Traces of the Past

One spring, my husband and I took a trip to New Orleans and drove up the Natchez Trace visiting gorgeous old plantations and learning about the history of the area. I was intrigued  that the Eastern U.S. was criss-crossed with ancient trails, known as traces, that were beaten into the earth by a millennia of Indian trade and animal migration. If you look at a map of the U.S. today, our transportation system bears witness to the footsteps of Native Americans and our ancestors as they migrated westward. 

At home, on the Central Coast of California, I started learning how individual ethnic immigrant groups contributed to the advancement of unique agricultural commodities. For example, the Croatians created the first futures contracts for fresh fruit and pioneered early fruit storage with cooling technologies. The precision and efficiency of Japanese farmers created the strawberry industry that exists today. Portuguese and Swiss Italian dairymen transitioned from dairy to cool season vegetable production and created the powerhouse produce industry of today. In turn, as these different crops evolved, they shaped the history of the Central Coast. 

Like so many subjects, the more I learned about the Central Coast’s history and how the area developed, the more I realized how unique the area is.

From a historical perspective, the area is critical to early California with the founding of 26 Spanish Missions. Four of the 26 missions, several satellite missions (or asistencias), and one of three Spanish military presidios were located in the region. Here, the El Camino Real, or King’s Road, followed ancient trade routes (or traces, if you will) to connect the missions to each other and to Mexico City.  Initially the El Camino Real was a rough track, that generally followed the Salinas River from its headwaters near Santa Margarita, in the South, to the City of Monterey in the North. The Monterey Presidio and the City of Monterey played an important part in the early establishment of government in California.  Eventually, the El Camino Real evolved into modern day’s highway system.

From an agricultural perspective, many of the innovations, which originated on the Central Coast or technological improvements adapted for the area, modified agriculture production, transportation of fresh fruits and vegetables, or how food is eaten on a global basis. 

The communities and cities that evolved on the Central Coast reflect the ebb and flow of social orders (e.g., Spanish, Californio, and California’s agricultural powerhouse), the influx and efflux of ethnic groups (Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, American Settlers, Croatian, Swedes, Japanese, Filipino, Swiss Italian, Portuguese, Sikhs, and Okies), and the waxing and waning of technologies and industries. 

The Central Traces of the Past Project brings together the history of the Central Coast people, the evolution of agriculture, and the rise of the food culture on the Central Coast. It explores historical roots, ethnic contributions, agricultural production and how what we eat has evolved, in lock-step, with all the other changes.  

The Area covered is a long and skinny bit of land that stretches from southSouth to the North. It begins at the headland of the Salinas River in the shadow of the dark and broody Santa Lucia Mountains at Cuesta Grade. It follows the Salinas River, as it meanders over 175 miles northward to the Monterey Bay. The Salinas River passes through ranching country and wine grape growing country in northern San Luis Obispo and pops out onto a broad alluvial plain just north of San Ardo.  This alluvial plain is one of the most productive cool-season vegetable and strawberry growing areas in the world. The benches on either of the Salinas Valley produce world-class Pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes.


Throughout the United States, especially east of the Rocky Mountains, modern highway systems are etched over ancient “Traces” or ancient trails, trade routes or buffalo migratory 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 San Joaquin Valley and ran over to the coast. It is difficult to understand today, but the northern and southern routes were not easily or directly connected on the Central Coast because the Cuesta Grade in the Santa Lucia Mountains formed a natural barrier. 

When the Spanish conquistadores and padres arrived, they found the old trade routes did not necessarily take them where they wanted to go. Therefore, the Spaniards marched overland in Alta California without the aide of pre-existing routes and established their religious and colonial missions from San Diego to Santa Rosa. The new road they established became known as the El Camino Real, or the Highway of the King. 

On the Central Coast, north of Cuesta Grade, there was an exception, in that the El Camino Real mostly followed an ancient trading route, in the area where the town of Santa Margarita is located, and, then, roughly followed the Salinas River north to the Monterey Bay. Here, multiple missions were built.

El Camino Real began as a footpath closely following the route of Portola’s 1769 expedition and eventually connected all twenty-one California missions. This trail traversed the natural patterns of the landscape, but tended to follow obvious visual landmarks, rivers, and valleys and crossed mountainous areas through canyons.”

The missions (going from south to north) were: the Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia, San Miguel Mission (Mission San Miguel Arcangel), San Antonio Mission, (Mission San Antonio de Padua), Soledad Mission (Mission de Maria Santisima, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad), and the Carmel Mission (San Carlo Borromeo de Carmelo). The route terminated where the Monterey Presidio is located today. Insert map and link. 

With time, parts of the El Camino Real became integrated into the state of California’s transportation systems, and on the Central Coast, the California Pacific Coast Highway (California State Highway 1) and US Route 101 are the two main highways connecting the area. Highway 101 was one of the first designated highways in the U.S. 

The history of California has been shaped by the immigrations, migrations and contributions of multiple ethnic and immigrant groups. This is especially true for the Central Coast. Native Americans, Spanish, Californios, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Croatians, Swiss Italians, Portuguese, Okies, Mexicans, and Central Americans have all made their mark. They made and continue to make cultural contributions. Also, several groups advanced agricultural and food processing innovations that have improved how fresh fruits and vegetables were produced, bought, sold, packaged and transported throughout the world. 

In a nutshell — the crazy, complicated, political mess, which epitomizes California, is largely a result of decisions that were made between 1821 and 1880. Almost all actions or decisions that have been made since are either repetition of, outshoots from, or reactions to developments during that period.

Carey McWilliams* wrote that California is unique because its development was influenced by accelerating developments from the 1830s to 1870s: Mexican granting of the Ranchos, Gold Rush, Mexican cession, Statehood, ARK-storm, Greatest Drought in recorded history, Collapse of the Ranchero System, state bankruptcy, and the waves of immigrants and settlers. This compression created a telescoping of events. Development occurred much faster than it had in the East or in the old World. The result? The state was/is always in a hurry. This became its nature, its tradition; and its compulsion. 

The communities on the Central Coast were at ground zero for this shortened timeline of development  They were at ground zero because of the ranchos. They have been shaped by climate, the ethnic origins of its immigrants, the evolution of the world-class agricultural economy, wars, and community and business development. 

The Central Coast is the area where I live and is of particular interest to me. The Traces of the Past project:

  1. Honors the ethnic root of our immigrants and settlers,
  2. Showcases the agricultural innovations that originated on the Central Coast and have influenced how we produce and consume food worldwide, and
  3. Explores the unique rural communities that have evolved along the old Indian Trade Route, aka El Camino Real, aka Highway 101.

In the end, if we don’t know where we have been, or where we are, we can’t know where are going. 

“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.