The Santa Barbara Mission was the tenth of the California Missions to be founded by the Spanish Franciscans. It was established on the Feast of St. Barbara, December 4, 1786.
Padre Junipero Serra, who had founded the first nine Missions, had died two years earlier. It was Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, his successor, who raised the cross and made the first converts.
The original buildings were unpretentious and made of adobe. Over time three adobe churches were constructed on the grounds, each larger than the one before until the fourth and present church was built in 1820. The third was destroyed by earthquake in 1812. The fountain in front was built in 1808.
The earthquake of June 29, 1925, which occurred during a chapel service, caused considerable damage to the Mission church and friary. People rushed out of the chapel while the beams in the front of the church fell. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Restoration work was completed in 1927, and the towers were reinforced in 1953.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Chumash Indians, who were hunters and gatherers oriented to the sea, inhabited the land from Malibu to San Luis Obispo. They built plank boats (tomols), which were capable of traveling to the Channel Islands. Their villages were autonomous in nature, always headed by a hereditary leader. Houses were semi-oval huts built of tule. Basketry was a major art form as were stone bowls and tools. Houses were dome shaped with tules covering a willow frame.
The Franciscans taught the Indians agriculture. The principal products of the field were wheat, barley, corn, beans, and peas. Orange and olive trees were planted, and grapevines were cultivated. In 1807, an Indian dam was built to bring water to the mission via an aqueduct. Mission Santa Barbara also had cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, mules, and horses in great number. In 1809, there were 5,200 head of cattle and in 1803 11,221 head of sheep.
The early buildings at the Mission were constructed in log cabin style, with the cracks between the logs filled with mud and stones. Among the very first buildings constructed were a residence, a chapel, a kitchen, and a storeroom for grain.
When the Mission period ended, the buildings were used for a number of purposes. From 1868 until 1877, the Franciscans conducted a high school and junior college.