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Monterey, I Hardly Knew Ye
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD Extracting California's Past from Monterey, Its Spanish and Mexican Capital
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Right before the pandemic, I happened to mention to a class of ten year olds in rural Georgia that Mexico owned California until shortly before the Gold Rush. Two Mexican-American boys in the front row exchanged delighted looks: They hadn’t known that!
And California, of course, belonged to Spain before, and was home to many Indigenous peoples long, long before Spain came along. Everything changes in the modern era, since around the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and change seems to keep getting faster. Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe not.
Fragments of Monterey History
In Monterey, California, He Who Shall Not Be Named on the Internets, or HWSNBNOTI, or Hoosen Benoti, and I stayed in a 1949 motel that had been extensively renovated (with prices to prove it), and a pricy but reportedly good Spanish restaurant added, tapas and all.
The hotel eatery was a bit out of our price range, so we instead patronized a restaurant once visited by Guy Fieri for his Drive-Ins, Diners, and Dives TV show. Sadly, this place was more dive than diner, despite good reviews, and high prices. Here’s a theme we’re increasingly finding with restaurants, as we already have with history museums: Everything is awesome, until we find ourselves wishing we had read the disgruntled online reviews more closely. In fact, in Monterey, I found myself wishing constantly that I had read all the fine print beforehand. Trouble is, there’s a lot of fine print.
However. I did learn from reading something on the hotel wall or maybe it was the Internets, that the hotel was on the estate of a Mexican family who had inherited it from a powerful Spanish ancestor. They sold the place in 1941 to the Anglo (UK That means white American, regardless of how Anglo he was) who knocked down the 1821 large adobe (clay brick) house to build his modern hotel . . . Knocked it down, that is, all except for one piece of adobe wall, which could still be seen in one of the hotel meeting rooms.
Well, I had to see it, didn’t I?
I asked the desk clerk, careful to mention that I had just been a guest at the hotel, but he didn’t look impressed. He first had to check, he said, that the room wasn’t being used, and then grudgingly pointed to the famous wall. He left me to contemplate the grandeur of history, the sheer preservation of it all.
What a total letdown. One panel of wall. That was it. It didn’t feel worth the effort I had made (walking from our now-vacated room while Hoosen loaded the luggage, running the gauntlet of grumpy desk clerk) It was a hard-to-discover, hard-to-access fragment of an unexplained past.
That pretty much summed up my efforts to get to know Monterey’s history.
Last time, in California Dreams on Cannery Row, I wrote about our visit to Monterey’s Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel of that name, but a tourist trap for the last few decades (although I did find a couple of bits of history that were worth the effort!). Cannery Row is likely the best-known thing (along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium) about this California town.
Hey, Lady who writes this! That post is behind a paywall. What gives?
Okay, so you asked. Right now, I’m writing in a boring hotel room in Arizona, instead of spending my limited time on earth enjoying sightseeing in the Flagstaff area’s many beautiful National Parks. I do this for my NBH readers, but I need support to do what I do (writers have bills, too) and that’s where you come in. Please upgrade and join us as a Nonnie (paid subscriber) to get the full benefit of Non-Boring History (including searchable access to the 200 plus posts I’ve already written). all a sneaky education in thinking like a historian.
A Capital Experience
Starting in 1770, six years before American Independence, and in the year George III became King, Monterey was the capital of California. California was part of the Empire of Spain, and it stayed the capital when, in 1821, Mexicans, inspired by the example of the United States, declared themselves the United States of Mexico, and told Spain to get stuffed.
There are still Spanish colonial buildings in Monterey. And that was what drew my History Club at California State University, Sacramento, to take a day trip here, back in the mid-1980s. We undergrads ran the club unimpeded by our faculty adviser, who was happy to stay far away. None of us knew much about that era of California history. But we gamely organized car pools to come to Monterey, and find out more by taking a self-guided walking tour.
I mostly remember we got a bit tired in the heat, and a bit bored by the walk. The most memorable part of our day was dinner in a window seat at the El Torito, a chain Mexican restaurant with a Cannery Row branch that squatted on a short pier in the bay. We saw the tide crash below us as we noshed on cheap tacos and burritos.
The El Torito is still there. But returning 35 years later, I hoped Monterey and I would get along better with local history than we did then.
So Hoosen and I arrived late on a Sunday afternoon. Turns out, that was the worst timing ever. Most old buildings that are normally open for tours were closed at 4, and would not re-open until Tuesday at best. The former hotel where author Robert Louis Stevenson spent several months in 1879, on his way to court his later wife, was closed until next Friday.
Poor planning on my part? Sure. But good luck with planning on a road trip. And given how damn rich Monterey is these days (Tourists? We’re tolerated), surely they could do better. We bit the bullet on another restored motel nearby (very hospitable, to say the least, and cheaper, although still not cheap), and set out for breakfast pastries to soothe the soul, stopping at the bank on the way to arrange a home equity loan to pay for them.
Local bakery Parker-Lusseau, we were surprised to find, is in a restored adobe house (Not safe in earthquakes, the sign told us), with this simple sign over the doorway: GEN’L FREMONT, 1846.
No explanation. What could it mean? Fremont was an unusual name. Could this be John Frémont, American explorer of routes West? How was he a General, though? And in what was still Mexico?
I asked the cheerful young folks boxing our pastries at the bakery counter if they knew anything at all about the building. They shook their heads. “I know it’s old,” one said doubtfully. “There’s a sign outside, over the door.” She meant the mysterious GEN’L FREMONT, 1846.
“Typical California,” I said, speaking as a former Californian, despite being a Brit, because I am. Came of age there, just like Lady Bird. Even did my PhD in the Golden State, for heavens sake.
In my day, California’s museums did a crummy job of getting people interested in state history, of getting us curious. So if someone comes along and says, “Hey, let’s knock this down and build expensive apartments”? We would all go, “Yeah, sure, why not?” And we did. I weep for so many old landmarks.
I exaggerate. No, I don’t. Old buildings are few and far between in California: If earthquakes don’t get them, then the wrecker’s ball does.
As for history for the public? That was first interpreted by self-interested groups like the relatively young Native Sons of the Golden West (aka white people who really didn’t like immigrants or people of color, no joke). The Sons slapped plaques everywhere they could. Their memorials are impossible to remove because they became considered artifacts themselves, but the good news is that we can always add a sign next to them that says “This is a load of old crap, and here’s why”. Or something more polite.
Sadly, that seldom happens in California. “Funding” is the problem, I’m told, over and over. Why is that? California, all by itself, is the world’s seventh largest economy. Democrats, who traditionally favor education, have a firm grip on government. The amounts we’re talking about for museums are piffling by budget standards.
There’s a lack of will, for sure, but why that is (and I could come up with a zillion evidence-free conspiracy theories, but absolutely won’t) is not at all clear. If you never had a good history education yourself, and most Californians don’t, you think that it’s all boring old dead and dusty stuff for nerds [UK anoraks], so why pay for more of it? Professors are a bright shining exception to the apathy (Hello, Dr. Joe Pitti, who first introduced this befuddled Brit to California history at Sacramento State University a very long time ago!), but few college students take California history, and history for the general public remains dire.
Plus, even if I did take California history, that was one academic term thirty-five years ago, when I was young, foreign, and confused.
So back to Fremont. I rooted around on the Google. Frémont the explorer got himself spectacularly involved in American foreign policy and war. And while he was living his pretendy dreams of guts and glory, he may, may I say, have briefly occupied this small Monterey adobe (made from clay bricks) where we can all now partake of scrumptious French pastries.
How did that happen? My memory failed me, and I really didn’t have time to look it all up properly. Frémont had apparently evolved from supposed explorer to advance guard of Manifest Destiny (the belief that the US was destined to own the whole continent, because reasons).
Actually, it was suddenly painfully obvious to me, this had always been his goal. Just like Lansford Hastings, the charlatan who misled the Donner Party, Frémont explored the Far West to check the place out, then lure American settlers out West to outnumber the few Mexicans in this remote place, and then become King of California, or at least be the new golden boy back in Washington (President Polk helped fund his last expedition, and armed him and his group, enough said).
So Frémont, a hammer looking for nails, launched an attack on Mexico in California without actual authorization from Washington, DC, which in turn spurred Commodore Sloat (waiting for the word from President Polk to attack Mexico) to capture Monterey. But, like, why is an American explorer interested in invading Mexico? Why was the US Navy already in Monterey Bay, ready to do the deed?
I’ll get back to this at NBH. Funny how colonization often starts, though, as Brits can also tell you. Oh, Americans colonizing a country? That can’t be right, surely? Isn’t that a Brit thing? I think we should be told.
Meanwhile, Hoosen and I enjoyed French pastries near our hotel in Monterey, just as Robert Louis Stevenson, a hundred and forty years ago, had enjoyed French cuisine near his lodgings, now a museum we couldn’t stick around to visit (Have you SEEN hotel prices in Monterey?)
When my fellow history students and I gamely organized our trip to Monterey in the 80s to see its Spanish colonial/Mexican era buildings, we were, to remind you, but undergrads. Most of us had taken California history a very long time ago, at school, in their early teens. The tour followed a pamphlet of which I didn’t have custody, and Bill the Pamphlet Keeper read it aloud to the rest of us. I remember nothing of it, except being a bit tired and bored by the end, and happy to head for a Mexican restaurant to call it a day.
The history walking tour of Monterey we took all those years ago is still there, marked with signs embedded in the sidewalks, but now, instead of a pamphlet, signs by each site gave us a QR code we could scan with our phones, and then read/listen to a short narration on each building. I only discovered this when we got to the first building, this one, on which a large sign announces that it’s California’s first theatre:
The narrative on the tour, though, just felt dodgy, with a massive whiff of local legend, of oral tradition that likely wouldn't survive an encounter with documents, of stories ignored, and the big obvious stories (Like, why did the US invade California?) ignored especially. We started with a fun story that nonetheless seemed a bit… trivial. Unless you’re British, in which case, you might find it as cool as I did.
Jack Swan, an English sailor, decided in the great tradition of Brits that he liked the California climate, and quit the sea for Monterey, then still part of Mexico. He built this house not only to live in, but to support himself, by opening a pub (in case you didn’t know, that’s short for public house, since pubs began in homes). He soon began to develop quite the small business empire: He set up nine pin bowling, and allowed locals to stage a play in his pub, which gave this place its claim to fame. Swan added a warehouse (or boardinghouse, depending on which source you believe), a long adobe building to the left of the pub, and it’s still there, too.
When gold was discovered in California, a couple of hundred miles away in Coloma, Jack Swan saw a future unencumbered by running a pub, hotel, and event space, closed up shop, and headed for the gold area. Supposedly, he returned to Monterey nearly thirty years later in 1876, as a beggar who would tell stories of local lore for a donation “in his cup”. I mean, maybe? A colorful story, anyway. Not all that significant in the larger scheme of things, is it? Hard to know what to get out of it, except “don’t sell off your capital to join a get rich quick scheme.”
Extracting relevant and engaging history from Monterey was hard 35 years ago, and it’s still hard now. But I sensed there are stories at Monterey that really matter right now, and not just to the holidaying historian.
A young couple with the aura of college graduates were peering through the windows of California’s First Theater. Are you doing the walking tour, I asked? “Yes,” they replied cheerfully. “Are you getting much out of it?” I asked. Ah, not really, they said. They visited Monterey often, and tried to learn a little each time. Did they know about Frémont, I asked? Only, the young man said carefully, that he took over because people were tired of being ruled by Mexico. Oh, dear. I think it’s pretty safe to say, I said, that Mexicans weren’t tired of Mexican rule. And that many Mexican-Americans would sigh heavily at that answer.
Things Are Always Changing
The Pacific House you see here is now a State museum about Monterey. It's not Spanish, or Mexican, although it was built with adobe in the local style. It was built in 1847, early in the US occupation of Monterey, by a representative of the US government, as a symbol of who was now in charge, and used as a warehouse.
The Pacific House Museum is right across from the Mexican government’s Customs House, also a museum, which stores the secret of why California was valuable before gold was found there: Millions of cow hides, from animals raised on vast ranches. Many immigrants, including Brits, were given land grants by the Mexican government, on the promise of becoming Mexican citizens, Catholics, and Spanish speakers—which most did.
Cowhides? Whoop. Sounds dreary and irrelevant in the modern age, doesn't it? Don’t be so sure. Many of these cowhides ended up as the leather straps that ran machines from steam power, in the vast factories of the Midlands and North of England of the world’s first Industrial Revolution. Weren’t there cattle in the UK, we ask? Yes, but Britain has been importing essentials, even food, for a very long time. The problem with this dependence on imports became painfully clear during World War II,
So, halfway across the world, cowhides were loaded on ships in Monterey Bay. And then, in 1848, just after the US decisively beat Mexico in war, and officially claimed California, Americans found gold. And everything changed again.
Hoosen and I enjoyed looking around the pretty gardens of the Pacific House, and decided to return Tuesday morning, when the museum would actually be open. It meant backtracking from where we were now staying a few miles down the coast, but Hoosen was agreeable. “The museum is most likely crap,” I assured him. “I won’t take long.”
We arrived a bit late, at noonish, to be greeted by a handwritten sign advising the museum was closed for a schools visit, and would open sometime in the afternoon. What the hell?
Our young couple from the California theater were already waiting. I called the museum, and learned the place would open within 15 minutes. I was ready to walk away, cursing California. This would only be some dusty, outdated, awful museum anyway.
Why bother? I did bother. I’m glad I did. For one thing, on Jack Swan, the Pacific House Museum tells us a much better story of global change:
A VETERAN SAILOR SETTLES DOWN
By the time he was 25 and settled in Monterey, Englishman Jack Swan had lived a life of travel and adventure that most of us can only dream about. Sent to sea as a young boy, Swan sailed the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean, visiting ports in China and India. He also traveled across Mexico by mule and worked on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers before voyaging to Monterey from Mazatlan in 1843.
Here Swan operated a tavern and a boarding house until he caught gold fever in 1848, which took him to the California foothills and to Canada in the 1850s.
In the winter of 1849-1850 discharged soldiers of the 1st New York Volunteers staged plays in Swan's warehouse, creating one of California's first American-style theaters.
Upstairs in the museum? In the exhibit supposedly about Indian lives? Ghastly. Dozens of unlabeled Indian baskets. You won’t learn much here. But downstairs? Much, much better. We didn’t have time to see it all, but from local Indians (known now by a name they didn’t call themselves, so I’ll spare you) to the Spanish soldiers at the fort that began Monterey, to Robert Louis Stevenson, stories began to ignite. Turns out, the exhibits on the ground floor were redone six years ago or so.
“It’s a great museum, but I’m surprised there’s nothing about Fremont,” I said to the young park ranger, who had just survived a school party with the aid of just two volunteers (funding, again, always funding).
“People don’t much like him around here,” she said. “There’s no statue or anything.” I waved away the very idea. “Of course not,” I said. “He was an idiot. But he’s part of the bigger story I think people should know, about the conquest of Monterey.”
She didn’t argue (I may have worn her out, but she did thank me for chatting, so there’s that). She has a history degree (M.A. I think) from UC Santa Cruz, and her dissertation was on Indigenous people. However she identifies, the ranger was evidently of Indigenous descent. She works hard to bring everyone’s stories to life, and so does her museum. Together, they lit a candle in Monterey for me, one that might guide me back someday.
Non-Boring History is all about igniting your interest in history, and in finding out how it connects to you, and to now. Written by renegade history professor Dr. Annette Laing (PhD, University of California, Riverside, in early American and British history), NBH is a mission to save academic history—and from that, public history—in an age that would rather we not know what actually happened.
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