Introduction to History of California

Pre-Columbian California was inhabited by numerous Indian tribes, most of them living by hunting and gathering. Their main foods were acorns, fish, and game. Among the major tribes were the Hupa, Mojave, Modoc, and Yuma. At the time of contact with the Spanish, there were at least 150,000 Indians in California.

Important dates in California
1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo explored San Diego Bay.
1579 Francis Drake sailed along the coast and claimed California for England.
1602 Sebastian Vizcaino urged that Spain colonize California.
1769 Gaspar de Portola led a land expedition up the California coast. Junipero Serra established the first Franciscan mission in California, in what is now the city of San Diego.
1776 Spanish settlers from New Spain (Mexico) reached the site of what is now San Francisco.
1812 Russian fur traders built Fort Ross.
1822 California became part of Mexico, which had just won its independence from Spain in 1821.
1841 The Bidwell-Bartleson party became the first organized group of American settlers to travel to California by land.
1846 American rebels raised the "Bear Flag" of the California Republic over Sonoma. U.S. forces conquered California during the Mexican War (1846-1848).
1848 James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill. The discovery led to the California gold rush. The United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican War and acquired California in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
1850 California became the 31st state on September 9.
1880's A population boom occurred as a result of a railroad and real estate publicity campaign that brought thousands of people to California.
1906 An earthquake and fire destroyed much of San Francisco.
1915 Expositions were begun at San Diego and San Francisco to mark the opening of the Panama Canal.
1945 The United Nations Charter was adopted at the San Francisco Conference.
1963 California became the state with the largest population in the United States.
1978 California voters approved a $7-billion cutback in state property taxes.
1989 A strong earthquake struck the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area.
1994 A strong earthquake struck Los Angeles.
2003 Voters recalled Governor Gray Davis and elected motion-picture star Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him.

After the Spanish conquered Mexico in the early 16th century, they searched for other areas rich in gold, sending several sea expeditions northward along the Pacific coast. The first of these to reach what is now California was led by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 sailed from Navidad, Mexico, up the coast of California. His expedition reached San Diego Bay and claimed the land for Spain.

In 1579 the English privateer Francis Drake, on a voyage around the world, landed near San Francisco Bay and claimed the land for England. The Spanish reaffirmed their own claim to California by further exploration. They were motivated in part by the need for a safe harbor for returning Manila galleons, as ships engaged in trade between Mexico and the Philippines were called. In 1595, Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño landed at what is now called Drake's Bay. (The bay, a short distance north of San Francisco Bay, is probably the site of Drake's landing of 1579.) In 1602 Sebastián Vizcaíno landed at Monterey Bay.

Colonization did not begin until 1769, when an expedition under Caspar de Portolá and Franciscan Father Junípero Serra established presidios (military posts) and missions at San Diego and Monterey. After San Diego had been reached, Portolá led an overland expedition in search of Monterey Bay, but he failed to recognize it and continued on, discovering San Francisco Bay.

A total of 21 missions were eventually established, placed about every 30 miles (48 km) from San Diego to Sonoma. The missions were intended to convert and educate the Indians. The Indians were encouraged to live at the missions and give up their traditional ways. However, the missionaries often treated the Indians like slaves, and occasional revolts were ruthlessly quelled.

The first Spanish settlers arrived with Juan Bautista de Anza in 1776 and founded San Francisco. To encourage settlement, the Spanish government made land grants to the Californios, as the Spanish colonists were called. The Californios established ranchos, or cattle ranches, and the production of hides, meat, and tallow became the mainstays of colonial California's economy. Mexico, including California, gained independence from Spain during 1821-22.

In 1812, Russians engaged in fur trading established an outpost, Fort Ross, north of San Francisco. They left in 1841, when the otter and seal in the region had been almost exterminated. In 1826, Jedediah Smith, a fur trapper and explorer, became the first American to reach California overland from the east. He was soon followed by other fur trappers and by American settlers.

Annexation and the Gold Rush

John C. Frémont, a U.S. Army officer, led a scientific expedition to California in 1844. In 1846, on a second trip, he encouraged the American ranchers in the north to revolt against Mexican rule. They seized Sonoma and proclaimed a republic. Meanwhile, the Mexican War had started, and an American naval squadron soon seized Monterey. The north was quickly taken; the south fell to American forces under General Stephen W. Kearny and Commodore Robert F. Stockton in 1847. Mexico ceded California to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848, which ended the Mexican War.

In that year, gold was discovered by James Marshall at Sutter's Mill, located in what is now El Dorado County. By 1849, prospectors from all parts of the United States and from many foreign countries were rushing to northern California. Many of the “Forty-niners,” as the prospectors were called, arrived with exaggerated expectations of gaining easy wealth, but the reality was that few miners became rich. Nonetheless, the population continued to grow, increasing in two years from about 20,000 to more than 90,000, as immigrants were lured by the fertile soil and pleasant climate. California became a state in 1850, and in 1854 Sacramento was made the capital.

The gold rush of 1849The gold rush of 1849 began after James W. Marshall found gold near Sutter's Mill on the American River. News of his discovery spread rapidly.

A Century of Development

Because of its distance and isolation from the rest of the country, travel to and communication with California was difficult. Early settlers either traveled overland; sailed around Cape Horn; or sailed to the Central American isthmus, crossed to the Pacific side, and took another ship to California. The Pony Express offered mail service between the east and California for 18 months until the first transcontinental telegraph went into operation in 1861.

Construction of the first transcontinental railroad began in 1863, with the Central Pacific Railroad being built eastward from Sacramento. The line met the Union Pacific, being built westward, in 1869. The connection of the Southern Pacific Railroad to eastern lines in 1881 created a second rail link to the east. Large numbers of settlers traveled to California by railroad.

What the new immigrants found was often disappointing. Railroad barons and large landowners controlled California's government and much of its economy. Corruption was widespread, railroad freight rates were exorbitant, and wages were low. Much of the land was arable only with irrigation, but, under California law, those who owned land along riverbanks were able to deny others access to water. This was changed after the passage of the Wright Act in 1887, permitting the formation of irrigation districts so that water could be distributed more fairly.

Fear of competition from Chinese laborers, who had come to California in large numbers to help build the railroads, led to anti-Chinese sentiment. There was sporadic anti-Chinese violence during the 1860's and 1870's, and discriminatory laws were passed. Japanese workers, first brought to California as farm laborers, also faced discrimination.

In the 1870's, citrus fruit growing expanded, especially after the introduction of navel and Valencia oranges assured year-round harvests. Lemons and grapefruits were soon introduced, and shipments to eastern markets by refrigerated boxcars began. Also about this time, oil was discovered in several parts of the state.

The population grew by 60 per cent during 1900-10. In 1906, much of San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake and fire. In 1910, the voters rebelled against corruption and elected Hiram Johnson, a reform candidate, governor. Many progressive laws were passed, and the influence of the railroads in politics decreased. At about this time, the motion picture industry became centered in Hollywood.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed about 28,000 buildings and killed at least 3,000 people. But the city was soon rebuilt.

During the decade beginning in 1910, there were several instances of violence caused by labor strife. In 1910, union radicals bombed the building of the anti-union Los Angeles Times, killing 20 persons. In 1913, near the town of Wheatland, a riot occurred when the sheriff attempted to arrest the leaders of striking farm workers. Four people were killed, and many more injured. In 1917, labor leader Thomas J. Mooney and an associate, Warren K. Billings, were convicted of planting a bomb that had killed 10 people in San Francisco the previous year. Mooney and Billings won widespread sympathy, their defenders claiming that they had been denied justice because of antilabor prejudice. (In 1939, Governor Culbert L. Olson pardoned Mooney and commuted Billings' sentence to time served.)

In order to provide water for irrigation and the increased population, huge water-diversion projects were undertaken. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, extending 240 miles (386 km) from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, was completed in 1913. It aroused intense, and sometimes violent, controversy because persons displaced by it believed they had been forced to sell their land for an unfair price. Hetch Hetchy Dam, part of a watersupply project for San Francisco, was completed in 1923. Hoover Dam, finished in 1936, was part of the Boulder Canyon Project, which brought water from the Colorado River to southern California.

There was an oil boom in the 1920's, when new petroleum deposits were found. Also in that decade, the population increased 65 per cent. After the Great Depression began in 1929, thousands of people migrated to California, large numbers of them impoverished farmers from the drought-stricken Plains states. Many of those who came sought work as migrant agricultural workers; lack of jobs and low pay caused more labor unrest. Not until World War II were there jobs for everyone.

During the war, rapid growth took place in California's defense-related industries, including aircraft construction, shipbuilding, textiles, and chemicals. In 1942 some 93,000 persons of Japanese descent, the majority of them American citizens, were removed from California to relocation camps, because of fear that they would commit espionage or sabotage. Many of them lost their homes, businesses, and possessions in the relocation.

Since World War II

Under the leadership of Governor Earl Warren (1943-53), California experienced a major economic boom. There was the largest influx of newcomers in the state's history, leading to overcrowding of schools and shortages of housing and water. In 1952, one of California's United States senators, Richard M. Nixon, was elected vice president. Also that year, Governor Warren became Chief Justice of the United States.

In the 1960's, San Francisco became a center of the "hippie” subculture, made up of young people who rejected mainstream values and embraced communal living, used drugs freely, and ignored conventional restraints on sexual activity. Students at the University of California at Berkeley began a "Free Speech Movement” in 1964 to protest limitations on political activity on campus. California students also demanded a greater voice in university administration.

In 1965, riots erupted in Watts, a predominantly black area in Los Angeles. The violence was attributed to the residents' frustration with poor housing, unemployment, and racial discrimination. That same year, Mexican-American migrant workers in California's grape industry began a five-year strike, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, for better wages and living conditions.

Also in the 1960's, California surpassed New York as the nation's most populous state. In 1965, California's Indians were granted some $30 million by the federal government to compensate them for lands taken from them in the 19th century. Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1967, and pledged to reduce state spending and cut taxes. Former senator Nixon was elected President of the United States in 1968.

In the 1960's and 1970's, California became a center of the semiconductor and computer industries. The Santa Clara Valley, south of San Francisco, came to be nicknamed Silicon Valley because numerous companies manufacturing silicon computer chips were located there. In the 1970's, California, like many other states, had problems with pollution, unemployment, and inflation. In 1978 a voter initiative enacted a constitutional amendment, popularly called Proposition 13, that drastically cut property taxes and limited the growth of government.

During the recession of 1981-82, the state suffered high unemployment and a sharp drop in tax revenues. Widespread crop and property damage resulted from severe winter storms during 1981-83. In 1989 the northern part of the state was hit by a major earthquake that caused extensive property damage and about 50 deaths.

Partly due to the large numbers of immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and Central America, the state's population continued to have great growth rates. In 1986, a referendum was approved to make English the state's official language, and in 1994 another was passed to block illegal immigrants from receiving certain social services. The 1994 implementation was blocked by lawsuits and abandoned in 1999; Governor Gray Davis said most of the proposition was covered by 1996 federal immigration laws.

The recession of the early 1990's led to severe financial problems for the state government. In April, 1992, race riots in the Los Angeles area claimed some 50 lives and caused substantial property damage. The Los Angeles area was also struck by major earthquakes in June 1992 and January 1994.

California deregulated its electric industry in 1996. In 2001 the state experienced blackouts and high energy costs. California held a special election in 2003 in which Governor Gray Davis was recalled—that is, removed from office. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a motion picture actor, was elected in his place. In 2006, Schwarzenegger was elected to a full term as governor.