Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility City of Monterey, CA

Dive Into History

Other city divisions have some great historic photos:

Monterey Public Library's California History Room
carmThe Library preserves Monterey's memory in the California History Room.

The Monterey Public Library collects and preserves written, visual and audible materials created by and about residents of the Monterey area, both past and present. These records are housed in a secure, climate-controlled room, and made accessible to scholars and the public for research. California History Room collections relate specifically to the geographic, cultural and social region including the Monterey Peninsula and extending from Moss Landing to Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

Identification is required to use California History Room materials, and the permanent historical materials of the California History Room may not be checked out.

A Brief History of Monterey

The Native Rumsien people lived in Monterey for thousands of years before Euro-Americans landed on its shores. The Indigenous People who settled in what is now Monterey were drawn by 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 Rodríguez 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. 

One hundred and sixty-eight years later, Franciscan Father Junípero Serra held mass on June 3, 1770 at the same location. Serra joined an expedition led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá to establish a Presidio at Monterey. 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 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 colonists 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) and 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 before departing. The damage from Bouchard’s raid was quickly repaired and during the next decade, residents began to expand outside the Royal Presidio, building homes, 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.

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. 

In 1842, in response to the growing American presence in California, the United States 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."

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 and 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. 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, 48 delegates from ten districts arrived in Monterey to debate and write California’s first constitution. Unlike other states at the time, the California Constitution was bilingual, prohibited slavery, and afforded married women the right to hold separate property. The Constitution was ratified on October 13, voted on in November of that year and sent to Congress in January 1850. San José 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. Monterey served as the county seat until 1873, when Salinas took over that role. Since Colton Hall was opened in 1849 it has served as the County headquarters, court house, a public school from 1873 to 1896, city offices, police courts, library, hospital, rationing office and today, as a museum. The building has been in public use since it opened, and is operated by the City of Monterey.

The City of Monterey was first incorporated in 1850. Monterey’s first residents were Native Americans. Later, they were joined by Spanish explorers, followed by Mexican settlers and American pioneers, followed by Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Italian fishermen.  In 1850, Chinese fishing families crossed the Pacific in junks and settled at Point Alones ("China Point"). They established Monterey's first fishing industry, with over 600 Chinese fisherman working in the area by 1853. By the 1870s, the area became the largest, most diverse Chinese settlement in the country. On May 16, 1906, a disastrous fire of suspicious origin swept through the Chinese settlement, destroying virtually every major structure. 
Monterey became a thriving fishing community in the early to mid 1900s, exporting millions of pounds of abalone, shrimp, squid, and sardines annually.  By the 1940s, Monterey was known as the “Sardine Capital of the World.” Before World War II, Sicilian and Japanese-American fisherman dominated the fishing industry, with the majority of fishing companies on Fisherman’s Wharf owned by Japanese-Americans.  

Cannery Row, memorialized in John Steinbeck’s book of the same name, was a gathering place of diverse cultures.  Sicilian women, ranging in age from teens to middle-aged, made up a third of cannery workers in the 1930s and 1940s.  Mexican, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, and Dust Bowl migrants also made up the workforce.  Today, a smaller commercial fishing fleet continues to operate from Municipal Wharf No. 2, which is managed by the City.

Due to its strategic location, historically, Monterey has been a key military outpost. In 1902, the 1st Squadron of the 9th Cavalry arrived, 425 men who were among the first black soldiers to be stationed in California. Known as the Buffalo Soldiers, they were instrumental in building the Presidio of Monterey.  While military needs have changed since the Presidio of Monterey was first established, the presence of the Defense Language Institute at the U.S. Army Garrison Presidio of Monterey, the Naval Postgraduate School and Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC) at Naval Support Activity Monterey, and U.S. Coast Guard Station Monterey, all located within the city limits, continues Monterey’s legacy of military tradition.

Today, Monterey continues to boast  a diverse cultural population which has earned  it the designation of “Language Capital of the World”™ with the presence of both the Defense Language Institute and Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey.

The First City

  • First Mass Performed in California (1602)
  • First Foreign Ships to Visit Spanish California (1786)
  • First California Condor Known to Science Described and Observed (1792)
  • First Building Designed by an Architect in California (Royal Presidio Chapel, 1794)
  • First Custom House in California (1827 and only Custom House until 1845)
  • First Printing Press in California (1834)
  • First French Consulate in California (1843)
  • First Jury Trial (1846)
  • First Official Raising of the American Flag (1846)
  • First American Public Building in California (Colton Hall constructed from 1847 to 1849)
  • First Theater in California (1846)
  • California's First Constitution and Constitutional Convention (1849)
  • California's First Capital (of Spanish province of Alta California, 1770)
  • California's First Newspaper (The Californian, 1846)
  • California's First Brick House (1847)
  • California's First Public Library (Monterey, 1849)
  • California's First Pre-Fab Framed house (1850)
  • California's First Marketed Cheese (1859)
  • Destination of the First Oil Pipeline in California (1904)
  • First California State Historical Monument (1938)
  • California’s First Scenic Highway (1965)