Watsonville was officially incorporated as a City in 1868, however that is not the beginning of settlement in the area. The local Native Americans, the Ohlone Indians, lived in the coastal Monterey Bay area for approximately 4,500-5,000 years before the discovery and settlement by the Spanish Missionaries.
In the fall of 1769, Spanish military explorer Gaspar de Portola and his crew turned away from the coast near present-day Monterey where they encountered a burned Native American village on the edge of a river. The story says that the natives left a large bird, stuffed with straw, on the riverbank. While the Franciscan Father Crespi named the river the Santa Ana, the soldiers called it the Pajaro, or “bird,” River. Not long after, the exploration party discovered San Francisco Bay and claimed it for Spain.
Thus began the Mission Period in California’s history, which spanned the years 1770-1834. After Mexican independence in 1821, the Mexican governors carved up the Pajaro Valley into land grants and distributed the ranchos among friends and prominent citizens. The site of present-day Watsonville sits on what was known as Bolsa del Pajaro, part of the larger Rancho del Pajaro grant. This particular property was claimed and contested by dozens of individuals, including the Rodriguez brothers, Sebastian and Alexander. Final claims were not settled until 1860, when Sebastian Rodriguez posthumously became the recognized legal owner of the Rancho del Pajaro. In 1860, Sebastian’s heirs granted a small parcel of land to the growing settlement on their now legally confirmed land holdings. This parcel remains to this day as Watsonville’s City Plaza.
After incorporation in 1868, Watsonville grew as an agricultural economy. By 1870, the main crops were grains and potatoes, followed by fruit trees and produce cultivation. Growth in Watsonville was further spurred with the coming of the railroad in 1871. This connection with the outside world transformed the city from a rural outpost to the second largest city in Santa Cruz County.
The City has been the leader in the production of several crops since the 1800’s, beginning with sugar beets in the late 1800’s, then apples, lettuce, and most recently berries. Watsonville has been home to many processing and cold storage facilities as well, including Naturipe, Dole, and Green Giant, among many others. During the early 1900’s Watsonville was the apple capital of the world, which included fresh apples, apple cider, dried apples and vinegar. Martinelli’s Ciderworks was established in Watsonville in 1868, and continues producing cider from locally grown apples to this day.
Today, Watsonville’s economy has diversified from agricultural processing and is home to many corporate headquarters including Granite Rock, Granite Construction, Fox Racing, and West Marine, among many others. Watsonville is located just to the east of Palm Beach and Pajaro Dunes, which is a short drive out of the downtown area on Beach Road.
There are several festivals that are put on each year by the City of Watsonville, including the annual Fourth of July parade and the Strawberry Festival, which is held on the first weekend of August each year. The Strawberry Festival celebrates the area’s dominant crop and includes food booths, carnival rides, games, and live music. You can find more information on what’s happening in the City of Watsonville by clicking on any of the following links.
*History of Watsonville courtesy of the City of Watsonville Historic Context Statement, prepared circa April, 2007.