Long before the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Monterey County Weekly, the state’s first newspaper, The Californian, was printed on cigarette papers right here in Monterey by a true odd couple of publishing: Reverend Walter Colton and Robert Semple. “They were both very influential, literate, well-spoken and filled with words,” says Gary Kurutz, the principal librarian emeritus of special collections at the California State Library. “One, a man of the cloth, and the other [Semple] from Kentucky, but he was trained in the printing arts.”
Colton offers a colorful description of his printing cohort in his 1850 book, Three Years in California. “My partner is an emigrant from Kentucky, who stands six feet eight in his stockings,” Colton writes. “He is in a buckskin dress, a fox-skin cap; is true with his rifle, ready with his pen, and quick at the type-case.”
California’s first newspaper printed its first issue on Aug. 15, 1846. That initial installment had the news of the United State’s proclamation of war with Mexico, and was printed in both English and Spanish.
“Though small in dimensions, our first number is as full of news as a black-walnut is of meat,” Colton wrote.
Dennis Copeland, museums and archives manager for the city of Monterey, says the paper was printed in El Cuartel, a large Mexican government building that was located near the current site of Trader Joe’s. The actual press that printed the weekly paper was the legendary Zamorano printing press, which was formerly owned by Agustin Zamorano, a Mexican printer, soldier and secretary to Alta California Governor Jose Figueroa.
As The Californian was being printed, Monterey and the rest of California – then known as Alta California – were still under Mexican rule though there was a strong feeling that the ongoing Mexican-American War might bring change.
“There was a lot of information and misinformation being spread around, but I think The Californian certainly gave strength to the idea that California would be formally part of the United States at the conclusion of the war,” Kurutz says.
The Californian ran updates about the war along with information about ship arrivals in Monterey, ads for local businesses, announcements of goods for sale, and the first known published account of the Donner Party.
The Oct. 3, 1846 issue features what is believed to be the first poem published in the state, titled “On Leaving the United States for California.” On the same page ran a series of amusing printed jokes including a groaner about a dim boatman who believes he can dump yeast into a river to make its waters rise.
Kurutz notes that the paper was plagued by words that ran together and inadequate editing. “They didn’t always have the best proofreaders in the world,” he says. “I have seen some times when the word ‘California’ was badly misspelled.”
San Francisco’s first newspaper, The California Star, which debuted on Jan. 9, 1847, was not impressed with the state’s first paper. As one story put it: “We have received two late numbers of the Californian, a dim, dirty little paper printed at Monterey, on the worn out material of one of the old California war presses. It is published and edited by Walter Colton and Robert Semple, the one a lying sycophant and the other an overgrown lickspittle.”
That said, Kurutz says there is something about The Californian that makes it highly readable over 170 years after the small paper was published.
“I just love the language of that time,” he says. “Here’s one I’m looking at. ‘We beg leave to return our most sincere thanks to Lieutenant Bartlett.’ People don’t speak that way anymore. The prose of that time period is so much more elegant than it is now.”
The layout of The Californian was more static than today’s newspapers, with small text of all the same size and no illustrations. “We are used to having large headlines,” Kurutz says. “They didn’t have that capability.”
The crude Zamorano press printed the paper in Monterey for a little less than a year before being taken to San Francisco, where it printed a San Francisco version of The Californian. Later, the old press printed Sacramento’s first paper, Stockton’s first paper and Sonora’s first paper – before being set on fire in the latter town during a dispute in the late 1800s.
Kurutz sees little in common between The Californian and modern newspapers, but the little Monterey paper put out by Colton and Semple was the first of its kind. “To me, it was inspirational,” Kurutz says, “that at last this faraway place got a newspaper going.”