The Passing of an Oak

Cover of “The Passing of an Oak.” Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1905, workers in Monterey, California cut down a dead oak tree and tossed it into Monterey Bay. Perhaps they did not know that it was the most famous tree in the city’s history.

Three centuries before, on 3 December 1602, the expedition of Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno landed at the mouth of a creek in Monterey Bay. Vizcaíno’s mission was to locate safe harbors that the Spanish galleons could use on their voyages back from the Philippines, and this bay looked superb. The expedition’s chronicler, a Carmelite friar named Antonio de la Ascensión, celebrated Mass under the limbs of a large oak tree that stood near the creek. In his report, Vizcaíno noted the tree as an excellent landmark for future Spanish explorers.

Title page of “The Passing of an Oak”

Despite Vizcaíno’s glowing report, many decades would pass before the next expedition to Monterey, that of Gaspar de Portolá in 1769. Spain was now anxious to establish outposts in California before the empires of Russia and England could do the same. After many hardships, Portolá arrived overland on 24 May 1770. Junípero Serra sailed into Monterey Bay the following week, on 3 June 1770, and said Mass under Vizcaíno’s oak tree.

The oak tree was damaged by lightning in 1840 but remained otherwise healthy until 1903, when workmen repairing a culvert accidentally introduced salt water to the roots. The tree died the next year. (Our book’s foreword instead blames the tree’s illness on damage from engraving beetles, which are a type of bark beetle.) Let us charitably assume that those who cut down the tree in 1905 and unceremoniously threw it into the bay were ignorant of what the tree meant to the city.

Foreword of “The Passing of an Oak”

Fortunately, Ramón Mestres, the pastor of Monterey’s Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, heard what had happened and had the tree pulled from the water. With financial assistance from civic leader and philanthropist Harry Ashland Greene, the remains of the trunk were preserved with creosote and erected behind the cathedral. Greene also commissioned local craftsmen to make several chairs out of its branches, two of which he donated to the local parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. One of the chairs was exhibited along with other Monterey products at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The oak trunk remained on display at the Cathedral, along with a marble plaque, for many years until it deteriorated beyond repair. Several fragments of the tree are now preserved in local museums.

Page 1 of “The Passing of an Oak”

At this point, enter James A. Murray (1840-1921), a wealthy entrepreneur. According to his biographer Bill Farley, Murray was a “western iconoclast, a pioneering and dominating spirit, more comfortable in saloons than board rooms, who fought for wealth and mother country to his last breath.” Murray had made his first fortune in the mines of Montana, and proceeded to make further fortunes with investments across the United States. He established a second home in Monterey in 1904, and quickly took a keen interest in local history. Murray owned one of the three paintings by Léon Trousset depicting Junípero Serra’s first Mass beneath the famous oak tree. In 1908, to commemorate the lost tree, Murray commissioned sculptor Douglas Tilden to carve a tall granite Celtic cross with bas-relief portraits of Serra and Mission Carmel. The cross was erected near the original site of the tree and is now California Historical Landmark #128. (The Celtic design was a nod to Murray’s homeland of Ireland, where he feverishly supported the expulsion of the British and creation of an independent Irish republic.)

In 1949, the California Centennials Commission unveiled another historical marker a few yards away from the granite cross, this one commemorating Portolá’s founding of the Monterey Presidio in 1770.

The Vizcaíno-Serra Oak, late 1800s. At some point a plain wooden cross was set in the ground, bearing the date of Serra’s landing. Several different postcards were printed with views similar to this.

With all that as backstory, let us turn to today’s book, The Passing of an Oak. In 1909, Mary Murray, James’s wife, commissioned Paul Elder & Company to publish Mary Spence’s short poem about the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak. It is an elegant but slim volume: just seven stanzas of poetry, one stanza per page, in simple blue paper wraps. Remarkably, only twelve copies were printed, an almost comically small press run. Elder’s books were typeset by hand, and this was a lot of trouble to go to for just twelve copies. Surely it took longer to set the type than to print the twelve copies! If Mrs. Murray felt so strongly about printing Mrs. Sullivan’s poem and honoring her husband’s philanthropy, why did she print so few?

It’s unknown whether Murray first saw Spence’s poem and decided to publish it, or Spence wrote the poem upon commission from Murray. In any case, Mary Murray and Mary Spence must have been acquainted, and were perhaps even good friends. As you will read below, poet Mary Spence married well, and was ensconced in Monterey’s upper-crust society. The Murrays often vacationed in Monterey before moving there, and were donors to the local arts scene.

The granite monument as first erected in 1908, near where the oak once stood.

Mary Spence was born Mary Teresa Sullivan in San Francisco in 1863. Her father was Irish immigrant “Big John” Sullivan (1824-1882), who was a member of the pioneer Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party of 1844, the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada during the expansion of the American West. He later was one of the five co-founders of the Hibernia Bank of San Francisco. Mary received a private education from a French governess, and later attended the College of Notre Dame in San Jose. In 1886 Mary married Rudolph B. Spence (1858-1913) of Monterey. Rudolph’s Scottish grandfather David Spence had married into Monterey’s Estrada clan, owners of the extensive Rancho Llano de Buena Vista, a large Mexican land grant in the Salinas valley. In due course Rudolph inherited a portion of the rancho. Mary did not pursue a literary career, content with occasional short poems, fables, parodies, and book reviews under different pen names. She died in San Francisco in 1920 and is buried next to her husband in the Monterey City Cemetery.

Close-up of the monument. Photo by Kevin Dayton, 2015.

The landscape where the oak once stood has been much altered since the late 1880s and does not resemble the period photographs shown here. The granite cross is located at the corner of Pacific St. and Artillery St. in Monterey (see annotated photograph below). There is no parking of any kind at that intersection, but turn right onto Artillery and then right again on Corporal Ewing and you will find a small parking lot. It’s also an easy walk from other historic buildings nearby, such as the Custom House (where the United States flag was first raised over California in 1846) and California’s first theater, at the corner of Pacific and Scott.

In 2015, a mural was unveiled along the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, depicting the oak as it was thought to look in Vizcaíno’s day. While the mural and the oak tree site are only about 50 yards apart as the crow flies, there is no direct way to get from one to the other: you must walk the long way around via Scott St.

The preserved remains of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak at the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo
Close-up of the plaque underneath the preserved oak tree
Map of the immediate vicinity. The landscape has been much altered since Serra’s day, when the shoreline was much closer to the oak tree.
One of the chairs made out of fragments of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak
2015 mural of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak alongside the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail.
Historical marker commemorating the founding of Monterey by Portolá on 3 June 1770, located a few yards south of the granite cross.

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