The Founding of Monterey

by Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.



Provisions at the San Diego outpost were running short, and the arrival of the famished Portolá expedition from their exploration of Monterey and San Francisco Bay on January 24, 1770 stretched the dwindling supplies even further. The San Jose and San Antonio were overdue with much needed supplies. Portolá sent an expedition, under the command of Captain Fernando de Rivera, to Lower California on February 11 in an attempt to stretch their food as far as possible, and was determined to abandon the outpost entirely if the supply ships did not arrive by St. Joseph's Day (March 19). Fray Junípero Serra was against the move, and began a novena which ended on the 19th. Late that afternoon, as the sun set, a ship was spotted far out to sea, heading north. It was the San Antonio.

The San Antonio returned to San Diego on the 23rd, either because it stopped for water in the Channel Islands and learned that the land expedition had traveled north then south, or because it lost an anchor. With renewed spirits, Portolá and Serra agreed on a joint land/sea expedition to again search for Monterey, and to establish a colony if they were successful.

The San Antonio departed for Monterey on April 16, 1770. On board were Fray Junípero Serra, Miguel Costansó, military engineer and cartographer, and Don Pedro Prat, army surgeon, as well as a cargo of stores for the new mission. The land expedition left the following day, led by Gaspar de Portolá, with Lt. Pedro Fages, twelve Catalonian Volunteers, seven cuera (leather jacket) soldiers, five Lower California Indians, and two muleteers. Father Crespi served as the expedition's chaplain. This left San Diego manned by Ortega and eight cuera soldiers, ten mission Indians from Lower California as laborers, a muleteer, and Fathers Parrón and Gómez. Also in San Diego was the San Carlos, with only seven on board, still waiting for the San Jose to arrive with a replacement crew.

The land expedition followed the same route as it had the previous winter returning from Monterey. After 36 days on the road, with only two days of rest, they arrived in Monterey on May 24, 1770, camping in the previously used site by El Estero. That afternoon, Portolá, Crespi, and Don Pedro Prat walked along the beach, returning from where they had planted a large cross the winter before. Culleton writes:

Having examined the cross they went down to the beach. Thousands of sea lions were about, so close to one another that they looked like a pavement. Two young whales lay together not more than a hundred yards off shore. The waters were as calm as those of a lake. From where they stood Monterey Bay looked like a great "O" just as it had appeared to Vizcaíno. They no doubt felt a little embarrassed that they had not gone personally with the explorers when they were there in the previous December, for they realized that the cross squarely marked the harbor.
But very shortly after they "discovered" the fabulous port of Monterey the expedition was forced to move their camp, because of the lack of fresh water, to Carmel Bay, where they had camped the previous December. The pack train followed the route of the current highway, but Portolá, Crespi, and Lt. Fages followed the beach around Pt. Pinos. They reported many pines which the Indians had felled by fire rings at their bases. Four days after setting up the new camp a large number of Indians were seen silently watching them from a nearby hill. The Spanish moved the horses to the opposite side of camp, and the Indians (from the local Ohlone) approached carrying two or three baskets of pinole and feather tipped rods. The Spanish took the gifts and gave the visitors beads and ribbons in return. The chief, who walked a little ahead of the rest, was painted a shiny black. He promised to return with venison in four days.

Contrary winds took the San Antonio first south of San Diego then north of Monterey, but on May 31, 1770, the ship was sighted close to Pt. Pinos. Portolá ordered three fires lighted, the agreed upon signal. The vessel fired a cannon in acknowledgment. Preceded by a launch taking soundings, the vessel anchored about directly under the spot where the cross stood. The following day, Portolá, Crespi, and Fages traveled to the harbor. On their return to Carmel, they were greeted by the same group of Indians, who, true to their word, had brought three deer and enough pinole to fill a large bag.

On June 3, 1770, Portolá, Crespi, Lt. Fages, six Catalonian Volunteers and four cuera soldiers traveled from their camp to the port, arriving early in the morning. Under Serra's direction, the men from the ship had already prepared a chapel of branches beneath the Vizcaíno Oak. Ceremonies of "possession and establishment" were conducted: a great cross was raised by the whole company, and the royal standard was unfurled. To these were added the customary ceremonies of pulling up grass, breaking twigs from trees, throwing stones and earth to the four winds, and drawing up a legal record of all that had taken place. Thus were formally founded the mission and presidio of San Carlos de Borromeo de Monterey. That evening Fr. Crespi and his companions returned to Carmel, where they remained until June 5, after which their camp was moved to Monterey.

A few huts were quickly erected on a site near the beach, and southeast of the port on "an inlet which communicated with the bay at high water" (Lake El Estero). The temporary church, only partially completed, was blessed on June 14. A soldier and a young sailor, who had volunteered, were immediately dispatched on horseback to carry the news back to San Diego and Lower California. They met Captain Fernando de Rivera just south of San Diego, and reached Todos Santos Mission on August 2.

On July 9, Portolá, who had turned command of the presidio over to Lt. Fages, boarded the San Antonio and sailed for Mexico. Costansó accompanied him, and they arrived in San Blas on August 1 and in Mexico on August 10. The news they carried reached Mexico City prior to that carried by the two volunteers on horseback. The San Antonio also carried a letter from Serra to the viceroy requesting permission to move the mission from Monterey to Carmel. His request claimed the lack of fertile land and water for irrigation, but is it more likely that he wished his neophytes removed from "the bad influence of the soldiers."

After the San Antonio left on July 9, the non-native population of Monterey consisted of less than 50 men. The exact number is uncertain, but Culleton lists 47 as the most likely figure:

Priests (2)
Surgeon (1)
Fages and his Catalonian Volunteers (13)
Sailors (5)
Soldiers of the cuera (6)
Mechanics (2)
Muleteers (5)
Indians from Lower California (13)
Five individuals, four sailors and a Lower California Indian, died by September 20, leaving the non-native population of Monterey at no more than 42. They were on their own, completely isolated, until another supply ship could force its way up the coast. But with the contrary winds and the deaths of so many sailors from scurvy, no one could predict when that would happen.

The early history of Monterey centered around the presidio. This is recounted in the next section.


Copyright 1996 by G.S. Breschini



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