A whalebone sidewalk and more

Custom House

While perhaps best known for its spectacular aquarium, its otters and Cannery Row, Monterey, California has a fascinating history that illustrates the turmoil of shifting power over many years. Monterey was the capital of the region of Alta California under both Spanish and Mexican rule and the only port of entry for taxable goods on the California coast. Monterey State Historic Park today preserves many of the highlights of this past and a walking tour around the town offers a peek at an incredible rich area of history.

A short primer of California history may be helpful: the Rumsien native peoples first inhabited the area around Monterey. In 1542 the Spanish entered the picture when explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed into Monterey Bay and named it the Bay of the Pines. The Spanish originally thought California was an island. In 1602 Spaniard Sebastian Vizcaino landed and planted the Spanish flag, naming the area for the Viceroy of Spain.

Royal Presidio Chapel - oldest building in Monterey

Royal Presidio Chapel – oldest building in Monterey

Fast forward to the early 1770s. Father Junipero Serra again claimed Monterey for Spain, this time settling the area and founding a mission. Spain was feeling threatened by Russian movement from the north, so the military built a presidio and   named Monterey the capital of Alta California in 1775.

Custom House

Custom House

In 1818 an Argeninian briefly seized Monterey for Argentina and three years later Mexico declared independence from Spain. With this came relaxed trade restrictions and the opening of coastal ports to foreign trade. The Mexican government built a large custom house in 1827  to facilitate trade from around the world. The restored custom house is considered the oldest government building in the state and its exhibits show goods from all parts of the world that passed through the port, including piles of hides, one of the main currencies of the area.

For nearly 25 years the Mexican flag flew on the Custom House flag pole, until in 1846 U.S. naval forces sailed into the bay and raised the stars and stripes, claiming over 600,000 square miles of California for the United States of America. They faced no opposition to speak of.

California never went through the process of becoming a an official territory of the United States. Only four years later, with motivation in part due to the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains nearby, California became the nation’s 31st state. San Jose was selected as the first permanent seat of the state government and commercial activity moved to San Francisco located closer to the gold fields.


Casa Soberanes

Today Monterey claims the most preserved adobe houses west of Santa Fe, with the southern part of town referred to as an island of adobes. The sun-dried mud bricks were whitewashed to help with stability and supposedly rotten cactus was mixed in for this purpose as well. An architectural style known as “Monterey Colonial” combined Spanish building methods with New England architectural features and can be seen in various residences around town.

whalebone sidewalk

whalebone sidewalk

A walking tour of historic Monterey should include the old whaling station with its rare sidewalk made entirely of whale vertebrae cut into diamond patterns. A shore whaling industry grew in the nineteenth century and various businesses processed different parts of whales.

The early 1900’s brought a thriving fishing and canning industry and commercial activity shifted away from the center of town.

California’s Independence Hall, Colton Hall is a short walk from the custom house and should also be part of any visit to Monterey.

Monterey State Historic Park and other history organizations offer a variety of ways to explore the city’s past.

I visited in March and was fascinated to see so many plants in bloom at the same time. I’m used to springtime succession, but in Monterey it seems that camelia, azalia, irises, wisteria and rhododendron all bloom together.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
This entry was posted in 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, city/town, International, religion, West. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A whalebone sidewalk and more

  1. I’m the Interpretive Program Manager at Monterey State Historic Park. Rarely have I read a write-up on the park’s adobes expressed so succinctly and accurately. Thank you for taking the time to do so.

    Michael D. Green, State Park Interpreter III

  2. Broeck Oder says:

    Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo did NOT discover Monterey Bay in 1542, he sailed past it without seeing it, likely due to coastal fog. Vizcaino discovered Monterey in 1602, not 1601. –Broeck Oder

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the comment. I changed the date to 1602. There seems to be discrepancy about Cabrillo. City of Monterey Museums and the Monterey County Historical Society both credit Cabrillo with “discovery” of the Bay in 1542.

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