The Hill-Carrillo Adobe

By Hattie Beresford   |   February 20, 2020
Daniel Hill, seen here in his later years, jumped ship to marry the beautiful Rafaela Ortega for whom he built an adobe home with a wooden floor (Courtesy Montecito Association History Committee)

Old Relics Vanishing. One by one the old adobe houses, the ancient landmarks of Santa Barbara, are gradually vanishing and modern buildings are taking their places. There are certain memories that cling to these old places, some of which date back one hundred years, which to some must seem like the severance of old friends as they are gradually demolished… Very soon none will be left to remind one of what Santa Barbara once was.” (Morning Press, 12 April 1876)

During the next 144 years, the disappearance of the old adobes did not abate, but a few found saviors. One of those favored with survival was the Hill-Carrillo Adobe, which has recently experienced another renaissance thanks to the Hutton Parker Foundation, whose most excellent renovation has preserved a touchstone for stories of Santa Barbara’s past. Following are a few of the tales contained within the walls of that venerable relic of our town’s yesteryears.

A Sailor and a Spanish Beauty

Rafaela Luisa Sabrina Ortega, wife of Daniel Hill, in her later years (Courtesy of Montecito Association History Committee)

When the American brig Rover sailed out of Refugio Bay one fateful day in 1823, it left behind its first mate, Daniel Hill, who, legend has it, fell head over heels for the beautiful 14-year-old Rafaela Sabina Luisa Ortega. Rafaela was the great-granddaughter of José Francisco de Ortega, pathfinder and explorer of the Portola-Serra Sacred Expedition of 1769, first commander of the Santa Barbara Presidio in 1782, and grantee of one of the few Spanish land grants, Nuestra Señora del Refugio.

Daniel Hill had been at sea since he was 17 years old and had sailed around the world a number of times, but now his sailing days were over. As he settled in to await Rafaela’s coming of age, he put his Yankee ingenuity and ships’ skills to work wherever they were needed. Except for the Chumash trained by the padres, mechanics were rare in Santa Barbara, and Hill soon had his hands full with jobs ranging from running a mercantile store, to making soap, to working as the superintendant of mission blacksmithing, farming and construction work. Alfred Robinson, hide and tallow agent for Bryant & Sturgis Company, became a lifelong friend and characterized him as “general factotum of the town, carpenter or mason as required.”

Rosa Rafaela Antonia Hill married Nicholas Den in 1843 (Courtesy Montecito Association History Committee)

Hill also prepared himself for marriage to the comely señorita by becoming a Mexican citizen and converting to Catholicism. The two were married on September 26, 1826 and moved into the adobe he had built for them, only one of many adobes he had constructed in the area. This adobe boasted the first wooden floor in town. Five or six of their 15 children were born in the adobe, and the rest at “La Goleta Rancho” which he was granted in 1846 by Mexican governor Pio Pico, just before the American occupation of California.

In town, Hill became a prominent member of the community and he and Rafaela often entertained the officers of trading ships and other visitors. One of them, Irish-born Nicholas A. Den had worked his way to California as ship’s clerk aboard the Kent when the brig dropped anchor off Santa Barbara and opened its shipboard store in 1836. He met Daniel Hill, a friendship was struck, and another ship sailed on without its supercargo.

The hide and tallow trade still being profitable, Den switched sides and took up cattle ranching. In time he became a Mexican citizen, converted to Catholicism, was granted Rancho Los Dos Pueblos in 1842, and married Daniel Hill’s 16-year-old daughter Rosa in June 1843. They moved into an adobe home he had built for them northwest of the Hill Adobe. (Corner of Figueroa and State.)

First Child of American Parents

On April 13, 1932, the brig Newcastle out of Boston arrived at Monterey carrying Thomas Oliver Larkin of Boston, whose unsuccessful business ventures in the East had caused him to seek out new opportunities. Also on the voyage was Mrs. Rachel Hobson Holmes who was traveling to Monterey to join her Danish sea captain husband. Upon their arrival, Rachel discovered her husband was away on a voyage so she boarded with Larkin’s half brother, John B. R. Cooper, as did Larkin.

In a portrait from 1865, Mrs. Oliver Larkin, right, gave birth to the first American child born in California at the Hill-Carrillo Adobe (Courtesy of Montecito Association History Committee)

At some point a romance had developed between Oliver and Rachel, and she became pregnant. Learning that her husband had died on his voyage, she nevertheless moved to Santa Barbara where Daniel Hill and Rafaela took her in. Daniel and Rafaela were sponsors for the baptism of her child, Isabel Ana Larkin, in January 1833 at the Santa Barbara Mission. The Baptismal Record reads: “Born January 31, spurious child of and daughter of Miquel Larkin and Raquel, married to Guillermo Holmes, natives of the United States. Protestants. Illegitimate. Foreign.”

There being no way to perform a Protestant ceremony on land, Rachel and Oliver were married on June 10, 1833 aboard the Volunteer. Again Daniel Hill and Rafaela stood as witnesses. (Later the marriage was declared illegal and they had to remarry.) This first child born of two American parents in California lived less than a year. She is buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.

The Larkins moved to Monterey but never forgot the kindness and generosity of the Hill family. Katherine Den Bell, granddaughter of Daniel Hill, recalled that Rachel Larkin kept an unwavering faith with those early California friends that was “as sweet as it was rare.” In her memoir, she wrote, “I can never forget the light on her wan, pale face as, lying on a sick bed, she recalled with my mother the dear old times, los tiempos viejos, that linked her with the comadre through that passionate undying mother-love for her lost Isabel.”

Alfred Robinson Sets Up Shop

When Alfred Robinson, supercargo for Bryant, Sturgis & Company, an American company engaged in the hide and tallow trade, set up a base in Santa Barbara, he was glad that his house adjoined that of his friend, Daniel Hill. In his memoir, Life in California, he wrote that he found their proximity to be “of great convenience for we took our meals together; and he was often of much assistance to me in matters of business.”

Joaquin Carrillo once owned a portion of the adobe and Daniel Hill the other portion (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

Robinson set about making some improvements to the adobe for better security. He wrote, “I made some additions to the house, which need also some repairs and painting, so Daniel’s aid was required. A large cookhouse was built in the rear, surrounded by a high wall of brick, and the windows at the end of the house were barricaded.”

Robinson described his section of the house consisting of one large room, which he filled to the roof with bales and boxes, and four small ones, one of which “was fitted up with shelves and a counter, serving as a show room.”

“Another,” he wrote, “I had transformed into a bed chamber. I slept in a cot suspended from the cross beams of the roof; and, besides the necessary furniture of chairs, tables, looking-glass, I had displayed against the wall, two old muskets newly brightened up, two pair of pistols, and a very terrific sword. The sight of these appalling instruments was ample security against the rogues, who were generally lounging about the door leading from the corridor to the street.”


Katherine Den Bell, granddaughter of Daniel Hill and Rafaela Ortega Hill (Courtesy Montecito Association History Committee)

Katherine Den Bell, the daughter of Rosa and Nicholas Den, was born in 1844 at the height of the Mexican period and her book of memoirs, Swinging the Censor, is a nostalgic and informative look back at that time and those that follow.

She recalls that her grandparents moved out to their La Goleta ranch, and that the Scottish born Captain John D. Wilson, master of several British brigs involved in trade in California, set up a store, warehouse and residence in the Hill Adobe and nearby Burke adobe in the late 1830s, early 1840s. He had married Ramona Carrillo de Pacheco, a widow with two sons and member of the powerful Carrillo family, circa 1837.

Katherine’s strongest memories are of the time that Captain Wilson and the enchanting Doña Ramona lived in her grandparents’ house. Besides Doña Ramona’s handsome Pacheco sons, she and Wilson had three girls, nicknamed Las Escocétas (the Scots) by the Barbarenos and a son, John Junior, whom Katherine called Wilsito. When she was very small, he was her only companion and playmate.

Pre-1884 photo shows the Carrillo Adobe in the foreground, the famous Aguirre Adobe to the right, on the corner of Carrillo and Anacapa streets. Behind the Aguirre Adobe across the field stood the Burke Adobe. The Den Adobe stood off the photo to the left. Notice the County Courthouse in the middle of the photo and the Santa Barbara Mission on the low ridge to the left. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)
Rear of the Hill-Carrillo Adobe (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

Captain Wilson had brought a huge tortoise from Oahu and every day Wilsito rode it to her house. The tortoise knew the way to the Den house and often started out by itself, so she would run to meet it while Wilsito ran to catch up. They’d both stand on top and it would turn back home, sometimes stopping at the steps of the Aguirre house next door. Once, when John Junior was ill, it came alone and stayed near her porch, waiting for her to come out.

The Wilson house, she recalled, had a big hand organ and someone was always ready to turn out its music for the children. Las Escocétas were great dancers and she and Wilsito would hop in and out in clumsy imitation.

The 1850s Wackenreuder map shows the layout of the four adobes that Katherine Den Bell mentions in her reminiscences (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

“The Wilson home was delightful with its beautiful, gracious mistress,” wrote Katherine. “To foreigners and visitors, Doña Ramona Wilson’s home at that time was the most attractive rendezvous in Santa Barbara.”

Visiting in December 1841, Admiral Sir George Simpson, governor-in-chief of the Hudson Bay Company’s Territories in North American, said Ramona Wilson was “one of the prettiest and most agreeable women we had ever met, either here or elsewhere.”

One day, Wilsito was ceremoniously dressed in highland dress and placed on a ship bound for England where he was to be reared and educated under the direction of Captain Wilson’s sister. The turtle-days were over and she never saw him again. In her memoir, Katherine wrote, “I was for years haunted by the remembrance of my loneliness after he went away.”

The Wilsons eventually moved to San Luis Obispo where they had many land interests and the Hill Adobe was put to other uses.

Adaptive Reuse

High Lung Laundry offered first-class service in the old Carrillo, whose adobe walls have been replaced by white picket fences which have also became dilapidated (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

Over the next several years, the Hill Adobe saw a succession of owners and business establishments. It was used for the first Santa Barbara city council meeting under American rule, and in 1851, an Italian portrait painter named Barbieri used it as a studio. In 1852 a daguerreotypist opened a gallery on the front corridor. Katherine Den Bell used to visit this photography studio and recalls that “the elite, young and old, crowded the place eager to get a sitting and ‘be taken.’”

A map from 1853 shows Joaquin Carrillo and Juan Wilson as co-owners of the adobe. As the years sped down toward the 20th century, the old adobe saw use as a dentist’s office, a Chinese school, an Opal Shop, a Horticultural Club office, the Natural History Society office, and the Carrillo Leather Shop. In 1912 it was High Lung Laundry. After the bank building abutted its south side, replacing an adobe which had once stood there, the Carrillo became a restaurant offering lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner.

The Cabrillo Adobe served as a Chinese school . Looking closely at the course of the adobe bricks, it is clear that the original shape of the adobe was much narrower with supporting walls on either side of the white-washed area on the right. Most early adobe structures were narrow as the walls carried the majority of the load of the tiled roofs and lumber for beams was scarce. The section of the adobe to the left was created by enclosing the back porch. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)
After Esther Hammond purchased, restored, planted succulents and added wings to the adobe, it became a restaurant serving lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner (Courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

The Adobe was rescued from disintegration twice. In 1917-18, as part of the growing “Save an Adobe” effort. Mrs. Ester Fiske Hammond purchased the Hill/Carrillo Adobe. She restored the building, added rooms at the rear, improved the patio, and planted the bank with succulents. The artist Robert Wilson Hyde owned an antique store and studio in part of the building in the 1920s and the other part saw the Adobe Book and Tea Room.

A scant ten years later, however, plans were afoot to demolish the adobe to make room for a movie theater. Major Max C. Fleishmann, heir to the yeast business of the same name and Santa Barbara philanthropist, purchased the adobe and gave it to the newly-formed Santa Barbara Foundation as their headquarters. Since then it has been maintained and preserved as a relicario of Santa Barbara’s Mexican era and its rich cultural legacy.

(Sources not mentioned in text: Walker Tompkin’s History Makers [revised]; News-Press 3-19-50 – articles on Sir George Simpson; The Larkin Papers, vol 1; Bancroft pioneer register; contemporary newspapers. Thanks to Kathi Brewster and Michael Redmon.)


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