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Ranch of Our Lady of Refuge

Granted to:  José Francisco Ortega in 1795 by Governor Diego de Borica

Size:  26,529 acres

Location:  Santa Barbara County

The name that Don José Ortega chose for his rancho was Nuestra Señora del Refugio, or Our Lady of Refuge, referring to Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The name was soon shortened to Rancho El Refugio.  The name is still used for Refugio State Beach, located on land that once belonged to Rancho El Refugio.


Before 1800 there were many Chumash Indian villages along the Pacific Coast in what is now Santa Barbara County.  In their canoes made of planks,  Chumash people traveled along the coast and out to the nearby islands.


Over 26,000 acres of land located 20 miles north of Santa Barbara was granted to José Francisco Ortega in 1795 by the Spanish Governor Diego de Borica.  The grant was confirmed in 1813 by Governor José Joaquin de Arrillaga.  After Mexico took control of California, the land grant was confirmed again to Antonio María Ortega by Mexican Governor José Figueroa.


José Francisco Ortega was a Spaniard who had been living in Guanajuato, Mexico.  He came to California as a soldier with Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra in 1769.  In 1773 he became commander of the Spanish Army in Santa Barbara.  Ortega played a part in the founding of the Santa Barbara presidio (fort) in 1782, and in the pueblo (town) of Santa Barbara.  He also served for a time as comandante (chief officer) at Monterey.


On his rancho Don José built a large adobe house facing the sea.  He needed lots of space to entertain guests.  The California rancheros (rancho owners) were noted for their lavish hospitality.  Guests were always welcomed and entertained.  Don José Ortega was no exception.  He hosted many fiestas.

Rancho El Refugio land extended along the ocean coast line for about 25 miles  This stretch of the coast included a small cove which was a good place for ships to come into without being seen by the government officials.  When Don José first received the rancho lands, only Spanish ships had permission to trade along the California coast.  But ships from other countries, including American ships from New England, wanted to have a part in the California trade.  The cove at Rancho El Refugio was one of the places where these smugglers did their business.

After Mexico took control of California in 1822, ships from many countries were allowed to trade along the California coast.  Don José built an embarcadero (wharf) where merchant ships could land to take on cargoes of hides and tallow.

Over the years, Don José added more land to Rancho El Refugio, until in time it became one of the largest ranchos in California.


It was not just smugglers who used the cove at Rancho El Refugio.  Bouchard the Pirate paid a visit here in 1818.

Hippolyte de Bouchard was born in 1783 in France.  He moved to Argentina as a young man and became a navy officer there.  The Argentine government made him a privateer, licensed to capture enemy vessels while sailing in a private ship.

In 1818, Bouchard commanded two ships (the Santa Rosa, with a crew of 100 men and 26 guns, and the Argentina, with a crew of 266 men and 38 guns).  He sailed off to see what he could capture along the California coast.  Historical accounts say that Bouchard was a cruel man with a fiery temper, and that he was feared by the men in his crew.

When Bouchard sailed into Monterey Bay, most of the townspeople fled inland.  Bouchard took possession of the town, looting and burning it. 

From Monterey, Bouchard sailed south to the little cove at Rancho El Refugio.  The pirates had heard of the great wealth of the Ortega family.  And the Ortega family had heard that Bouchard was coming.  They packed up all of their valuable belongings, and took them to a hiding place far away from the coast. 

When Bouchard and his pirates came ashore at El Refugio, they were met by Sergeant Carlos Carrillo who had come from the Santa Barbara presidio with 30 vaqueros (cowboys).  They captured several of the sailors, including an American named Joseph Chapman, by lassoing them.  Bouchard soon sailed away, but first he set fire to the Ortega house.

Bouchard next fired on the presidio at Santa Barbara and on the mission at San Juan Capistrano.  Then he headed further south to Mexico, and did not bother California again.


The Ortega family was considered to be one of the wealthiest of the leading families of Spanish California.  After the original Ortega house was burned by the pirates, the family built a new home about three miles from the beach, in a canyon.  Here Don José planted a fine vineyard and continued to entertain many guests.

One of Don José's daughters, Doña Soledad, married Luís Antonio Argüello, the first governor of California under Mexican rule, in 1822.  The wedding took place at Mission Santa Barbara.  People from all parts of southern California came to this wedding and fiesta, considered to be one of the outstanding events in the history of Santa Barbara.  Many of those attending were guests at Rancho El Refugio for a week.


Joseph John Chapman, an American from the state of Maine, claimed he had been forced to sail with the pirate Bouchard.  At El Refugio, he asked to be allowed to stay in California. 

Chapman was a good blacksmith and carpenter, which made him useful at the missions and ranchos.  He helped with the construction of the church in the pueblo of Los Angeles.  He knew how to cut down trees for lumber.  He built grist mills at Mission Santa Ines and Mission San Gabriel.  He also built a ship (a 60-ton schooner) at San Gabriel and had it carted in pieces to the bay at San Pedro where he reassembled it.

Another of Chapman's skills was sewing up wounds and setting broken bones.  He was often called on to act as a doctor.

Chapman joined the Ortega family by marrying Guadalupe Ortega, a daughter of Don José.  Chapman adopted the Catholic faith and later became a Mexican citizen.  He planted a large vineyard near Los Angeles, where he lived for many years.  Later he moved his family to Santa Barbara, where he died in 1849.


The Ortega family retained ownership of much of their rancho land into the 1900s.  Several other homes were built on the land.  Development did not change the scene here as quickly as it did on many of the early ranchos.  The canyons and view of the ocean from the hills stayed much as they were for the Ortegas and their guests.

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