Traces of the Past

The Central Coast Traces of the Past Project brings together history, immigration, the evolution of agriculture, and the rise of the food culture on the Central Coast of California.

Overall, California is believed to have been most densely populated region prior to European colonization. Originally, the Central Coast area was populated by four main Native American tribes. The Esselen, The Ohlone, the Salinan and the Chumash. While the four tribes inhabited very different environments and their cultures were distinct, the tribes shared a a land ethic that was very similar. The Central Coast Pre-Colonial Web Page explores what the Central Coast looked like prior to European arrival.

Throughout the United States, especially east of the Rocky Mountains, modern highway systems are etched over “Traces”, which were ancient trails, trade routes or animal paths. These Traces crisscrossed the nation and were used by Native Americans for cultural and trade exchanges and transportation. 

In California, the indigenous trade routes were largely a web of paths which originated in the interior of California and ran to the coast. It is difficult to visualize today, but the northern and southern trade routes were not easily connected on the Coast because the Santa Lucia Mountains formed a geographical barrier in what is now San Luis Obispo County. However, North of this natural roadblock,  a major trade route originated in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, transversed the Carrizo Plains, and ran to the Salinas River, and then, north, along the Salinas River, to the Monterey Bay.

As the Spanish conquistadores and padres made their way from San Diego to Santa Rosa, they often force-marched overland often without the use of pre-existing routes. Part of their undertaking, was to select sites for missions based upon accessibility, the presence of malleable Native American labor, the availability of water, or the quality of the soil for agricultural productionThe new road they established between Missions became part of the El Camino Real, or the Highway of the King. El Camino, itself, connected to a larger web of routes that integrated Alta California with Baja California, New Spain, and distant Mexico City.

In 1769, Portola led the first overland expedition and explored from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay as he searched for the Monterey Bay harbor. Once north of present-day Cuesta Grade in San Luis Obispo, the expedition roughly followed Native American trade routes to the Monterey Bay. In 1770, Portola returned with a second expedition to found a Mission and military Presidio in present-day Monterey. Thence began the inexorable mission creep until 21 missions, countless asistencias, and three Presidios were founded in Alta California.

Withn the Traces of the Past Project Area, the Spanish established the following facilities in this order:  

  • The Monterey Presidio and original mission site in Monterey (1770),
  • The second Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, which was moved from Monterey to the Carmel Bay (1770),
  • The third Mission San Antonio de Padua (1771) was moved a location with a more stable water source (1773),
  • Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia (1787), which was a satellite of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772), (Note: The San Luis Obispo Mission is located outside the Traces of the Past Project Area),
  • Mission de Maria Santisima, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (1791), and
  • Mission San Miguel Arcangel (1797).

Today, the Spanish Missions, Asistencia, and the Presidio may be found, going from South to North, in the charming town of Santa Margarita and the shabby town of San Miguel, on Fort Hunter Liggett Arny base, amidst the lettuce fields across the Salinas River from the City of Soleded, in the Old town Monterey, and in quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea.

In general, the Spanish were lackadaisical colonists of Alta California. They did not to dedicate the resources necessary to develop Alta California. What little development that occurred was dictated by military and religious interests. This apathy by the Spanish Crown continued for centuries until the Russians and British began to show interest in Alta California. Only then did the Spanish exert half=hearted effort at development, whilst simultaneously prohibiting entrance into Alta California by other nationalities.

Alta California remained under lukewarm control of the Spanish Crown until after Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain in 1810 and the signing of the Treaty of Córdoba in 1821. The new country of the United States of Mexico breathed fresh life into Alta California by granting large tracts of rangeland to military and civil personnel who had been influential during the war. These new beneficiaries of Mexican nepotism were solely reliant on cattle ranching for the production of hides and tallow, which were shipped overseas for processing. Mexican largesse created a new class of citizen, the Californio, who has been romaticized by literature and California boosterism as indolent, entitled, and privileged. Often, the Californio is portrayed as a poor land manager and businessman. As is discussed in greater detail on the Central Coast Rangeland web page, this is a harsh assessment. In general, the Californio was caught between shifting social orders for which they were unprepared and in circumstances over which they had little control.

The next social shift occurred when Mexico secularized the Missions in 1831. Lands around the Mission were privatized, and contrary to previous legal commitments to the Native Americans, the neophytes were disposed and evicted, and the Missions grounds fell into disrepair.

It is against this backdrop of shifting social orders, that the Mexican/American war was fought – and won – by the United States. In 1848, Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States.

Within months of California becoming a U.S. territory, gold was discovered in 1849. The Gold Rush was on. “California or Bust” was the motto as thousands of immigranys poured into California from overseas and the Eastern U.S. Shortly thereafter, Californians sought statehood and, after a Congressional tussle over the slavery issue, California became a free, nonslavery state which entered the Unionon September 9, 1950 under the Compromise of 1850.

Statehood was followed in close succession by the followingevents of note:

  • The end of the Gold Rush (1855)
  • A 1000-year ARKstorm known as the Great Flood of 1862,
  • The Great Drought (1862 – 1864),
  • The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865),
  • The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (1863),
  • The Panic of 1873,
  • The State of California bankruptcy (1870s)
  • The Long Depression (1873 – 1879),
  • A series of smaller recessions that culminated in the Great Panic of 1893.

Throughout this period, immigration to California resulted unprecedented population growth in the state. Interestingly, the two largest immigrant populations yo California during this period were the Chinese and Irish. Immigration and demographics in the Project Area are discussed in Greater detail on the Central Coast Ethnic Groups webpage.

In a nutshell — the crazy, complicated, political mess, which epitomizes California today, can trace its roots to the social upheaval and cataclysmic events that occurredbetween 1821 to 1880. Almost all actions or decisions since that time are a repetition of, a result from, or a reaction to developments that occurred during that period.

Carey McWilliams*, an author, journalist, State employee, socialist activist, and husband of photographer Dorothea Lange, wrote that California’s evolution is unique as compared to other states or the Old World. The accelerating events that occurred between 1830 to 1880 created “telescoping events” that compressed the state’s maturation process. This, in turn, created a sense of urgency that remains today. The result? “The state was and is always in a hurry. This became its nature, its tradition; and its compulsion.” 

Today, yhe communities on the Central Coast may seem bucolic and quaintl historic when compared to the moderm metropolises of the Los Angeles Basin or the Bay Area, Nevertheless, during the state’s formative years, the Central Coast was subject to many of the same social pressures and forces of nature and experienced the same frenzied development.

The bottom line is the past has left a legacy that is still being fulfilled.

“All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit – it isn’t there yet –
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.”

(Miller Williams, an Arkansas Poet, read at President Clinton’s second inauguration.)


Books and References:

Anderson, Burton. The Salinas Valley: A History of America’s Salad Bowl. Monterey County Historical Society. 2000.

McWilliams, Carey and Lapham, Lewis, H. The Great Expectation. 1949. Reprinted by the University of California. 1999.

Note: Carey McWilliams was Dorothea Lange’s husband. 

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