Before California became one of the biggest and richest states in the United States, the region developed from humble, complicated, yet fascinating beginnings. Once even thought to have been an island, California was mostly unknown to the European explorers of the 16th century. Its first peoples, the Native American tribes of California, had lived in the region for more than 13,000 years. All changed after first contact was made and European settlements began to take place. The Spanish colony that began in Baja California would eventually expand all the way north to Alta California, what is nowadays the US state. Centuries later, a short-lived Mexican period would eventually give way to the more familiar order of things, when the US annexed California and its history as a US state began. Stay put and keep reading to learn more about the history of California, the 31st state of America!
The First Peoples in the History of California
The Indigenous peoples of California have inhabited the region for more than 13,000 years, with some estimations going as far as more than 15,000. The more than 100 tribes that originally populated the area were composed by various Native American groups all of which led a mainly nomadic way of living with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Thanks to the richness of the land and the abundance of resources, Native Californians never really faced the need to develop agriculture and become sedentary. Nevertheless, early Native Californians still developed a somewhat advanced way of living given the circumstances. From forest gardening and fire ecology to a less developed form permaculture, the first peoples of California were able to adapt to their surroundings and produce a lifestyle that was productive to their needs and sustainable overall.
From these early Californian cultures two have gained recognition throughout the years: the La Jolla complex and the Pauma complex. Unlike other archaeological findings, the La Jolla and Pauma complexes are characteristic for their potential representation of the prehistoric cultures based mainly on human remains and tools and not physical structures.
Though the Native Californians would develop long lasting cultures in the region that both evolved and transformed into more complex styles of living, the conditions for their development changed dramatically when the Europeans arrived. Some tribes like the Quechan still survive to this day, but not all were fortunate enough to make it. One of the reasons for the demise of Native Californians was their exposure to new diseases brought by the Spanish and Europeans. By the 19th century, about 90% of the Native population of California had been wiped out.
European Exploration & the Island of California
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First contact between the first peoples of California and Europeans was made on 1542, when a Spanish expedition led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo entered San Diego Bay and explored the surrounding areas. The expedition found virtually no easily exploitable resources, hence most of the region remained mostly untouched by the Europeans for a couple of centuries more.
Though Cabrillo’s expedition was the first of its kind in California, previous contacts had been made in the Californias as a whole. In 1534, Fortun Jimenez, a Spanish conquistador under the command of Hernan Cortes, led an expedition that would eventually set foot in the Baja California Peninsula for the first time. However, Jimenez and his crew did not believe they had disembarked on a peninsula. Instead, they thought they had found the Island of California.
The reasons behind this are relatively complicated, but Jimenez was ultimately not the only European who believed such a thing. At the time, European explorers in the area had mainly been guided by legends, and stories were reality intertwined with fantasy. One such legend was the Island of California, which described the Californias as an island of riches inhabited only by Black warrior women. Queen Calafia ruled the territory, and the story of her kingdom was either spread or constructed by a famous chivalric novel from Spain: Las Sergas de Esplandian. The idea that California was an island was potentially propagated by Spanish political and economic interests. Nevertheless, the story remains one fascinating chapter in the history of California that had an important impact yet is now remembered as one fleeting moment.
Regardless of whether it was an island or not, the Spanish were still highly motivated to explore and eventually colonize the region. Driven by the potential material riches, they continued exploring Baja California until the settlements first began in 1683 with the Mission of San Bruno, founded by Jesuit missionaries.
Alta California: The Spanish Colony
Once the Spanish were settled in Baja California, they began to explore and penetrate the northern parts of the region. Eventually, they reached what is nowadays the US state of California. The Spanish named it Alta California, which translates to “Upper California.” The boundaries of Alta California were largely indefinite, and the territorial claims of the Spanish in the region encompassed most of what is now the west of the United States.
By 1769, the Missions had already begun to be established in Alta California, and the Spanish treated the combined regions of Alta and Baja California as a single administrative unit. The colonization and evangelization of Alta California can be seen as one of the last attempts of the Spanish Crown to expand its empire in North America.
Though the region was largely unsettled, this did not play in favor of Spanish expansion efforts. The conditions for European colonists were complicated due to a lack of resources they were accustomed to obtaining easily in other parts. Moreover, they were frequently subjected to hostilities by the natives, particularly in response to abuses committed by the settlers themselves. Several revolts by Native Californians happened throughout the colonization process. Some were linked to resistance and others to more specific reasons, such as a reaction to sexual exploitation committed by Spanish soldiers.
A later expedition by the Spanish between 1769 and 1770 allowed them to accidentally discover San Francisco Bay after not recognizing Monterey Bay and landing instead in the surroundings of what is now San Francisco. Some other expeditions took place throughout the remaining rule of the Spanish, continuing to discover more of the northern parts of California, as well as penetrating neighboring regions such as the Sonoran Desert.
The Short-lived Mexican Period
The Spanish colony in Alta California was marked by constant struggles due to complications in convincing colonists to settle in the region, significant food shortages, and numerous revolts by the natives. But perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the Spanish colony in California is the robust Mission network that the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans were able to build. All in all, the 21 California Missions linked by the El Camino Real trail claimed around one-sixth of all the available land in the region. Along with the presidios, small, fortified outposts, or royal forts, the Spanish were able to consolidate their power in California, unlike what they were able to achieve in other parts of the North American continent.
In contrast, the short-lived Mexican period of rule failed to consolidate power and eventually led to the loss of the territory. The weak and divided government of the recently independent Mexican nation was unable to assert any significant control in the already decentralized region. Instead, power in newborn Mexico was wielded by the central authority concentrated in the capital and its surroundings or the already powerful states with consolidated regional power. California was too far from central authority and had no particularly great power of its own. Hence, when internal conflicts in Mexico converged with external ones, California and more than half of the Mexican territory were lost to the United States after a plot from the northern nation to expand its border west and “Manifest Destiny.”
In the absence of an apparent central authority, power in California was instead wielded by the Catholic Church through its missions and the rich Californios who owned most of the property, known as rancheros. Native Americans forced to assimilate into the missional system, then called Indians, were the pillar upon which California was mostly built. First being hired as unpaid workers in the missions, then as unpaid laborers under the rancheros, the Mission Indians were stripped of their property when the Spanish arrived, only to later be promised to get it back through land grants designed by the Mexican State after the secularization of the Missions. Nevertheless, most land grants and cattle were given to the powerful ranchos by order of the governors.
The Road to US Statehood
In 1846, the United States Congress officially declared war against Mexico. Texas had been annexed a year prior, and hostilities between the United States and Mexico had continued up to the declaration of war, albeit at a smaller scale.
Like most of the territory that Mexico lost in the war, California was poorly governed. By the time the conflict started, the power vacuum had already been filled by the Californios, a group of settlers—mainly of Hispanic origin though not limited to it, especially in the later years of the Mexican period in California—who were Spanish-speaking residents and practiced the vaquero tradition. The Californios were a group that enjoyed significant privilege, particularly due to being property owners and being at the forefront of the Rancho system.
The United States looked forward to annexing California, and before the war had even started, they had the US Navy’s Pacific Squadron at the ready. After a successful revolt carried out primarily by American settlers against the Californios and their garrison in Sonoma, the California Republic was declared.
The flag and title remain in use today, with the Bear flag evolving into the California State Flag and the name of the republic appearing in said flag. Nevertheless, the California Republic would be short-lived, lasting less than 26 full days. Instead, the Californios accepted US government control, and the US Navy continued to capture ports and towns throughout the state. Hostilities in California ended by January 1847 with the Treaty of Cahuenga, and the territories gained by the US in the war would officially be annexed and paid for in 1848 after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. One month before the Treaty was signed, gold was first found at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California by James W. Marshall, beginning the Gold Rush that would bring more than 300,000 people from around the US and the world to the region.
The Gold Rush and the Modern History of California
The Gold Rush set forth a chapter in Californian history that would forever transform the region. By 1849, California had drafted and voted for its own state constitution. One year later, California officially became a US state. Though the Gold Rush brought significant wealth and progress to the region, it also caused important damages, intensifying, for example, the alienation and abuse of indigenous people.
After the Gold Rush, California experienced one of the most incredible transformations in modern history. Moreover, California’s limited involvement in national affairs throughout the 19th century, such as the American Civil War, aided the region’s ability to develop further. Combined with expansions and developments in agriculture and transportation, particularly rail, the state went from being an overall dispersed and unremarkable territory to becoming a powerhouse in the United States. California is today one of the biggest, richest, most populated, and advanced states in the whole United States. If it were to become independent, its economy would be so vast that it would be the world’s fifth largest.
Home to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and an overall complex and well-developed industry, California may no longer be the California Republic. But the rich and varied history of California has defied all expectations.