December 20, 2021

John Bautista Rogers Cooper: A Life in Monterey

Founded in 1770, Monterey—the capital of both Spanish and later Mexican-held Alta California— had many famous citizens, but none more prominent than Captain John Bautista Rogers Cooper, a sea captain, merchant, and immigrant.

Captain Cooper went to sea in 1805 when he was just 14 years old. In 1823, his voyages brought him to Monterey, then a part of Mexico, where he met and married Encarnacion Vallejo. By 1830 he became a naturalized citizen of Mexico.

During his lifetime, he built the Cooper Molera Adobe, operated a general merchandise store, and continued his trading expeditions to Hawaii and China. Cooper was granted vast ranchos from Sonoma—the location of California’s first water power-operated commercial sawmill—to Big Sur where he raised cattle.

In March 2020, Cooper Molera Adobe closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a search for ways to ensure that visitors could connect with the site virtually, staff at Cooper Molera leveraged the site's social media platforms to continue sharing its mission to bring cultures, community, and history together. As we set out to share never-before-seen photos and stories from the site's extensive archives of family ephemera, inspiration struck in the form of one particular report detailing Cooper’s life.

A sepia toned photograph of a male with bushy white sideburns and hair. He is wearing a top hat, glasses and a black suit which you can only see from chest height up.

photo by: Society of California Pioneers

John Bautista Rogers Cooper in a rare photograph taken during his later years. Note the formal attire and dark glasses.

Black and White view of a house in Monterey California. The house is two stories high.

photo by: Slevin Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

The two-story Cooper house in Monterey some time prior to 1900. You can see the story-and-a-half Diaz adobe to its right, and the two-story Alvarado adobe at the far right.

Tucked within the 1975 report John Rogers Cooper: New England Merchant in Mexican California by Harold Kirker and Stanley Bry of California State Parks, are stories, adventures, and glimpses into the seafaring life. Kirker and Bry also document Cooper’s upbringing, his sailing career and arrival into Monterey, the establishment of the Cooper Molera property, glimpses into early Monterey, and the changing political landscape of early-1800s California.

By sharing this report of Captain John Rogers Cooper in a multi-part Instagram series—starting in March 2020, continuing through shelter-in-place orders, ending with the reopening in July 2021—followers were privy to discoveries, archived pictures, and never-before seen historic files. Below, we spotlight a few of our favorite posts.

Editor's Note: To view the full caption of each image on Instagram, click on the image itself to be redirected to the post.

Part 1: Introducing Captain Cooper

This first post in the series introduces John Bautista Rogers Cooper. We begin our journey to understand who Captain Cooper is and why he came to Monterey.

Part 6: The Solis Revolt

The rebellion begun November 13, 1829, by Joaquin Solis—in which Mexican soldiers demanded to be paid for thier work—marked the beginning of the series of revolutions and counterrevolutions that plagued Mexican California until the American occupation of 1846.⁠⁠ This particular post is interesting as we get a firsthand look into Captain Cooper’s involvement in the political landscape of early Monterey.

Part 7: The Fitch Affair

In 1829, Cooper took part in an incident that began when Henry Delano Fitch eloped with Josefa Carrillo, a daughter of Don Juaquin Carrillo of San Diego.⁠ This post reflects on Cooper’s character and gives us a sense of who he was as a person.

Part 13: 1839 Alta California

This post highlights significant correspondence in 1839 between Nathan Spear (who used the property as his shop and residence) and Thomas Oliver Larkin (Cooper's half brother, and later a United States Consul to Alta California during the Mexican Era). In the featured text Spears instructs Larkin to rent out his house to Don M. Jimeno for building of Adobe structures on the Cooper Molera property. The details of the workings of the Cooper home and his wishes on how it would be structured are detailed in this post which also provides information on what it was like to live in Alta California in this period.

Part 21: The Gold Rush

In 1849, Captain Cooper received a letter from his mother, Ann Rogers, which mentioned the response in the east to the California gold discovery. As the Gold Rush marked the start of many changes to the western part of the United States, this firsthand account highlights the drastic change this push had on local Indigenous populations and the genocide that followed.

For the full series, visit Cooper Molera Adobe on Instagram @coopermolera. The story is not over, and more will be shared in the months to come.

Dianna O’Briant is the senior museum assistant at Cooper Molera Adobe.

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By: Dianna O'Briant

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