Learn California.org
Home Visit the Students section Visit the Teachers section Visit the Research California section Visit the Sitemap
Keyword Search

A Concise Narrative of California History
Follow the Story of California! 

<-- Go Back


California is a place of great variety and enormous physical size. Its geography includes the highest and lowest spots in the continental United States, climatic conditions that range from the rainy redwood forests of the North Coast to the torrid Mojave Desert, and diversity of plants and animals that have adapted to these varying environments.

The original inhabitants of California migrated here from Asia some 10,000 years ago, and accommodated themselves in distinctive ways to the region's diversity of climate, habitat and resources. California was home to hundreds of Native American groups, and had an Indian population greater than any other similarly-sized area in North America north of Mexico. California's Indians represented five principal linguistic groups, 21 language families, hundreds of dialects, and a diversity of cultural practices. Perhaps as many as 300,000 people inhabited California prior to the coming of Europeans.

California was "discovered" by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the leader of a Spanish expedition of two small ships, in 1542. The next European visitor was Francis Drake, who came ashore north of San Francisco Bay for five weeks in 1579 to repair his ship the "Golden Hind." The Spanish carried out desultory explorations by land and sea for another 100 years, culminating in the colonization of Alta California led by the Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra. Serra founded the first of what would become a chain of 21 missions at San Diego in 1769. These became the backbone of Spanish colonization, served as the basis of spiritual, military, civil and commercial control of the province, and were centers for the religious conversion or subjugation of the Indians. Some native groups resisted the intrusion, but the effects of military force and disease were irresistible and the Indian population began a long decline. In 1781, about 10,000 Indians lived in association with the missions, 200,000 continued in independent groups, and there were about 600 people of European descent in Alta California.

Isolated and poor, California's status as a quiet backwater helped insulate it from the turmoil that would result in Mexico declaring independence from Spain in 1821: the residents of far off Alta California would not get the news for nearly a year. Independence eliminated the last remnants of government support and formal civil administration, and political authority passed to the province's prominent landowning families. These would periodically have little conflicts and stage miniature insurrections that demonstrated the fragility of civil authority. A number of Americans had received land grants, and others lived in the province as craftsmen, merchants and traders. In June 1846, frustrated by what they saw as Mexican incompetence and convinced that the United States should take California from Mexico, a small group of these "Yankees" staged a revolt in Sonoma.

As it turned out, the United States had been at war with Mexico over the issue of Texas since May 1846. Commodore John Sloat of the U.S. Navy and a small force "captured" Monterey on June 7th, and the American flag was raised in Yerba Buena and Sonoma on June 9th, followed by Sutter's Fort on June 11th. There was resistance in the south, and major battles at Los Angeles and San Pasqual, but the last californio forces surrendered in January 1847.

The war itself was concluded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, and the United States acquired nearly all of the former Mexican territory in what is now the American Southwest. Unknown to the treaty negotiators, gold had been discovered less than two weeks earlier at the site of a sawmill being for John Sutter a few miles east of Sutter's Fort.

The discovery of gold triggered the California Gold Rush, the world's largest voluntary mass migration. People from around the world flooded to California, attracted by the promise of easy riches. California was transformed, literally overnight, from a poor and sleepy province of Mexico to a prosperous and incredibly energetic possession of the United States. In two years the white population grew from perhaps 7,000 to 40,000, while the Indian population had fallen, primarily because of disease, to less than 100,000: this number would drop to fewer than 16,000 over the next fifty years. General Bennett Riley, military governor, realizing that his few hundred soldiers and sailors couldn't maintain civil order, called for a constitutional convention to establish a civilian government. Forty-eight delegates answered Riley's call, and convened in Monterey in September 1849. They had created a constitution for a state by October 13th. The first legislature met in San Jose in December 1849, and promptly asked Congress to admit California as a state. Nine months of often-rancorous debate, fueled by the issues of sectionalism and slavery, culminated in California becoming the 31st state on September 9, 1850.

People continued to come to California by land and sea, not just to exploit the mineral wealth of the state, but to settle, conduct trade, harvest timber, grow crops, manufacture things, and establish lasting communities. The state capital was permanently established at Sacramento in 1854, and the state's first railroad opened there the next year. There was agitation for a railroad across the continent to connect the new—but geographically isolated—state with the rest of the Union. The chronic issue of sectionalism deferred a decision about the route for such a railroad until the start of the Civil War, but the state was finally connected with the rest of the nation with the driving of the Gold Spike in May 1869. The Central Pacific Railroad, and its successor the Southern Pacific, created the basis for California's rise as America's leading agricultural state.

The 1870s brought an economic downturn. Recessions, labor strife and prejudice toward non-Europeans, particularly Chinese, prompted adoption of a new state constitution in 1879. The new charter restricted the rights of many groups, and was the nation's longest state constitution.

Transportation and agricultural productivity fueled real estate development in Southern California, and created the conditions that would make Los Angeles the state's population center. By 1910, electric railways encouraged the development of suburbs, and the rise of the automobile made them the defining characteristic of the California landscape. The mechanization of agriculture and improvements in irrigation opened nearly part of the state to agricultural development, while the availability of reliable perishable railroad transportation in refrigerator cars allowed the products of California farms to be shipped to every corner of North America. This era also saw a broadening of democratic opportunity through the progressive political reforms of the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, and, in 1911, California became the sixth state to give women the vote.

People continued to come to California. Japanese, East Indians, and Mexicans—fleeing political instability and seeking better economic conditions—moved into agriculture and railroad work before and during World War I. The 1920s saw the rise of Hollywood and the establishment of the state as a center of popular entertainment, while cheap gasoline resulting from a Southern California oil boom accelerated the ascendancy of the automobile and prepared California to become the heart of "car culture." The Great Depression hurt California deeply, but the state continued to be a destination for migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl, attracted by the gentle climate and the optimism that motivated immigrants to California since 1849. Social tensions and political instability shaped much of the 1930s, while gigantic public works projects spanned the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay with enormous bridges and built an artificial island for the 1939-40 world's fair on Treasure Island.

War in Europe and Asia prompted America to expand its meager military and naval forces, and California rapidly industrialized as a center for shipbuilding, airplane manufacturing, and military training. Thousands of African Americans came West to work in war industries, further increasing the state's cultural diversity. Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II as an active combatant, and the war in the Pacific was prosecuted from the state's ports and shipyards. Fear about security combined with prejudice against Japanese resulted in one of the 20th century's most regrettable governmental actions: nearly all people of Japanese descent were removed from their homes to internment camps surrounded with barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. California remained on the front line of the Cold War after World War II as the heart of the aerospace industry and the center for military research and training, making the state the focus for the key innovations of the Space Age.

Optimism and a thriving economy transformed California in the 1950s. Enormous public works projects dammed the state's great rivers to control floods and transfer water for urban development and agriculture. The nation's most extensive system of state highways, and later on, the Interstate Highway system, crisscrossed the state and spawned automobile suburbs. California's enthusiasm for the automobile continued virtually without question until environmental pollution, the energy crises of the 1970s, and concern about unchecked suburban development prompted early efforts to seek alternatives to our beloved cars. Stringent environmental regulations, a rebirth of electric street railways in the form of new light rail systems and state support for intercity passenger trains ensued over the next 25 years, setting California on a path toward reducing our reliance on automobiles and creating a balanced transportation system.

The state's research universities—world leaders in physics, aerospace engineering and applied technology—harnessed nuclear energy, armed the nation during the Cold War, put Americans on the moon, and created the information revolution. The "Silicon Valley" at the south end of San Francisco Bay became the center of the semiconductor industry and drove an incredible accumulation of wealth at the end of the 20th century that rivaled the Gold Rush of 150 years before.

The 150th anniversary of California's admission to the Union finds the state enjoying unprecedented economic well being, while still experiencing difficulty caring for the needs of all of its residents. There is still a disparity between rich and poor, and ethnic minorities have yet to achieve the promise of full social equality. Despite these challenges, there continues to be an influx of immigrants: California has always been a land of immigrants. These new Californians come from Mexico, Central and South America, the Pacific Rim, India, Pakistan, the middle east, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Africa and Europe, and literally every other place on earth. They are attracted by a dynamic economy, the desire for improved economic and social well being, the promise of a better life, and always influenced by the optimistic and romantic image of California depicted in the movies and on television. They give the state a diversity and vitality found nowhere else, and are its most important asset.

Today, California is a place of 35 million residents, the most productive agricultural area of the world, home of the Internet economy, and, at over a trillion dollars, the eighth largest economic power on earth. If the past is any indicator of the future, then it is certain that California will continue to lead the nation—as it has for 150 years—into the 21st century.

For more in depth history of California, Go To California History



Copyright ©2000-2009 LearnCalifornia.org. All rights reserved.