The Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey, Calif. has been one of the National Trust’s historic sites, open to the public, since the 1960s, but only now are we learning the full story of what life was like for Californians in the 19th century. For the first time, the Smithsonian Latino Center’s (SLC) museum studies program, has partnered with the National Trust to closely examine the collection of artifacts in the house to help us gain a better understanding of Latina and women’s history in California.
“In order to settle the frontiers, you had to encourage people to come and settle,” says Dr. Maria Raquel Casas, University of Nevada, Las Vegas history professor and author of “Married to a Daughter of the Land: Interethnic Marriages in California, 1820-1880.” “Women were critical, because otherwise you can’t reproduce…In order to encourage women to come to the frontier, they had the right to own land.”
She says there were only about 600 to 650 inhabitants of Monterey in the 1830’s, and by 1840’s, a thousand at the most.
“It was so difficult to get to California,” she says. “It was a dangerous journey…and the poor isolated communities were dying to have material comfort.”
These material comforts were only affordable by the elite trading families. She says the upper class who could afford these items were determined by who owned land – less than a third of the population were landowners.
Fully restored in the 1980s, the Cooper-Molera Adobe displays the elegance and wealth of the John Rogers Cooper family. The ship captain and trader was originally from New England, immigrated to California, and married into a Mexican family.
“John Cooper was Protestant, but he had to convert and become Catholic,” says Christian Larsen, a Smithsonian Latino Center Fellow working at the National Trust, because as an outsider he had to fit in politically. “He changed his name to Juan Bautista Rogers Cooper, and went by JBR Cooper.”
His wife, Encarnacion, raised their daughters to be devoutly Catholic as well. Larsen says they went to Catholic school, and invitations, sermons, a framed picture of the pope Leo the XIII, and rosaries and crucifixes can be found throughout the house.
“An embroidery table (c.1840) is a good example of the kind of object this family would acquire with trade with China,” says Larsen. “This was a very wealthy family. They didn’t need it to make clothes. It was for decoration or to make initials on a pillowcase. A skill that women were teaching their daughters. The better you were at this embroidery shows your education as a woman.”
He said the Chinese made these specifically for the Western market, because there was a huge taste for Asian goods at the time.
Larsen says this European Empire style canopy bed, introduced by Napoleon, was also popular in the 1830’s and 1940’s.
“The bed is actually made out of Spanish Cedar, only grown in Central and South America,” he says. “It was shipped to China to be labored by Chinese laborers, and then shipped to Monterey.”
Larsen says this bed was probably owned by the Cooper family, but is now kept at the adjacent Diaz house.
“Manuel Diaz was a Mexican merchant who married Luisa, a native Californian,” says Larsen.
He says they eventually became poor being Latinos, because once the U.S. took over in 1849, there was a reversal of fortunes. Larsen says they started honoring the land grants based on race, and that was what determined whether you thrived or not. He says there is not much that remains from the Diaz household.
“We had to go digging in the ground,” says Larsen. “This [teacup] is one of the objects that were thrown away. It was made between 1844 and 1851.”
He says the British were marketing these cups to the U.S. as propaganda commemorating the war between Mexico and U.S.
“The fact that this pro-America teacup winds up in a Mexican household makes you wonder,” says Larsen. “A lot has to do with class. They were well off. When Monterey becomes in decline [in 1850], so does their fortune. People are not necessarily politically aligned because of ethnic reasons, but also because of class.”