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Who was El Capitan?

Everybody loves El Capitan State Beach, a jewel on the Gaviota Coast. But why is it called the Captain? Who exactly was the Captain?

El Capitan was Don Jose Francisco Ortega. He was the first person of European descent to set foot on Goleta soil and he played a big role in the history of California. Ortega was born in 1734 in Guanajuato, New Spain, (aka Mexico), a wealthy silver mining town. He had a healthy childhood and was well educated.  At the age of 21, he went to the  Presidio at Loreto and enlisted in the Spanish Royal Army. Described as a short, stocky man with a weight problem, he was a natural born soldier, cheerful and well liked by all. He quickly moved up the ranks and was a Sergeant within 2 years.

Some time after being promoted to sergeant, around 1757, Ortega took a break from the military and went to work in a mine in Baja California. In 1759, Ortega married 17 year old María Carrillo in Loreto. Ortega soon became a supervisor of all the mining camps throughout southern Baja. He worked in the mining industry for over 10 years and by the end of his career he was in his early 30’s, in charge of the Royal Warehouse and the father of five children.

That’s when destiny stepped into Jose Ortega’s life. In 1768, Ortega was recruited by Gaspar de Portolá to join his expedition exploring Alta California. Ortega was reinstated as Sergeant and appointed Chief Scout for the expedition. As the  scout, it was Sgt. Ortega’s job to go ahead of the group, search out the best routes and locate safe camping places that had water and wood. Most importantly, to keep the party out of danger. Portola must have thought highly of Jose Ortega to give him such an important job.

Ortega was in charge of 26 “Cuera” soldiers. These were mounted, “Leather Jacket Soldiers”, an exclusive corps that wore multi-layered deer-skin cloaks as protection against Indian arrows. They were considered the finest horsemen in the world and were very well equipped, but scurvy, the long hard journey and the all night parties thrown by the over friendly natives soon wore them out.Many had to be carried on stretchers before the end of the expedition.Sergeant Ortega and some of his men would go a day or two ahead of the main group to explore the terrain, back track to report their findings, then set out again with the whole company, traveling the route three times to the company’s one. Difficult, dangerous work, but Ortega was tireless in his efforts.  Father Serra wrote in his journal, “Soldiers would be replaced, but Ortega? Never.” It took them 17 days to get from modern day Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, which gives you an idea of the difficulty involved.The expedition’s main goal was to find the bay at Monterey, but they didn’t recognize it and kept going north until they ran into San Francisco Bay on November 1, 1769.  Probably due to their exhaustion and malnutrition, they didn’t realize the magnitude of that discovery. Since he was the scout, Ortega has been attributed as the man that discovered San Francisco Bay.A most important by-product of this first California journey was that Ortega had laid out the path for El Camino Real, used all through California history, and today’s Highway 101.After the Portola expedition, Ortega continued his military career working between Loreto and Alta California. Ortega’s job was to escort settler families from Baja to San Diego and to Monterey, the first real colonists of California. Of course, they followed Ortega’s El Camino Real.

Ortega eventually settled in San Diego and his wife gave birth to their sixth child, the first “white” child born in California. Around 1773,  Don Jose Ortega was promoted to Lieutenant and for 8 years served as Commandant at the San Diego Presidio. During this time Ortega helped found several missions and fended off multiple native war parties. Lieutenant Ortega was a great favorite of the missionaries, especially Junípero Serra. In 1782, Ortega was on the expedition that founded Mission San Buenaventura and the Presidio of Santa Barbara. Ortega became the first Commandant of the Presidio of Santa Barbara that same year, and remained until 1784.
Ortega built the first buildings at the Presidio, designing the fortifications and the irrigation system, acquired livestock from Ventura, established orchards, and began farming on a large scale. Between 1784 and 1787, Ortega went on several expeditions throughout California. From 1787 to 1791 he served as Commandant of the Presidio of Monterey, and in 1792 the Commandant back at the Presidio in Loreto.

While serving at Loreto, Ortega’s sloppy accounting got him into some trouble with his superiors. He was deeply in debt to the army. On top of that, his obesity had gotten where he couldn’t get onto his horse without help. Quite an embarrassment for a Leather Jacket Soldier. After years of loyal service, his time had come. In 1795 he retired as a Captain with 40 years of service to Spain. Ortega asked the Governor for a grant of land up by the Santa Barbara presidio, (where one of his sons was stationed), so that he could raise cattle to pay off his debt.

In 1794, Ortega’s request was granted, but he wouldn’t own the land, Spanish law said “the land was being held for the Natives”. The land grant was basically a free lease from the Spanish crown, permitting settlement and grazing rights, but not ownership. He was granted the use of 26,500 acres of prime land, running from Cojo to Refugio. The vast rancho was named Nuestra Señora del Refugio, Our Lady of Refuge. It was the first rancho in Santa Barbara County and the only Spanish land grant. Rancho El Refugio, as it was called, boasted 25 miles of beautiful, pristine coastline.

Ortega moved his family to Refugio Canyon in 1795. A mile and a half up the canyon he built his adobe home with barns, corrals and a vineyard. The church objected to this activity on land they used to raise beef and grain to feed their indian neophytes, but Ortega ignored the complaints. Furthermore, when one of Ortega’s sons got married, he built him a home up the next canyon, called Tajiguas. And when another son married, he built his home up Arroyo Hondo, that still exists! Then another son settled in Arroyo Santa Anita, clearly stating squatter’s rights for the Ortega clan.
Unfortunately, Don Jose Francisco Ortega didn’t get to enjoy his majestic ranch for long.  In 1798, he fell from his horse and died at age 65, near the Chumash village of Casil at Refugio Beach. He was buried at Mission Santa Barbara the following day.

In the Spanish Archives of Alta California, Governor Arillaga wrote, “In the expedition to San Diego and Monterey, he had the commission of explorer of roads which the expedition had to follow. In the execution of this duty, he was frequently threatened and surrounded by large bodies of Indians, who he always forced to retire. During his command in San Diego, he prevented various uprisings of Indians, arresting the Chiefs and reducing them to peaceful conditions”.Ortega’s descendants became one of the prominent Californio families and his Refugio Ranch prospered, with grain, grapes, and illegal trade. The Spanish government only allowed trade with Spanish ships, but in the remote Refugio cove, illegal trade with British and Yankee ships was a regular occurrence. The Ortegas’ Refugio Ranch became rich and famous from these trades. So famous that it was raided, robbed and burned down by Argentine pirate, Admiral Hippolyte Bouchard in 1818. The Ortegas rebuilt a little further up the canyon.When Mexico took possession of California, a Mexican title was granted to the Ortega family and by 1834, the ranch was officially held in their name.

Ortega’s grandson, José Dolores Ortega, obtained another 8,800 acres of land (including the site of the future state beach) from the Mexican government in 1841. He and his family lived on Rancho Cañada del Corral, raising cattle and farming until they were forced to sell it in 1866, following years of severe drought.

The creek was named El Capitan on a map from 1889. Now, why exactly when and why they started calling this point El Capitan is still a mystery to us…As a tribute to the Patriarch of their family?
In the 1930’s, El Capitan Beach was a privately owned campground.
In 1953, the State of California purchased 111 acres of the former Rancho Cañada del Corral, including the private campground, and created El Capitan State Beach.

The old El Capitan store.
New bathrooms, benches and snack bars were built and the campground became a family favorite.

  Local Girls Kay and Lee Crocker fishing with their grandpa at El Cap, 1962.In 1967, the State purchased an additional 21 acres for the El Capitan State Campground. With the popularity of surfing in the early 1960’s, El Capitan became famous for more than just camping. And the surfers gave it a new nickname, S-Tubes. No clue what that means, it’s a surfer thing…And as Goleta grew, more and more kids made El Cap there favorite summer hangout.

Meanwhile, these photos from the early 1970’s show a rock in the shore break with a link to another time, a Spanish message carved many years before.
It appears to say “Juan, rest in peace”. Probably carved by someone in the Ortega family.  If anyone has any more info about this rock please let us know.

A most unique point with a creek mouth right at the tip, El Capitan is truly a jewel of the Gaviota Coast, and its name carries with it a lot of history.

So now you know who El Capitan was. He discovered the San Francisco Bay, built the presidio at Santa Barbara, mapped out most of our Highway 101 and lots of other noteworthy accomplishments. Gracias Sr. Ortega.

Sources: Walker Tompkins, Daughters of the American Revolution, Wikipedia, Rancho, Justin Ruhge, Santa Barbara Independent, Texas State Historical Society, KCRW, Eric Hvolboll, Carrie Crocker Aguirre

Categories: Goleta History

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Tom Modugno

40 replies

    1. Hi! I am a descendent of the Freemans, Figueroas, and Ortega’s- Jose was my very great grandfather!! Thank you for writing this article about him.

  1. Great article, Tom. Really interesting, and you did a great job finding images for this history. Am working on early history of Rancho Tajiguas right now and have the info but lack images. Any ideas for that would be appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Thanks! Great write up.

    I am curious if the Doña Maria Carrillo is the same one who’s daughter married General Vallejo, and he then gave her and her son Juan Carillo the land that became Santa Rosa. The fascinating story she could have told!

    1. Good question, and quite possible. As with all these stories, they are simply an introduction to a topic that opens up a whole bunch of additional questions…We have so much interesting history.

  3. I had some time and checked via Wikipedia and they seem to be different. I would not be surprised if they were related but who can say how at this point. Cheers!

  4. I’ve always wondered who planted those palm trees that line Refugio beach? It’s too bad they’re being eroded.

  5. A strong story here.
    My own project is a book on Jose Francisco Ortega and Dona Maria Ortega de Carrillo. Tentative titled, FOR THE LOVE OF THE KING AND THE LADY.
    Ortega’s abilities were really as a diplomat, with traders, soldiers, frontier miners, and Natives. For his personal diplomatic skills, he was selected in 1768 by the Vice-Roy to be the lead scout ahead of Portola from San Diego to San Francisco, — on the grand 1769 ‘trespass’ into and through new Native tribal territories. How did he personally ‘pacify’ all those encountered, which he did?; a fight or gunfire never was mentioned. Rather, almost certainly, from tall on his horse the diplomat Sergeant Ortega reached down calmly with a offered handfuls of bright beads. Portola came up the next day or two thereafter, to encountered diplomatically pacified new tribal groups. Thereafter, Ortega was placed in the role of diplomatically commanding and building presidios.

    1. I would love to read that book when completed. Captain Ortega was my 5th great grandfather and I would really love to know more about him.

    2. Hello! I’m a descendant of the Ortega’s. I would love to read your book. If you could contact me I would highly appreciate it!

  6. A terrific Presentation, maps, photos, all gave a good overall history of El Capitan, Don Jose Francisco de Ortega.

  7. On the subject of S Tubes, the following:

    In the 1950s, not many surfers frequented breaks on the Gaviota Coast. During swells, Rincon was the draw. Hammonds and Campus had tiny crews. One of two at Sandbar was a big crowd. In the other direction, some of the guys were drawn to the Hollister Ranch. I was living in Goleta then, and on low tides began riding my bike up the beach, exploring for new breaks. One of the first I discovered was Naples. At that time Mike Haskell’s parents owned a ranch in the hills above Haskell’s beach. We used to hang out in the cottage up there. It had an ailing avocado orchard and a panoramic view of the coast. One day when we woke up we saw a swell. We ended up at El Cap Point. It was the first time, to our knowledge, that anyone had surfed there. We thought that the one exception might be Benny Hartman, who lived at El Capitan Ranch, but I never asked him. We called the spot S Tubes (the S stood for Secret). Somewhere I’ve got the first ever photo of Naples.

  8. Wonderful article, Tom.

    I only learned a few years ago (I’m 58 now) that Ortega was my 5th great grandfather. I have learned of much of what you wrote, but not all of it…. so you have my thanks.

    Jose Raimundo Carrillo was also a 5th great grandfather, and a part of that Portola Expedition as well.

    I never knew about the weight issue, or the side deals with the Europeans not of Spanish ancestry. It’s a wonder he was granted all that exquisite land in Santa Barbara.

    I did know about him not having possession of it for very long (a couple of years) before he was thrown from his horse and died.

    Thanks again for a great and informative article, one that I will share soon.

    Warren W. Jones

    1. I would love to read that book when completed. Captain Ortega was my 5th great grandfather and I would really love to know more about him.

    1. My name is Judy Ortega. I’m also part of the Ortega clan (via my father).
      Please feel free to contact me.

  9. Very interesting information I love the history the photos everything! Wonderful job and presentation. Thankful for this history!

  10. Tom, Sitting in my trailer at Ocean Mesa, I’ve been transported by your article. I have a new appreciation for the areas I’ll visit this week. thanks

  11. We descend thru Otillo Ortega who married a Kenneth Carpenter in Venture co he was an orange grower, the three g later the McMullin to my niece Mary Susanne McMullin.

  12. I am also a decedent of the Captain Ortega. My great grandmother was an Ortega. One of the tidbits of family history that I heard growing up was about a very heavy ancestor who fell off his horse and died. It was true! Thanks for all the information.

  13. I am a descendant of the De la Guerra family. My mother is 92 years old. Her Uncle Romy Ortega lived and grew citrus trees and grapes in Goleta because he owned it. The De la Guerra s and Ortegas are all connected and the Hills, and Cotas. Daniel Hill was my great great grandfather and he was married to my great great grandmother.. Grace Hill Daley.

    1. Wow! You are connected to almost the entire Spanish and then Mexican and then American history of Santa Barbara. I am currently working on an article on Ynez Leonora de la Guerra y Dibblee, the dancer. She was quite well known throughout California and even made her acting debut in New York.

  14. My 6th Great Grandfather was Jose Francisco Ortega. Makes me 8th generation Californian.Ive been to the Presidio seen the early buildings. I live in San Clemente and Ortega took a few soldiers to San Juan Capistrano and said, “We will build it here”! SAN Ysidro Ranch also has a few older buildings from that time period. It also a fantastic place to eat and stay…

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