Native Americans known as the Esalen lived in the area of present-day Monterey from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., and probably much longer. The Esalen were displaced in 500 B.C. by the Ohlone Indians, who were drawn to the area by the abundance of fish and wildlife and other natural resources. The Indians hunted quail, geese, rabbit, bear, and other wildlife, gathered plants, and caught fish, mussels, abalone, and shellfish. Several of their village sites have been identified and preserved.
Monterey was first seen by Europeans when Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo spotted La Bahia de los Pinos (Bay of Pines) in 1542 on a journey in search of riches in the New World. But high winds prevented him and his crew from landing. In 1602, Spanish explorer Don Sebastian Viscaino officially named the port in honor of Spain's Count of Monte Rey under whose order he was sailing. Viscaino's 200 men gave thanks for their safe journey in a ceremony held under a large oak tree overlooking the bay.
In 1770, an expedition by land and sea brought Gaspar de Portol and Franciscan Father Junipero Serra to Monterey. There they established the Mission and Presidio (military post) of San Carlos de Borromeo de Monterey, and the City of Monterey. Under the same oak tree where Viscaino's crew members had prayed, Father Serra said mass for his brave group. A year later, in 1771, Father Serra moved the mission to nearby Carmel, which offered a better agricultural and political environment; the Presidio Church in Monterey, however, continued in use.
In 1776, Spain named Monterey the capital of Baja (lower) and Alta (upper) California. This same year, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza arrived with the first settlers for Spanish California, most of them bound for San Francisco. For decades, Monterey's soldiers and their wives lived at the Presidio. In 1818, Argentinean revolutionary Hippolyte Bouchard sacked the town in an effort to destroy Spain's presence in California. Soon the residents began to expand outside the Presidio, creating homesteads throughout Monterey.
In April 1822, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, Monterey became the Mexican capital. California soon pledged its loyalty to the Mexican government.
Spain had not allowed foreigners to trade with California, but Mexico opened up the area to international trade, and Monterey was made California's sole port of entry. Traffic with English and American vessels for the hide and tallow trade became an important part of the economy. A dried steer hide valued at about a dollar was termed a "California bank note." The hides were shipped to New England, where they were used to make saddles, harnesses, and shoes. Tallow was melted down in large rendering pots and poured into bags of hides or bladders to be delivered to the trading ships; in the end, most of the tallow was made into candles.
By 1827, foreign trade had become very important and a custom house was built in Monterey. The booming trade, especially with New England, attracted a number of Americans—called "Yanquis"—to Monterey. Many of them married into Mexican families and became Mexican citizens. In the mid-1830s, Mexican rulers redistributed much of the local land formerly run by the Catholic Church and huge cattle ranches were formed. An elite class of landed "Californios" grew up in the area. In 1842, the U.S. government sent Thomas Larkin to Monterey to head the first American consulate in California.
In July 1846 Commodore John Drake Sloat's flagship arrived in Monterey Bay and his troops raised the American flag, claiming the region for the United States, and gaining the territory without a fight from the Mexicans. American occupation continued until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, making all of Alta California part of the United States. This included the land now known as California, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
In Monterey, U.S. Naval Chaplain Walter Colton was appointed to serve as Monterey's first American Alcalde, a position defined as mayor and judge. Colton, a well-educated and just man, was considered well qualified to hold this important position. In 1846, he and Robert Semple established California's first newspaper, The Californian. Colton also designed and supervised the construction of the first public structure built under the American flag, Colton Hall, which served as a public school and town meeting hall.
In 1849, delegates from throughout Alta California met in Colton Hall in Monterey to create a constitution for the people of the new U.S. territory. The new constitution was signed on October 13, 1849. In 1850, the U.S. Congress voted to adopt California as the thirty-first state of the Union. San Jose was chosen as the seat for the first legislature. (The official definition of a state capital is where the legislature sits; therefore Monterey never was the state capital.)
During the next decade Monterey lost much of its political influence. But at the same time it was becoming an important center for the whaling industry. Asian and European fishermen began arriving there, drawn by the developing fishing industry. Influences from these Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Italian immigrants formed a basis for the city's culture that lives on to today.
After California gained its statehood, the legislature formed counties. Monterey served as the Monterey County seat of government until 1873, when Salinas was named to that role. Further transformation of Monterey took place in the 1870s when the first railroad was built, connecting the quiet fishing town with cosmopolitan San Francisco and cities beyond. In the 1880s, the local whaling industry disappeared and civic leaders turned to tourism to revive the local economy. By the mid-1880s, tourism flourished in the area, with thousands flocking to the seaside resort annually.
By the 1920s, the sardine market had grown greatly and the section of Monterey known as Cannery Row was established. During the next two decades, a score of canneries and reduction plants grew up in the area. Workers processed an estimated 250,000 tons of sardines each year. Monterey became known as the "Sardine Capital of the World." The rough and rollicking vicinity of Cannery Row was made famous in the John Steinbeck novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.
In the 1940s, for reasons still in dispute, the sardine population began a rapid decline. Theories explaining the sardines' disappearance range from water pollution to a change in currents to warmer climates or just being "fished out." The once-thriving Cannery Row soon became a ghost town of empty warehouses.
In the second half of the twentieth century, tourism once again gained importance and the old abandoned warehouses were converted into shops, restaurants, and galleries. Today, tourism has become the number one industry in Monterey, growing out of the city's efforts to preserve its historic and natural resources. Monterey has gained a reputation for excellence in environmental protection and this has served to enhance its visitor industry. Visitors flock to the seaside town of Monterey to capture a glimpse of the city's past and enjoy the sounds and sights it has to offer.
Historical Information: Monterey County Historical Society, PO Box 3576, Salinas, CA 93912; telephone (831)757-8085