Monterey: California’s First Capital
Author’s Note: Monterey was California’s first capital, long before the Gold Rush. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.
By Lee Foster
From the earliest days of Spanish presence in California until the Gold Rush, Monterey was the principal town. In 1770, the Spanish king sent soldiers to build a presidio and Franciscan priests to found a mission here. The early inhabitants eagerly awaited the arrival of Boston merchant ships. Settlers traded California cattle hides for an assortment of East Coast goods.
The Historic Story of Monterey
Today you can glimpse that early world by getting a “Path of History” walking map. The map amounts to a 2.7-mile self-guided tour showing the adobes of Monterey. Of note, the historic buildings are marked by yellow plaques on the sidewalk.
The official Monterey State Historic Park makes an exceptional claim. It alone served as the capital of California during the Spanish, Mexican, and American eras. Early settlers officially raised the U.S. flag here on July 7, 1846. That act effectively brought the huge world of California into the Union. Today, the State Historic Park includes 10 buildings that preserve the rich history of early California.
Get the map on the Plaza at Custom House, Pacific House, or the park office (831/649-2907). You can join a guided tour of the historic area, which leaves from Custom House.
Make your first stop at the Custom House, the first of six buildings open to the public.
Built in 1827, Custom House is the oldest government building in the state. Here you’ll see an assortment of the goods, such as metal plows or ceramics from China, that that the settlers traded for cattle hides. The Californios, as the early Spanish in California were called, eagerly sought these items. By law, all arriving goods were supposed to go through the Custom House.
Pacific House exhibits describe the early Spanish days and the Early U.S. For instance, go upstairs to see displays of American Indian baskets, pottery, and other Native American artifacts. The stone arrowheads and other stone tools, plus the basketry skills, of the local Rumsien native Americans are of display. In back, you’ll find a small fountain in a quiet pool.
Plazas around Pacific House and the Custom House recreate the open architectural feel of early Monterey. Within this area, you will note some intriguing details from later Monterey life. For instance, you can see Italian bocce ball courts, where you won’t hear a word of English.
Explore here and you’ll find the First Brick House and the Old Whaling Station, from 1847. For 30 years the Old Whaling Station structure was a place where scouts on the second floor would scan the bay for whales. Small boats were sent out to harpoon the passing whales. The blubber, rendered in try pots, resulted in an extracted oil that could light lamps. The sidewalk outside the Old Whaling Station consists of blocks cut from whale skeletons rather than stone.
In addition, be sure to see California’s First Theater, built 1846-1847.
Historic Park Sights
A few blocks inland you’ll see several residences that are part of the Historic Park. The sites are clearly marked on the walking map.
Briefly in 1879, writer Robert Louis Stevenson lived in the French Hotel. It is now called the Stevenson House.
The Cooper-Molera family adobe contains memorabilia from illustrious pioneer families. Spirited locals who love Monterey history recently reopened this structure with more plentiful historic artifacts and interpretive signage.
Don’t miss Consul Thomas Larkin’s gardens, which are visible to the public daily.
The Casa Soberanes is an example of an early family adobe.
California’s first constitutional convention was held at Colton Hall. Now a museum, the hall recreates the deliberations of 1849. At Colton Hall, you can even see a “practice sheet” where the signers of the California Constitution could warm up their John Hancock talents for the historic occasion. That period was a heyday for Monterey, before the capital moved to Sacramento, after the Gold Rush. The settlers made the capitol move to be close to the action, the Gold Rush riches.
Many of these Monterey structures are open to the public part of the time, so check at the Custom House for closures and for docent-led tour times. You can see interiors of some houses only during specified times. That’s when a docent will tell you the story. You might want to coordinate your walk with the time of tours.
Richard Henry Dana’s Influence
Richard Henry Dana wrote about California in his book Two Years Before the Mast. You will see his comments on placards sprinkled through these buildings. The book is a recommended reading, available at Custom House.
For photographers, mornings are often the best time to visit these structures. That’s when the early light falls amply on their facades. By late afternoon they become shaded and darkened. Early builders positioned structures, whether houses or mission churches, to catch the early morning light. That strategy was a practical method to warm and light the buildings.
Gardens around some of these residences and adjacent to Colton Hall can be elaborate and instructional. They are especially colorful in spring or summer. For example, the Stevenson building offers a cozy back garden with benches. And Cooper-Molera boasts an ambitious herb garden. Furthermore, Casa Soberanes presents an elaborate front flower garden.
A visitor can view other adobes from the outside, using the “Path of History” map as a guide. And now Cooper-Molera houses an adjacent restaurant/café and bakery.
You can drive south from San Francisco to Monterey in two hours. The fastest route is via Highway 101. Cut over to the coast at the marked Monterey exit. On the other hand, you might take the more scenic choice. That route follows Highway 1 along the coast. However, Highway 1 will add another hour or more.
Be Sure to See in Monterey
You can pick up the “Path of History” map at the Custom House, Pacific House, or the park office. It will alert you to all the adobes and their precise locations.
Best Time of Year
On the last Sunday of the month, you can sometimes take a free guided Monterey Adobe Walking Tour. At this time, the six buildings in the Historic Park are open to the public.
Furthermore, on July 4, a re-enactor depicting Commodore Sloat will likely perform a Hoisting of the American flag. This celebration recalls the transition to the American era. In October, Living History is a two-day event. It features events geared to children. Then, in December, Christmas in the Adobes presents various holiday activities. For instance, visitors can drink Mexican hot chocolate or observe Victorian festive decor.
An upscale lodging within walking distance of the adobes is the Hotel Pacific (300 Pacific St., Monterey; 831/373-5700; https://www.hotelpacific.com).
Among restaurants in Monterey, try the oysters or prawns and Italian selections at historic Domenico’s (831/372-3655; http://www.domenicosmonterey.com) on the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll dine with a view of sailboats, yachts, and sea lions.
For Further Information
For more information on the area contact the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau (888/221-1010; https://www.seemonterey.com/).
The Monterey State Historic Park has a website at https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=575. The park headquarters is at 20 Custom House Plaza, 831/649-2907.