Did W.E.P. Hartnell Establish
The First College In California?

by Robert B. Johnston

One of the earliest items of information and publicity for the claim that the lower Salinas Valley was the site of "...the first college established in California" was the publication during the mid-1939 in a leading newspaper of Salinas City of a photograph of two adobe buildings on "...a part of the Mrs. James Bardin's ranch," which the editor claimed "...still stand as monuments..." to that event. [1]

Meanwhile Paul Parker, a native son of Monterey County, newspaper editor and publisher as well collector/writer in the field of local history, obtained copies of the census for 1835 of the Monterey-Salinas Valley area which included a report on "Hartnell College." [2] Mr. Parker loaned the copy of the census to R.J. Werner, President of Salinas Junior College who also possess[ed] a copy "a photograph of Captain Hartnell...", said to have been taken "about 1840" [?] [3]

The news report also claimed that "Nathanial Soberanes, great grandson of Hartnell, has in his possession many books and documents written in eight different languages which were used by Hartnell daily in his role as instructor." [4] The news report of 1940 concluded--

Werner, who is deeply interested in the old college whose crumbling ruins may still be seen in the Alisal district, stated that Hartnell college, with its 13 students and two instructors was 'truly the first junior college in California,' as the main purpose was to prepare the youth of the day for the University. [5]
In the "Last Will and Testament of W. E. P. Hartnell of Monterey, California", undated copy obtained from Nathaniel Soberanes and in the historical files of Dr. Luella Hall, Hartnell College, there is no reference to his school and/or colleges though he did bequeath a part of his library to his children "...to be divided...as their mother may see fit."

As a part of a "Narration by the distinguished Matron, Dona Teresa de la Guerra de Hartnell" [copy in the files of Dr. Luella Hall] dictated March 12, 1875, Mrs. Hartnell does state,

...William Hartnell and Father Patrick Short opened a college in Monterey, where many [?] young Californians were admitted ....at the end of a few years the college was closed.
Several references to Hartnell are found in the volumes of H. H. Bancroft, including the statement that he was "...granted [in] 1834 of Alisal or Patrocinio Rancho where with Father Short he established a 'kind of college, sometimes called Seminario de San San José.'" [6]

But the clearest and the most comprehensive statement is found in a Volume entitled California Pastoral "...W. E. P. Hartnell...concluded to establish at Monterey a school for boys ....December 10, 1833, he announced that he would open a 'casa de educacion' for a limited number of pupils, not under eight years of age." [7]

The following is a summary of the principal events in Hartnell's role as the founder of a school and his acquisition of a portion of the Rancho Alisal in Monterey County, California and is based entirely on Susanna Dakin's The Lives of William Hartnell (Stanford University Press 1949), pages 1-187. Ms. Dakin used original records and letters in developing and presenting the most authentic account of Hartnell's life available to this date.

In the short span of a half dozen years (1831-1836), W. E. P. Hartnell--"Guillermo Eduardo Petty Arnel"--arranged to free himself of an $18,000 debt incurred by his firm of McCullough & Hartnell, became a ranchero as grantee of 3,000+ acres of the Rancho Alisal, and opened "una casa de educacion"--a school--in his home in Monterey, later moved to his rancho in the Alisal. Father Patrick Peter Short, a French priest exiled from the Hawaiian Islands, assisted in the operation of the school. Hartnell acknowledged that he was able to accomplish all of this through the advice and encouragement of the father of his bride, Don San José de la Guerra of Santa Barbara, and the assistance of the enlightened Governor of California (1833-1835), Don San José Figueroa. Further advice and support came from Alfred Robinson and David Spence.

Hartnell took the necessary steps required to become a citizen of Mexico in 1830, which made him eligible to receive a land grant. At first he negotiated an arrangement with the Soberanes brothers--Feliciano and Mariano--in 1831 by which he was awarded an undivided one-third interest in El Rancho Alisal. Hartnell then proceeded to build his first casa on the rancho, planted fruit trees and a vineyard as well as pasturing 500 head of cattle. Though, as he wrote to his father-in-law in early April 1832, his wish was to live "...entirely on the ranch...", he could not "...give up the little business I carry on in Monterey...." He asked, "What must I do to make a killing?" Don San José wrote in reply "...turn [your] natural inclination to teach into an asset and become a schoolmaster...." As the rancho seemed an ideal setting for a school, Hartnell, could combine the pleasures of teaching with those of being a ranchero. [8]

After considering the proposal for several months, Hartnell accepted the idea of a school but decided that "...it would be more satisfactory here in Monterey." An important factor was that Hartnell had not yet received an outright grant of land on the Rancho del Alisal that he could call his own and building a chapel for the school would require complicated negotiations. [9]

On December 10, Hartnell issued a public announcement:

Guillermo Eduardo Hartnell begs to announce...plans to open a school in this part to receive a limited number of boys over eight years of age...

The school will open the first day of next year [1834]...

[Instruction] will be available in...reading and writing, Spanish, French, English, German and Latin grammar, arithmetic, bookkeeping...and philosophy.

Special attention would be given to teaching Christian doctrine...practices and manners...tuition, 200 pesos a year. [10]

But a disappointed Hartnell wrote on January 7, 1834, "...not a single pupil has appeared." It was March 11, 1834 when the term actually began in fact. On the 4th of May 1834, Governor Figueroa stood as "Padrino" in the ceremony of benediction and christening of the school. The Governor made his blessing more significant by the gift of [$150.00] hard dollars for its support.

About six weeks, June 26, 1834, Governor Figueroa authorized the formal decree granting to Hartnell school "...Guillermo Eduardo Hartnell one third of "El Rancho Alisal" containing 3,000 acres+/-. Hartnell renamed his portion "El Patrocinio de San José" and new titles were drawn up for the separate portions of the original rancho. Hartnell now proceeded to build a second adobe casa on the rancho and "Don Guillermo announced el Seminario del Patrocinio de San José would be moved to its new site in the country." No more day pupils would be accepted after May 1, 1835.

On June 6, 1835 , Hartnell wrote to his father-in-law:

It is now a month since we have been living in this "Paraiso delicioso," for so it seems to us in comparison to Monterey. [11]
Of the two adobes on the rancho, the larger one provided family quarters, as well as for the library, the classrooms and the chapel; the smaller--1st floor: common dining room, kitchen, pantry--adjacent to a large, outdoor fireplace oven; 2nd floor: boy's dormitory. The census of 1836 listed a total of (44) persons living on the rancho. [12]

Hartnell--father, mother and children; Guillermito (ten), Adelberto (five), Maria Teresa (three and a half), José (two), Matilda (one), and infant, Pablo.
De la Guerra--Pablo (seventeen), Joaquin (fourteen).
Five other white boys and six Indians, ages nine to seventeen.
The Reverend Patrick Short (forty-three).
Four artisans: Gorman (Irish), Janson (German), Mata (Portuguese), Lorenzo (Mexican).
Vicente Cantua--Mayordomo of the rancho-and family--living in a casita (small adobe). Twelve Indian servants with families living in tule huts.
"William Hartnell now seemed more of a personage than anyone else in northern California....California's first institution of higher learning stood on his property and bore his name,...in the public mind. Always one heard of it as [Hartnell school.] No one could remember to say 'el Seminario del Patrocinio de San José'...." [13]

But all was not well for Hartnell and his school. Governor José Figueroa died suddenly on September 19, 1835 and a changing political climate was found to not be favorable to a new educational venture. In the summer of 1836, Hartnell and Father Short announced the closing of the school for lack of funds and insufficient attendance. [14]

What have some professional historians written regarding W. E. P. Hartnell and his contributions to the development of educational institutions in California?

"From 1833 to 1836 he was agent for the Russian American Fur Company. At about the same time he opened a school known as the Seminario de San San José in which his own children were often in the majority." [15]

"William E. P. Hartnell conducted a boy's school near Monterey under the patronage of Governor Figueroa, but it had to be closed soon after Figueroa's death for lack of funds and pupils." [16]

"He [Hartnell]...founded a school for his own children (he had 25) and other youngsters...a junior college in Salinas (established 1925) is named after him." [17]

[Mr. Johnston has not stated his own conclusion whether Mr. Hartnell in the sense that we use the word today established a college but has left this up to the reader.]


1. Salinas Index Journal (weekend edition July 13/14, 1939). Photo from Mr. D. A. Madeira collection.
2. Vallejo "documents"/collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California.
3. Photograph in possession of Miss Anna Zabala. (1840 is somewhat early for a photograph.)
4. Some of these books (and documents?) were passed at a later date to the Monterey County Historical Society by Mrs. Ana Black.
5. Salinas Independent, February 23, 1940. News report by Frances Ruhler.
6. Bancroft, The Works, Vol. II, 616; III, 317, 670, 677-678.
7. Bancroft, The Works, Vol. XXXIV; California Pastoral, 513-514.
8. Dakin, The Lives of William Hartnell (1949), 159.
9. Dakin, The Lives of William Hartnell (1949), 161.
10. Hartnell school was patterned after the British "public schools." Dakin, The Lives of William Hartnell (1949), 161-162, 175-176. But these schools were in fact private preparatory schools, and certainly not paid colleges.
11. Dakin, The Lives of William Hartnell (1949), 180-181.
12. Dakin, Ibid., 183.
13. Dakin, Ibid. (1949), 183-184.
14. Dakin, Ibid., 185-187.
15. Caughey John W., California, A Remarkable State's Life History, Third Edition (Prentice Hall, Inc., Inglewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970), 140. Caughey was professor of American History, University of California, Los Angeles, California.
16. Bean, Walton, California, An Interpretive History (New York, McGraw Hill Book Co., 1968), 72. Bean was Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley, California.
17. Hart, James D., A Companion to California (New York, 1978), 179. Hart served as director of Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley, California--formerly Vice-chancellor of the Berkeley Campus and a "revered teacher of American literature."

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