Our History Since European Contact


In December 1602, Sebastian Vizcaíno sailed into the Monterey Bay for repairs and supplies during his long voyage to the mysterious reaches of California. Vizcaíno was one of many Europeans who sailed to California looking for land to colonize for Spain. Members of our coastal rancherías met Vizcaíno's ship and provided much needed food. This encounter was recorded in their diaries:

This land is well populated with Indians without number, many of whom came on different occasions to our camp. They seem to be gentle and peaceful people; they say with signs that there are many villages inland. The sustenance which these Indians eat most of daily, besides fish and shellfish, is acorns and another fruit larger than a chestnut, this is what we could understand of them. -Sebastian Vizcaíno

The port is all surrounded with Rancherías of affable Indians, good natives and well disposed, who like to give what they have, here they brought us skins of bears and lions and deer. They use the bow and arrow and have their form of government. -Fray Antonia de la Ascención

For many years after Vizcaíno's voyage, trade ships heading east from the Philippines or coming north and south to and from the Vancouver region anchored in the Monterey Bay and interacted with our ancestors.

In 1770, the Spanish built a mission and presidio (military fort) in Monterey. The next year, Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo was relocated to its present location on the north side of the Carmel River. Colonization by the Spanish Empire and the Catholic Church changed our people's culture, language, political systems, world view, and lives forever. Missionaries and soldiers relocated Indians whom missionaries had baptized from their villages to the missions. The ancestral villages of the Esselen Nation were emptied as villagers were brought to the Carmel mission. One goal of the Spanish missionaries in California was to convert Native Americans to the Catholic religion and transform them into citizens of the Spanish Empire in order to maintain a permanent presence within this region of North America. Once brought to a mission, our ancestors were not allowed to practice their centuries-old religion, speak their languages, or dress according to custom. As the Spanish padres and military established a foothold in the northernmost frontier of the Spanish Empire, local Indians worked building and supporting the mission and presidio. Many fled the harsh and restrictive treatment of the missionaries and soldiers to unreachable inland villages. A forced return policy, instigated by Junípero Serra, was in effect for the duration of the mission period. Soldiers forcibly returned anyone who left the mission without permission. Introduced diseases, fostered by the unsanitary conditions of mission life, caused high mortality and low life expectancy rates.

After Mexico achieved independence in 1821 the missions were disbanded and secularized in 1834. With secularization, the exploitative use of Indian labor became an integral part of economic development in Monterey as it had previously for the mission/presidio colonial system. Though most land was to be returned by law to Indian ex-neophytes, the majority of grants were made to Hispanic Californio men who had served in the military. Despite the obvious interests non-Indians had against Esselen Nation ancestors' attempts to recuperate a communal land base, Mexican officials made one extensive communal grant in the heart of the Carmel Valley which was called La Ranchería in Spanish by its inhabitants, and referred to as the Lands of the Indians in English. In addition, many rancherías, or villages of Indian workers, were established on large Californio-owned ranchos such as the Sur ranchería located on Rancho El Sur. Though non-Indians owned the titles to the larger rancho grants, Mexican administrators included special legal stipulations guaranteeing ownership of the lands occupied by Indian rancherías to the native people there and their descendants forever.

In 1846, United States forces claimed formal possession of California, raising the American flag above Monterey. Admiral Sloat of the U.S. Navy gave a speech dealing with legal entitlements to be honored by the U.S., including rights of Native Americans. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, also guaranteed the protection of Indian rights. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States was obligated to identify lands deeded to Indians under Spanish and Mexican rule and to prevent the loss of these lands. This obligation, had it been carried out, would have established our ancestors as a recognized Indian tribe with an inalienable land base.

After California statehood in 1850, Congress and President Fillmore authorized three Special Indian Agents to negotiate treaties with California Indians in 1851 to protect them from the genocidal violence waged against them in the wake of the Gold Rush of 1849. Eighteen treaties were negotiated between California tribes and the United States. These treaties had two basic goals: 1) to cede the majority of aboriginal lands of California to the United States government, and 2) to reserve 8.5 million acres of land in the interior of the state for the use of California tribes as reservations. These eighteen treaties were never ratified due to pressure from the California state legislature and influential private citizens who wanted access to land, resources (gold), and Indian labor. The eighteen treaties of 1851 were suppressed with an official injunction of secrecy by the U.S. Congress but were rediscovered by a clerk in 1905.

The result of such deliberate neglect on the part of the government was that by the early 1880s, our ancestors had nearly been displaced from their communal land grant in the Carmel Valley. In an attempt to publicize the plight of the California Indians, Indian Agent, reformer, and popular novelist Helen Hunt Jackson published accounts of her travels among the Mission Indians of California in 1883. Up the Carmel River not far from the San Carlos Mission, Jackson was guided to a well-concealed Indian settlement that she described as the "most picturesque of all the Mission Indians' hiding-places which we saw." Jackson witnessed the few remaining residents of the communal land grant, which by that time was largely expropriated. In her final report she recommended that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) secure the ongoing welfare of the San Carlos, or Monterey, group. Jackson reported the local parish priest's statement that the Indians of Monterey "have their homes there only by the patience of the thief," referring to a neighboring white rancher. This predicted theft of land would soon prove true.

After U.S. annexation, Indian people were no longer citizens as they were under Spanish and Mexican law. Among other restrictive laws, including ones that allowed for indentured servitude, Indian people were not allowed to own land. Though dispossessed and displaced from their lands, ranches owned by non-Indian husbands of Indian women provided places of safety and refuge for many extended families. These ranches provided a place for the local Indian community to maintain their social relations and cultural practices. The last multiple-family residential community of local Indians existed in downtown Monterey until the mid-1950s when it was displaced through urban renewal.

Influenced by the mounting concern and activism for the welfare of California Indians, Congress directed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to send agents to California to identify Indian communities and purchase suitable lands for homeless Indian bands. Official reports of Indian Agents during the first three decades of the twentieth century document and recognize our ancestors as the Monterey or San Carlos Band.

In 1927 agent Lafayette Dorrington unilaterally ended administrative contact with over 130 California Indian groups. In a painfully contradictory statement Dorrington determined that these bands, though possessing no land, had no need for land.

During the early 1900s, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, in his attempt to understand pre-contact Indian cultures, found that many coastal Indian peoples who had experienced Spanish missionization could not give him the information he wanted about life and language before the coming of the Spanish. Because of this Kroeber stated in his influential Handbook of California Indians that Esselen- and Costanoan-speaking peoples were "extinct." His statements have been unquestioned in the anthropological and popular literature dealing with California Indians and are the basis for a widespread belief that we are extinct.

Kroeber's assessment notwithstanding, Bureau of American Ethnology linguist and anthropologist John Peabody Harrington worked with our ancestors during the 1920s and '30s. He collected over 15,000 pages of field notes that document Esselen/Costanoan culture, language, history, and ongoing tribal social relations in Monterey.