250 years ago it was rough service to be sent to that wasteland called California.
It’s fine enough today but accounts from that time mention discomforts including persistent high winds with blinding dust storms, scarcity of food and the whole place was infested with fleas. But Monterey was a vital port because, before San Francisco was discovered, Monterey was the only place north of today’s Mexico where the ships of the day could pull close to the shore then come round into the wind and still have room to sail away.
In Spain the first son of the best families would go into business, the military or politics and in a system known as primogenitor he would inherit all the money (the girl children got linens and cookware). The latter sons became priests and the least promising would be dispatched to California. The far west outposts were essentially staffed with bachelor near-do-wells.
In the 1830s Spain was finding Mexico ungovernable and the mission system dissolved in California and the era of the great land grant ranchos was born. This concentration of wealth kept interlopers out for a time.
But there is always someone challenging the status quo. On November 20, 1818 a Frenchman named Hippolyte de Bouchard raided the Presidio of Monterey and as a corsair (a pirate in the service of another) raised his flag and held the capital for Argentina for two weeks. It was one of eleven flags to fly over California.
In 1842 Commander Thomas ap Catesby Jones (the ap is some Welsh patronymic [reference to the father like Mac in MacNIven]) of the U.S. Pacific Squadron sailed into Monterey Bay and seized the town. He had been informed that war had broken out with the Mexicans. Typical of so many battles in California no shots were exchanged. Examining newspapers in the town he realized that there was in fact no war at all. He apologized and offered up bottles of brandy and some old naval uniforms as reparations as he tiptoed out the door. The war had to wait until 1846. Thomas ap Catesby Jones has a foot in historical notes for an event that happened in 1827. His ship the Peacock was severely damaged by an enraged sperm whale and nearly sunk. One of the seamen aboard was Herman Melville who would make a ship named the Pequod famous in Moby- Dick.
In the 1840s Monterey was still a Mexican town with an American influence. Thomas Larkin was the America council at that time and it was Tom who invented the Monterey colonial building design which is a combination of adobe hacienda and Yankee stick frame. It was practical and convivial much like the first newspaper in the West, the Alta California which was printed in Spanish and English. The Mexican Californios were all about ease of living and had a reputation for enjoying lavish celebrations. The Californio was a family man with strong kinship ties all over the territory.
The Americans who came in droves in the 1840s were nearly all young men who, if they had family, had left them behind. Because they were largely adventurers they tended toward drunken, duplicitous and self-aggrandizing behavior. In copies of the very first newspaper from California printed in Monterey in 1846 you can see a vein of hucksterism and extravagant national pride for this new American territory so recently wrested from the Mexicans. There was a good deal of lip service paid to the notion of including the Mexicans as equals after Mexico lost the war but it was not to be. The Mexican’s became surfs in the land they had previously dominated. Twas ever thus.
Monterey lost its political luster with the first shout of “gold!” and it soon subsided as the place to be, as San Francisco took the crown. Thereafter it was all about fishing and tourists.
Because Monterey is perched on the edge of a world class marine canyon it has historically been home to a fishing fleet and cannery culture. There was a thriving Chinese fishermen industry a hundred years ago too as well as great many Italians, Japanese and even Gloucestermen. In 1939 around a billion pounds of sardines were landed. Times were fat and the pay was good. But weather changes and overfishing killed the industry completely by the mid 1950s.
The deep, cold water is ideal for sea life of all sorts. In the 1860s there was a shore whaling operation, a technique practiced up and down the coast. Boats with 4 or 5 men would row from the shore and harpoon humpbacks, grays, sperms and the occasional blue whale. Folks are familiar with 19th Century open ocean whaling but along the California coast there was a tradition of whaling in 25-foot rowboats which were launched from these stations. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest had been hunting like this for eons (and even the ancient Romans) and the Californios copied it. The hunt took place up to 15 miles from the shore and once the whale was harpooned and killed, it was towed to the beach for rendering. Now bringing up whaling is a bit like bringing up our slave owning past but it happened. We are more civilized now and are more thoughtful (of course we still commit atrocities like feeding our own children glazed donuts and Cokes).
Once the whale was stripped of blubber the carcass was loosed into the surf which would wash along on the beach. The smell was reported to be pretty full bodied. These carcasses had the effect of attracting grizzly bears which swarmed around Monterey in such numbers that in 1860 it was a perilous trip from Carmel to Monterey and the locals took to traveling in armed groups.
Later, when the train finally arrived, tourists from all over came to the seaside for shrimp cocktails and basking shark harpooning. You might ride out on the glass bottom boat and marvel at the sea creatures below and then for an extra 50 cents they would give you a harpoon and drive up on these 30 to 40 foot sharks. Then, pretending to be Queequeg, you could stick these slow moving plankton eaters with a harpoon. Sometimes the skipper would pump the dead shark full of air and you could have your photo taken dancing on the belly of the cadaver. They really knew how to have a good time back then.
Now you can’t find a single dern anchovy or a harpoon.
Big Sur has its Henry Miller and the Bay Area can claim Jack London but when you think of Monterey – it’s John Steinbeck. Both in his novels and his non-fiction John featured his friends, most notably Ed Rickets, known to all as Doc. Imagine having your best friend fictionalize you in his novels and then being killed in real life by a freight train right in the middle of town. Very picturesque.
Steinbeck is wildly popular even today in Monterey but drive inland 40 miles and his name is mud (at least among the old folks) and has been since he published Grapes of Wrath. This book is a fair rendition of the tough times during the Dust Bowl but the folks in Salinas did not enjoy seeing themselves depicted as heartless overlords of the downtrodden.
Pacific Grove fronts Monterey with its curiously small houses. It seems that the town was developed as a Methodist summer revival community so when the 30 X 60 foot wide parcels shed their tents – tiny houses were the outcome. Lands’ End features some of the most beautiful coastline anywhere and has long been a spot where wedding pictures are posed. This turned out badly for one couple in 1999 when the photographer had the bride walk out to the edge of the sea and a wave took her. Sad yes, but the photos were sure unforgettable.