On the trail of California's Mexican past

LA Times | Travel

Monterey Welcome to Mexicalifornia. And no, I'm not talking about immigration policy or demographic trends or domestic hiring habits. I'm talking about that spell from the early 1820s to the late 1840s, when California, Alta y Baja, was Mexican. All it takes to bring those years back, ...

By Christopher Reynolds // 06.27.08


Welcome to Mexicalifornia. And no, I'm not talking about immigration policy or demographic trends or domestic hiring habits. I'm talking about that spell from the early 1820s to the late 1840s, when California, Alta y Baja, was Mexican.

All it takes to bring those years back, touristically speaking, is three or four days on the road, roaming between the rolling, wine-rich Sonoma hills and the cool, foggy coastline of the Central Coast. Even without the historical underpinning, the route makes for a classic California road trip. But this way, you end up with an inkling of what went on after Junípero Serra retired and before that guy found gold at Sutter's Mill.

Depending on how you count, California's Mexican era lasted 24 to 27 years. Longer than the Pony Express did business, longer than Billy the Kid lived, longer than Walter Alston managed the Dodgers.

It was enough time for Mexico's leaders to banish Spanish Franciscans from control of the mission system they began in the late 18th century; time for cattle-ranching to create a new economy from 8 million acres of land grants.

It was time enough for some of the state's most influential buildings to rise, brick by adobe brick; time enough for a new wave of immigrants bearing goods and ideas from all over; and time enough for the state's first ruling class -- the ranchers -- to viciously exploit Indian labor even as Mexico's leaders banned slavery.

This itinerary is full of options -- add on a day in wine country near Sonoma or in gold country near Sacramento, or in Carmel near Monterey. Or just head south for a single night in old San Diego.

Not every history lesson comes with jaunty music and tall margaritas, but this one does.


We start where the missionaries stopped. The rustic frontier never looked as good -- or as comfortable.

Sonoma is where, in 1823, Spanish Franciscans founded San Francisco Solano, their last California mission. Here it is on the town plaza, full of historical displays and cool, dark rooms sheltered from the heat by adobe walls 2 to 3 feet thick.

By the time the mission was up and running, this territory had already passed into Mexico's control. No shots were fired. Many Spanish soldiers simply went to work for Mexico. Before long, a town grew up around the mission and military barracks, complete with a leafy central plaza and a lavish home for Commandant Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo.

Vallejo, a California native with Spanish blood, in 1834 became the top Mexican military official in the north. Over time, the Mexican governor granted him 66,000 acres, making him one of the state's wealthiest ranchers.

Vallejo's fortunes dwindled after the Americans took over. But there's plenty here to remind you of his heyday. Six buildings from the Mexican days remain near Sonoma's prosperous plaza, and together they make up Sonoma State Historic Park.

It's best to dip in and out of the Mexican 19th century between bites and browsing at the Sonoma Wine Shop or Maya Restaurant or Ben & Jerry's or Artifax Gallery or A Taste of Italy.

Then, for a reminder of how rustic and empty the country was when Vallejo ran his cattle, head out to Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park.

It may be lonely. This was headquarters of the ranching empire, but hours can pass between visitors to the stark, wood-trimmed, two-story adobe.

Standing upstairs on the redwood balcony floor, you can scan thousands of acres and imagine they're all yours, with 600 or more workers queuing up for hot meals from the big, round outdoor ovens and three-legged caldrons. Downstairs, peek at the period furniture and imagine the stench of cowhides drying on the fence.


Mexican California: An article in Sunday's Travel section said gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1849; it was discovered in 1848. An accompanying article stated that Pio Pico became the first native-born governor of Alta California under Mexican control in 1832. The first native-born governor of Mexican Alta California was Luis Antonio Arguello, who took office in 1822. —


In 1839, German-born Swiss entrepreneur Johann "John" Sutter got off a ship at San Francisco and persuaded the governor to grant him 48,000 acres along the American and Sacramento rivers. He called his place New Helvetia and built a fort, with a mill to follow in Colona, 40 miles east. Sutter's fort was the first non-Indian settlement in California's Great Valley. It also became the prime destination for westward overland travelers that began in the wake of trapper Jedediah Smith's first successful journey in 1826.

In 1849, gold was found at the mill, the California Gold Rush began, and in the middle of this burgeoning wealth, Sutter somehow found a way to lose his fortune. But when you visit Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, that's all still in the future.

The state parks people, working with a site that was overrun and dismantled in the late 19th century, have rebuilt and outfitted the fort with 1846 in mind. The fort flies a U.S. flag out front but a Mexican flag inside the walls because, remember, it's 1846 and we're in Mexico.

I happened to reach the fort just as a gaggle of fourth-graders from Noralto School in Sacramento was rolling up in a horse-drawn wagon. Each had a historic character to portray.

"I built the fort in 1839 for people like you who are weary travelers," said Mr. Sutter, who was played by Carlos Barrera. Nearby stood Mariano Vallejo, played by Diego Ramirez. Sutter's friend John Bidwell, played by Vincent Xiong, occasionally turned to whisper with a friend in Hmong.

Scampering from one station to another around the fort, they heard about the travails of covered-wagon travelers, the economics of the hide trade, the mechanics of turning cattle fat into candles and soap.

I've never seen California's 19th and 21st centuries as productively entangled. But I could only spend so much time in Sacramento, because I was due in the capital, 190 miles away.


The Spanish made Monterey capital of their California, and by the time Mexico took over (the news took several months in arriving) it was the largest non-Indian community in California, with about 400 residents. Monterey still held on to its starring role.

But other things changed. The Spanish had scorned immigration and visits from foreign ships. The Mexicans welcomed both.

"It was the Mexican period that opened up the country," says Jim Conway, museum and cultural arts manager for the city of Monterey.

The town held on to enough clout to host California's first constitutional convention in Colton Hall -- which the city keeps open for visitors -- but once the Gold Rush was on, everything slowed. Nobody had much reason to "improve" or knock down the old adobes, so many survived, and the state runs nearly a dozen of them as Monterey State Historic Park.

As in Sonoma, the buildings are scattered around the old part of town, so you can meander between old and new. My hotel, the Hotel Pacific, was neighbored on one side by the state's first theater, on the other by an 1840s home. Heading into town from the northeast, I paused to prowl around San Juan Bautista, a 1797 mission and a sleepy, artsy main drag .

But the Monterey waterfront was key to everything in the old days, and to a degree it still is. With museums, marina views and cloud-cloaked hills all around, it's a fascinating exercise to confront the 1827 Custom House, where every arriving ship's captain needed to report.

This is where California met the world. It's also where I started my tour of the adobes. If you show up on a Wednesday, as I did, you can follow a state park guide through three in a row. Guide John Klein led us first into the Casa Soberanes, a two-story relic that stands behind a blue gate.

Next came the Larkin House, another two-story structure, this one built by the merchant who became the only man to serve as American consul to Mexican California. (Many consider the Larkin place the prototype for the Monterey colonial architectural style.)

Finally, we prowled the Cooper Molera Adobe, built by a man from New England who married into a Mexican family. It's not quite like time travel to poke through these buildings, because the parks people have left in furniture from various decades, up through the 1970s. (Many of the homes were in private hands until a few decades ago.) But just as in Sonoma, Petaluma and Sacramento, if you tread those groaning floorboards between thick adobe walls, you get a whiff of what this state used to be.

The Asian art and furniture remind you how much easier it was to reach Asia than it was to reach Europe. The art reminds you how Catholicism endured, even as the missions crumbled. The harps and fiddles remind you that if you wanted a tune, you had to pluck it out yourself.

And if those drawing-room recitals sound rather more sophisticated than the thumping sounds emanating from CDs and MP3s today, keep in mind that these same Californians turned out in droves to bet and cheer fights-to-the-death between bears and bulls.

The past, as some foreigner once said, is a different country. And ours really is.