Month: May 2012

Where is Monterey?

Point Pinos Lighthouse

Point Pinos Lighthouse

As we discussed last time, in 1769 Spanish explorers were charged with establishing a mission and presidio in both San Diego and Monterey. San Diego, apparently, was easy to find. Monterey . . . not so much. The explorers missed it entirely and stumbled onto San Francisco Bay instead. (Aside: The only other anchorage the Spanish knew of in California was Drake’s Bay, under the lee of Point Reyes. The Spanish had named that anchorage San Francisco. When they climbed up the San Bruno hills and saw the south bay, they thought it drained into San Francisco, that is, Drakes Bay. It took a while to sort the two San Franciscos out.)

That is to say, the explorers didn’t miss Monterey so much as they just failed to recognize it from the descriptions left by sailors. An exploration party led by Portola traveled on land from San Diego, went up the California coast to somewhere around San Simeon, crossed over to the Salinas Valley and followed that river to its source. From there, they identified Point Pinos, the most prominent landmark of Monterey, hiked around the point to Carmel and back, and determined that this could not possibly be Monterey. Bancroft gives a number of reasons how this could have come about. The two I like best are (1) the description of the bay as a great anchorage was inaccurately overstated, and (2) things look different from land and from the sea.

As to the first, anyone who has sailed north along the California coast can tell you that it is, in a word, rough. There are few anchorages to speak of between Point Conception and Point Sur, and those aren’t very secure. After beating around for a few weeks (or months, in the Spaniards’ case – lacking engines, ships would have to sail out to Hawaii and tack back toward California to beat the wind and current) trying to get up north, Monterey is nirvana. I’ve felt that way even with an engine and beating into the waves for just 20 hours or so. (The last time I did so, I was helping someone deliver a boat up to San Francisco. We docked in Monterey, ate breakfast, and the owner announced the delivery was over. He was renting a car and driving home to Sausalito the next day and he’d deal with the boat later.)

As to the second, things do look different from land and from water. I could go on about that, but the thought reminded me of a passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. And he’s so much better at writing than I am.


Despina can be reached in two ways: by ship or by camel. The city displays one face to the traveller arriving overland and a different one to him who arrives by sea.

When the camel-driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the white and red windsocks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to cast off, with the breeze already swelling the sails, not yet unfurled, or a steamboat with its boiler vibrating in the iron keel; and he thinks of all the ports, the foreign merchandise the cranes unload on the docks, the taverns where crews of different flags break bottles over one another’s heads, the lighted, ground-floor windows, each with a woman combing her hair.

In the coastline’s haze, the sailor discerns the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing and swaying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wine skins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea, towards oases of fresh water in the palm trees’  jagged shade, towards palaces of thick, whitewashed walls, tiled courts where girls are dancing barefoot, moving their arms, half-hidden by their veils, and half-revealed.

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel-driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts.

Italo Calvino
Invisible Cities
Text version here

Afterthought: The lighthouse, charts, and a GPS do make Point Pinos and Monterey easier to find these days.



Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, 0 comments

Offending God, the king, and the country

Map of California circa 1650

Map of California circa 1650

Continuing on in the early history of Spanish exploration in California . . .

After a few excursions by sea between 1542-43 (Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo) and 1602-03 (Sebastian Vizcaino), the Spanish more or less left Alta California alone until 1769

(Historical aside: Spanish ships sailed along the California coast regularly from the 1580s on. Spanish ships began hauling plunder from Manila back to New Spain (Mexico) in the mid-1500s. In 1584, one captain, Francisco de Galli found it was easier to get to Mexico by sailing north along the Japanese current across the Pacific Ocean, which deposited the ships somewhere around  Cape Mendocino. From there, ships would sail south along the coast to Mexico. But there are no records that any ever anchored or landed anywhere along the coast. They hit the Cape, turned right, hooked around the bottom of Baja California, and landed in Acapulco.)

The reason the Spanish suddenly showed a renewed interest around 1769 in establishing their presence in California is because the Russians were working their way down the California coast. (They got as far south as Fort Ross in Sonoma county.) So King Carlos III (and his advisors) dusted off the old coast pilots, recalled that there were two good ports in California (San Diego and Monterey), and set out to build a presidio and mission in each.

The man who planned the expedition to set up shop  in these two ports was Jose de Galvez, the visitor general of New Spain. His plan was to send four expeditions simultaneously: two by land, two by sea. Bancroft, in a footnote (page 129), sets out a translation of the orders given by Galvez to Captain Vicente Vila, commander of the ships. They start with these two directions:

lst. The object is to establish the Catholic faith, to extend Spanish domain, to check the ambitious schemes of a foreign nation, and to carry out a plan formed by Felipe III. as early as 1606. Therefore no pains can bo spared without offense to God, the king, and the country.

2d. The vessel (San Carlos) being new, strong, and well supplied for over a year, to be followed by the San Antonio with additional supplies, having only 300 leagues to make, having a strong military force, and going to a land whoso natives are docile, have no arms but bows and arrows, and are without boats, there can be no excuse en lo humano for failure.

But hey, Vicente. No pressure.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, 0 comments


1533 edition of Amadis of Gaul

1533 edition of Amadis of Gaul

Kevin Starr agrees with HH Bancroft that the name “California” comes from a 16th century Spanish novel. Indeed, after explaining how in 1862 Edward H. Hale (author of “The Man Without a Country”) discovered the novel, translated it, and demonstrated how it must be the source of the name California, Bancroft states flatly, “No intelligent man will ever question the accuracy of Hale’s theory.” (page 66).

The novel is titled “Amadis of Gaul,” written by Ordoñez de Montalvo (Graci Ordóñez de Montalvo, according to Starr) and was originally published around 1510. Apparently, it was a bestseller until “Don Quixote” knocked it off the list one hundred years later (Starr, page 5).

The story of “Amadis of Gaul” includes a race of black Amazons, under the command of Queen Califia, who hail from California, “an island on the right hand of the Indies . . . very close to the side of Terrestrial Paradise,” abounding in gold and precious stones. You can read more about the book here.

The name California was first applied to the tip of Baja (La Paz) sometime between 1535 and 1539. But the story of the name of California only really gets interesting, though, when writers give their opinion as to why California came to be called California.

During this period, the Spanish weren’t interested in colonizing more countries so much as they were in still trying to find the direct route to Asia. Columbus tried, and ran into the Americas. Soon after, the Spanish, under Hernán Cortés, ran around ransacking Mexico and reached the other side in 1513 (when Balboa first saw the Pacific Ocean). Still looking for the passage to Asia, in 1533 Cortés dispatched an expedition to sail up the west coast of Mexico to see where it lead. After a number of misfortunes – including mutinies, groundings, murder by natives, etc. (Bancroft, 5-6) – the then-leader of the expedition, Jiminez, is crediting with stumbling on a bay on what he supposed was an island. He didn’t name it at that time. When word got back to Cortés, he sailed over for a look, and named the bay and island Santa Cruz. He also tried to establish a colony there. Three times. All three attempts failed.

The name California first appears in 1539, a few years after Cortés’s first visit, in a diary kept on a subsequent expedition under Ulloa. Starr and Bancroft both suggest the diarist, Preciado, didn’t apply the name, but rather, reported on its common usage at that time.  Starrr believes the name came into use by people “half believing and more than fully hoping they would find there as well the gold and precious stones described in Montalvo’s romance, and perhaps even an Amazon or two” (page 6). And in most books I’ve read that discuss the origin of the name, that seems to be the prevailing sentiment.

But Bancroft takes a different view: “I strongly suspect the name was applied in derision by [Cortés’s] disgusted colonists on their return [to the mainland] in 1536.”

Which I think is much easier to believe. I’ve been to La Paz. Even now, there’s not much there besides a Señor Frog’s and a Moorings base. Most people I know get plastered at the former, then stumble down to the marina to charter a boat from the latter and sail off for uninhabited islands in the Sea of Cortes. Looking for the riches of the orient and running into Baja California is sort of like leaving Des Moines for Laguna Beach and ending up in Bakersfield. It may have it’s charms, but it’s not even close to Terrestrial Paradise.

So I’m going with Bancroft on this one.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, 0 comments