Times Past

How a stolen cannon led to a show of leadership from an early politician on the Central Coast

Artist Theodore Van Cina's rendition of five youths stealing the cannon in the Canon Perdido incident, 1848.
Artist Theodore Van Cina's rendition of five youths stealing the cannon in the Canon Perdido incident, 1848. Santa Barbara Historical Museum

The American conquest of California in 1846-47 left a bitterly divided Southern California where the bulk of the population lived prior to the Gold Rush.

The aging political leader, José de la Guerra, known simply as “El Gran Capitan” to most Californios, never accepted the American presence. He felt betrayed. He had been very hospitable to hundreds of visiting Yankee seafarers and fur trappers. He gave his daughters in marriage to prominent Yankee businessmen. The marriage of Boston’s Alfred Robinson and Ana María de la Guerra in 1834 was described by Richard Henry Dana in “Two Years Before the Mast.”

By 1847, he no longer trusted Gringos, refusing to act as an intermediary in the inevitable misunderstandings between Californios and Yankees. His son, Pablo de la Guerra, was more pliable.

He had worked with many Englishmen and Americans in Monterey. Like most of the important Californios, Pablo de la Guerra was jailed after John C. Frémont captured Santa Barbara during Christmas 1846. He later proved worthy of American trust in the infamous case of the “lost cannon.”

The “Canon Perdido” or “lost cannon” incident in Santa Barbara in 1848 marked a near insurrection of the Californios against the U.S. military.

While Santa Barbara was still under American occupation, four or five young Californio boys stole a cannon from wrecked American brig U.S.S. Elizabeth. Captain Francis J. Lippett, the American officer in charge of Santa Barbara, freaked out.

He sent an urgent message to Col. Richard B. Mason, the military governor of California in Monterey. He urged that Col. Mason send reinforcements at once. Mason was angered by the news and sent orders that the citizens of Santa Barbara be fined $500, at the time an enormous sum of money. The cannon was not returned.

The missing cannon didn’t reappear until 1859. The fine had to be paid. The vinceños, residents of the area around the pueblo, were outraged. Pablo de la Guerra sensed that a real rebellion was now likely. The Americans would surely win in the end. There would be much needless bloodshed.

Col. J. D. Stevenson of the New York Volunteers was sent down to Santa Barbara to collect the fine. Stevenson also feared a revolt. He met with de la Guerra. Over many glasses of high-proof aguadente (brandy), the Irishman and the Spaniard reached a solution.

Stevenson accepted de la Guerra’s suggestion that an Army band be sent to Santa Barbara to play for the Fourth of July in the plaza in front of his adobe. The Californios loved a brass band. They passed sombreros and painlessly collected the $500. Open rebellion was averted. Wisdom prevailed, and the community healed itself.

Canon Perdido Street in modern Santa Barbara honors that “lost cannon.”

Two years later, the people of Santa Barbara sent Pablo de la Guerra as their representative to California’s Constitutional Convention in Monterey. He later served as a leader of the California legislature. In 1860, he was lieutenant governor of California.

During the American Civil War, de la Guerra became a staunch Unionist. He formed “Company C” of the California Cavalry — the only unit in the Union Army whose members spoke no English except for their Captain, Pablo de la Guerra.

Later, he served for 10 years as presiding judge of California’s First Judicial District. This included all of what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

During his duties, judge de la Guerra was obliged to spend two-week stints hearing cases in San Luis Obispo. A large adobe building called Casa Grande served as our courthouse. It was located between Monterey and Higuera on Court Street. It faced an open plaza, which was the center of our town.

Santa Barbarans referred to San Luis Obispo as “The Barrio of the Wildcat.” It was an untamed and primitive place in contrast to the more settled town to the south.

To be continued next week with the “trials” of Judge Pablo de la Guerra in San Luis Obispo’s “Barrio of the Tiger.”

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, he is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.