California: Monterey Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Monterey, a city of approximately thirty thousand people, was the capital of California under Spanish and Mexican rule, although it was never a capital of the state of California. It has many well-preserved buildings dating from the early to mid-nineteenth century. It was the site of California’s first constitutional convention, played an important role in the fishing and canning industries, and attracted artists and writers including Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck.

Site Office

Chamber of Commerce of the Monterey Peninsula

380 Alvarado Street

Monterey, CA 93940

ph.: (831) 649-1770

In November, 1542, Don Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese captain sailing under the Spanish flag, explored and mapped the Pacific coast of North America, something unprecedented for Europeans. He had come from the port of Navidad in Colma, Mexico. He led two ships, the San Salvador and La Vittoria. La Vittoria was sailed by Don Bartolomé Ferrelo, assistant to Cabrillo. The water was too rough to land, so Cabrillo had to view the land from the sea. He claimed the land for Spain and named the place La Bohia de los Pinos (the point of the pines) for the pine forests that lined the coast.

The Second Expedition

A second expedition to the area took place in 1602 under the command of General Sebastian Vizcaino. At the time General Vizcaino was sailing for Viceroy Don Gaspar de Zuniga, Conde de Monte Rey of New Spain. He was looking for a safe harbor for Spanish galleons traveling the Pacific and trading in the Philippines. The expedition consisted of four ships, La Capitana (also known as San Diego), La Almiranta (also known as Santo Tomas), Tres Reys, and a long narrow boat. These boats held approximately two hundred men and three Carmelite friars. On December 16, they entered the bay area near the mouth of the river. Vizcaino named the river El Rio del Carmelo after the friars, and the bay El Puerto de Monte Rey in honor of the viceroy. Many of the sailors suffered from scurvy by the time they reached Monterey. Vizcaino continued his expedition and sent La Almiranta back to Mexico to return the sick men and to obtain additional provisions.

Vizcaino wrote to King Philip III of Spain telling him of the natural beauty of the Bay of Monterey and how it could offer protection and security to ships coming from the Philippines. He wrote of the abundance of oak and pine trees that would be available to provide lumber for ship repairs. He also mentioned the quality of the soil, climate, wild grain, and animals. Apparently, however, the rulers of Spain were not impressed, and so it was more than a century and a half before Monterey was settled by Europeans.

The Third Expedition

A third expedition reached the Bay of Monterey on November 27, 1769. This expedition was composed of two parts–one by land and the other by sea. Don Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Baja (Lower) California, led the land expedition. The sixty-six men failed to recognize Monterey from the descriptions left by General Vizcaino, who had described the area as viewed from the sea, which did not give a clear indication of the site’s position to the land-based explorers.

The men were quite disappointed and low on supplies. The ship that was to meet them at Monterey had not arrived. On November 28 they moved their camp to the Carmel River and erected two crosses, one at the point that is now known as Mussel Rock and the other at the Punta de los Pinos. The expedition returned to San Diego on January 24, 1770. Many of the men were sick with scurvy.

In March, with many of the party still sick and supplies low, Portolá wanted to start the journey back to Baja California. Father Junípero Serra, a leading Franciscan priest, was able to persuade Portolá to stay a while longer and pray a novena (nine consecutive days of prayer). One day before the group was to continue the trip back to Baja California, a ship was spotted. Although the explorers had to wait several more days before it arrived at San Diego, when it did they obtained the supplies and provisions for which they had been waiting.

With the new supplies in hand they made another attempt to find the Bay of Monterey. By May 25 Governor Portolá and Father Juan Crespi had again reached the Punta de los Pinos. The San Antonio (also known as El Principe), the ship at the command of Captain Don Juan Perez with Father Serra aboard, arrived eight days later and recognized the Bay of Monterey from the sea. They found the two crosses that they had erected the previous autumn, proving that their earlier expedition was on target.

On June 3, in a small shelter under an oak tree, a mass was said and the land blessed. After the religious service, Portolá took formal control of the land in the name of King Charles III of Spain. These events were recorded by Portolá, Perez, and Don Miguel del Pino, the ship’s pilot.

A Church Is Built

At the site of the first mass, a church was erected, then consecrated on June 16, 1770. A presidio, or fort, was also established at the site. Barracks were erected for soldiers, as well as living quarters for the missionaries and officers. This was the first settlement by Europeans in the Monterey area and the northernmost settlement on the Pacific coast.

As was customary, priests accompanied soldiers in the settlement of new territory in order to establish the Catholic religion in the regions that Spain claimed. The missions were created to make converts of the Native Americans and teach them the ways of Spanish life. Sometimes there was a conflict between the military and religious leaders.

Father Serra founded the second mission of Alta (Upper) California, the Mission San Carlos de Borromeo, at Monterey in 1770. The mission at San Diego was the first mission, established in 1769. In 1771, Father Serra moved the San Carlos mission to Carmel, a fertile valley approximately five miles south of Monterey. A few reasons are cited for the move from Monterey. It is said that there was a dispute between Governor Pedro Fages, the military commander of the settlement, and Father Serra. Fages would not subject his military command to the authority of the church. It is also said that the soldiers of Monterey constantly harassed and fought with the Native Americans. In order to concentrate on the purpose of the mission, Father Serra may have felt it necessary to move from the Monterey settlement to Carmel. The Carmel site was still close enough to Monterey to be protected by the military forces there.

Father Serra was considered the Padre-Presidente (father-president) of the California missions and presided over the nine missions he founded, including San Carlos de Borromeo. By 1773, the San Carlos mission is said to have had the most converts of any mission in Alta California. Father Serra prohibited many of the local Indians’ traditional practices. The Indians attempted to rise in revolt but quieted down at the appearance of soldiers. Native Americans were put to work herding, making pottery, weaving baskets, and tanning hides.

Indians had lived at Monterey for about four millennia before the Spanish came. These people discovered the benefits of Monterey’s mild climate and abundance of food well before the Europeans. The Native Americans present in Monterey at the time of the first European settlement were the Ohlone people. The Ohlone are said to have succeeded the Esselens, who had inhabited the area for more than two thousand years. The Ohlone were made up of about forty small tribes around the San Francisco and Monterey Bays. The name Ohlone is derived from one of their villages on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Independence from Spain

The Spanish settlement at Monterey continued to increase in importance. In 1776 Governor Felipe de Neve arrived in Monterey and Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza led 247 men, women, and children with more than five hundred head of livestock over one thousand miles by land from the Presidio of Tubac in Sonora to Monterey. The majority of these people remained in Monterey. In 1777, Monterey became the capital of both Alta and Baja California.

During the uprising against the Spanish and for Mexican independence, groups of privateers attempted to destroy Spanish shipping. In 1818, Hippolyte de Bouchard, a French mercenary flying the flag of Argentina, arrived in the ship Argentina to attack Monterey. He and his men demanded the surrender of Alta California and proceeded to sack and burn the city when their wish was not granted. Governor Pablo Vicente de Solá, the last governor of the Spanish period, ordered the women and children to the missions and, realizing that he was outnumbered, retreated with his soldiers to Rancho del Rey, today’s Salinas. After the invaders left Monterey, the citizens had the task of rebuilding.

In 1822, Mexico raised its banner above Monterey, symbolizing the end of more than three hundred years of Spanish rule. Monterey was established as an official port of entry and the city’s trading era began. In 1827, Monterey’s Custom House was opened. Ships could not unload or sell their merchandise until duties were paid. The Custom House still stands today; it is California’s oldest public building.

During Mexican rule, Monterey participated to a great extent in the hide and tallow trade. Fourteen ranches in the Monterey area raised herds of cattle and horses to supply English and American ships with tallow and leather. The animals were slaughtered and the hides were dried. The meat was cut in strips to dry and the fat was rendered and poured into hide bags or bladders to be floated out to trading ships. By the 1830’s the missions had begun the process of secularization. They had become very important places in the six decades that they existed in California. The priests had become farm managers, merchants, and the rulers of the area in the eyes of the Native Americans. The missions furnished supplies to the presidios. Government officials increasingly believed that the missions were becoming too wealthy and powerful. The missions were ordered to dissolve, and the land was divided up and given back to the Indians. Private ranchers, however, eventually took over most of the Indians’ holdings.

An American Possession

Another change was on its way. Thomas Larkin, the American consul in Alta California at Monterey, had urged the leaders in California to follow Texas’s lead and secede from Mexico as early as 1840. On July 7, 1846, U.S. Marines and sailors commended by John Drake Sloat raised the American flag over the presidio. This bloodless coup started a period of U.S. military occupation that lasted for the two years of the Mexican-American War. When the war ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, upper California became a territory of the United States.

The Reverend Walter Colton, who came to Monterey as chaplain on one of Commodore Sloat’s ships, became the settlement’s first American alcalde, similar to a mayor. In 1846 he published, in conjunction with Robert Semple, California’s first newspaper in Monterey. He also organized the first American jury on the West Coast. He put prisoners to work on public works projects, resulting in Colton Hall, California’s first schoolhouse and town meeting place.

In 1848 gold was discovered in the American River near Sacramento. The whole social order in Monterey was turned upside down. People who were once servants returned from the mines with thousands of dollars worth of gold. Soldiers and sailors deserted the ranks in search of wealth. A successful miner could earn more in a day than a soldier could earn in a year. Thousands of people came from the East and thousands of others came from around the world in search of instantaneous wealth. California experienced an influx of a variety of people much sooner than anyone could have predicted.

Statehood for California

In 1849, California’s first constitutional convention was held in Monterey. At this convention, the constitution of California was drafted, debated, and signed. The document was very progressive. It recognized property rights for married women, outlawed slavery, and banned state lotteries. At this convention the delegates also decided to move the capital of California to San Jose from Monterey. In November, the constitution was ratified by the voters of California, and in 1850 California became the thirty-first U.S. state and Monterey was incorporated as a city. Over a span of more than two decades (1850-1873), Monterey served as the county seat.

Many Monterey residents relocated to San Francisco because of the gold rush, but the development of the whaling and fishing industry in Monterey ushered in a new era of growth. A whaler from Cape Cod came to Monterey in 1845 to establish the Monterey Whaling Company and soon whaling on the Pacific became an important industry. By the 1860’s there were four whaling companies, largely run by Portuguese immigrants. Unfortunately, the whales were hunted to near extinction by the late 1880’s.

The Chinese came to California in the 1850’s for gold, but many turned to squid fishing for their livelihood. The Chinese neighborhood of Monterey was just south of the area that became Cannery Row. When a fire destroyed the Chinese village in 1906, local landowners and authorities did not allow the Chinese to rebuild. The Japanese also immigrated to the area, and many made their livelihood diving for abalone.

In the late nineteenth century Monterey became a refuge for artists and a vacation spot for the well-to-do. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson came to Monterey in August, 1879, from Europe to wait for Fanny Osbourne to divorce her husband and marry him. The two had met in Europe at an artists’ retreat. While he waited for his lover to sort out her personal affairs, Stevenson worked on stories and wrote articles for the Monterey newspaper.

In 1880, the first of the grand resort hotels in California opened in Monterey. At this time Monterey had fewer than four hundred residents. The Hotel Del Monte, built by Charles Crocker, transformed Monterey into an international destination point. The city also grew as a result of the railroad connecting it to San Francisco and other cities. The Hotel Del Monte could accommodate 750 guests and was surrounded by 126 acres of park. It was known as “The Queen of American Watering Places.” Although the hotel burned to the ground in April, 1887, and again suffered a severe fire in the 1920’s, each time it was rebuilt even more elaborately than before. In the 1890’s, a golf course was added and guests were treated to horsedrawn carriage rides from the hotel around the tip of the peninsula, the famous Seventeen-Mile Drive. More than seventeen thousand visitors came to the resort each year.

In the early 1900’s, entrepreneurs Frank E. Booth, Knute Hovden, and Pietro Ferrante worked together to transform Monterey into the “Sardine Capital of the World.” With the introduction of the lampara net, fishing for sardines in the Monterey Bay area became a multimillion-dollar industry. By 1913 fishermen were catching 25 tons of sardines a night. By 1918 nine sardine canneries were built on Monterey’s waterfront. In the 1930’s and 1940’s annual sardine catches were recorded at 200,000 tons a year. Unfortunately, overfishing led to the demise of the sardine industry by the 1950’s. John Steinbeck, who grew up in Salinas and lived in Monterey during the Depression, wrote two books about the fishing industry of the area–Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954). These stories helped to foster the tourist trade in Monterey and the surrounding area.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy became a significant presence in Monterey. The Navy leased the famous Hotel Del Monte, which was well past its heyday, and established the Naval Postgraduate School. The Defense Language Institute and the U.S. Coast Guard were also established in Monterey. The military therefore played an important part in the economy of Monterey and the Monterey peninsula.

Monterey Today

Today a leading industry in Monterey is tourism, helped by the many historic sites in the area. One of the most significant historic homes is that built in 1835 by Thomas Larkin, the American consul, who combined Spanish colonial architecture with that of New England to create what became known as the Monterey style. The style was limited almost exclusively to Monterey, as most of the Spanish and Mexican residents of California did not care for the New England influences. The boardinghouse where Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in 1879 is now a museum of Stevenson memorabilia. The Custom House and Colton Hall also have been preserved as museums.

For Further Information
  • Abrahamson, Eric. Historic Monterey. Monterey: California Department of Parks and Recreation, 1989. A wonderful, well-illustrated history of Monterey, detailing the Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. history of the area.
  • Gordon, B. Le Roy. Monterey Bay Area: Natural History and Cultural Imprints. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Boxwood Press, 1996. Examines the natural and cultural history of the Monterey Bay region.
  • Newcomb, Rexford. The Old Mission Churches and Historic Houses of California. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1925. Information on early settlement and the missions is contained in this book and in various histories of California.
  • Reese, Robert W. A Brief History of Old Monterey. Monterey, Calif.: City Planning Commission, 1969. Written in a more formal style. The information is concise yet gives details.
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