Coming to California: An Essay in Seven Parts on the History of this Land, Part 2

Posted on May 23, 2013 by Yvonne Lefort

Based on an interview with Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, this column narrates the history of California through the personal story of someone who once moved to this area seeking new opportunities, just like we did. — Diana Gadaldi, international spouse of a postdoc at UC Berkeley

 2. The arrival of the Spanish (sequel of episode 1. The Ohlone People)

The second episode of Coming to California tells about how the Spaniards arrived in this area and, in particular, how they established what is today the city of Monterey.

The Spaniards ventured as far as present-day California driven by the belief that the west coast of the new-found continent was the home of an advanced and wealthy civilization. Moreover, they hoped to find access to the famous Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Arctic Ocean that would provide a much shorter way to the Indies. When in 1542 the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first sailed from what is today San Diego to Point Reyes and found nothing of what he had expected, he sailed back and abandoned his enterprise.

Sixty years later, the Spanish conquistador Sebastián Vizcaíno explored the coastline north of San Diego until he found a bay that in his opinion lent itself to agriculture. He named the place after the viceroy who approved his expedition, the Count of Monte Rey. Nevertheless, this area was too far from the first established Spanish missions in Baja (“lower”) California to enable a permanent settlement. For this reason, Monterey and its surroundings remained mainly unexplored for almost another two hundred years.

As soon as the Mission San Diego de Alcala was established in 1769, the Spaniards could start settling the territory of Alta (“upper”) California. On the 14th of July, with Sebastián Vizcaíno’s travel record as their only reference, a land expedition led by Don Gaspar de Portolà and Father Juan Crespi set off northwards in search of Monterey. Not recognizing the bay from Vizcaíno’s description, they traveled in a circle for several months ending up near the Carmel River, just south of the actual Monterey Peninsula. Completely unaware that they had reached their destination, the expedition finally decided to return to San Diego. Before departing, they erected a large wooden cross on the shore near the southeast side of Monterey Bay, as evidence of their passage.

In the spring of 1770, once aware of their earlier navigational errors, Portolà and Crespi decided to  try again. After just one month of travel, they located Monterey Bay and the cross they had erected six months earlier. But something unexpected had happened: the cross was surrounded by arrows stuck in the ground and covered by strings of dry fish. At its base, someone had placed a pile of mussels. The Spaniards soon realized that the local people had found the cross and—without having ever seen one before—identified it as a spiritual object and brought offerings just like they did with their own religious symbols.

The “Portolà Cross” installation in the OMCA’s Gallery of California History. Photo by Terry Lorant.

The “Portolà Cross” installation in the OMCA’s Gallery of California History. Photo by Terry Lorant.

According to Louise Pubols, OMCA’s Senior Curator of History, what’s most interesting about the first contact between the Spanish explorers and the Native people of Monterey is that there was no spoken language involved; just a symbol, namely a cross. In the gallery section entitled “Spaniards Claim This Land,” OMCA features an installation representing this particular historical event consisting of a prop of the so-called “Portolà Cross” and some relics from the time of the missions.

The history behind the establishment of the Presidio and Mission of San Carlos de Borromeo de Monterey, which took place on the 3rd of June, 1770—just a few days after the Spaniards found the cross—is so fascinating to me because it exemplifies the age-old and inexorable process of hybridization that occurs each time people from different cultures cross each other’s path.


Other sources for this article were:

The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box

In the next episode: Being a miner’s wife in the time of the Gold Rush.

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