How Some California Cities Got Their Names: Santa Barbara

Numerous California cities are named for saints, a leftover from the missionary zeal of the 17th and 18th centuries.

San Francisco is Spanish for St. Francis and San Jose is St. Joseph, the father of Jesus. Santa Maria, his mother. San Bernardino is St. Bernard of Menthon, he of the cask-carrying rescue dogs.

While the stories of these saints are familiar that isn’t the case with the namesakes of some other cities.

Consider Santa Barbara.

Descriptions of her life – and death – differ but most agree she lived at or near Nicomedia in Bithynia around 235 AD. Catholic Online, however, says she lived in the 4th Century. Nicomedia is the present-day Izmit, Turkey.

Barbara’s father, Dioscorus – spelled Dioscoros on Catholic Online — hailed from Heliopolis, according to most reports. Heliopolis is six miles south of Cairo.

Dioscorus locked his daughter in a tower either because of her beauty or disobedience or both.

While in the tower, either her studies led her to become a Christian or a man disguised as a doctor was able to enter the tower and convert her. Catholic Online says she received instruction and baptism from a Christian priest. (Possibly one dressed as a doctor.)

Dioscorus travels on business while builders are constructing a bathhouse next to the tower. He demands they stick to his building plans.

But Barbara comes down from the tower and tells the workers to add a third window – the Holy Trinity – and, later, miraculously etches the cross on the wall with her finger.images

When her virulently anti-Christian father returns, he is enraged at the changes in the bathhouse design. Barbara calmly explains the symbolism of the window and professes her faith in Christianity. This worsens matters. In several renditions, Dioscorus denounces her to the authorities who order her tortured and beheaded.

In one version, Dioscorus handles the torment personally. All versions agree he is Barbara’s ultimate executioner.

One account has him trying to slice her in two in the tower with a sword (Colonel Mustard in the Vestibule with a Blow Torch) and her jumping from the window and fleeing to a mountain cave.

In one version, he follows her into the mountains and cuts off her head.

In another, Dioscorus finds her and drags her back by the hair to the magistrates.

The torture is far north of horrendous. She is flogged, hit on the head with a spiked mallet, burned and has her breasts cut off.

All this before decapitation.

Apparently, one day of torment isn’t enough so she is placed in a cell pending the next day’s atrocities. Next to her is Juliana, a fellow Christian who consoles her.

The following day there is much irritation among the magistrates because Barbara’s wounds from the day before have healed. They abuse her anew and then bring out Juliana and torture her.

The two sing hymns; serene in their faith.

Juliana – also a saint – is beheaded by an executioner. Barbara’s father does the honors for her.

(This write-up from the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church of Orange Connecticut is representative.)

God, however, is angered by the treatment of Barbara and sends down a tempest with thunder and lightening, smiting Dioscorus.

That’s why Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen, gunsmiths, miners and anyone else who works with cannons or explosives. Catholics who face the possibly of sudden death in their work also honor her.

The Unites States Field Artillery Association has an Order of Saint Barbara. British, Australian, New Zealand, Irish and Canadian artillery units celebrate Barbara’s feast day of December 4 with parades, parties and dinners.

Traditionally, santabarbara was the name of powder magazines on ships and forts. A statue of the saint was placed at the magazine to protect against explosions.

She is also, of course, the patron saint of lightening.

The city of Santa Barbara is so named because in 1602 explorer Sebastian Vizcaino survived a violent storm just offshore on December 3, the eve of Barbara’s holy day.

Barbara is recognizable in Christian art because she is the only female saint to carry the cup and wafer from the Eucharist.

There’s almost always a tower somewhere in the renderings of her and a sword, symbolizing her martyrdom.


Filed under: California History


  1. I have never seen anything like this on your website. Is it because Jerry Brown is our next gov ? Should we expect more ?

    Comment by Pat Henning — 11.29.2010 @ 7:35 pm

  2. Ever see Geo Hamilton’s “Zorro the Gay Blade?” Some great schick about California’s “saint” names. Funny stuff, but you gotta be on your toes.

    Comment by SugarMuffin — 11.30.2010 @ 9:23 am

  3. Henning, I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but I will trade you 3 history snippets for one Gucci rant. What’s with that Gucci crap anyway?

    Comment by Dave — 11.30.2010 @ 5:40 pm

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