Pajaro Valley History

By: Jane Borg and Jack Schoellhmer

Human Habitation

Watsonville is located in the center of the Pajaro Valley, approximately five miles inland from the shore of the Monterey Bay, and midway between the bay’s northern and southern points. The known history of the area spans a great length of time, and evidence exists of human habitation for more that 10,000 years. Many different groups of native inhabitants gathered the abundant plant and sea life and hunted animals such as birds, rabbits and tule elk. Remnants of their campsites have been discovered around the bay and by coastal streambeds.


The first European exploration by land was by Spain and led by Gaspar de Portola in 1769. Members of the party included Europeans as well as natives of Mexico. Their mission was to discover desirable sites for the extension of the Baja California chain of Missions into what is today the state of California. As the Portola expedition entered the Pajaro Valley, they reported crossing a river and seeing a large straw-stuffed bird. They decided to name the river Rio del Pajaro, or River of the Bird. As the party passed through the valley, they recorded seeing very tall trees, palos colorados (or red trees), known today as coast redwoods.


By the end of the 1700’s, three missions had been established to the south, east and north of the Pajaro Valley— Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Mission San Juan Bautista, and Mission Santa Cruz. At various times, all three missions claimed grazing rights in the Pajaro Valley.

After Mexican Independence and the desecularization of the Missions, former Mission-held lands were granted to Mexican citizens. Seven ranchos were in the immediate vicinity of present Watsonville— San Andres, Los Corralitos, Bolsa de Pajaro, Bolsa de San Cayetano, Salsipuedes, Laguna de Calabasas, and Vega del Rio del Pajaro.

Gold Rush

Following the California Gold Rush of 1848, many new settlers arrived in the valley to obtain land with the gold they had found and to raise crops for California’s exploding population. Many who had not been lucky in the gold fields also found their “gold” in agriculture. Even after the “rush” was over, immigrants from many foreign countries and the other States continued to arrive to participate in growing and harvesting the increasingly diverse crops. Today, the valley’s population reflects this historical diversity with descendants of Ohlones, Californios, Northern and Southern Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African-Americans and others.

The Pajaro Valley moved from livestock ranching, to growing grains and potatoes, to orchards, and eventually to a multitude of row crops. Each subsequent use of the land has placed more demands on the valley’s soil and water resources.

Watsonville's Origins

Incorporated on March 30,1868 Watsonville derived its name from Judge John Watson, who filed a claim in 1851 against Sebastian Rodriguez, proprietor of Rancho Bolsa de Pajaro, Watson lost and moved on after a few years, but his name lived on ever after.


Growth in the Pajaro Valley flourished when the Southern Pacific Railroad linked the area to the Santa Clara Valley in 1871. Churches, schools, newspapers, libraries, and major business appeared as electricity and telegraph lines worked their way into the lives of its residents.

Today, agriculture and food processing remain the mainstay of the Pajaro Valley economic structure. Yet, in keeping with recent trends, a new breadth of opportunity has opened for residents and businesses, including light industry, manufacturing, tourism and service oriented businesses.

Local Historic Resources

If you are interested in more information about the local history of Watsonville or Pajaro Valley, visit the library of one of Watsonville’s other local history repositories. The Pajaro Valley Historical Association is located in the Historic Bockus-Orr House, 332 East Beach Street, Watsonville CA 95076, telephone 831-722-0305. Historical Records, photographs, and artifacts are available for review in the Snyder Archive and Volck Museum. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; appointments are suggested for research.

The Agricultural History Project’s mission is to preserve the history of agriculture as practiced in the counties of Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey through public awareness of the economic, cultural, ethnic and historical significance of agriculture on the Central Coast. In January 2000 AHP [began] school tours, by appointment, to see the historical collection of farming implements, and to participate in hand-on demonstrations of yesterday’s farming practices. AHP presents “Yesterday’s Farm” at the County Fair held each September. The Agricultural History Project is located at the entrance to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, 2601 East Lake Avenue, Watsonville. Office hours are Mondays and Fridays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The museum is open to visitors Fridays and Saturdays from Noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Telephone: 831-724-5898.