A nationwide debate that continues to rage over Christopher Columbus' legacy and how it should be recognized has prompted such local institutions as the high school district to reevaluate the usage of Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria, as a trademark logo and examine why it was adopted in the first place. 

While the ship itself — one of three ships in Columbus' 1492 fleet, along with the Niña and the Pinta, that set out from Spain — has no connection to the actual history of the city, the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society has found uses of the image in the city as far back as the early 1900s.

In 1909, the Ladies' Improvement Club made a parade float in the unmistakable style of the Santa Maria, with the date 1492 emblazoned on the side of the makeshift hull and red crosses on the sails.

Over a century later, simpler iterations of the vessel can still be seen on buses, electrical boxes, murals, overpasses, city documents and our own newspaper nameplate.

While some residents don't question its presence, others are calling on leaders to recognize the brutality perpetrated against Indigenous peoples and what message is sent by the ship's continued use.

In what is now the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Columbus and his crew subjected the Indigenous people to slavery, torture and rape of women and children as well as spread deadly illnesses like smallpox, measles and influenza.

Cindy Ransick, director of the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, said while it's impossible to know the true origins of the ship in the city, it likely symbolized a sense of discovery and exploration for the young city back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"The ship is on dang near everything," Ransick said. "Whether you want to say that's it’s lack of historical understanding … you have a young town and they weren’t even incorporated yet. I think they really thought about it in a sense of, we're explorers, we’re adventurers. I think they were really romanticizing it."

The Santa Maria Times appears to be the first local entity to utilize the ship as a logo, with dramatic illustrations of the vessel first appearing on the paper's masthead in the 1920s and shifting slightly in style over the decades.  

In the 1960s, the ship sailed away and was replaced by an homage to Vandenberg Air Force Base — an illustration of an aerial Central Coast map with the tagline "Missile Capital of the World."

Over the next decade, the ship imagery was formally adopted into other areas of the city. In July 1971, the City Council adopted Columbus' flagship as the new city seal, and the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District informally followed suit a few years later.

With the local resurgence of the ship, the Santa Maria Times in 1978 adopted a new nameplate for the paper featuring a more modern version of the ship, which then-publisher Walt Rosebrock called a "trademark of Santa Maria."

Despite sharing a name with the Santa Maria vessel, the city's name did not come from the ship itself, according to Ransick.

The original name of Central City was changed to Santa Maria in 1882, at least 20 years before the first known image of the ship in the city. A popular theory is that settler Juan Pacifico Ontiveros, who allegedly arrived to the region on the Feast Day of Mary in 1856 and named his ranch Santa Maria, extended the name to the city as a whole.

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However, Ransick believes the city's current name came from the stagecoach stop known as Santa Maria where the city's mail was delivered, after Central City became a more common name for cities throughout the country.

Because Catholicism was not the dominant religion of the early city, it is also unlikely that the name was chosen for its religious connotations, according to Ransick. Like the usage of the ship, it may have been a matter of convenience.

"The Santa Maria stop was to the north on the Nipomo Mesa," Ransick said. "From understanding what I do, I really think they went for the simple switch. When they couldn’t have Central City, they really went to, 'Where do we get our mail from?'" 

Regardless of the origins of the ship's usage, Santa Maria now joins cities and states reckoning with images they have used to symbolize the legacy of the Italian explorer. 

Cities, including San Francisco, have removed statues of Columbus, while officials across the country, from governors to school board leaders, have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day. 

Last week, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation naming Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples' Day, the same day traditionally celebrated as Christopher Columbus Day. 

However, local residents and advocates have noted that the removal of symbols is only one step in addressing the larger systems of colonization and racism against Indigenous communities.

"The significance of when they remove the logo for me … I wouldn't say all the racism would end, but it would be really symbolic, showing that the district is willing to change," student Yaquilina Aguirre said in September regarding the ship logo in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, after district leaders agreed to cease its use and explore options for a new logo.

Other residents noted that there are elements of the city's history and legacy, such as agriculture, that may be better suited to serve as an emblem of the city.

Regardless of its relevance to local history, Ransick noted that many people in Santa Maria and beyond, including herself, have largely been taught about Columbus and his journeys in a positive light.

While romanticization plays a role, she believes the Santa Maria vessel does symbolize great things to many, which makes discussions about its faults difficult.

"They came to define wealth, riches and define the New World," Ransick said. "We’re kind of villainizing and overriding what we know about that specific ship."


Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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