickname long before 1846, when it first appeared on official documents.
Walker Tompkins suggests the name could have started in the early 1800’s as a result of Jose de la Guerra’s personal schooner being kept in the safe shelter of the slough between voyages. In 1819, his schooner ran aground trying to slip into the narrow passage below the More Mesa bluffs.
Benjamin Foxen took on the task of repairing the ship and he did it all on the mud flats in the slough. In 1828, de la Guerra bought another schooner and it too was driven aground and almost the exact same spot as his first one! This one, however, was ruined beyond repair, and it’s bones were left on the beach for years.
Another historian, Justin Ruhge, suggests the name Goleta came from the construction of a ship in the slough in 1829, the first American ship ever built in California. William Dana, the owner of the Nipomo land grant, chose the location, shown circled, to build his ship because it was the only safe harbor on the Central Coast with supplies readily available. (Notice the Coast Highway in the illustration above, today that’s Hollister Avenue. So the slough covered all of what is now the airport.)
Dana hired Foxen to build it and they used wood shipped down from Monterey and floated into the slough. The ship, technically a cutter, was constructed in a cradle and launched into the Atascadero Creek by flooding the area around it so it floated free. It was launched as “La Fama”, but the name was later changed to “Santa Barbara”, and 18 years later, Daniel Hill bought it and renamed it “La Goleta”.
Later that same year, another schooner was grounded at the entrance to the slough, and yet another in 1846. So with all this activity involving ships, mostly schooners, centered around our little slough, its no wonder that in 1846, the Daniel Hill Land Grant was given the name “La Goleta”.
In 1875, the first post office in this community was assigned the name Goleta. And the rest is history….
Today there is a historic site marker in the East Goleta Beach parking lot noting the construction of Dana’s ship. So when somebody asks why your town’s called Goleta, the short answer could be: “We once had a harbor here that a lot of schooners used”.
Walker A. Tompkins, Justin Ruhge, Bud Rinker.