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What’s A Goleta?

What the heck is a Goleta?


Short answer: It’s a schooner. But 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 has the name La Goleta clearly printed in the slough, just below Mescaltitlan Island.


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.

delaguerra1-323x432Walker 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 1828, the first American ship ever built in California.

Goleta schooner construction spot

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”.

The following year, another schooner was grounded at the entrance to the slough…..

….and yet another in 1846!

Noted historian Justin Ruhge noted all the shipwrecks that occurred near the slough in the 1800s. Whether these ships were trying to gain entry to the bay or if they were simply caught in storms and washed ashore is purely speculation. Either way, it seems the slough was a popular place for ships to be.

So with all this activity involving ships, mostly schooners, centered around our little slough, its no wonder that when Daniel Hill submitted his land grant, he labeled it as “La Goleta”. ( Weird font, but it says Goleta.) It was approved by Governor Pico in 1846, and the area was officially named Goleta.

In the early 1870’s, there was a movement to name the small town Oakdale and a Baptist church was even given the name Oakdale Baptist Church in 1873. But, 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 in the Slough.

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, Goleta Valley Historical Society.

Categories: Goleta History

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Tom Modugno

3 replies

  1. Professionally, I build (and repair) models of historic vessels. Your note is interesting. Dana refers to the vessel when built as “My Cutter…” however, the Historical Marker illustration is of a two mast, fore topsail schooner. I am awaiting a copy of a book by Joseph Dana purportedly containing more information. In the absence of any detailed first-person descriptions (highly unlikely any plans were drawn, let alone photographs made) it is impossible to know for certain what she looked like – only that she was 83 tons burthen. However, a speculative reconstruction of her appearance is possible — based on the tonnage, and among other considerations, views of similar two mast schooners built about that time or a little earlier, to get a general idea. May I say that my extensive research into RH Dana, Jr.’s PILGRIM has made me the authority on the most probable appearance of that brig, built in 1825 in Medford, Mass. Thanks for your post.

  2. Tom. I’m delving deeper into the story about Dana’s “small Cutter”. So far I’ve found no primary source confirming the Dana family oral tradition about her being first named LA FAMA. From the partial log of the brig WAVERLY 1828-29 we learn that Dana originally intended she be a schooner but changed his mind right near completion to rig her as a cutter. Working with American and Spanish historians to see if we can determine her dimensions using the tonnage reported by Adele Ogden and a Spanish formula for computing tonnage in use before 1831. Tonnage meaning internal carrying capacity and not weight or displacement. Mr Rughe’s work was useful but contains several errors.

  3. I grew up in Goleta and swam this beach and slough entrance. Thank you for this synopsis. Great to have the history gathered.
    Thanks, Eric.

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