The military has played a vital role on the Monterey Peninsula since the area was 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. Capt. 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 its New World empire. Spain then moved to occupy that portion of the western American coast that it 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 building near Lake El Estero in the vicinity of what is now downtown Monterey. The fort’s original mission as the Royal Presidio Chapel, established in 1770, was renovated and reopened in 2008. The original presidio, called El Castillo, was protected by a small fort with 11 cannons. 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 1822.
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 Capt. William Mervine, who commanded one of the squadron ships.
The U.S. fortification held many names in its early history, including Fort Halleck, Fort Savannah and the Monterey Redoubt. In 1852, it was renamed the Monterey Ordnance Depot and used until 1856 as a military storehouse. Closed from 1856 to 1865, the now-named Ord Barracks was abandoned the next year, although the U.S. War Department reserved 40 acres of land for possible future use.
THE PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY: 1902-1946
Near the end of the Philippine Insurrection in 1902, the Army recognized a need for West Coast fortification. As possible sites were being surveyed, the Army remembered Ord Barracks in Monterey. In July 1902, the Army announced plans to build a cantonment area and station an infantry regiment there. 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.