California – Monterey – The First Capital

It  is the dream that came true ; the lost place that was found—the place that was and that is again to be. It was once the port o’ships, the trader’s mecca, the pilgrim’s shrine, the wanderer’s lode-stone. Wealth decked it with jewels, fashion plumed it with gay feathers. It rose, as in a day, from savage squalor to voluptuous civilization. From its pine-clad hills was swung the star of a new empire ; in its valleys of oak and from its shores of cypress were chanted the Te Deums of destiny. Its name was strung in litanies at the foot of Christ’s cross and rung to the music of battles from clashing swords. But there came a day when the head that wore a crown was in the dust, when rags alone were left of much purple and fine linen; when all that remained of Monterey was memory and that wondrous beauty which was the gift of God and which only the hand of God can take away.

In no other place of all the world was history made with a rapidity more amazing. Under the sun-glinted waters of the Bay of Monterey and in the bosom of the serranos which close it in is buried a past as romantic as that which is whispered by the dead leaves of Vallambrosa, stirred by the winds of summer when the moon is low. Into three-quarters of a century of life and mastery it crowded the history of an age. But its glory did not pass to come no more.

Long before the Anglo-Saxon reared his first roof-tree on the bleak shores of the Atlantic in the New World, Monterey watched the white man’s buffeted sail and felt the touch of his hand. Cabrillo steered his prows against her guardian headlands, fighting his way against wind and wave to Mendocino in 1542, that time he doubled back to die on San Miguel amid the isles of Santa Barbara. In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino anchored his ships in the harbor, naming it in honor of his patron, Gaspar de Zuniga, Compt de Monterey, then the viceroy of Mexico. Under an oak tree that stood at the head of a little cove in the bay, the priests of Vizcaino’s expedition reared a cross and sang the Mass, then sailed away, leaving the spot to its ancient silences. For one hundred sixty-six years the foot of no civilized man came again to Monterey.

But from the hour that Vizcaino returned to Mexico with the report of his voyages, Monterey fastened itself upon the imagination of New Spain and of old Spain as well. It became the ultima thule of the Conquistadore’s dreams. The mind made pictures of the noble harbor set deep within the swinging hills, the sun dancing upon its waters, and the green of wild pastures, lush and lovely, closing it in. They thought the fabled Seven Cities must lie near it and that it would lead them to the towers of gold, the lure of which haunted the broken heart of the grim conqueror, Cortes himself, to the last breath of life that warmed him. Yet the years passed—a century and near another—before there came again a sail to Monterey. Then, in 1769, the expedition that had set out from La Paz under the authority of Galvez, the Visitador-General of Mexico, landed at San Diego and took possession of California in the name of the King of Spain. But the expedition had hardly reared the Cross at San Diego before the search for storied Monterey began. And a weary search it was, beating its often hopeless trails and pathways over both land and sea.

At last, however, on May 31, 1770, the good ship San Antonio, commanded by Capt. Juan Perez, anchored in the bright harbor. The lost was found again ; the weary quest was at an end, and, from that hour, Monterey was destined to take her place among the civilized communities of the world. Word of the great and long-looked-for success was at once for-warded to the City of Mexico, where the joy of the authorities and the people was boundless. From lip to lip throughout the streets of the capital sped the great news. “Monterey has been found; the flag of the King is flying over it,” rang forth the wild cry of victory and exultation. The news did not reach the capital of Mexico until August, but that was quick work for those days when even the telegraph had not yet been dreamed of. It was indeed a glad day. The bells of the cathedral burst forth in peal after peal of gladness. Galvez, the Visitador-General, was in ecstacies over the success of the expedition he had sent out upon strange seas and into still stranger lands. The Viceroy, the Marquis de la Croix, was congratulated on every hand. Next day a solemn Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated in the cathedral, attended by all the high dignitaries, the military and civic authorities and the whole people.

An account of the discovery was printed and distributed broadcast among the populace, creating the most intense excitement. An official statement of the event was made out and forwarded to Spain, relating the fact that the throne of Castile and Leon had for two centuries sent vessels to the coast of California, terminating at last in the establishment of the Presidio and Mission of San Carlos at Monterey, June 3, 1770.

The ceremony of taking possession of Monterey for Spain, on June 3, 1770, took place under the same oak tree where Sebastian Vizcaino had camped and erected a cross 167 years before, namely, in the year 1602. There are trees in many parts of the world that have histories, but none has a story more fascinating than this tree, now called the “Serra Tree.” It was a magnificent specimen of the live oak for which Monterey is still famed, as, let us hope, it will ever be. It grew at the end of a little cove or estuary of the bay at the present entrance to the Presidio. In its place is a costly, handsome and well-meaning granite cross, erected by a generous-hearted lover of Monterey and her past. But how a lifeless stone can take the place of a living tree, it were hard to say.

In the tumble and wreck and ruin of once great days there came to Monterey some who neither understood nor revered the past and its mighty memories. They built a culvert around the old tree, walling it with stone that yet did not keep from it the seeds of death. And so, one day, a patriarch of a noble tribe withered and died and became an eyesore on the ancient highway. Then when the man came along with the stone cross, the tree was ruthlessly torn out and flung heedlessly—and with what ingratitude only the spirits of the dead can know—into the waters of the bay.

But just as the thievish tides were about to run away with the grand old trunk, still mighty in death, carrying it to the hungry and engulfing sea, two men of Monterey put out upon a scow and fought with the tides for the precious burden. With grappling hooks, and after an heroic struggle, the dead patriarch was brought to shore and carried in a cart to the Royal Chapel of San Carlos in the town. There it was embedded in cement and treated to a chemical process of bathing that will cause it to last as long as time itself.

In the year 1770, at the very beginning of things, with the arrival of Junipero Serra, Father President of the Missions, and Don Gaspar de Portola, the first Governor of California, Monterey became the seat of both the religious and civil authority in the new Spanish province of California. It was, therefore, from Monterey that everything which concerned both the religious and civil government originated, for a period of nearly eighty years—from the founding of the Mission to the constitutional convention which marked the entrance of California into the American Union as a sovereign state. The Presidio of Monterey was called “The Royal Presidio” because it was located at the capital and therefore stood in the place of the King. And the church at San Carlos, near by, was called “The Royal Chapel” because it was the church in which the King would have worshiped had he actually existed in the flesh in his new California possessions. There were no other presidios or churches in California, from first to last, to which the title “royal” was or could have been applied. The church of San Carlos in Monterey, built in 1794, which is still standing in an excellent state of preservation, was used as the church of the parish, and took the title “Royal Chapel of the Presidio of Monterey”—the same title that was borne by its rude and unpretentious predecessor, the first temporary church building, long since vanished in the dust. Into this church have been gathered many priceless relics of the past, saved from Carmelo after its spoliation. These relics include a number of articles which were used personally by Father Junipero, both in his priestly administrations and in the domestic life of the little adobe house in which he dwelt.

Monterey having been established as the civil, religious and military capital of California, it also became, naturally, the center of social life. The memory of the glory of Monterey and the color of the gay life that was lived there through so many stirring years lingered long after the place had been stripped of its power. It is a memory that lingers still. It was not only the central government, but the central port, as well—the place in which authority from without was received and from which it was promulgated and disseminated for the guidance of the pueblos and ranchos with their alcaldes and over-lords, all up and down the golden coast of glory.

It is, therefore, an easy feat for the imagination to picture old Monterey as she was in her days of power and splendor. The busy streets were filled with gorgeously caparisoned horses, frequently a rider sitting in a saddle worth a thousand dollars and holding the rein of a bridle worth half as much, so ornamented were they with gold and silver. You would have seen doffed to a lady in those times a gold or silver trimmed sombrero worth the good beginnings of a fortune. All was life and color. Fashion drew to this central throne the wit, the wealth and beauty of the entire country that lay between San Francisco and San Diego.

And, side by side with power and pride, jostling elbows with them on the highways and byways of Monterey, were always the flotsam and jetsam of life, wanderers from far-away dim and mystic ports, deep-sea sailors, whalers, pearl-fishers, soldiers of fortune, Yankee skippers, pirates and bandits, world without end. It was in Monterey that Tiburcio Vasquez, a gentleman of the road no less famous than Juan Murietta, was born and bred. It was from the streets of Monterey that he sallied forth to waylay the traveler on the inland trails, even as the pirates of the coast sallied forth to sea from the harbor of Monterey to intercept a cargo. It was a favorite trick of the pirates to change the location of the Point Pinos light as an encouragement to a ship to dash itself upon the rocks. Those were brave days, indeed, and it seems not so long ago since those who remembered and mourned them were sitting against the adobe walls of Monterey, thankful for a ray of sunshine to warm their poor old lonely bodies. At the bottom of the harbor lie the bleached and whitened bones of many a ship that came to Monterey, preferring, for often unknown reasons, to sink than to go away. Among these is the frigate Natalia, on which Napoleon escaped from Elba.

The life that the people lived in California, in the days when Monterey was at the height of its greatness, was a life that probably cannot return to California nor to any other part of the globe where a similar state of affairs has ever existed. The world has changed. Life is now a strenuous thing filled with hurry and scurry. If men sit down now to a feast at night they must he at their counting-houses at a fixed hour next morning, or at their shops and factories when the whistles blow, but in the old days when California was young—”in the good old days of the king,” as it used to be said—those who sat down to the feast departed not from the house of their host the next day, nor the next week, for that matter, unless they were so inclined. There was nothing concerning themselves to call them away, and the longer they remained under the roof where they had gathered, the better pleased was the man who owned the roof.

There will never again be seen upon this earth, perhaps, a life so ideal as that which was lived in Monterey and throughout all California in its halcyon days before the “Gringo” came. There was room to breathe and a man could sit on a hilltop and look upon the sea any where. The country was gorgeous with wild flowers more beautiful even than the flowers which grow in California’s gardens of wonder today. The land was fat with plenty and every door was flung wide with welcome to whomsoever might come. There was no hurry, no envy, no grief, Though you had no house of your own it were no cause for distress. You had but to speak at the first threshold you met, ask for food and shelter for yourself and beast, and they to whom you came would answer you saying : “Pase, Usted, es su casa, Senor.” (Enter, it is your house.) If you fared forth to eat and sup with a friend who had invited you, you brought with you those whom you might happen to have met upon the way.

In those days California had come to have many vast and rich estates possessed and peopled by the best blood of Spain. The children of the Dons grew up to be handsome men and beautiful women. The young men were brave and manly and much given to dress and chivalry. From the Valley of the Seven Moons southward to the Harbor of the Sun, California had many Spanish belles whose fame and beauty were toasted at the feast and for whose hands there was much chivalric rivalry and not infrequently the flash of swords drawn on the field of the duello. And of all this, Monterey was the center. There are many legends of the belles of Monterey, but the one most often told is the legend of the “Pearls of Loreto.”

The way it runs is, that there was once in Monterey a señorita whose wondrous beauty was above the beauty of all the women of the land—the talk of California. Her casa was ever thronged with suitors for her hand and favor. Her name was Ysabel Her rera, but they called her “La Favorita.”

In those times Monterey was a great pearl-fishing ground and many fortunes were made in that way, but in still earlier times, when the padres had things more to themselves, they had put the Indians to diving and as a result they had gathered together the most wonderful and valuable collection of pearls known to be in existence any where in the world. The padres had gathered these pearls not for sale, but for the purpose of decorating the statue of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin, in their monastery at Loreto in Lower, or Baja, California. Every perfect pearl brought up from the waters of Monterey or any-where else along the California coast was taken by the Indians to the padres who, in turn, strung it upon the robe or around the neck of the statue of Our Lady of Loreto until that wooden image in that far-off lonely place glowed in the soft light of the chapel, by day and night, with thrice a king’s ransom.

Now, as it happened, Ysabel Herrera craved pearls, and she told all her suitors that she would marry the one who would bring her a rope of these jewels that would outshine the like possessions of all other women. It was then that Vincent de la Vega, a young caballero, conceived the terrible idea of robbing Our Lady at Loreto of her store of priceless pearls, which he did, stabbing to the heart the old priest who guarded the church. He galloped back over the long trails and the wild mountains from Baja California to Monterey, and laid in the lap of Ysabel Herrera the stolen pearls.

The senorita kept her word and accepted De la Vega. That night there was a grand ball at which the elite of Monterey, the Governor, the high officers of the Royal Presidio, and the high-born patricians attended. Ysabel, glorious with pearls, entered the ballroom on De la Vega’s arm, and instantly there was a hush of adoring admiration. An instant later, a young Franciscan, sandaled, shaven, and cowled, entered the room, pointed at the pearls and accused De la Vega of their theft, and of murder as well. The guilty pair fled for the bay, hoping to reach a ship that was about to sail. As they skirted the cliff on shore, a shot rang out and De la Vega fell dead. Clasping her lover in her arms, Ysabel leaped with his body into the sea, where she died with him. The pearls were never found, although the search for them in the waters of the bay is kept up until this very day.

The great occasions in the old life of Monterey were those when the Governor gave a reception, and, of course, a ball, or when the wealth and beauty and officialdom of California gathered at the capital to welcome the coming of a new Governor. When these events took place, the great overlords of the ranchos, with their sons and daughters, and each with an entourage of Indian servants and retainers, gathered at the capital. The Fathers of the Missions usually came also, for the social life of the Spaniards was always closely interwoven with their religious life. Preceding the festivities, or sometimes while they were under way, there would usually be a procession headed by the dignitaries of the Church across the green pine-clad hill from Monterey to Carmelo.

The accounts of these great festivities read like chapters from the doings in fairyland. At such times the presidio and the patio and church of the Mission would be gaily decorated. The soldiers in their picturesque and flashy uniforms, particularly the officers, made a brilliant show. Cavalry and artillery entered the church to attend the grand Mass to the salute of cannon and musketry without. The caballeros, stunningly arrayed, cantered through the crowds on the finest horses in the land, bred at Mission San Antonio. Afterwards, there were bull-fights, feats of horsemanship, sham battles between the soldiery, and Indian dancing and games. At night came a great banquet, with the witchery of Spanish music, and dances attended by beautiful dark-eyed women, richly gowned and jeweled, escorted by the gallants of the province.

The repression of pirates, who quite frequently pestered the coast of California, and occasional threats of attacks from foreign nations were just sufficient throughout the years of Monterey’s supremacy to keep up the fighting-blood of the people. The most notable battle, however, and perhaps the only real battle ever fought at that historic fort, took place in 1817, when two ships appeared in the harbor to attack the settlement. They were privateers under command of an American named Brown and they were fresh from piratical conquests on the coasts of Chili and Peru. They were known as the “Buenos Ayres Insurgents.” One of their ships, the Argentina, carried thirty-eight guns, while the other, the Santa Rosa, carried twenty-eight. On board the vessels were more than five hundred fighting-men. Monterey had had news of the enemy’s approach beforehand and was prepared to repel the invaders. The whole coast was on the lookout and a constant communication had been kept up between all points and the capital. The military strength of Monterey was outnumbered by the enemy, ten to one, yet in answer to the invaders’ demand for surrender of the fort, Governor Sola sent back word that he would not surrender but stood ready to defend the King’s flag to the last drop of his own blood and the blood of the men under his command.

Ordering all the families living at Monterey to depart from the zone of battle, the Governor took his station in the tower of San Carlos church and the fight began. The privateers hurled shot after shot upon the devoted fort, to which the defenders on shore made no reply. Thinking that the Californians were too frightened to defend themselves, the insurgents ran close to shore, whereupon the fort opened up a deadly fire on the enemy. The insurgents, at first greatly surprised, soon recovered, and landed four hundred men, who at once marched against the presidio. The Californians then retreated to a distant rancho. The insurgents after remaining in Monterey five days, burying their dead and repairing one of their vessels which had been badly damaged, set sail, making no further attempt to ravish the port.

In the meantime the Governor had collected a large force and returned to retake Monterey, only to find that the enemy had abandoned the fruits of victory, whatever they might have been.

This tale, in itself a drama, breathes the very atmosphere of old Monterey. Nor did the coming of the Gringo put an end to romance. In many ways, the American invasion but added to the glamor that had always been there, for it is then we begin to hear of blue-eyed men losing their hearts to black-eyed women, with all the attendant adventure that could not but ensue. It was on July 7, 1846, that Commodore Sloat raised the American flag on the staff of the custom-house, from which he tore the flag of Mexico. The staff is still there, and there is something of a thrill in the sight of it. Among the young American army lieutenants who came later in the service to Monterey was William Tecumseh Sherman, who never, till his dying day, failed to kiss every pretty girl he met.

They will show you a house in Monterey where lived the Senorita Bonifacio, loveliest of the maidens on all the sunny stretches of El Camino Real. Sher-man fell in love with her and when he was ordered away, they together planted a rose bush that was to tell in the days of his absence if his love for his dusky-eyed sweetheart remained true. The life or death of the rose tree was to be the proof. The tree blooms still, under which the señorita waited in vain for her lover to return. But we find ourselves wondering if the memory of her loyeliness, and the arbor where they sat in the moonlit nights, was not always with him, even in the days of his great glory under his bloody eagles at Shiloh, and on his deathless march to the sea.

Besides having been the first capital of California, Monterey is the place of many other “first” things, such as the first wooden house, the first brick house, and a perfectly endless list of lesser first things, such as lanterns, candlesticks, carpenters’ benches, bells, rolling-pins and weighing-scales. You might wander through the town, nosing your way through holes and corners for a year and a day without seeing all that is to be seen.

It was inevitable, of course, that the first news-paper should make its appearance in Monterey. In 1846 this publication made its premiere under the editorial management of a man named Semple who stood six feet and eight inches high in the buckskin clothes which he habitually wore. The paper was named the Californian, and was printed from type borrowed from the old Missions of the padres. In order to print the letter “w,” it was necessary to combine two “v’s” there being no “w” in the Spanish alphabet.

Naturally, there came to Monterey in the trail of every other wanderer known to gypsy stars and luring moons, the Bohemians who wrought in dreams with pen and brush—they who have ever given and are giving still to the world the best it has and getting in return nothing at all in life but great glory and many sighs when once they are safe with death and can no longer borrow the price of a meal or a bed from those who can easily give but greatly begrudge to do so.

Immortal among the dreamers who found their way—only God knows how—to Monterey, was Robert Louis Stevenson. You shall see the house wherein he lodged for a year and more, the restaurant where he had his meals, though he and old Jules Simoneau, who fed and loved him, are now with the dust. You shall set foot on the green pathways where he wandered and that are deathless now if for no other reason than that he touched them with his fancy. It was the year 1879 that Stevenson spent in Monterey, when he was thirty years old.

Stevenson’s purpose in coming to California was to be at once near Fannie Osbourn, whom he had met abroad and with whom he fell desperately in love. Her home was in San Francisco, where Stevenson afterwards married her. He was pathetically poor at the time and most miserably ill, his state of health made much worse by a steerage voyage across the Atlantic and the overland journey to the coast in an emigrant train. The first we know of him in California is when some sheepherders in the Santa Lucia hills found him lying unconscious under a tree, his pockets empty, his face pinched with hunger and the telltale blood of broken lungs on his lips. They took him to their cabin and nursed him back to life. Then he drifted down to Monterey.

The artists who were there at that time, and with whom Stevenson naturally formed a reciprocated attachment, had devised a method of securing ample drink from the Sanchez brothers’ saloon on an agreement with them to paint the saloon bar and other-wise to decorate the room. “You shall be deposited at Sanchez’s saloon where we take a drink,” Steven-son wrote to Henly. Not long ago that marvelous bar, on which had been flung pictures from the brushes of Tavernier and Frenzeny, was sold for other uses to a local personage, who promptly had it painted over with a thick coat of white, obliterating forever the last traces of the pictures, and thus rendering valueless an article through which a man could have grown ten times wealthy merely by traveling with it on exhibition from town to town where-ever a white man draws the breath of life.

Portraying in playful mood what he would do with him were he suddenly to fall from the skies into Monterey, Stevenson wrote Henly what he desired him to believe was there the daily routine of his life : “That shall deposit you at Sanchez’s saloon, where we take a drink; you are introduced to Bronson, the local editor (`I have no brain music,’ he says; `I’m a mechanic, you see,’ but he’s a nice fellow) ; to Adolpho Sanchez, who is delightful. Meanwhile, I go to the P.O. for my mail; thence we walk up Alvarado street together, you now floundering in the sand, now merrily stumping on the wooden sidewalks; I call at Hadsell’s for my paper; at length behold us installed in Simoneau’s little white-washed back room, round a dirty tablecloth, with Francois the baker, perhaps an Italian fisherman, perhaps Augustin Dutra and Simoneau, himself. Simoneau, Francois and I are the three sure cards; the others, mere waifs. Then home to my great airy rooms, with five windows, opening on a balcony; I sleep on the floor in my camp blanket; you instal yourself abed.”

It must have gone hard with Henly not to break away from London—though he sat at banquet with the Queen—and fly to R. L. S., then in Monterey, but perhaps he knew how successfully the Prince of Dreamers could dissemble in sickness and poverty from out the brave hypocrisy of life. He was scarcely ever well in Monterey, and at times was beleaguered for many days at a stretch in his lonely room, fighting death, inch by inch, yet he loved Monterey and said so in many ways and in many places. When he was well enough he used to take long walks, where, says he, “A great faint sound of breakers follows you high up into the inland canyons ; the roar of waters dwells in the clean empty rooms of Monterey as in a shell upon the chimney. Go where you will, you have but to pause and listen to hear the voice of the Pacific.”

Not Edinburgh, where he was born, nor Samoa, where he died, nor all the far-flung places where he wandered in his restless life, hold more charming or tenderer memories of Robert Louis Stevenson than Monterey.

On a day that cannot be long in coming, the vast Caucasian exodus, that has been sweeping ever west-ward, shall pyramid itself on the western rim of the continent of America, even as it has done on the western rims of other countries. When that day comes, what shall be left of old Monterey will be swept ruthlessly away as a Dutch housewife would sweep the dooryards of Isleta were she to find herself compelled to domicile there. Tiled roofs, adobe walls, the ancient seats of the mighty, the pirates’ lair, the lovers’ lanes and arbors, the dusty ways that knew the Padres’ sandaled feet, the haunts of Bohemia—they will fall and crumble under the steeled tread of unfeeling and all-conquering progress. Listen, and you shall hear the rumble of the monster’s wheels crashing through the distance, even now. You must arise and hasten.

But this Progress which we have been taught to serve in servile fear, leaping to obey its slightest command, and to truckle at the mere uplift of its eye-brows, can never wholly take from Monterey the charm that warms it or the things that make it holy. The sea will be there, and the sky, till God calls back the one and rolls up the other as a scroll. The hills cannot be torn down and leveled as a roof is leveled and a wall is tumbled to the dust. No hand but God’s can change the sweep of the white shore or the curve of the bay set deep with the caress of uplands and dim serranos. Nor shall the din of whistles and the clangor of wheels and beating hammers dull the ears that hear the voices of the Past.

Forever and forever the road shall climb the green hill that lies between the singing tides of Monterey and holy Carmelo, where sleeps the dust of Father Junipers The world may and does forget much, but it can never now forget him—the gentle, greatsouled Franciscan who brought the light of Calvary to the darkness of a heathen land. Time goes ever on and its soul is the soul of change, but it shall bring with the coming years the feet of countless thousands yet unborn, to climb the road that leads to Carmelo from Monterey.