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The Human Presence in Big Sur

The human impact on the Big Sur coast seems almost negligable, it has left so few traces. And indeed, compared to more welcoming landscapes, total population has never been significant. It reached its peak in the late 1880's when the tanbark, lime and logging operations brought in workers. A gold strike on Alder Creek added to the short-lived boom.

Current population is difficult to estimate--many residents don't prefer to be counted--but educated guesses run from 1,100 to 1,400 hardy souls.

The native peoples that called this area home had an even more invisible presence. The Esselen, Ohlone, Ohlone-Rumsen and the Salinan lived here for perhaps 30,000 years. They followed the seasonal food sources, mostly traveling in an east-west direction due to the difficulties of the deep coastal canyons. The fruits of the sea and the land provided a bountiful subsistence for the first inhabitants of the area. They were well-known for fine basketry, among many other peaceable achievements.

When the first white men arrived in 1768, the native people greeted them warmly with gifts of food. They seemed unsurprised to see people so unlike themselves.

Recent research reveals that the Pacific Coast may have visited by people from Asia since the beginning of the first milennium B.C.


The Chinese, in particular, had a large influence on local culture, leaving their mark in art, calendars, counting devices, plants and boardgames.

Chinese emperors sent out well-equipped vessels on voyages to what they called the Eastern Sea (the Pacific) to search for the mountainous paradise where immortals and the drug they used to prevent death could be found. Unfortunately, due to a lack of easily available return currents, most if not all of these expeditions failed to make it home.

They were shipwrecked or cast away among the native inhabitants. Evidence shows visits from India, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Java as well. So perhaps Big Sur has never been as isolated as it appeared!

The natives lived undisturbed for the most part, despite these infrequent vistations, until the Spanish began their push into Alta California...

Portola and Father Junipero Serra were on an urgent mission in 1768 to secure the California coast from contending forces. The Russians were making a move south from Alaska with their eyes on the sea otter pelt trade. Sir Frances Drake had landed and made a claim for England. It was time for the Spanish to stop ignoring their distant holdings and establish secure outposts. In 1770, after much hardship and travail, the Mission at Monterey was dedicated.

The Carmel Mission Courtyard

The dual forces of conversion and military presence suffered a setback when contagious disease brought by whites practically eliminated the native population altogether before all the mission outposts were completed. The few survivors learned to hide from Europeans, or they were absorbed by the missions and died in servitude there.

In 1822 Mexico declared independence from Spain. The era of the rancho began. During this period Spanish was the predominant tongue on the central coast of California. The missions were finally secularized and the native inhabitants fared relatively well under Mexican rule.

But by the 1840's many American pioneers had moved in and taken up homesteads. They were unhappy with the governor's allegiance to Mexico. Turmoil was common, culminating with Fremont's arrival with an armed force in 1846. The surrender was signed in 1847.

In the late 1880's settlers began moving into the Big Sur area. Living conditions were primitive due to isolation. Cooking was done on fireplaces and water was hauled from creeks or springs. Supplies came in once a year by ship. Necessaries had to be purchased in Monterey the rest of the year. The wagon road ended at Mill Creek--the remaining distance to the Big Sur was covered by pack mule. High water and slides closed even these rustic routes all winter long.

The names of Big Sur pioneers remain on our maps today:
Partington, Pfeiffer, Post, Dani, Cooper, Manuel--all commemorate the first families who called the Sur home.

The Cooper Cabin

It was during this rough period that Big Sur earned its reputation as a dark and bloody land. The feuds, murders and suicides were reminiscent of the Ozarks. One particularly dramatic storyteller in later days was the English-born Grimes, a stagecoach driver who spread these grisly tales far and wide.

But stories of friendly cooperation are equally numerous, if not so glamorous. Settlers had to help each other--there was no other way to survive.

This tradition continues among current inhabitants. As Henry Miller put it, "If I were to single out one element in the American temperament which has been exalted here, it would be kindness."

Miller was the nexus of a gathering of Bohemian artists and writers that called Big Sur home in the forties and fifties. The exaggerated reputation of the area is revealed by a story Miller tells of a man who showed up on his doorstep one day to announce that he was there "to join the cult of sex and anarchy". Of course there never was such a cult. Most writers retired to the Sur simply to get some work done. Unfortunately most found that just living there entailed so much work in itself that frequently the art suffered. Not to mention the distraction afforded by the views!

Still, over the years, writers, artists and photographers such as Robert Louis Stevenson (who set Treasure Island on a place remarkably similar to Point Lobos), Mary Austin, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers (whose epic poems of life in the Sur drew the first literary tourists), Lillian Ross, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller (resident for 20 years), Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, among many many others have either lived or spent time along the South coast.

Jack Kerouac may be the only writer on this list to have arrived in a taxi. He was on his way to stay in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin to "dry out", but made a brief pit stop in the North Beach bars. When the taxi let him out where the road stopped at Bixby Creek canyon, it was pitch black. He wandered around a bit, lost, then finally passed out in a meadow. Jack's experience in Big Sur is chronicled in his book of the same name. For this Eastern boy, evidently, the looming mountains and breakneck paths to the sea were simply too much. He claimed that he heard the surf incessantly telling him to leave, go home, write a book!

In the early 1900's residents themselves improved the roads. Woodstoves, gas lanterns and indoor plumbing showed up here and there at first, then became nearly universal. The opening of Highway One in 1937 linked Big Sur to the rest of the world for good or bad. Conditions gradually attained to a state commonly called 'civilization', with electricity finally arriving in the fifties.

The people who live here still travel to Carmel or Monterey for supplies, and are still frequently cut-off by storms and road closures in the winter. Electrical power and telephone service can be unreliable, cell phones have a limited utility, and television reception is limited to a few channels.

They suffer these and other inconveniences simply because living here in these glorious surroundings is an exalted experience.

Henry Miller raised two children in his cramped home on Partington Ridge and he had these words to say about watching them grow up here: "...They had skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter of emerald green and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure gold. They had even more, for there was ever the unfathomable silence of the forest, the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days drenched with sun and nights spangled with stars..."

Dedicated residents continue to work diligently to preserve the beauty of Big Sur. It's an ongoing battle, but one infinitely worthwhile, as this slice of paradise serves as an intoxicating reminder of how beautiful the world can be if simply left alone.


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