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The Original Presidio of Monterey

The military has played a vital role on the Monterey Peninsula since the area was “discovered” and claimed for Spain by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. Vizcaino named the Bay Monterey in honor of his benefactor, Gaspar de Zuniga y Acevedo, Conde de (count of) Monterrey, then viceroy of New Spain (Mexico).

The Monterey Bay area was colonized by a small Spanish expedition that reached Monterey Bay in May 1770. Captain Don Gaspar de Portola commanded the military component of this expedition, and Franciscan Father Junipero Serra was in charge of the religious element. Portola officially took possession of Alta (Upper) California for Spain, and Serra celebrated a Thanksgiving mass on June 3, 1770. Portola established a presidio (fort) and mission at the southern end of Monterey Bay the same day, in accordance with his orders to “erect a fort to occupy and defend the port from attacks by the Russians who are about to invade us.” Portola’s actions were spurred by the Spanish fear that other nations, particularly Russia had designs upon her New World Empire. Spain then moved to occupy that portion of the western American coast that she had previously neglected. The Monterey Presidio was one of four presidios and 21 missions established by Spain in California.

The original Presidio consisted of a square of adobe buildings located near Lake El Estero in the vicinity of what is now downtown Monterey. The fort’s original mission, the Royal Presidio Chapel, established in 1770, was renovated and reopened in 2008. The original Presidio was protected by a small fort with 11 cannons, called El Castillo. It was built in 1792 on land now part of the present Presidio of Monterey. The original Presidio fell into disrepair, as Mexican rule replaced that of Spain in California in 1822.

Fort Mervine

Commodore John Drake Sloat, commanding the U.S. Pacific Squadron, seized Monterey in July 1846, during the Mexican War. He landed unopposed with a small force in Monterey and claimed the territory and the Presidio for the United States. He left a small garrison of Marines and seamen who began improving defenses near the former El Castillo, to better protect the town and the harbor. The new defenses were named Fort Mervine in honor of Captain William Mervine, who commanded one of the ships in Sloat’s squadron.

Company F, 3rd Artillery Regiment arrived in Monterey in January 1847, and the U.S. Army then assumed from the Navy responsibility for the continuing construction of Fort Mervine. Two of the artillery lieutenants, William Tecumseh Sherman and E.O.C. Ord, plus Engineer Lieutenant Henry W. Halleck, became prominent generals during the Civil War.

During its early history, this fortification seemed to have many names, including Fort Halleck, Fort Savannah and the Monterey Redoubt. In 1852, the Monterey Redoubt was renamed the Monterey Ordnance Depot and used until 1856 as a military storehouse. From 1856 to the closing months of the Civil War, the fort, then called Ord Barracks, was abandoned. It was manned again in 1865, and abandoned a second time in 1866, although the U.S. Government “reserved” for possible future use a 140-acre military reservation surrounding the redoubt.

The Modern Presidio of Monterey

Near the end of the Philippine Insurrection in 1902, the Army recognized it needed additional forts, particularly on the West Coast. As possible sites were being surveyed, the Army “discovered” that it already owned a large area in Monterey that would be suitable for a military post. In July 1902, the Army announced plans to build a cantonment area and station one infantry regiment at Monterey. The 15th Infantry Regiment, which had fought in China and the Philippines, arrived in Monterey in September 1902 and began building the cantonment area. The 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, “Buffalo Soldiers,” arrived shortly thereafter.

In 1902, the name of the cantonment area was the Monterey Military Reservation. It was changed to Ord Barracks on July 13, 1903, and to the Presidio of Monterey on Aug. 30, 1904. Various infantry regiments rotated through the Presidio of Monterey, including the 15th Infantry (1902-1906), 20th Infantry (1906-1909), and 12th Infantry (1909-1917), frequently with supporting cavalry and artillery elements. The Army School of Musketry, the forerunner of the Infantry School, operated at the Presidio of Monterey from 1907 to 1913. In 1917, the U.S. War Department purchased a nearby parcel of 15,609.5 acres of land, called the Gigling Reservation, to use as training areas for Presidio of Monterey troops. This post, supplemented by additional acreage, was renamed Fort Ord on Aug. 15, 1940.

The 11th Cavalry Regiment was posted at the Presidio from 1919 to 1940, and the 2nd Battalion, 76th Field Artillery Regiment, from 1922 to 1940. During the summer months, Presidio soldiers organized and led Civilian Conservation Corps, Citizens’ Military Training Corps and Reserve Officer Training Corps camps in the local area.

In 1940, the Presidio became the temporary headquarters of the III Corps, and served as a reception center until 1944. Declared inactive in late 1944, the Presidio was reopened in 1945 and served as a Civil Affairs Staging and Holding Area for civil affairs soldiers preparing for the occupation of Japan.

In 1946 the Military Intelligence Service Language School was moved to the Presidio of Monterey. It added Russian, Chinese, Korean, Arabic and six other languages to its curriculum, and was renamed the Army Language School (ALS) in 1947. The size of the faculty and student classes and number of languages taught increased throughout the Cold War years.