San Marcos Pass stagecoach

A six-horse stagecoach climbs Slippery Rock on San Marcos Pass between Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara in this 1890 photo.

California State Library contributed photo

In December of 1846, when Lt. Col. John C. Fremont was leading his battalion south on El Camino Real to Santa Barbara to aid in the takeover of California by the U.S. forces, the soldiers stopped off at the adobe of Benjamin Foxen, where they set up camp for the night.

A most convincing and enduring tale is that after telling Fremont of a trap that was set up at the Gaviota Pass where many men and boys from Santa Barbara were waiting to roll down boulders on Fremont’s troops as they made their way through the narrows, Foxen suggested they take the San Marcos Pass. He even offered his and his son Guillermo's help to guide them.

Although the story sounds logical, qualified historians have long agreed that the Gaviota Pass ambush story is a myth. One reason is that in 1846 the Gaviota Pass was closed, except for pedestrian traffic. Furthermore, during the week before Christmas, when Fremont’s trip to Santa Barbara took place, the high waters of the Gaviota Creek resulted in the the Gaviota Pass being completely impassable.

Adding more doubt to the story, all of the men and boys in Santa Barbara who were old enough to bear arms, instead of waiting to roll boulders on Fremont and his men in Gaviota, were reportedly with Gen. José María Flores defending army in Los Angeles, ready to fight invading Americanos.

The folklore about Foxen warning Fremont of the ambush has been perpetuated through the years by the many tablets placed in various places along the San Marcos Pass. Even the book “This is Our Valley” tells about Don Julian Foxen, then 50 years old, upon hearing news that Fremont was to be ambushed, not only warned him but volunteered to show Fremont a route over the San Marcos Pass.

According to the historian Walker Tompkins, in his book, “Goleta: The Good Land,” information gleaned from diaries of Fremont’s men proved that it was Fremont who had thought up the idea of taking the San Marcos Pass as opposed to going by way of the Gaviota Pass, believing that he could sneak over the mountain secretly via the back door, so to speak, and capture Santa Barbara by surprise. Such a plan proved to be a waste of time as Fremont was soon to learn that Santa Barbara was completely defenseless and his troops took over the pueblo without firing a shot.

Where the legend of the pending ambush came from, we might never know as none of the diarists made any mention of it. Furthermore, nothing appeared in any of their diaries about Foxen even entering the picture. However, even though we might never know if he did, the same historians feel that he could have led Fremont troops over the “back way” (the San Marcos Pass) to Santa Barbara.

The trip over the San Marcos Pass didn’t go without problems, though. An unseasonal rainstorm struck, resulting in the soldiers arriving at the foothills overlooking the Goleta Valley on Christmas Day in a bedraggled condition. They had an estimated 150 horses and mules, but miraculously, no lives were lost.

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The Stars and Stripes were raised on Dec. 28, 1846, and never lowered.

When I asked noted local historian Bob Rivers what he thought of this mystery, he said, “The Foxens took Fremont and his troops over the San Marcos Pass, that we know. Is it really necessary to know why?”

So much for the Gaviota mystery.

Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.

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