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Three Native American tribes were the first people to inhabit the area now known as Big Sur: the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan. Archaeological evidence shows that they lived in Big Sur for thousands of years, leading a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence.[2] Few traces of their material culture have survived. Their arrow heads were made of obsidian, which indicates trading links with tribes hundreds of miles away, since the nearest sources of obsidian are in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the northern California Coast Ranges. Bedrock mortars, large exposed rocks hollowed out into bowl shapes that were used to grind oak acorns into flour, can be found at sites throughout Big Sur.[3]

The first Europeans to see Big Sur were Spanish mariners led by Juan Cabrillo in 1542, who sailed up the coast without landing. Two centuries passed before the Spanish attempted to colonize the area. In 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolà were the first Europeans known to set foot in Big Sur, in the far south near San Carpoforo Canyon.[4] Daunted by the sheer cliffs, his party avoided the area and pressed far inland. Portolà landed in Monterey Bay in 1770, and with Father Junìpero Serra, who helped found most of the missions in California, established the colony of Monterey, which became the capital of the Spanish colony Alta California. The Spanish gave Big Sur its name during this period, calling the region el país grande del sur, or the "Big South Country" because it was a vast, unexplored, and impenetrable land south of their capital at Monterey. The Spanish colonization devastated the Native American population. Most tribe members died out from European diseases or forced labor and malnutrition at the missions in the eighteenth century, while many remaining members assimilated with Spanish and Mexican ranchers in the nineteenth century.[5]

Along with the rest of California, Big Sur became part of Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. In 1834, the Mexican governor José Figueroa granted a 9000-acre rancho in northern Big Sur to Juan Bautista Alvardo, and his uncle by marriage, Captain J.B.R Cooper, soon after assumed ownership. The oldest surviving structure in Big Sur, the so-called Cooper Cabin, was built in 1861 on the Cooper ranch.[6] In 1848, as a result of the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded California to the United States. After passage of the federal Homestead Act in 1862, a few hardy pioneers moved into Big Sur, drawn by the promise of free 160-acre parcels. Many local sites are named after the settlers from this period - Pfeiffer, Post, Partington, and McWay are common place names.

Bixby Bridge Big Sur

Bixby Bridge with Gallatin's Restaurant (sometimes called the Alligator's Tail for the trail that winded down to the beach.

From the 1860's through the first decades of the twentieth century, lumbering cut down most of the coast redwoods. Along with industries based on tanoak bark harvesting, gold mining, and limestone processing, the local economy provided more jobs and supported a larger population than today. In the 1880's, a gold rush boom town, Manchester, sprang up at Alder Creek in the far south. The town boasted a population of 200, four stores, a restaurant, five saloons, a dance hall, and a hotel, but it was abandoned soon after the turn of the century and burned to the ground in 1909.[7] There were no reliable roads to supply these industries, so local entrepreneurs built small boat landings at a few coves along the coast. None of these landings remain today, and few other signs of this brief industrial period are visible to the casual traveler. The rugged, isolated terrain kept all but the sturdiest and most self-sufficient settlers out. A 30-mile trip to Monterey could take three days by wagon, over a rough and dangerous track.[8]

After the industrial boom faded, the early decades of the twentieth century passed with few changes, and Big Sur remained a nearly inaccessible wilderness. No residents had electricity until the 1920's, and even then, it was available at only two homes in the entire region, locally generated by water wheels and windmills.[9] Most of the population lived without power until connections to the California electric grid were established in the early 1950's. Big Sur changed rapidly when Highway 1 was completed in 1937 after eighteen years of construction, aided by New Deal funds and the use of convict labor. Highway 1 dramatically altered the local economy and brought the outside world much closer, with ranches and farms quickly giving way to tourist venues and second homes. Even with these modernizations, Big Sur was spared the worst excesses of development, due in no small part to foresighted residents who fought to keep the land unspoiled. The Monterey County government won a landmark court case in 1962, affirming its right to ban billboards and other visual distractions on Highway 1.[10] The county then adopted one of the country's most stringent land use plans, prohibiting any new construction within sight of the highway.

In the mid-twentieth century, Big Sur's relative isolation and natural beauty began to attract a different kind of pioneer - writers and artists, including Henry Miller, Robinson Jeffers, Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Kerouac. The region also became home to centers of study and contemplation - a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage, founded in 1958, and the Esalen Institute, a workshop and retreat center established in 1962. Esalen hosted many figures of the nascent "New Age," and in the 1960's, played an important role in popularizing Eastern philosophies, the "human potential movement," EST and Gestalt therapy in the United States. Big Sur acquired a bohemian reputation with these newcomers. Henry Miller recounted that a traveler knocked on his door, looking for the "cult of sex and anarchy."[11] Apparently finding neither, the disappointed visitor returned home.

Bixby Bridge Big Sur

Rainbow Lodge and "Rainbow Bridge" - now Bixby Bridge

Big Sur remains sparsely populated, with fewer than 1500 inhabitants, according to the 2000 US Census. The people of Big Sur today are a diverse mix: descendants of the original settler and rancher families, artists and other creative types, along with wealthy home-owners from the worlds of entertainment and commerce. There are no urban areas, although three small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels are often marked on maps as "towns": Big Sur, in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. The economy is almost completely based on tourism. Much of the land along the coast is privately owned or has been donated to the state park system, and the vast Los Padres National Forest encompasses the inland portions and the higher mountain areas. The mountainous terrain, environmentally conscious residents, and lack of property available for development have kept Big Sur almost unspoiled, and it retains an isolated, frontier mystique.

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