The area of present-day Goleta was populated for thousands of years by the native Chumash people. Locally they became known by the Spanish as Canaliños because they lived along the coast adjacent to the Channel Islands. One of the largest villages, S’axpilil, was north of the Goleta Slough, not far from the present-day Santa Barbara Airport.
The first European visitor to the Goleta area was the Spanish mariner Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who spent time around the Channel Islands in 1542, and died there in 1543. During the 1980s, discovery of some 16th-century cannon on the beach led to the advancement of a theory that Sir Francis Drake sailed into the Goleta Slough in 1579. Goleta is one of many alternative locations (and the one farthest south) proposed for Drake’s “New Albion” – generally believed to be today’s Drake’s Bay, north of San Francisco.
In 1602, another sailing expedition, led by Sebastian Vizcaino, visited the California Coast. Vizcaino named the channel “Santa Barbara”. Spanish ships associated with the Manila Galleon trade probably stopped in the area intermittently during the next 167 years, but no permanent settlements were established.
An expedition in 1782, led by military governor Felipe de Neve, founded the Presidio of Santa Barbara and, soon thereafter, the Santa Barbara Mission. The Goleta area, along with most of the coastal areas of today’s Santa Barbara County, was placed in the jurisdiction of the presidio and mission.
Sometime after the De Anza expeditions, a sailing ship (“goleta”) was wrecked at the mouth of the lagoon, and remained visible for many years, giving the area its current name. After Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821, most of the former mission ranch lands were divided up into large grants. The Goleta area became part of two adjacent ranchos. To the east of today’s Fairview Avenue was Rancho La Goleta, named for the shipwreck and granted to Daniel A. Hill, the first American resident of Santa Barbara. An 1840s diseño (claim map) of the rancho shows the wrecked ship.
The parts of Goleta to the west of Fairview Avenue were in Rancho Dos Pueblos, granted in 1842 to Nicholas Den, son-in-law of Daniel Hill. Rancho Dos Pueblos included the lagoon, airport, UCSB and Isla Vista, extending to the west as far as the eastern boundary of today’s El Capitan State Beach.