The Sea Otter Hunters

Donald Thomas Clark’s encyclopedic Monterey County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary (1991) contains a listing for a “Nidever Spring” in Big Sur. Eighty-six-year-old Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldsen, who had lived her whole life within a few miles of the spring, remembered that it was situated along the Big Sur River, just downstream from the River Inn. Jeff Norman, the preeminent Big Sur historian of his generation, located Nidever Spring along Brewer Road, up Pfeiffer Ridge, west of the River Inn. In the 21st-century, there’s a scarcity of drinking water in much of Big Sur. But back in 18th and 19th-centuries, coastal California was much wetter than it is now, and the ground water was closer to the surface. Consequently, not many people alive today remember the days when one could stop for a long, cool drink at Nidever Spring. *          *          * Nidever Spring is named for a 19th-century American sea Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

The Old Coyote of Big Sur – Dr. Jaime de Angulo

“Jaime de Angulo was a medical doctor turned anthropologist who bought a ranch in Big Sur [in 1915] … His appearance, in the 1920s when I first saw him, was dramatic in the extreme. He came riding down our hill to Rainbow Lodge [in Bixby Canyon] on a black stallion, wearing black chaps, a black shirt and a black sombrero, along with a huge turquoise studded Indian silver conche belt from New Mexico. His long black hair flowing in the wind, his blue eyes flashing, he was beautiful rather than handsome and was given to passionate gestures, speaking with his hands as well as his tongue. And he talked rapidly, brilliantly, usually about linguistics, the American Indians, or Freud. He tried to make love to my mother and called her bourgeois when she refused.” – A Wild Coast and Lonely – Big Sur Pioneers by Rosalind Sharpe Wall (1989) *          Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

Sam Trotter – The Timber-Beast of Big Sur

The redwood tree can grow to be more than 350 feet tall, and as much as 25 feet around at the base. Some redwoods live to be more than 1,000 years old. They’ve proliferated in forests across the globe since prehistoric times. An absence of resin makes them practically fireproof, and a high content of tannin makes them fungi resistant and bad tasting (to insects). By the 18th-century, the habitat of the coast redwood had shrunk to a tiny sliver, extending from present-day Monterey County, California to the Oregon border, in a narrow strip never wider than twenty miles from the coast. The first white men to see a coastal redwood were likely the members of the Portola Expedition. Fray Juan Crespi wrote in his diary on October 10, 1769, of seeing one near present-day Watsonville: “We broke camp in the morning, and after crossing a river named by the Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

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

Antonio Tomas Juan Onésimo was born in Carmel in 1796. His father was born in the Indian village of Echilat in 1771. His mother was born in the Indian district of Sargenta-ruc.They say that, as a boy, Juan 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 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 Valley, 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 Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

Captain Beechey’s Visit to the California Missions at their Zenith

  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, entitled 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.