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Monterey, on California’s Central Coast, no longer holds the political power that it did during the days of Spanish and Mexican rule, when it was the state capital. But it remains one of the state’s most emblematic places – embracing modernity while simultaneously celebrating a rich and diverse history. As we approach Monterey’s 250th birthday, Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews says it’s a good time to appreciate the city that made the world pay attention to California.

Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below:

Monterey turns 250 next month. The whole state should claim that it’s our birthday too.  

Monterey’s beginnings are the closest thing that California, an orphan of a state, has to a birth story. We can’t know the exact day, thousands of years ago, when native peoples arrived. European explorers didn’t stick around long enough to establish much. And Admission Day—September 9, 1850, when California joined the Union—isn’t a birthday, since California was a Spanish and Mexican province before that. 

By default, that leaves June 3, 1770, when Junipero Serra, California’s unsaintly saint, and Spanish Capt. Gaspar de Portola founded Monterey, which would become California’s first capital—and most enduring place.

A quarter-millennium later, Monterey is often dismissed as too precious, too much a place apart. But the same has been said about California. Indeed, the peninsula city has long been our emblem.

The mission system began in San Diego in 1769, but Monterey’s mission, relocated to  Carmel, was Serra’s headquarters. In 1776, Spain declared Monterey the capital of its Alta California colony—inspiring other Spanish settlements, including San Jose and Los Angeles.

In 1822, Mexico took over Monterey, which remained provincial capital while also becoming an official port of entry, and commercial center. In that role, Monterey changed the world’s perception of California—from feudal Spanish backwater into a highly desirable destination. “The cosmopolitan atmosphere created by the international trade helped make Monterey a hotbed of liberal thought,” wrote historian J.D. Conway in Monterey: Presidio Pueblo and Port. California’s tradition of political revolt got its start when Montereños rebelled against provincial governors appointed by Mexico City.

The Americanization of California began in 1846 with Monterey’s peaceful contest. In 1849, Monterey hosted the convention to produce the state constitution that California used to muscle its way into the U.S. in 1850.

After statehood, a misguided conventional wisdom held that Monterey no longer mattered. Sure, the place suffered some indignities. A land baron stole 30,000 acres. Santa Cruz formed its own separate county. And Salinas stole Monterey’s status as the county seat through a deal  that allowed Hollister to make itself the seat of another breakaway county, San Benito.

Despite these blows,  Monterey—a global-facing city proud of its Spanish and Mexican roots—kept  prospering. Its sleepy reputation reflected the ignorance of the rest of California, which grew more Anglo, nativist, and Protestant.  “California’s change from a Hispanic culture to an Anglo-Protestant culture made Monterey appear to be out of the mainstream,” Conway wrote.

Monterey quietly kept welcoming people: Chinese fishermen, Azores whalers, artists, marine scientists and migrants from Japan, Sicily, Spain, the Balkans, and the Dust Bowl. These enterprising arrivals kept making Monterey the capital of various things. Exploiting revived interest in our Spanish heritage, Monterey mined its historic architecture to become the Adobe Capital of California. Fishing and canning made Monterey the Sardine Capital of the World. The jazz festival and aquarium turned Monterey into a late-20th century tourism capital. Military and educational facilities—the Navy’s Postgraduate School, the Defense Language Institute, the Monterey Institute of International Studies—allow Monterey to declare itself the Language Capital of the World.

In all this, the historian Conway saw civic “schizophrenia”; Monterey, like California, clings to its past while relentlessly seeking new identities. That two-sidedness, and fights over water and growth, make Monterey difficult to govern But the city’s ability to remain so attractive—at age 250—also holds an important lesson for Californians: size and political power don’t make you great.

I’m sad that COVID-19 forced the cancellation of Monterey’s birthday party. But on my next visit, I plan to stop by Lower Presidio Historic Park, where Monterey got started in 1770, and the 18th-century San Carlos Cathedral. There I’ll say a prayer that California, and its real capital, might survive to celebrate their birthday together in another 250 years.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews