History of California before 1900

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This article covers in brief the history of California until the year 1899; for later events, see History of California 1900 to present. For additional information and more notes and citations, see the Main article links at the top of most sections.

Human history in California begins with indigenous Americans first arriving in California some 13,000-15,000 years ago. Exploration and settlement by Europeans along the coasts and in the inland valleys began in the 16th century. California was acquired by the United States under the terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican–American War.

American westward expansion intensified with the California Gold Rush, beginning in 1849. California joined the Union as a free state in 1850, due to the compromise of 1850. By the end of the 19th century, California was still largely rural and agricultural, but had a population of about 1.4 million.

Pre European settlement[edit]

The most commonly accepted model of migration to the New World is that peoples from Asia crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas some 16,500 years ago.

The remains of Arlington Springs Man on Santa Rosa Island are among the traces of a very early habitation, dated to the Wisconsin glaciation (the most recent ice age) about 13,000 years ago. In all, some 30 tribes or culture groups lived in what is now California, gathered into perhaps six different language family groups. These groups included the early-arriving Hokan family (winding up in the mountainous far north and Colorado River basin in the south) and the recently arrived Uto-Aztecan of the desert southeast. This cultural diversity was among the densest in North America, and was likely the result of a series of migrations and invasions during the last 10,000-15,000 years.[1] At the time of the first European contact, Native American tribes included the Chumash, Maidu, Miwok, Modoc, Mohave, Ohlone, Pomo, Serrano, Shasta, Tataviam, Tongva, Wintu and Yurok.

Tribes adapted to California's many climates. Coastal tribes were a major source of trading beads, produced from mussel shells using stone tools. Tribes in California's broad Central Valley and the surrounding foothills developed an early agriculture, burning the grasslands to encourage growth of edible wild plants, especially oak trees. The acorns from these trees were pounded into a powder, and the acidic tannin leached out to make edible flour. Tribes living in the mountains of the north and east relied heavily on salmon and game hunting, and used California's volcanic legacy by collecting and shaping obsidian for themselves and for trade. The deserts of the southeast were home to tribes who learned to thrive in that harsh environment by making careful use of local plants and living in oases and along water courses. The natives practiced various forms of forest gardening in the forests, grasslands, mixed woodlands, and wetlands, ensuring that desired food and medicine plants continued to be available. The natives controlled fire on a regional scale to create a low-intensity fire ecology which prevented larger, catastrophic fires and sustained a low-density "wild" agriculture in loose rotation.[2][3][4][5] By burning underbrush and grass, the natives revitalized patches of land whose regrowth provided fresh shoots to attract food animals. A form of fire-stick farming was used to clear areas of old growth to encourage new in a repeated cycle; a primitive permaculture.[4]

The relative strength of the tribes was dynamic, as the more successful expanded their territories and less successful tribes contracted. Slave-trading and war among tribes alternated with periods of relative peace. The population of Native California in all, it is estimated by the time of extensive European contact in the 18th century, that perhaps 300,000 Native Americans were living within what is now California. Before Europeans landed in North America, about one-third of all natives in what is now known as the US were living in the area now called California.[6]

European exploration (1530–1765)[edit]

California was misrepresented in early maps as an island. This example c. 1650. Restored.

The first European explorers, flying the flags of Spain and of England, sailed along the coast of California from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century, but no European settlements were established. The most important colonial power, Spain, focused attention on its imperial centers in Mexico and Peru. Confident of Spanish claims to all lands touching the Pacific Ocean (including California), Spain sent an exploring party sailing along the California coast. The California seen by these ship-bound explorers was one of hilly grasslands and wooded canyons, with few apparent resources or natural ports to attract colonists.

The other colonial states of the era, with their interest on more densely populated areas, paid limited attention to this distant part of the world. It was not until the middle of the 18th century, that both Russian and British explorers and fur-traders began establishing stations on the coast.

Hernán Cortés[edit]

Main article: Hernán Cortés

Around 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 a wonderful country far to the northwest, populated by 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 La Paz later that spring.

Francisco de Ulloa[edit]

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 sailed around the peninsula as far as Cedros Island.

The account of this voyage marks the first-recorded application of the name "California". It can be traced to the fifth volume of a chivalric romance, Amadis de Gallia, arranged by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and first printed around 1510, in which a character travels through an island called "California".

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo[edit]

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is believed to be the first European to explore the California coast. He was either of Portuguese or Spanish background, although his origins remain unclear. He was a soldier, crossbowman, and navigator who sailed for the Spanish Crown. In June 1542 Cabrillo led an expedition in two ships of his own design and construction from the west coast of what is now Mexico. He landed on September 28 at San Diego Bay, claiming what he thought was the Island of California for Spain.

Cabrillo and his crew landed on San Miguel Island, one of the Channel Islands, then continued north in an attempt to discover a supposed coastal route to the mainland of Asia. Cabrillo could have sailed as far north as Pt. Reyes (north of San Francisco), but died as the result of an accident during this voyage; the remainder of the expedition, which could have reached as far north as the Rogue River in today's southern Oregon was led by Bartolomé Ferrelo.[7]

Sir Francis Drake[edit]

Main article: Francis Drake

On June 7, 1579, the English explorer Sir Francis Drake saw an excellent harbor, on a land-mass that he called Nova Albion and claimed for England. The accepted location for Drake's port is at Drake's Cove in Drakes Bay which has been named a National Historic Landmark.[8][9] There was no English follow-up.[10] Subsequent English maps name the land above Baja California, New Granada, New Mexico and Florida "Nova Albion." Drake held the first Protestant Christian service at Nova Albion.

Sebastián Vizcaíno[edit]

Main article: Sebastián Vizcaíno

In 1602 the Spaniard Sebastián Vizcaíno explored California's coastline as far north as Monterey Bay, where he put ashore. He ventured inland south along the coast and recorded a visit to what is likely Carmel Bay. His major contributions to the state's history were the glowing reports of the Monterey area as an anchorage and as land suitable for settlement, as well as the detailed charts he made of the coastal waters (which were used for nearly 200 years).[11]

European exploration (1765–1821)[edit]

British seafaring 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. In 1786 Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, led a group of scientists and artists on a voyage of exploration ordered by Louis XVI and were welcomed in Monterey. They compiled an account of the Californian mission system, the land and the people. Traders, whalers and scientific missions followed in the next decades.[12]

Spanish colonization and governance (1697–1821)[edit]

In 1697 the Jesuit missionary Juan María de Salvatierra established Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, the first permanent mission in Baja California peninsula. California at this time was part of the Las Californias Province of New Spain and not divided as it is today. Jesuit control over the peninsula was gradually extended, first in the region around Loreto, then to the south in the Cape region, and finally toward the north across the northern boundary of present day Baja California Sur.

During the last quarter of the 18th century, the first Spanish settlements were established in the Las Californias Province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (colonial Mexico). Reacting to interest by Russian Empire and, later, Great Britain in the fur-bearing animals of the Pacific north coast, Spain further extended the series of Catholic missions, accompanied by troops and establishing ranches, along the southern and central coast of California. These missions were intended to demonstrate the claim of the Spanish Empire to what is now California. By 1823 twenty-one Spanish missions had been established in Alta California. Operations were based out of the naval base at San Blas and included not only the establishment and supply of missions in California, but a series of exploration expeditions to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

The first quarter of the 19th century showed the continuation of the slow colonization of the southern and central California coast by Spanish missionaries, ranchers and troops. By 1820 Spanish influence was marked by the chain of missions reaching from Loreto, north to San Diego, to just north of today's San Francisco Bay Area and extended inland approximately 25 to 50 miles from the missions. Outside of this zone, perhaps 200,000 to 250,000 Native Americans were continuing to lead traditional lives. The Adams–Onís Treaty, signed in 1819, set the northern boundary of the Spanish claims at the 42nd parallel, effectively creating today's northern boundary between California and Oregon.

First Spanish colonies[edit]

Spain had maintained a number of missions and presidios in New Spain since 1519. The Crown laid claim to the north coastal provinces of California in 1542. Excluding Santa Fe in New Mexico, settlement of northern New Spain was slow for the next 155 years. Settlements in Loreto, Baja California Sur were established in 1697, but it was not until the threat of incursion by Russian fur traders and potentially settlers, coming down from Alaska in 1765, that Spain, under King Charles III, felt development of more northern installations were necessary.

By then, the Spanish Empire was engaged in the political aftermath of the Seven Years' War and colonial priorities in far away California afforded only a minimal effort. Alta California was to be settled by Franciscan monks, protected by troops in the California Missions. Between 1774 and 1791, the Crown sent forth a number of expeditions to further explore and settle Alta California and the Pacific Northwest.

Gaspar de Portolà[edit]

Main article: Gaspar de Portolà

In May 1768, the Spanish Visitor General, José de Gálvez, planned a four-prong expedition to settle Alta California, two by sea and two by land, which Gaspar de Portolà volunteered to command.

The Portolà land expedition arrived at the site of present-day San Diego on June 29, 1769, where it established the Presidio of San Diego. Eager to press on to Monterey Bay, de Portolà and his group, consisting of Father Juan Crespí, sixty-three leather-jacket soldiers and a hundred mules, headed north on July 14. They reached the present-day sites of Los Angeles on August 2, Santa Monica on August 3, Santa Barbara on August 19, San Simeon on September 13 and the mouth of the Salinas River on October 1. Although they were looking for Monterey Bay, the group failed to recognize it when they reached it.

On October 31, de Portolà's explorers became the first Europeans known to view San Francisco Bay. Ironically, the Manila Galleons had sailed along this coast for almost 200 years by then, without noticing the bay. The group returned to San Diego in 1770.

Junípero Serra[edit]

A portrait of Junípero Serra.
Main article: Junípero Serra

Junípero Serra was a Majorcan Franciscan who founded the first the Alta California Spanish missions. After King Carlos III ordered the Jesuits expelled from New Spain on February 3, 1768, Serra was named "Father Presidente".

Serra founded San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. Later that year, Serra, Governor de Portolà and a small group of men moved north, up the Pacific Coast. They reached Monterey in 1770, where Serra founded the second Alta California mission, San Carlos Borromeo.

Alta California missions[edit]

A map produced in 1920 illustrating the route of "El Camino Real" in 1821, along with the 21 Franciscan Alta California missions. The road at this time was merely a horse and mule trail.

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 primary benefit to Spain of confirming historic claims to the territory. The missions introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, agricultural industry, along with invasive species of plants into the California regions. The labor supply for the missions was supplied by the forcible relocation of the Native Americans and keeping them in peonage.[13]

Most missions were small, with normally two Franciscans and six to eight soldiers in residence. All of these buildings were built largely by the forced labor of unpaid native people, under Franciscan supervision. In addition to the presidio (royal fort) and pueblo (town), the misión was one of the three major agencies employed by the Spanish crown in an attempt to consolidate its colonial territories. None of these missions were completely self-supporting, requiring continued (albeit modest) financial support.

Starting with the onset of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, this support largely disappeared and the missions and their converts were left on their own. By 1827, the Mexican Government passed the General Law of Expulsion which exiled Spanish born people—decimating the clergy in California. Some of the missions were then nationalized by the Mexican government and sold off. It was not until after statehood that the US Supreme Court restored some missions to the orders that owned them.

In order to facilitate overland travel, the mission settlements 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 Road", though often referred to today as the King's Highway, and also known as the California Mission Trail. Tradition has it that the padres sprinkled the mustard seeds along the trail in order to mark it with bright yellow flowers. Later El Camino Viejo, another more direct route from Los Angeles to Mission San José and San Francisco Bay, developed along the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley.[14][15] Heavy freight movement over long distances was practical only via water, but soldiers, settlers and other travelers and merchandise on horses, mules, or "carretas" (ox carts), and herds of animals used these routes.

Four presidios, strategically placed along the California coast and organized into separate military districts, served to protect the missions and other Spanish settlements in Upper California.

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 became 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.

Ranchos[edit]

Main article: Ranchos of California

The Spanish encouraged settlement with large land grants called ranchos, where cattle and sheep were raised. The California missions were secularized following Mexican independence, and the extensive former mission lands were divided into more ranchos. Cow hides (at roughly $1 each) and fat (known as tallow, used to make candles as well as soaps) were the primary exports of California until the mid-19th century.

The owners of these ranchos styled themselves after the Dons in Spain. The rancho workers were primarily Native Americans, many of them former residents of the missions who had learned to speak Spanish and ride horses. Some ranchos, such as Rancho El Escorpión and Rancho Little Temecula, were land grants directly to Native Americans.

Russian colonization[edit]

Part of Spain's motivation to settle upper Las Californias was to forestall Russian colonization and British incursion into their territory. In the early 19th century, fur trappers with the Russian-American Company of the tsarist Imperial Russian Empire explored down the West Coast from trading settlements in Alaska, hunting for sea otter pelts as far south as San Diego. In August 1812, the Russian-American Company set up a fortified trading post at Fort Ross, near present day Bodega Bay on the Sonoma Coast of Northern California, sixty miles north of San Francisco on land claimed, but not occupied by, the British Empire. This colony was active until the Russians departed in 1841.[16]

In 1836 El Presidio de Sonoma, or Sonoma Barracks, was established by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the Commandante of the northern frontier of Alta California. It was established as a part of Mexico's strategy to halt Russian incursions into the region, as the Mission San Francisco de Solano (Sonoma Mission) was for the Spanish.

California under Mexican rule (1821–1846)[edit]

General[edit]

Substantial changes occurred during the second quarter of the 19th century. The victory in Mexican War of Independence from Spain in 1821 marked the end of a European power ruling California; the missions faded in importance under Mexican control while ranching and trade increased. By the mid-1840s, the increased presence of Americans made the northern part of Alta California diverge from the southern part, where the Spanish-speaking "Californios" dominated.

By 1846, Alta California had a Spanish-speaking population of under 10,000, tiny even compared to the sparse population of states in the rest of northern Mexico. The "Californios", as they were known, consisted of about 800 families, mostly concentrated on large ranchos. About 1,300 American citizens and a very mixed group of about 500 Europeans, scattered mostly from Monterey to Sacramento dominated trading as the Californios dominated ranching. In terms of adult males, the two groups were about equal, but the American citizens were more recent arrivals.

Secularization[edit]

First, the Mexican Congress passed the 'General Law of Expulsion' in 1827. This law declared all persons born in Spain to be "illegal immigrants" and ordered them to leave the new country of Mexico. Many of the missionary clergy were Spanish and left. Next, the Mexican Congress passed An Act for the Secularization of the Missions of California on August 17, 1833. Mission San Juan Capistrano was the very first to feel the effects of this legislation the following year. The Franciscans soon thereafter abandoned the missions, taking with them most everything of value, after which the locals typically plundered the mission buildings for construction materials.

Other nationalities[edit]

  • The Russian-American Company established Fort Ross in 1812 as their southernmost colony in North America, intended to provide Russian posts farther north with agricultural goods. When this need was filled by a deal between the RAC and the Hudson's Bay Company for produce from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and other installations, the fort's intent was derailed although it remained in Russian hands until 1841, and for the duration had a small population of Russians and other nationalities from the Russian Empire.
  • The leader of a French scientific expedition to California, Eugène Duflot de Mofras, wrote in 1840 "...it is evident that California will belong to whatever nation chooses to send there a man-of-war and two hundred men."[18][19] In 1841, General Vallejo wrote Governor Alvarado that "...there is no doubt that France is intriguing to become mistress of California", but a series of troubled French governments did not uphold French interests in the area. During disagreements with Mexicans, the German-Swiss francophile John Sutter threatened to raise the French flag over California and place himself and his settlement, New Helvetia, under French protection.

American interest and immigrants [edit]

Main article: California Trail

Although a small number of American traders and trappers had lived in California since the early 1830s, the first organized overland party of American immigrants was the Bartleson-Bidwell Party of 1841. With mules and on foot, this pioneering group groped their way across the continent using the still untested California Trail.[20] Also in 1841, an overland exploratory party of the United States Exploring Expedition came down the Siskiyou Trail from the Pacific Northwest. In 1844, Caleb Greenwood guided the first settlers to take wagons over the Sierra Nevada. In 1846, the misfortunes of the Donner Party earned notoriety as they struggled to enter California.

California under American rule (beginning 1846)[edit]

Population[edit]