The Ohlone tribe, who had been on the peninsula since around 500 BC, may have spotted Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European visitor, who sailed by in 1542. He was followed in 1602 by Sebastián Vizcaíno, who landed near the site of today’s downtown Monterey and named it after his patron, the Duke of Monte Rey. A long hiatus followed before the Spanish returned in 1770 to establish Monterey as their first presidio in Alta (Upper) California. The expedition was led by Gaspar de Portolá and accompanied by mission founder Padre Junípero Serra. A year later, Serra decided to separate church and state by shifting the mission to Carmel, a safe distance from the military presence.
Monterey became the capital of Alta California after Mexico broke from Spain in 1821. Freed from the tight Spanish trading constraints, it also became a bustling international trading port where East Coast Yankees mixed with Russian fur traders and seafarers carrying exotic goods from China.
The stars and stripes were temporarily raised over Monterey in 1842 when Commodore Thomas Jones, hearing a rumor that war had been declared between Mexico and the USA, took the town. A red-faced withdrawal took place a few days later when the rumor turned out to be false. When war really did break out in 1846, Commodore John Sloat’s takeover was almost reluctant; he clearly did not want to repeat the mistake. The American takeover signaled an abrupt change in the town’s fortunes, for San Jose soon replaced Monterey as the state capital, and the 1849 gold rush drained much of the remaining population.
The town spent 30 years as a forgotten backwater, its remaining residents eking out an existence from whaling, an industry replaced by tourism in the 1880s. After Southern Pacific Railroad entrepreneurs built a luxurious hotel, wealthy San Franciscans discovered Monterey as a convenient getaway.
Around the same time, fishermen began to capitalize on the teeming marine life in Monterey Bay, and the first sardine canneries soon opened. By the 1930s, Cannery Row had made the port the ‘Sardine Capital of the World, ’ but overfishing and climatic changes caused the industry’s sudden collapse in the 1950s. Fortunately, in more recent decades, the city has been able to net schools of tourists who flock to Monterey in greater numbers each year.