The Place of Many Owls – The Esselen Village on the Carmel River

Antonio Tomas Juan Onésimo was born in Carmel in 1796. They say that, as a boy, he helped in the construction of the Carmel Mission – and that he was so beloved by the Franciscan padres, they gave him a rare and precious violin, and taught him how to play. According to one account, Juan’s great-grandfather, a Rumsen Chief named Bohuranda, is said to have prevented an Indian massacre of Spanish explorers in 1770. Bohuranda was later baptized by Father Serra and given the family name Onésimo. Although Father Serra baptized many California Indians, the Onésimo family is said to be the only remaining direct descendants of local indigenous people who were given a baptismal name by Father Serra, himself. Juan Onésimo married an Esselen woman named Ignacia Patcalansi, who was born at the Carmel Mission in 1800. Their youngest daughter, Anselma, born in 1831, married a Connecticut Yankee sailor Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

How the West Was Won – Big Sur After the Gold Rush

The California redwoods were legendary – another tall tale of The West – like Paul Bunyan, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite, and Death Valley. They were, in fact, bigger than any trees still standing in post-Civil War America. Many were over 350-feet tall, hundreds of years old, and as big as twenty-five feet in diameter at the base. The rugged mountains south of Carmel were then still considered too inhospitable and inaccessible for the average homesteader. The vast stands of virgin redwood trees in the Santa Lucia Mountains, perched on the western-most edge of the North American continent, attracted the attention of only the most ambitious pioneers. It was a tall order just to get there. *           *           * For centuries, the prospect of acquiring “free land” was a cornerstone of the American Dream. In response to the Homestead Act, Anglo settlement of the Big Sur region began after the Continue Reading

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California’s Catholic Prison Camps at their Zenith – The Carmel Mission in 1826

  In 1821, during the last year of Spanish rule, nine ships visited Alta California. The following year, the number of vessels that visited the territory grew to twenty. Just before Christmas of 1826, after fifty-two days spent exploring and charting the bay of San Francisco, Captain Frederick William Beechey, sailed into the harbor at Monterey under the colors of Great Britain – the last of some forty-four ships to visit Alta California during that calendar year. The English and the Russians were, at this time, in a brisk competition to harvest all the sea otter pelts on the Pacific Coast. Captain Beechey commanded the Blossom, an imposing British sloop, equipped with sixteen guns and a crew of one hundred men. Beechey’s orders were to discover the fabled Northwest Passage before the Russians found it. Captain Beechey’s journal of the voyage of the Blossom, titled Narrative of a Voyage to Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

I Have Never Seen One Laugh – A Visit to the Carmel Mission in 1786

According to popular histories and countless documentary films, the new world of the Americas was an unspoiled and pristine wilderness, prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Supposedly, the Indians left no footprint on the land. It is an arresting image, but it isn’t really true. For thousands of years, the Indians of North America controlled and managed their environment by setting strategic wildfires, consciously and on a regular basis. This effectively cleared the underbrush and fallen branches, while leaving the mature trees unharmed, creating an environment prolific in game, edible plants, and grasslands. In 1524, fifteen miles from the beach in Rhode Island, the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano walked among trees so widely spaced that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.” In 1609, John Smith claimed to have ridden at full gallop, through Virginia forests he described as “manicured.” Annual fall burning in Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

The Indigenous Holocaust in Big Sur – Life and Death at the Carmel Mission

One has to wonder – if traditional life in the pre-contact Indian villages on the Monterey Peninsula was so great, and the game so plentiful, and their spiritual life so satisfying, what in the world possessed these contented Indians to voluntarily, sometimes it seems, even eagerly, enter a Catholic mission in the first place? In The Natural History of Big Sur, published in 1993, Paul Henson wrote: “It remains unclear just how the Big Sur natives—members of the Esselen, Ohlone Rumsen, and Salinan tribes—were drawn to the missions. Anthropologist Terry Jones says the Salinan have been repeatedly described as welcoming the padres and that it is unknown whether the Esselen were forced to convert or went to the missions peacefully. Historian Augusta Fink describes how a Rumsen chief from the Carmel Valley willingly presented himself and his four-year-old son to Father Serra for baptism. Many were undoubtedly attracted by the Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

The Two Harvests of Father Serra – Big Sur Before the Spanish Missions

European explorers got their first glimpses of Big Sur from their ships. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo mapped the coast of Alta California and observed the towering Santa Lucia Mountains from the deck of his vessel. He wrote in his journal: “There are mountains that seem to reach the heavens, and the sea beats on them; sailing along close to land, it appears as though they would fall on the ships.” In 1603, Sebastián Vizcaíno visited the bays of Monterey and Carmel, with three ships and some two-hundred men, proclaiming both to be excellent harbors. Carmelite Friars in the Vizcaíno expedition named the river El Rio de Carmelo for their patroness, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. But no settlement was established and for the next century and a half. The Spanish limited their colonization efforts to the more accessible regions to the south, Baja California and mainland Mexico. Vizcaíno described Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

Like Selling Your Mother – Big Sur After the Paved Highway

For years, Frank Post’s younger brother, Joe, was foreman at the Molera Ranch. On Christmas day, in 1888, he married one of his neighbors, John Gilkey’s oldest daughter, Rebecca Elizabeth. Everybody called her Lizzy. Joe W. Post bought up all the homesteading claims from both the Gilkey and Post families, including the Post Ranch Inn, amassing a total of more than 1,500 acres. Lizzie and Joe’s only  son, Joe. W. Post, Jr. – whom everyone called Bill – was born in 1896, in the house that Joe and his brother Frank built with their father, W. B. Post. Joe and Lizzy were two of a kind – outdoor adventurers who loved taking fisherman and hunters on pack trips in the Big Sur wilderness. Lizzy Post was one of the most skillful and accomplished horsewomen on the coast. In the early 1920s, she bought a high-spirited stallion. One day, she rode Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

No One Would Ever Live in That Country – Big Sur Before the Highway

In the days when my work involved a lot of travel, I once visited a remote community of a few hundred souls who lived on an island in Alaska that was only accessible by aircraft, or by a ferry that came twice a month. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a local schoolteacher who shook my hand and said, “You’re not from here – ’cause if you were, I would recognize your face.” One might have been met by such a greeting in 19th-century Big Sur, and it would still be appropriate on many parts of the coast today. The residents of the southern Monterey County share in common a predisposition for self-sufficiency, an appreciation of the natural environment, and a genuine ambivalence toward outsiders. At first, there were very few neighbors. The 1879 the voter registration roll for the Sur precinct listed just twenty-six men. All were identified Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

The House in the Wilderness – The Era of the El Sur Rancho

From 1797 until 1833, the San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (the Carmel Mission) was the headquarters of all of the Spanish missions in Alta California. Mexico declared its independence from Spain on September 28, 1821. Two years later, a new constitution established the Federal Republic of Mexico, and the town of Monterey became the military capital of the Alta California territory. Two hundred years ago, news traveled slowly. Reports of Mexico’s independence didn’t reach California for seven months. When it finally did arrive, the converted Indians living at the twenty-one California missions were never actually informed of their new political freedom. According to some accounts, conditions for the Indians worsened after the Mexican government came to power. Though the Spanish priests were replaced by padres trained in Mexico, it would be another decade before the Indians were released from their enslavement at the missions Half a century after their inception, each Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

Not For Sale At Any Price – Early Homesteaders in Big Sur

Big Sur was then, as it is now, an ethnically blended and multi-lingual community. In the early 1860s, a couple of vaqueros who worked at Captain Cooper’s ranch, Manuel Innocente, a Chumash Indian, and David Castro, homesteaded near Rancho El Sur. They say that the only other inhabitant of the Big Sur Valley at this time, was a hermit named John Davis, who is said to have filed his claim in 1853. In 1848, a Yankee sailor named William Brainard Post, arrived on the coast. Born in 1830, Post was the son of a retired Essex, Connecticut, sea captain, and his ancestors had come to America on the Mayflower. Before moving to Big Sur, Bill Post farmed in the Carmel Valley. One day, while visiting Loretta and James Meadows at their Carmel Valley ranch, he met Loretta’ thirty-year-old sister, Anselma, who was of Rumsen-Esselen descent. Bill and Anselma were married Continue Reading

Categories: California History.