Who Was El Capitan?

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By Tom Modugno of Goleta History

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 European 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.

Read more on GoletaHistory.com

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TWOSCOOPS Feb 19, 2019 08:07 AM
Who Was El Capitan?

PENGUIN, that's great! Do you have stories about your family you can share? Photos? Please.

penguin Feb 19, 2019 08:03 AM
Who Was El Capitan?

As a child my family camped at Refugio an El Cap for many years. Jose Francisco Ortega is my 5th Great Grandfather. There are many descendants of this Ortega family living in S.B.

Red Creek Feb 18, 2019 02:03 PM
Who Was El Capitan?

Very well done. However, all the trails that Ortega "discovered" were there for thousands of years, and well trodden by the native peoples of California. The Spanish did not "discover" California as archeologists have proven, it was settled at least 10,000 and as much as 30,000 years prior by former migrations.

NostraChumash Feb 18, 2019 09:09 AM
Who Was El Capitan?

C'mon now Tommy... When was the last time you met an "Overly-friendly Chumash who wanted to party all night"? Whoo-Hoo!

Flicka Feb 17, 2019 04:35 PM
Who Was El Capitan?

Thanks, Tom, for our history lesson. The cow hides were called "California pesos" or "California dollars", used by locals to buy goods from the trading ships. Descendants of El Capitan Ortega included Thomas Storke, owner of the News-Press, and William Luton who started KEY-T.

REX OF SB Feb 17, 2019 04:10 PM
Who Was El Capitan?

Why couldn't my history classes have been as interesting as this? Thank you, Tom. I had no idea who El Capitan was.

TWOSCOOPS Feb 17, 2019 01:54 PM
Who Was El Capitan?

Tom Modugno, photos and drawings spectacular. Good description, well written. Thank you.

CoastWatch Feb 17, 2019 01:47 PM
Who Was El Capitan?

The largest commodity in California back then were cow hides... 100's of thousands of them. Richard Henry Dana's book "Two Years Before the Mask" is a fantastic history of early California, from San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano and San Diego.

oceandrew Feb 17, 2019 04:47 PM
Who Was El Capitan?

You mean "Two years before the Mast", don't you?

patrick Feb 17, 2019 01:26 PM
Who Was El Capitan?

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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