The name Big Sur is derived from the Spanish language “El Grande Sur” meaning the “The Big South” as the area is South of the city of Monterey. In 1776 what we now know as California was under Spanish rule and the city of Monterey was named capital of Spanish California (known at the time as Alta California) making the city the first capitol of California. Thus the name Big Sur refers to the rugged wilderness south of the capital of the Spanish colony of Alta California.
While the Spanish were the first Europeans to cast eyes on Big Sur, they were not the first inhabitants of the area. It is speculated that the first people to live in Big Sur were made up of three Native American tribes Esselen, Ohlone, and Salinan. Of these three groups it is the Esselen that are most often thought to be the people of Big Sur. The Esselen were one of the smallest Indian groups in California it is estimated that their numbers were somewhere between 500 to 1000. Compared to other California tribes, sadly little is known about these people; their close proximity to the Spanish Missions made it likely that they were one of the first tribes to have their culture repressed almost to extinction as a result of Spanish Mission. The Mission Era of California took a server toll on the Native people of Big Sur. During this period the local Indian population declined by 90% due to Europe introduced diseases which they had no immunity. While the mission were disbanded in 1834, it is doubt full, because of their small number that that any sizable amount of unbaptized Indians would have survived after the 1850’s.