Thursday, May 24, 2007
Native-American fishermen haul their catch of fish and Nabalone up the lush hillside to their village, which commands a panoramic view of Monterey Bay. The women of the village leave an offering of food on a large, round rock, then light fires outside of their thatched huts, or ruks. Their children forage in the nearby pine forests for edible plants. Carrion skins mounted on stakes dry in the sun. Achasta, the village that existed 2,000 years ago on today’s Presidio of Monterey, is alive with activity.
Today Achasta only exists in the imagination, spun from stories like those told by historian and city of Monterey Museum Coordinator Jim Conway. He stands on the rolling, grassy hillside behind the Presidio of Monterey Museum, below a battery of cannons, where the village once bustled with tribal life.
“Rumsien Native Americans were the first known inhabitants of this area,” says Conway. He walks uphill to the large rock. “This here is their rain rock, or sacred rock, which had many uses for the tribe, including forecasting the weather.”
Twice a year, once in October and once in May, the public is invited to accompany Conway on a walking tour of the Lower Presidio’s calm, scenic and largely overlooked historic park. This Saturday marks the first tour of 2007. While a visit to the public grounds are worth a visit for a picnic or a walk all by themselves, with Conway as a guide, the previous lives of the Presidio’s history leap to life. They also reveal how central to Monterey’s history the Presidio has been.
From here the Rumsien watched the Spanish first arrive in 1542, when Spanish explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo approached by ship, and, though he never landed due to high seas, named the area Bahia de los Pinos (Bay of the Pines).
“In 1602,” Conway says, “Sebastian Vizcaino set foot on the shore, renaming it Bahia de Monte Rey, after his benefactor the Count of Monte Rey.”
But it would take the decree of a sovereign to enact a European settlement. In 1767 the king of Spain wrote a proclamation: “Occupy and fortify San Diego and Monterey for God and the King of Spain.”
“Spain was worried about the Russians and British taking over the land,” says Conway. The king’s Romanesque plan was to convert the Native Americans so they would align with Spain, increasing the “Spanish” population against that of other European colonizers in this New World.
To fulfill this mission he sent formidable explorers: Catalan soldier and then-Governor of California, Gaspar de Portola, and Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra. Portola would build the Presidio (“royal fort”), Serra the Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Monterey.
A statue of Father Junipero Serra remains, gazing over Fisherman’s Wharf with benevolence, on the same spot where he performed his first mass in Monterey. Planted nearby is a humble wooden cross that memorializes the first European to be buried in Monterey, Alex Nino, a Spanish Moor who died at sea. It’s dated 1770, the year of that first mass, when Father Serra also legally claimed Monterey for Spain.
The Presidio’s role in Monterey’s evolution remained prominent through the Mexican-American War, the invasion by Argentine pirate Hipolito Bouchard, the Civil War, and World War I, when a cavalry regiment was stationed here, Conway says. This later history is covered thoroughly in the museum with period uniforms, photographs, film footage and artifacts.
As Conway’s hands sweep over the grassy slope, he describes the lives of the hunter-gatherers, then the Europeans, who would shape the character of the fishing village. One can almost smell the fish and abalone cooking over hot rocks, or see the shiny armor of the Spanish soldiers.
Conway points out that this rich local history is neglected even more than before because locals don’t realize they can access it so easily.
“People assume that because the DLI portion of the Presidio is closed to the public, that the entire grounds are,” he says. “The city of Monterey leases the Lower Presidio from the Army as a historic park. It’s open daily to the public.”
The whole of Monterey Bay—from Santa Cruz to New Monterey—can be viewed from the park’s position. Studying that view, Conway continues describing the saga of the Lower Presidio. His connection to this patch of land is obvious. It’s also contagious.
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The Tour begins at 11am Saturday at the Lower Presidio Museum, one block west of Pacific Street, on Cpl. Ewing Boulevard, Monterey. Enter through gate on Lighthouse and take an immediate left or enter from pacific. 646-3991 or email@example.com.