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Early Monterey History

Before 1800

The Native Rumsien people lived here for thousands of years before Euro-Americans landed on Monterey's shores. Although we know very little about the First People who settled in what is now Monterey, we do know what drew them here. It was the abundance of fish and wildlife and other natural resources. The mild weather of the Central Coast, along with the bounty of the bay made this area an important part of the Rumsien life. Several of their village sites have been identified within the confines of Monterey.

Spanish explorer Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo is credited as the first Euro-American to see the bay on November 17, 1542, which he named La Bahia de los Pinos (Bay of Pines). Sixty years later, in December 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno became the first European to set foot on the shores of the bay which he officially renamed "Monte Rey Bay", in honor of the Viceroy of New Spain who had ordered his expedition. Under a large oak tree overlooking the bay, near what is now Artillery and Pacific Streets, he and his crew of 200 celebrated mass in honor of their safe journey.

Under an oak tree at the same location where Vizcaíno had held mass 168 years earlier, an expedition to establish a Presidio at Monterey, headed by Captain Gaspar de Portolá, was joined by Franciscan Father Junípero Serra. On June 3, 1770 mass was held under the Oaks and Monterey was founded. The Royal Presidio and Mission, San Carlos de Borromeo de Monterey, were established as Monterey’s first buildings. A year later Father Serra moved the mission to Carmel, which offered a better agricultural and political environment; the Presidio however remained in Monterey as the seat of government.

In 1776, Spain named Monterey as the capital of Baja (lower) and Alta (upper) California. That same year, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza arrived from Sonora with the first colonist for Spanish California; most of them bound for San Francisco. Monterey’s soldiers and their wives lived at the Royal Presidio (located where the San Carlos Cathedral now stands) struggled to create a pueblo and raise families.

In 1818, in an effort to destroy Spain’s presence in California, Argentinean revolutionary privateer, Hipólito Bouchard attacked Monterey. After the only known land and sea battle fought on the West Coast, Bouchard sacked the town. The damage from Bouchards raid was quickly repaired and during the next decade, residents began to expand outside the Royal Presidio, building residences, creating streets, and inaugurating businesses that would establish the foot-print of modern Monterey.

In April 1822, the people of Monterey learned that Mexico had won its war for independence from Spain; California pledged allegiance to the Mexican Government. While Spain had discouraged foreigners to trade with California, Mexico opened the area to international trade. Monterey became California’s port of entry. British and American ships vying for the hide and tallow traffic 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, shoes and other leather goods. Tallow was melted down in large rendering pots and poured into bladders, made of hides, and delivered to the waiting ships. The tallow was ultimately converted into candles or soap contributing to the commercial expansion of Monterey.

The Custom House was enlarged after 1827 to accommodate the expanding commercial activities in Monterey. Originally started in 1814, the Custom House is considered the oldest public building in California. The more open trade policy of Mexico made Monterey a cosmopolitan pueblo, including Americans who the Californios referred to as "Yanquis." Many of the newcomers married into Californio families, and became Mexican citizens. In response to the growing American presence in California the United States in 1842, established a consulate in Monterey. Thomas Larkin was appointed the first and only American Consul to California. His home, located at Pacific and Jefferson Street, is the origin for the architectural style renowned as "Monterey Colonial."

Under Mexican authority many land grants were made to private citizens and Monterey received its Pueblo grant of 30,000 acres. The once proud missions were secularized in the mid-1830s, and their lands were dispersed as part of the grants. In California those early settlers and native born citizens inherited the name of Californios. They became the romanticized vision of Mexican California that was reflected in such novels as Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona.

In July 1846, during the Mexican-American War, Commodore John Drake Sloat’s Pacific squadron arrived in Monterey Bay. On July 7, his troops landed, raised the American flag, claiming California for the United States. This began a period of American occupation that lasted until 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed making all of Alta California part of the United States. This acquisition included the land now known as California, Utah, Nevada, parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

In Monterey, U.S. Navy Chaplain Walter Colton was appointed to serve as Monterey’s first American Alcalde, a position defined as Mayor and Judge, but which included many more duties. Colton, a graduate of Yale University and Andover Seminary, proved to be a just and honorable executive, well qualified to hold this important position. One of his many accomplishments was the design and supervision of the construction of Colton Hall, the first public building constructed under the American flag. Opened March 8, 1849, Colton Hall was originally built to serve as a public school and town meeting hall, but has proven to be much more.

In 1849, California’s military governor called for a constitutional convention, to be held in Monterey’s Colton Hall. On September 1, delegates from ten districts arrived in Monterey to debate and write California’s first constitution. The California Constitution was ratified on October 13, voted on in November that year and sent to Congress in January 1850. 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.)

On September 9, 1850, the U.S. Congress voted to admit California as the thirty-first state of the Union.

While awaiting word on Statehood the state legislature formed counties and set up local governments as agreed on in the Constitution. Colton Hall served as Monterey’s County seat until 1873, when Salinas took over that role. Since Colton Hall was opened in 1849 it has served as the County Seat, Court House, Public school from 1873 to 1896, city offices, police courts, hospital, rationing office and today, as a museum. The building has been a public building since it opened.

Colton Hall is owned and operated by the City of Monterey and part of the City Hall Complex. 

For more information, please visit the Museum, email the Museum staff, or call (831) 646-5648.