A Tree and a Chair

The Serra Chair on display at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.

The Serra Chair on display at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.

By Jeff Rothal

In 1602, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino discovered and named a number of features along the California coast. He and the members of his fleet were probably the first Europeans to see these sites. They camped under a prominent oak tree near what is now Monterey's Lighthouse Avenue tunnel, adjacent to the present-day Lower Presidio Historic Park. Fast forward 167 years, to 1769, and another Spaniard, Garpar de Portola, sailed up the coast. One of his traveling companions was Father Juan Crespi, for whom Pacific Grove's Crespi Pond is named. The following year, Portola returned, this time with Father Junipero Serra. (Serra is scheduled to be canonized by Pope Francis on September 23rd, 2015.)

They landed and said Mass under what they presumed was the same oak tree where the Vizcaino expedition had camped. While the tree is long gone (more on that below), you can still visit this spot, just off Pacific Street, where a small monument to Father Serra marks the approximate place where the oak stood. Due to changes in the landscape (largely human-made), the location is much further from the water than it was in the days of the early explorers. There are also other historic monuments worth visiting at the Lower Presidio, as well as a museum

Junipero Serra

Junipero Serra

Back to that tree. Accounts indicate this coast oak, known variously as the Vizcaino-Serra Oak, the Charter Oak, the Vizcaino Oak, the Serra Oak, the Junipero Oak, and the "'Plymouth Rock'  of California" (due to its historical significance), lived happily into the early 1900s. Local Native Americans, many of whom were indoctrinated into the Church, planted acorns from the tree. One descendant of the tree lived for a time outside the Stokes Adobe in Old Monterey, site of the current Restaurant 1833.

It was not always an easy life for the original tree. It was struck by lightning in the 1840s. Human activity in the early 20th century allowed seawater to inundate some of its roots. 

After a long life, the tree was declared dead on July 6, 1904. The dramatic four-part, eleven-line headline in the Monterey New Era that day read:


It Marked the Spot Where Viscaino 
Landed Three Hundred Years Ago


Under Its Branches the Founder of the 
California Missions Celebrated the 
First Mass...Here Civilization Began

Of course today we realize there were many cultures living in the area before the arrival of Serra. So what did construction workers in the vicinity of the tree do with this cherished, celebrated icon? They unceremoniously threw it into the Bay.

But like a cat with nine lives, it gained new "life" in 1905 when Father Ramon Mestres noticed its absence. Accounts vary, but the priest engaged some local fishermen to retrieve (some say harpoon) the lifeless tree from as far as 12 miles out in the Bay. A local entrepreneur named Harry Ashland Greene may have played a role. Much of the tree was preserved and displayed behind the chapel, but as well as it was jerry-rigged, it didn't last long. Today, portions of the tree can be viewed at the San Carlos Cathedral 's Royal Presidio Chapel Heritage Center, as well as the Carmel Mission.

And what of the chair that is now on display in our Natural History Museum? The aforementioned Harry A. Greene had a local craftsman make at least two chairs out of branches from the Vizscaino-Serra oak. He donated them to the local parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. We don't know what became of the second chair, but the Mayo Hayes O'Donnell Research Library has a photo postcard of the two chairs. The chair now on exhibit was displayed 100 years ago among other Monterey products at the Panama Pacific International Exposition. If you're an old timer, you may have also seen the chair at the First Theatre in Monterey (now closed to the public), just a stone's throw from where the tree got its start.

There's a nifty video you can watch online to learn more about this historic artifact. The video is part of the California's Gold series, starring the late Huell Howser. In it, you can also learn about the Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach. Howser, with his usual characteristic enthusiasm, visits a number of sites mentioned in this blog post and interviews the very knowledgeable Dave Schaechtele of California State Parks. The portion of the video about the Charter Oak starts at about the 8:20 mark, and the chair can be seen starting 20:54 into the video.

The chair is now on display at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History as part of the 100-year anniversary celebration of the Panama Pacific International Exposition. The Museum’s current exhibit, running through the end of the year, highlights Monterey County Day, celebrated during the PPIE on June 11, 1915.