Monterey turns 250 next month. The rest of the state should claim the date as its birthday too.   

Monterey’s beginnings are the closest thing California, an orphan of a state, has to a birth story. Admission Day—September 9, 1850, when California became an American state—isn’t a birthday, since California was a province of Spain and Mexico  before that. We can’t know the exact day, thousands of years ago, when native peoples arrived. And early European explorers didn’t stick around long enough to establish much. 

By default, that leaves June 3, 1770, when Junipero Serra, California’s unsaintly saint, and Spanish Capt. Gaspar de Portola founded Monterey, which would become California’s first capital—and most enduring place.

A quarter-millennium later, Monterey is often dismissed as too precious, too much a place apart. But the same has been said about California. Indeed, the peninsula city—with its special ability to connect the past to the future—has become an emblem of our state. 

The mission system began in San Diego in 1769, but Monterey’s mission, quickly relocated to  Carmel, was Serra’s headquarters. In 1776, Spain declared Monterey the capital of its Alta California colony—soon inspiring other Spanish settlements, including San Jose and Los Angeles. 

In 1822, Mexico took over Monterey, which remained provincial capital while also becoming an official port of entry, commercial center, and California’s front door. In that role, Monterey changed the world’s perception of California—from feudal Spanish backwater into a highly desirable destination. “The cosmopolitan atmosphere created by the international trade helped make Monterey a hotbed of liberal thought,” wrote historian J.D. Conway in Monterey: Presidio Pueblo and Port. California’s tradition of political revolt got its start when Montereños rebelled against provincial governors appointed by Mexico City.

Monterey was where the Americanization of California began, with its peaceful 1846 conquest. In 1849, Monterey hosted the convention to produce the state constitution that California used to muscle its way into the U.S. in 1850.

After statehood, a misguided conventional wisdom held that Monterey no longer mattered. Sure, the place suffered some indignities. A land baron stole 30,000 acres. Santa Cruz formed its own separate county. And Salinas stole Monterey’s status as the county seat through a deal  that allowed the city of Hollister to make itself the seat of its own breakaway county, San Benito. 

Despite these blows,  Monterey—a global-facing Spanish-Mexican-Catholic city—kept  prospering. Its sleepy reputation reflected the ignorance of the rest of California, which was growing more Anglo, more nativist, more Protestant, and more violent towards native peoples than the missions had ever been.  “California’s change from a Hispanic culture to an Anglo-Protestant culture made Monterey appear to be out of the mainstream,” Conway wrote.

Monterey quietly kept welcoming people: Chinese fishermen, Portuguese whalers from the Azores, artists forming colonies, and migrants from Japan, Sicily, Spain, the Balkans, and the Dust Bowl. These enterprising arrivals kept making Monterey the capital of various things. During the revival of interest in California’s Spanish heritage, Monterey mined its historic architecture to become the Adobe Capital of California. Advances in fishing and canning then made Monterey the Sardine Capital of the World. The jazz festival and the asquarium have made Monterey a tourism capital. And military educational facilities—from the Navy’s Postgraduate School to  Defense Language Institute to the Monterey Institute of International Studies—allow Monterey to declare itself the Language Capital of the World.

In all this, the historian Conway saw civic “schizophrenia”; Monterey, like California, clings to its past while relentlessly seeking new identities. That two-sidedness has made the city difficult to govern, with locals routinely fighting over water and growth.  

But Monterey’s ability to remain so attractive—over 250 years—also holds an important lesson for Californians: size and political power don’t make a city great. Instead, truly great places collapse time and space, and connect us to history and the future. 

I’m sad that COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 250th birthday party Monterey spent two years planning for itself. But you can still honor the occasion the next time you visit. First, savor the views from Lower Presidio Historic Park, where a native village once stood, and where Serra and Portola got things started in 1770.

Then head to San Carlos Cathedral, one of the state’s oldest buildings and say a prayer that California, and its real capital, will still be around to celebrate their birthday together in another 250 years.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.