Nov. 18, 2021

Beyond the Consul: Monterey

Today we’re going to a domestic destination–but it wasn’t always domestic. The history of Monterey goes back hundreds of years, and it shows how empires and commerce come together in one prime location.

We talk to Aaron Gilmartin, a guide at Monterey State Historic Park, who told us about Monterey and how Thomas Larkin fit into its history.


ABBY MULLEN: Hey, it’s Abby. Welcome to Beyond the Consul. Today we’re talking about the town of Monterey, and how its history and its present interact. When we first started conceptualizing the ideas for this season of Consolation Prize, we thought it would be cool to talk about places where the United States sent a consul but then that place became part of the United States. In the case of Monterey, the history of the town and the area goes back way farther than the stories that we told in California Dreaming. So I’m really happy that in this episode of Beyond the Consul, we’re going to get to learn about that history from someone who interprets it every day.  Here’s some of my interview with one of the guides who interprets the history of Monterey at its state park. 

AARON GILMARTIN: Hi, there. My name is Aaron Gilmartin, and I am a guide with California State Parks at Monterey State Historic Park.

MULLEN: By the way, mea culpa, I called Aaron a ranger in our main episode, but he told me his title was guide. Sorry about that.

MULLEN: So tell me a little bit about the park and what is included in it.

GILMARTIN: So Monterey State Historic Park is a collection of about 10 historic adobe buildings in Monterey dating back to the mid 1800s, at a time when California was part of Mexico, and Monterey was the capital city of Alta California.

MULLEN: So one of the things that we on my team have been trying to figure out is, why is Monterey the capital, and not San Francisco?

GILMARTIN: Yeah, that’s a great question. Very common question. Monterey is actually older than San Francisco by a few years. And we have to go back to the beginnings of Spanish California. So the time of Spanish colonialism branching up the West Coast, they established a colony in San Diego in 1769. Monterey followed in 1770. So at the time, we were the northernmost Spanish colony in the West. And that was because early Spanish explorers in the 15- and 1600s had made note of Monterey Bay. So we’re here because of the bay; there’s about a large 40 mile across deep water bay—Santa Cruz on the northern end and Monterey on the southern end. Now, San Francisco Bay, we know is a much better harbor. But if you’re a Spaniard sailing up the coast in 1542, you’re going to miss San Francisco Bay because of the fog. And it’s a very narrow opening. And so as far as they were concerned, Monterey Bay was the northernmost possible harbor.

MULLEN: That makes a lot of sense. Knowing what I know about San Francisco, I could actually see how it would be kind of easy to miss that there was even a thing there.

GILMARTIN: Right. They don’t discover San Francisco Bay until they’re actually traversing by land. They discover it by land on one of their northern expeditions. And so they do establish a town and, you know, colony, Yerba Buena in San Francisco, but Monterey had been designated as the capital city of Alta and Baja California, by the viceroy of New Spain. So we were the designated capital.

MULLEN: That makes sense. So fast forwarding a few 100 years from 1542 to the 1830s and ‘40s. What was Monterey like in this time period, you know, when Americans are starting to move and Thomas Larkin is there? Was it sort of this—was it a frontier vibe, or was it more refined?

GILMARTIN: It’s a little bit of both. So Monterey in the 1820s and 30s, during California’s Mexican era, we’re the northernmost territory of the recently revolutionized country of Mexico, and as the capital city, we are still in a frontier. It’s a relatively small community on the edge of still vastly unexplored territory. And yet as the capital we have luxuries and infrastructure that other communities of California aren’t going to have or get and so you get a little bit of a blend of having an established town with a Presidio to defend it and a port for ships. And, you know, our, our claim to fame is that we had the customs house, right. So we had the ability to process trade, which allowed us access to goods that were not easily accessible in other parts of California. And yet, we were still essentially in the middle of nowhere, with a relatively small population.

MULLEN: So what is the population of Monterey?

GILMARTIN: Well, so, I mean, by comparison, today, we have about 30,000 residents, which isn’t that large. But in the 1820s, and 30s, census records are iffy during this time, but you have probably about 1000 residents in and around the immediate area of Monterey and then an uncounted number of natives surrounding that. So it’s hard to get the exact number.

MULLEN:  So I know that you just said that census records are a little sketchy, but can you give me kind of a breakdown of who are these people? Like, are they Mexican? Are they American? Are they Spanish, British, Russian?

GILMARTIN: There’s a great mix. And Monterey is even more diverse than other cities, again, because of our proximity to these trade routes. And California, a lot of the people that were born here, or even those that immigrated here identify as Californio, not necessarily as Mexican, or Spanish, most Americans were still staunchly American. But there was this, this California identity to the point where people born in California, even if they’re of Spanish or Mexican descent, they are more favorable to Californio partners and governors and leadership than they are to those set by Mexico City. And so you really have this independent Californio identity, and then a mattering of British and American merchants and politicians blending in with that.

MULLEN: So what I’m taking from what you just said, is that Californios see themselves very much as a loose affiliate of Mexico rather than, you know, Mexican.

GILMARTIN: Yeah, yes. There were plenty of people that had come up from Mexico proper, who identified as Mexicans, and were–you know, a lot of our governors were installed by the central government, government in Mexico City. But there was also a lot of revolts to overthrow those governors and install California governors. And there was kind of this unspoken policy that the central government of Mexico would not levy taxes on the people of California, as long as in exchange, the people of California didn’t ask for anything. So a lot of the soldiers are being provided amongst the California families, all of the public funding is coming through the taxation on foreign goods funneling through the Monterey custom house. So there really is this secluded self reliance, not quite independence, because Mexico, you know, still claims it as a territory, but it’s very loosely represented. 

MULLEN: When you learn about California in elementary school, let’s say–I’m from the East Coast, I’m from South Carolina–California history is not really big in the curriculum. So the thing that you learn about California is, of course, the 49ers: you learned about the gold rush. We talked to Amy Greenberg, for this episode, as well, who’s written about the Mexican American War and other things. She mentioned that before the gold rush, and really, you know, as Larkin is first coming to California, the big thing that people really like about California is the cows. So, can you talk a little bit about the cows?

GILMARTIN: Yes, definitely. So the cattle industry in California, it’s big enough to essentially be a monoculture, right? It’s essentially driving the entire economy of California. cows were brought here by the Spaniards initially as they set up the the missions and the Pueblos. But now during Mexican California, these herds have multiplied beyond count because of our mild climate. The East Coast of the United States and much of Europe are going through the Industrial Revolution. Right? We have this expanding of machinery and manufacturing in these factories run on machines that run on leather belts. And so New England merchants learned that they could establish direct trade with California, bringing all of the household goods and tools and food that the people here weren’t producing. and trade them in exchange for 10s of 1000s of rawhides to be turned into leather. So all of the value is in the hides, to the point where much of the meat was wasted. The fat can be turned into soap and candles, two very essential things. And so collectively, this is known as the hide and tallow trade. And again, all of that foreign trade is funneling through the Monterey customhouse. And so Monterey, this tiny little frontier town is at the center of this political economic network. Yeah, because of cows.

Seen from the street, a two-story beige house with wide porch and a wide balcony on the second floor.
See the wraparound veranda in this photo of the Larkin House. (Photo: Kris Stinson)


MULLEN: I was so happy to talk to Aaron about Monterey State Historic Park because it’s one of the few places we’ve encountered where we can see where a consul actually lived. But the park interprets more than just Larkin. 

MULLEN: So I want to talk a little bit about the house itself or the park with the house as part of the park. So why is the Larkin house important historically? 

GILMARTIN: So the Larkin house, regardless of who lived in the house, and what happened to the house, the house itself is a style a unique style of architecture known as Monterey colonial architecture, where it’s built from the traditional Spanish and Mexican adobe bricks, mud clay straw bricks, but with very American New England details. So it had an interior staircase, a central hallway with an interior staircase, very New England style. Most Mexican homes had exterior staircases. The house was made with redwood framing and redwood shingles, as opposed to clay tile, roof shingles. It was the first two story residence in Monterrey, as well as having glass pane windows as opposed to wooden shutters, and, and a wraparound veranda. So these American, you know, New England colonial style features on Mexican Adobe, it’s the birth of a new style of architecture.

MULLEN: So Larkin did that. Does this spread to other houses in Monterey, so it becomes a thing in Monterey?

GILMARTIN: It does become a thing. So one of the other buildings in our park is the Pacific house. And that was a commercial building that Larkin was commissioned to build for the US Navy. And so that house has, it’s a much larger building, it has those features. There are some people who built Monterey colonial houses in Santa Barbara. So, there are you know, different people that are seeing and taking this, this style of architecture, because of, you know, the beauty and the uniqueness of the Larkin house itself. Now, the reason why we have it, preserved today, is thanks to Thomas Larkin’s granddaughter. So, because the Larkin family moved away, the house was no longer in the Larkin family’s ownership. And so, Alice Larkin Toulman was the only child of Thomas Larkin’s youngest child, Alfred. So she’s born about 20 years after Thomas Larkin has already passed away. So she’s never met her grandfather, but she’s grown up with the legacy of what Thomas and his wife Rachel did in California and in Monterey. And so in 1918, Alice, and her husband, Harry Toulman, buy the house back, and they move in and they essentially fill it with their collection of artwork and large Family furniture that they had inherited, and they live there all the way until the 1960s. And the house is donated to the state and is furnished and set up exactly how Alice had it when they were living there.

MULLEN: So what do you think the house itself tells us about how Larkin saw himself in the community of Monterey?

GILMARTIN: The house right off the bat, screams, I’m an American. Right? So he’s building something that shows that he is different, and that he has come from somewhere else. And he’s brought a little bit of that somewhere else with him. But it also shows blending into a new community, right, building this house out of adobe bricks, filling it with merchandise for the townspeople, you know, anyone to come in and buy as well as hosting these American and Mexican diplomats. And so it really just shows, the longer he’s here, the more he’s involved with, the more people are coming to and through this house. And I think that’s why it’s been preserved as a state landmark. But it’s also a national landmark because of its role as the United States consulate. And so that house really shows that era of transition to American Monterrey.

A marker at the Larkin House. Photo: Kris Stinson.

MULLEN: So what else is in the park?

GILMARTIN: So here in the park, we have several buildings dating to the mid-1800s. So whereas the Larkin house is this residence of a prominent American in Monterey, we also have Casa Soberanes, which was first built by the Estrada family in the 1840s. So this is a traditional Mexican California household. And it was the home of the customs administrator. We have the Custom House itself, which is the oldest government building on the entire west coast. And at its time of operation as a Mexican customs house, it was the only customs facility on the entire California coastline. So all foreign trade had to be processed through this port and through this building. And so that is also a national landmark as well as state historic landmark number one. It’s a very significant building. We also have the old monitoring whaling station. Whaling was a very big industry in California in the 1850s and 60s, at the end of the gold rush. And so we have the old whaling station. We have the first brick house in all of California. It’s a red brick house, built by one of the first American families to reach Monterey by wagon train. So they had crossed the continent in 1847, by wagon, arrived here and built the first red brick house in California. We also have the Pacific House, that I mentioned was built by Thomas Larkin for the US Navy. That is our visitor center today. And we have the Robert Louis Stevenson house, which is an 1840s adobe that was home to the Gonzalez family, but later was used as a boarding house called the French Hotel in the 1870s and 80s. And a young, poor, unknown author by the name of Robert Louis Stevenson, visited Monterey in 1879. And he stayed in that building for part of his stay. Of course, he would become famous later in life for writing Treasure Island, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and things like that. But he was here in Monterey kind of as a nobody. And so we have that building set up to tell the story of his life.

MULLEN: So how does the park fit into what Monterey is today?

GILMARTIN: The park is essentially a snapshot of Monterey, Monterey of the past. But because we are so spread out throughout downtown, we are part of Monterey today. Our park has no clear boundaries, we have a property on one street and a property on another street because we are scattered throughout the town. Old Town today was the entirety of Monterey in the past. And so because we’re so mixed in with the present day city, you have these modern buildings and hotels next to these really old historic properties. And so people just kind of come and go throughout the park on a daily basis, maybe not even realizing that they’re walking in and out of this State Park, because they’re simply exploring Monterey, all of these buildings are in their original locations. And so we just really are part of Monterey as much as any state park could be. 

MULLEN: So what do you, what do you hope visitors learn about California from visiting these buildings?

GILMARTIN: That it’s, that California’s history is so much more diverse and goes so much further back than that one little chapter you learned in school, right? Yeah, I mean, as far as the West Coast goes, Monterey is one of the oldest cities and as the first capital, we have this native and Spanish and Mexican and early American heritage, as well as people from all over the rest of the world, coming here through trade, and through the gold rush, and through immigration. And so really just showing that the diversity of California has always been here and finding a way to help connect to the past to help relate to the people that are here today. 

MULLEN: So my last question is, what’s your favorite part of the park? What’s the thing that when you give tours, what’s the thing that stands out to you?

GILMARTIN: My favorite part of the park. Gosh, it’s, it’s hard to pick a specific location because each individual building is unique and special in their own ways. But I’ve got to say that being in the Larkin House, surrounded by all of the artifacts and period pieces, you know, the house is furnished as a home, but they’re not replicas, you know, a lot of our other buildings, not a lot, but some of our other buildings utilize replicas and things so that the public can handle them and things like that. But when you walk into the Larkin house, it’s, it’s full on Larkin. Family and and, you know, their connections and the way that Alice Larkin had it. And so being in there and giving people tours, and just really feeling the, the weight and legitimate legitimacy of the things you’re talking about, is really neat. I got to say, I’ve always been partial to the Custom House, though, you know, when when even though it’s filled with replica cargo, there’s something about standing in the middle of the Custom House, and just thinking how many 1000s of sailors and townspeople and soldiers came and went, came and went and came and went, for decades of this building’s use, the Americans continued to use the custom house all the way until 1868. So just hundreds of ships and 1000s of soldiers and sailors and you can really kind of feel that when you just stand alone in the Custom House. So that’s really got to be my, my favorite spot in the park.

MULLEN : Nice. So is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you think I should know about Larkin or the house or Monterey?

GILMARTIN: Let’s see. I guess just I mean, for Monterey, in general, the fact that the, you know, today, the city is so well known for tourism. And you know, people come for the fishing and they come for the aquarium. Everybody knows the aquarium and, you know, not really realizing how deep the past goes. So just really emphasizing that, you know, Monterey is as authentic as it gets when you’re looking at the origins of Western civilization in California. And that as the capital under Spain, and the capital under Mexico, and the capital under the US military, we have all that background and all of that culture building up to the Gold Rush, and it just all goes away. Monterey becomes a ghost town overnight. So that’s something you know, I said, the Larkins leave, pretty much everybody leaves. And so with the gold rush, nobody cares about Monterey anymore. Even the Larkins come back for a vacation and say that the town is still and it’s not worth spending any time here. And so just seeing that that’s kind of where and why Monterey history was glossed over because for as significant as it was this big, massive disruptive events, the Gold Rush is where most people choose to start. And so just emphasizing that California’s history does not start with the gold rush, nor does it start with the Spanish showing up. I mean, there are 10s of 1000s of years of human inhabitants here and Yeah, there’s really fascinating cultures that bloomed up well before the Spaniards ever set foot as far north.

MULLEN: If you want to know more about the Larkin House, Monterey State Historic Park, or California State Parks in general, well, get thee to California! But if you can’t make it there, Monterey State Historic Park also has 3d virtual tours of many of their buildings available online. There’s a link in our show notes.

MULLEN: And if you do go to the park, tell ‘em you heard about it on our show. 

MULLEN: And that’s it for Beyond the Consul: Monterey. 

Aaron Gilmartin

Aaron Gilmartin is a guide at Monterey State Historic Park in California State Parks.