History of California

From Academic Kids


Although the present-day State of California has been occupied for millennia, the lack of a written record and the significant marginalization in the population of native inhabitants after European colonization means that most of the known history of California begins with European exploration.

During that time, the area has gone from a Spanish outpost of interest primarily populated by missionaries and fur trappers, to a land of opportunity and wealth, first with the Gold Rush of 1849, then with its fertile agricultural lands and prodigious oil fields, and finally with its high-technology leadership.

A field of  circa .


California's .
California's Yosemite Valley.

The coast of California was an inviting pathway even for the earliest inhabitants of North America. The remains of Arlington Springs Woman on Santa Rosa Island are among the traces of a very early inhabitation, dated to the last ice age (Wisconsin glaciation) about 13,000 years ago.

When the first European explorers and settlers appeared, they found many Native American tribes living in the pristine land of oak woodlands, grassy hills, and broad beaches — in what is now California. Among the tribes were the Chumash, Maidu, Miwok, Modoc, Mohave, Ohlone and Tongva. California holds a variety of unique ecosystems and each tribe specialized according to the particular environment. Coastal tribes were a major source of trading beads (wampum), which were produced from mussel shells using stone tools, while those in the northern Cascade Range traded obsidian, used for arrowheads, axe heads, and knives. Tribes in the Sierra Nevada foothills collected acorns from oak trees, ground them, and leached out the acidic tannin to make the flour edible.

16th century

European exploration

Hernán Cortés

Main article: Hernán Cortés

About 1530, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán (President of New Spain) was told by an Indian slave of the Seven Cities of Cibola that had streets paved with gold and silver. About the same time, Hernán Cortés was attracted by stories of Ciguatan, a wonderful country far to the northwest, populated with Amazonish women and abounding with gold, pearls, and gems. The Spaniards conjectured that these places may be one and the same.

An expedition in 1533 discovered a bay, most likely that of La Paz, before experiencing difficulties and returning. Cortés accompanied expeditions in 1534 and 1535 without finding the sought-after city.

On May 3, 1535, Cortés claimed "Santa Cruz Island" (now known as the peninsula of Baja California), and laid out and founded the city that was to become LaPaz later that spring.

Francisco de Ulloa

Main article: Francisco de Ulloa

, also Island of California

In July 1539, moved by the renewal of those stories, Cortés sent Francisco de Ulloa out with three small vessels. He made it to the mouth of the Colorado, then circumnavigated the peninsula and sailed as far as Cedros Island.

The name "California" was first applied in the account of this voyage. It can be traced back to a series of romances that were very popular in Spain throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th century. In the fifth Volume of the romance of chivalry Amadis de Gallia, arranged Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and first printed around 1510, which was a sequel to the very popular first four Volumes that deal with Reconquista of Spain, Esplandian, the son of Amadis, travels through an island called "California" or "Califerne".

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

Main article: Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

The first European to explore the coast of the present day State of California was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing for the Spanish Crown who had been in the army of Cortes during the conquest of Mexico. In June 1542, Cabrillo led an expedition in two ships from the west coast of New Spain. He sailed northward and landed on September 28 at San Diego Bay, claiming the Island of California for Spain.

After Cabrillo's voyage in 1542 the concept of Alta (upper) California and Baja (lower) California started to emerge.

On San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands, Cabrillo suffered a fall and broke his arm near the shoulder. Despite his injury, he proceeded with the plan to find the Strait of Anián which was thought to exist. Cabrillo nonetheless made it to Cape Mendecino north of the Golden Gate and back south to San Miguel, where he died and was buried. The expedition, under former chief pilot Bartolomé Ferrelo, sailed north after Cabrillo's death, past Cabo de Fortunas to the modern California-Oregon border before returning to Spain.

Sir Francis Drake

Main article: Francis Drake

On June 17, 1579, Sir Francis Drake landed somewhere above Spain's claim to the Island of California. Drake's claim marked the first of six national flags to fly over California: that of England, Russia, Spain, Mexico, the Republic of California, and the United States. (A seventh, that of the Confederacy, flew briefly and unofficially in the state capital during the American Civil War.)

Missing image
"California" shown as an island on this 1650 map.

Drake found an excellent port, landed, repaired and restocked his vessels, then stayed for a time and kept friendly relations with the aboriginal natives. It is usually assumed that Drake's port was somewhere near the northern Bay Area — anywhere from Bodega to San Pablo Bay. Sir Francis Drake may have falsified the records of his journey in an effort either to thwart the Spaniards in their quest for the fabled Northwest PassageTemplate:Ref or to keep the location of his port secret from them.

A bronze plaque inscribed with Drake's claim to the new lands, fitting a description in Drake's own account, was discovered in Marin County. The so-called Drake's Plate of Brass was later declared a fraud. Drake claimed the territory of Nova Albion for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. Although no one knows exactly where Drake's port was, what is certain of the extent of Drake's territorial claims and challenge to the Papacy and the Spanish crown is that his port was founded somewhere north of Point Loma; that contemporary English-language maps of North America label all lands above the Kingdoms of New Spain and New Mexico "Nova Albion," and that all English colonial claims were made from the East Coast in the 1600s were "from Sea to Sea." These colonial claims were established with full knowledge of Drake's, which they reinforced, and which remained valid when the colonies became states. These territorial claims would later become important during the negotiations that ended the Mexican-American War and realized American Manifest Destiny.

Sebastián Vizcaíno

Main article: Sebastián Vizcaíno

In 1597, Sebastián Vizcaíno sailed from Acapulco to further explore Baja California. He found good ports with rich pearl beds and fruitful islands, and re-established the city of La Paz, Mexico.

17th century

A second expedition under Vizcaíno in 1602 sailed up the Pacific coast beyond Cape Mendocino.

Other Spanish expeditions

18th century

Spanish colonization

Since 1493, Spain had maintained a number of missions throughout New Spain (Mexico, and portions of what today are the Southwestern United States) in order to facilitate colonization of these lands. It was not until the threat of invasion by Tsarist Russia in 1765, however, that King Charles III of Spain felt such installations were necessary in Upper ("Alta") California. Between 1774 and 1791, the Crown sent forth a number of expeditions to explore the Pacific Northwest, but by 1819 chose to limit its "reach" to Northern California due to the costs involved in sustaining such remote outposts.

Gaspar de Portolà

Main article: Gaspar de Portolà

Dispatches of January 23, 1768 exchanged between King Carlos and the viceroy set the wheels in motion to extend Spain's control up the Pacific Coast and establish colonies and missions at San Diego Bay and Monterey Bay (which had been discovered and described in reports by earlier explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, who had mapped the California coastline for Spain, in 1602). In May, the Spanish Visitor General, José de Gálvez, proceeded to plan a four-part expedition, two by sea and two by land, which de Portolà volunteered to command.

Governor de Portolà's land expedition arrived at the site of present-day San Diego on June 29, 1769, establishing the Presidio of San Diego. Eager to press on to Monterey Bay, de Portolà and his expedition, consisting of Father Juan Crespi, sixty-three leather-jacket soldiers and a hundred mules loaded down with provisions, headed north on July 14. Marching two to four leagues a day, they reached the site of present day Los Angeles on August 2. The following day, they marched out on the Indian trail that would one day become Wilshire Boulevard to the present site of Santa Monica. They reached the area that would become Santa Barbara on August 19, and the present-day San Simeon/Ragged Point area on September 13. On October 1, de Portolà's party emerged from the Santa Lucia Mountains and reached the mouth of the Salinas River.

Arriving in the San Francisco Bay area on October 31, the party explored and named many localities in the region south of what would eventually become known as the Golden Gate; de Portolà became the first European proven to view San Francisco Bay, discovering it from the land. The group returned to San Diego, failing to find Vizcaino's harbor (the Bay of Monterey) on their way. Surviving on mule meat for most of the journey, they arrived on January 24, 1770. On June 3, 1770 the foundations were laid for Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo and El Presidio de Monterey in Monterey. As de Portolà's task was finished, he left Captain Pedro Fages in charge, and sailed for San Blas, Mexico on June 9, never to return to Upper California again.

Father Junípero Serra

Main article: Junípero Serra

Missing image
A portrait of Father Junípero Serra.

Father Junípero Serra was a Majorcan (Spain) Franciscan who founded the Alta California mission chain. After King Carlos III ordered the Jesuits forcibly expelled from "New Spain" on February 3, 1768, Father Serra was named "Father Presidente." Under his leadership, Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá (the only Franciscan mission in all of Baja California) and the nearby Visita de la Presentación were established.

Father Serra founded his first mission north of the Peninsula, San Diego de Alcalá, in 1769. Later that year, Governor de Portolà, leading a small military force, marched north with Father Serra at his side. Boldly crossing Point Loma, they left the Spanish claim, marching up the Pacific Coast. The expedition reached Monterey in 1770, where Serra founded the second Alta California mission, San Carlos Borromeo. It is here that Father Serra established his headquarters (which were moved to Carmel) the following year).

Father Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 25, 1988, and many Roman Catholics are pushing for his canonization (promotion to sainthood). However, some Native American groups have spoken out against this on the grounds that his missions enslaved their people. It was under Father Serra that many places along the coast were named, including the appellation "California" which had previously applied only to the Peninsula now called Baja California.

The Alta California missions

Main article: Spanish missions in California

The "California Missions" comprise a series of religious outposts established by Spanish Catholic Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans, to spread the Christian doctrine among the local Native Americans, but with the added benefit of giving Spain a toehold in the frontier land. The missions introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, and industry into the California region. In addition to the presidio (royal fort) and pueblo (town), the misión was one of the three major agencies employed by the Spanish crown to extend its borders and consolidate its colonial territories.

The missions themselves were situated approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart, so that they were separated by one day's long ride on horseback along the 600–mile (966–kilometer) long El Camino Real (Spanish for "The Royal Highway"), also known as the California Mission Trail. Tradition has it that the padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the trail in order to mark it with bright yellow flowers.

A number of mission structures survive today or have been rebuilt, and many have congregations established since the beginning of the 20th century. The highway and missions have become for many a romantic symbol of an idyllic and peaceful past. The "Mission Revival Style" was an architectural movement that drew its inspiration from this idealized view of California's past.

Military Districts

Four presidios, strategically placed along the California coast, served to protect the missions and other Spanish settlements in Upper California. Each of these posts functioned as a base of military operations for a specific region, organized as follows:

El Presidio de Sonoma, or Sonoma Barracks, was established in 1836 by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (the "Commanclate-General of the Northern Frontier of Alta California") as a part of Mexico's strategy to halt Russian incursions into the region.

British influences

Captain James Cook, midway through his third and final voyage of exploration in 1778, sailed along the west coast of North America aboard the HMS Resolution, mapping the coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait. The town of Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) was founded in 1792 by British explorer George Vancouver, who had served under Cook's command.

19th century

Russian exploration

In the early 1800s, fur trappers of the Russian Empire, which had already claimed Alaska, briefly explored the coast and set up trading posts as far south as Fort Ross in modern-day Sonoma County. They hunted for sea otter pelts as far south as the Channel Islands (west of the coastline from Santa Barbara to San Diego). A prominent marriage between a leading Californio family and an Imperial noble almost caused Russian trade to advance into Southern California. The scion from Russia, however, died of disease while crossing Siberia to get a dispensation from Russian Orthodox leaders to marry a Catholic (his would-be bride entered a convent after his death).


To support the agricultural and pastoral work of the missions, the Spanish encouraged settlement with large land-grants, called ranchos, that largely remained empty of people. These were used for ranches with cattle and sheep. Hides for leather were to remain the primary export of California until the mid-19th century. The owners of these ranchos were called rancheros and styled themselves after the Spanish nobility, though they were generally richer in respect than in material wealth.

Mexican California

Spanish California lasted until Mexico's decade-long War of Independence ended in 1821. Although California had been a separate region beyond the frontiers of New Spain, it became a state of Mexico with a population (4,000) that was tiny even compared to the sparse population of states in Mexico proper.

The Roman Catholic church owned more than half the land in Mexico and was effectively a state within a state. As part of the process of wresting effective control of Mexico from the Vatican, Mexico seized real estate from the church, something that eventually was codified into the Mexican constitution. The missions in California were largely abandoned, and fell into disrepair.

California Republic

Bear Flag Revolt

Main article: California Republic

Missing image
A replica of the first "Bear Flag" now on display at El Presidio de Sonoma, or Sonoma Barracks, established in 1836 by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo as a part of Mexico's strategy to halt Russian incursions into the region.

During the period of Mexican rule, American sailing companies maintained trade with Native Americans and gathered pelts, and in 1840 young Richard Henry Dana wrote of his own experiences aboard ship off California in the 1830s. Mexico paid little attention to its far-flung northern possession until June 1846, when American settlers in the Sacramento Valley revolted and raised the "Bear Flag" over Sonoma, establishing the California Republic. Thus ended the 22-year existence of the Territory of Alta California recognized by the 1824 Constitution of Mexico.

The Bear Flag was said to have been designed by a nephew of Abraham Lincoln, and it shows the unique golden Californian grizzly bear atop a single broad red stripe over a white field, evocative of the flag of England. Like the Bonnie Blue Flag flown in West Florida against the Spanish, it bears a single star.

In 1846, California had a Spanish-speaking population of 4,000—the population of a small village stretched along the rugged, 850-mile coastline. Before the Mexican-American War, this grew slowly with emigration mainly from the United States. The Republic, under President William B. Ide, applied to the U.S. for protection from Mexico and California entered the war on the side of the U.S.

Commodore John Drake Sloat, acting on instructions from Washington, D.C., ordered his naval troops to occupy Monterey and Yerba Buena to preserve order since war had broken out over the admission of Texas as a U.S. state. After 24 days, the Bear Flaggers joined the war effort and replaced the Bear Flag with the Stars and Stripes.

California and the Mexican-American War

Main article: Mexican-American War

Mexican Cession

During the War, a number of skirmishes were fought in southern California between Mexican troops and California Volunteers. Slightly later, the Republic applied to the U.S. for protection from Mexico. California and the territories that later became the states of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico were surrendered by Mexico under the Mexican Cession of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

When looking at a map of California, the southern border does not run straight east to west, as other borders in the western U.S. do. Rather, it runs at an angle from Arizona to just south of San Diego Bay. American claims dating to colonial times and back to Sir Francis Drake, only went as far as south Point Loma — just north of the Bay's mouth. San Diego Bay is the only natural harbor in California south of San Francisco, 500 miles to the north. To claim all of this strategic Bay, the border was slanted to include it. Likewise, New Mexico was never part of any American claim. However, it lay sandwiched strategically between the republics of California and Texas, so it too was included. In an unusual step, the U.S. diplomatic team offered to pay Mexico the sum of USD $15 million for the lands already theirs by either prior claim or conquest.

Gold Rush

Main article: California Gold Rush

In 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills — at Sutter's Mill — about 40 miles east of Sacramento, beginning the California gold rush. John Sutter was a Swiss German settler who colonized an area around the Sacramento River and Sutter Creek, north and inland from the sparsely-settled Spanish land-grants. James W. Marshall, an American who was Sutter's carpenter, discovered the gold which started a gold rush of immigrants, mostly from the U.S.

The merchants supplying the miners settled in towns along what is now State Highway 49, and especially in Sacramento (the state capital) and San Francisco. The nearest deep-water seaport, was San Francisco Bay, just inland from the narrow strait known as the "Golden Gate," and San Francisco became the home for new established bankers who financed exploration for gold. Gold is still found in many watersheds in amounts near 3/4 oz. per ton. This is a amount that is economical to mine were it not for federal and state laws that prohibit hydraulic mining.

A U.S. postage stamp depicts '49ers of the California Gold Rush.
A U.S. postage stamp depicts '49ers of the California Gold Rush.

The Gold Rush that began in 1849 brought a huge population of immigrants to the sparsely populated land. Before the Rush, there were too few people in the territory to make it a state. Thousands of people flocked to the region dareing a long and ardous trip by land across North America or a 10,000-mile sail by sea around South America's Cape Horn.

This surge in population enabled the region to become a state far sooner then it otherwise naturally would have.

Before California was formally admitted into the U.S. as part of the Compromise of 1850, it occupied an ambiguous place politically. Nominally a free Republic, it was overseen by a military governor for most of the period. It was not quite a republic, not quite a military district, and not quite a federal territory. Finally, on September 9, 1850, it was admitted in the Compromise of 1850 as a free state. Typically one senator agreed to support the slave states to maintain the balance in the Senate.

The total value of all of the gold mined in California to date has been estimated at $2 billion. The long term costs to repair the environmental damage caused by the mining techniques of the period will far exceed that figure.


State capitals

California officially became a state in 1850, and situated its first capital in San Jose. The city did not have facilities ready for a proper capital, and the winter of 1850 - 1851 was unusually wet, causing the dirt roads to become muddy streams. The legislature was unsatisfied with the location, so former General and State Senator Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo donated land in the future city of Vallejo for a new capital; the legislature convened there for one week in 1852 and again for a month in 1853. Again, the facilities available were unsuitable to house a state government, and the capital was soon moved three miles away to the little town of Benicia, inland from the San Francisco Bay. The strait links San Pablo Bay to Grizzly and Suisun Bays deep in the interior. A lovely brick statehouse was built in old American style complete with white cupola. Although strategically sited between the Gold Rush territory of the Sierra Foothills and the financial port of San Francisco, the site was too small for expansion, and so the capital was moved further inland past the Sacramento River Delta to the riverside port of Sacramento.

Sacramento was the site of John Sutter's large plantation and his fort. The town was founded by John Sutter, Jr. while the elder Sutter was away, at the river's edge and downhill from the fort. Sutter Sr. was indignant since this place, shaded by water-needy Cottonwood trees, was often under water. Indeed, every hundred years or so, the whole Great Valley from Chico to Bakersfield, was one great freshwater sea. However, lots were already sold, so there the town of Sacramento stayed. At the end of the century, the streets were raised a full story, so buildings in Old Town are now entered through what were once doors to the balconies shading the sidewalks below.

California and the Civil War

Main article: California and the Civil War

California's role in the American Civil War is one of the least researched areas of American and Californian history, but it nonetheless played a distant role which is important for the many ways in which it was a microcosm of the whole United States, both North and South. California was settled primarily by Midwestern and Southern farmers who were sympathetic to decentralized government and states' rights. California also was the destination for a minority of powerful Northeastern capitalists who played a significant role in Californian politics through their control of mines, shipping, and finance.

California labor politics and the rise of Nativism

After the Civil War ended in 1865, California continued to grow. Independent miners were largely displaced by large corporate mining operations. Railroads began to be built, and both the railroad companies and the mining companies began to hire large numbers of laborers. Many of them were put out of work, when the mines and railroads took advantage of China's internal socioeconomic problems to recruit immigrant laborers who were disparagingly called "coolies."

The unemployed American laborers tended to riot when they lost their jobs, and the Chinese laborers rioted in response to mistreatment by both their employers and locals. From 1850 through 1900, anti-Chinese nativist sentiment resulted in the passage of innumerable laws, many of which remained in effect well into the middle of the 20th century.

The most flagrant episode was probably the creation and ratification of a new state constitution in 1879. Thanks to vigorous lobbying by the nativist Workingmen's Party, Article XIX, section 4 forbade corporations from hiring Chinese coolies, and empowered all California cities and counties to completely expel Chinese persons or to limit where they could reside. It would not be repealed until 1952.

The 1879 constitutional convention also dispatched a message to Congress pleading for strong immigration restrictions, which led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1889, and it would not be repealed by Congress until 1943.

Similar sentiments led to the development of a Gentlemen's Agreement with Japan, by which Japan voluntarily agreed to restrict emigration to the United States. California also passed an Alien Land Act which barred aliens, especially Asians, from holding title to land. Because it was difficult for members of most Asian ethnic groups to obtain U.S. citizenship until the 1960s, the law effectively barred nearly all Asians from owning land in California until it was overturned by the California Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1952.

In 1886, when a Chinese laundry owner challenged the constitutionality of a San Francisco ordinance clearly designed to drive Chinese laundries out of business, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and in doing so, laid the theoretical foundation for modern equal protection constitutional law. See Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886).

Meanwhile, even with severe restrictions on Asian immigration, tensions between unskilled workers and wealthy landowners persisted up to and through the Great Depression (and in some areas, still persists). Novelist Jack London writes of the struggles of workers in the city of Oakland in his visionary classic, Valley of the Moon, a title evoking the pristine situation of Sonoma County between sea and mountains, Redwoods and Oaks, fog and sunshine. Not far away, Robert Louis Stevenson also settled for a time in California to recover his health near the hot mineral springs and geysers on the edge of Napa Valley.

The rise of the railroads

Main article: California and the railroads

The establishment of America's transcontinental rail lines permanently linked California to the rest of the country, and the far-reaching transportation systems that grew out of them during the century that followed contributed immeasurably to the state’s unrivaled social, political, and economic development. But while it is true that much of the traveling public would have been unable to make the trip to California's sunny clime were it not for the fleet, relatively safe, and affordable trains of the western railroads, it is also true that those companies in effect preyed on those same settlers once they arrived at the end of the line.

Feats of engineering

Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, there were several daring feats of engineering in Californian history. First is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which runs from eastern California through the Mojave Desert and its Antelope Valley to dry Los Angeles far to the south. Finished in 1911, it was the brain-child of the self-taught William Mulholland and is still in use today. Creeks flowing from the eastern Sierra are diverted into the aqueduct. This attracts controversy from time to time since this withholds water from Mono Lake — an especially otherworldly and beautiful ecosystem — and from farmers in the Owens Valley. See also California Water Wars.

Other feats are the building of Hoover Dam (which is in Nevada, but provides power and water to Southern California), Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and the California Aqueduct, taking water from northern California to dry and sprawling southern California. Another project was the draining of Lake Tulare, which, during high water was the largest fresh-water lake inside an American state. This created a large wet area amid the dry San Joaquin Valley and swamps abounded at its shores. By the 1970s, it was completely drained, but it attempts to resurrect itself during heavy rains.

Land grants

An important development in the early twentieth century was the success of a series of lawyers who exploited differences between Spanish law and Anglo-Saxon common law to cut up the old Spanish land grants and acquire the land for themselves and their business allies. One famous seizure was the part of the Santa Ana grant that became the City of Anaheim, which was divided and eventually sold to German and American farmers. A number of other Spanish land-grants were protected for their owners for a time, notably the Irvine Ranch in Orange County.

20th century

In the 20th century, California's history continues...

Main article: History of California (20th century)

See also


  1. Template:Note Template:Web reference

Textbooks and Surveys

Scholarly secondary sources

  • Robert A. Burchell, "The Loss of a Reputation; or, The Image of California in Britain before 1875," California Historical Quarterly 53 (Summer I974): 115-30, stories about Gold Rush lawlessness slowed immigration for two decades

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