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California History

This is an educational slideshow about the history of the state of California. This video aligns with California State History Standards for both fourth and fifth grades.


Timeline of California: 1500’s – 1600’s

  • (1533) Two ships landed at Baja in La Paz Harbor, local residents killed 20 and ships retreated
  • (1535) Hernando Cortes led expedition to La Paz, established small colony
  • (1540) Sea expedition led by Hernando de Alarcon up Gulf of California to mouth of Colorado River, became first Europeans on California soil
  • (1542) Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to explore California, landed at San Diego, discovered Catalina Islands, sites of San Pedro and Santa Monica and Santa Barbara Channel Islands
  • (1579) Sir Francis Drake landed north of San Francisco Bay, claimed the territory for England
  • (1669) Gaspar de Portolb, governor of the Californias, led an expedition up the Pacific coast, established California’s first mission on San Diego Bay


  • (1769) Sargeant Jose Ortega discovered entrance to San Francisco Bay
  • (1776) Presidio of San Francisco and Mission Dolores founded


  • (1812) Russian fur traders established Fort Ross
  • (1821) Mexico won independence from Spain.
  • (1826) Native Americans attacked Mission San Francisco Solano
  • (1848) Gold discovered at Sutter’s sawmill in Coloma
  • (1849) California Gold Rush began; California became U. S. property with Treaty of Guadalupe
  • (1849) Fire devastated San Francisco
  • (1850) California became 31st state
  • (1869) First westbound train arrived in San Francisco
  • (1882) Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all Chinese immigration

The history of California can be divided into several periods: the Native American period; European exploration period from 1542 to 1769; the Spanish colonial period, 1769 to 1821; the Mexican period, 1821 to 1848; and United States statehood, which continues to the present day.

The early history of California is characterized by being surrounded by barriers nearly isolating the state: the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Sierra Nevada mountains backed by the nearly barren Great Basin in the east, the Mojave Desert and Sonora Desert areas in the southern interior and RedwoodDouglas fir forests on the rugged mountainous North Coast. The near isolation of the California Indian tribes led them to develop cultures different than the other Indian cultures in the Americas. California Indian tribes had essentially no agriculture (with the exception of the Colorado River Indians) and were hunter-gatherers. The Indians had no crops, advanced cities, accumulated wealth or organized civilizations to exploit. The Spaniards, after initial explorations, left Alta California alone for over 200 years. Relative isolation continued even after Spanish Missions, the Presidio and pueblo settlements began to be developed in 1769. The only easy communication with the rest of New Spain (Mexico) was by ship, as the Quechan (Yuma) Indians shut down the Anza Trail in 1781. This trail (discovered in 1776), across Arizona along the Gila and the Colorado River crossing (Yuma Crossing), was the only “easy” way by land from Mexico to California. Essentially the only communication from Mexico to California was via a 30-50 day sailing ship voyage against the south bound California Current and the often opposing winds. The sailing ship trip from California to Mexico was much easier, but first the traveler had to get to California. Since California initially had very few settlers and essentially no exports and could afford only a very few imports for its few inhabitants, ships to and from California were few. The average number of ships going to Alta California from 1770 to 1821 was 2.5 ships/year, with 13 years showing no recorded ships.  The small number of ships meant that few new residents arrived, so that increases in the Californio population were nearly all due to internal growth of the original settlers.

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain and acquired the Province of Alta California in 1821, the Californios started developing approximately 500 large (over 18,000 acres (73 km2) each) Ranchos of California. Most were granted on former Mission lands, given for little or no money to friends and family of the California authorities. The Californios lived mostly on their ranchos or at the five pueblos (towns) in California. These ranchos raised cattlesheephorses and other livestock that more or less raised themselves. The Californios did little work themselves, relying on the former Mission Indians to do the vast majority of all agricultural work including sowing and harvesting of crops, irrigation, cattle herding, fence building, building construction, laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc. Nearly all male Californios rode to wherever they were going at all times, making them excellent riders. They indulged in many fiestasfandangosrodeos and roundups as the rancho owners often went from rancho to rancho on a large horse bound party circuit. Weddings, christenings, funerals and other church activities were all celebrated with large gatherings.

California in this period has been described as a large unfenced pasture. The only fences were those required to protect crops from cows or horses eating or trampling them. The hides and tallow produced by the ranchos finally gave the Californio residents something to trade. A few ships a year brought manufactured goods like glass windows, nails, hinges, fancy shawls, boots, elaborate belts, capes etc. from Boston, Massachusetts and Britain to California and exchanged them for their hide-and-tallow “crop”. By 1846 the mostly American whaling industry was being developed in the Pacific Ocean, again leading to a few whaling ships stopping in California for fresh water, wood and vegetables they could get in exchange for a few trade goods. Most Pacific whaling ships stopped at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) which had over 100 whaling vessels temporarily based there by 1845. To avoid the high custom duties (tariffs) of 40-100% imposed by the Californio authorities in Monterey, California, many preferred to first land in the San Francisco Bay area to get the most for their imported trading goods. Smuggling and bribery were common.

Starting about 1825 the Mission Indian population started decreasing rapidly, as Indian deaths far exceeded births. The various acquired diseases and abuse of the Mission Indian population caused them to decline from over 80,000 in 1820 to only a few thousand by 1846. This process was sped up when in 1834–1836 the Mexican government, responding to complaints that the Catholic Church owned too much land (over 90% of all settled land in California), secularized (dismantled) the Missions and essentially turned the Indians loose to survive on their own. Most of the Indians went from doing unpaid labor at the Missions to doing unpaid labor as servants in the pueblos or workers on the ranchos. Other Indians returned to small Indian settlements in the sparsely settled Central Valley and Sierra Mountains of California. As the Mission Indians rapidly declined in population and the Missions were dismantled, most of the agriculture, orchards, vineyards, etc. which had been raised by the Mission Indians rapidly declined. By 1850 the Hispanic (Spanish speaking) population had grown to about 9,000 with about 1,500-2,000 adult males.  By 1846 there were about 2,000 emigrant non-Hispanics (nearly all adult men) with from 60,000 to 90,000 California Indians throughout the state. Beginning in about 1844 the California Trail was established and started bringing new settlers to California as its relative isolation started to break.

The Mexican–American War began in May 1846, and the few marines and bluejacket sailors of the Pacific Squadron and the California Battalion of volunteer militia had California under U. S. control by January 1847, as all the pueblos in California surrendered without firing a shot. In February 1848 the war was over, the 25 years of Mexican rule with over 40 different Mexican Presidents was over, and the boundary disputes with Texas and the territorial acquisition of what would become several new states were laid to rest with a $15,000,000 settlement in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The California Gold Rush, beginning in January 1848, increased California’s non Indian, non-Hispanic population to over 100,000 by 1850.  This increased population and prosperity eventually led to the Congressional Compromise of 1850 which admitted California in 1850 as a free state—the 31st.

See also: Spanish Missions of CaliforniaMaritime history of CaliforniaCalifornia TrailCalifornioCalifornia BattalionPacific SquadronCalifornia Gold RushWomen in the California Gold Rush.

Pre-contact period – Main article: Indigenous peoples of California

Different tribes of native americanss have lived in the area which is now California for 13,000 to 15,000 years. Over 100 tribes and bands inhabited the area. Without agriculture, hunter gatherer groups have to be small to get enough food for everyone. Various estimates of the Native American population in California during the pre-European period range from 100,000 to 300,000.

European exploration

California was the name given to a mythical island populated only by beautiful Amazon warriors, as depicted in Greek myths, using gold tools and weapons in the popular early 16th-century romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián) by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. This popular Spanish fantasy was printed in several editions with the earliest surviving edition published about 1510. In exploring Baja California the earliest explorers thought the Baja Peninsula was an island and applied the name California to it.  Mapmakers started using the name “California” to label the unexplored territory on the North American west coast.

The 1562 map of Americas, which applied the name California for the first time.

European explorers flying the flags of Spain and of England explored the Pacific Coast of California beginning in the mid-16th century. Francisco de Ulloa explored the west coast of present-day Mexico including the Gulf of California, proving that Baja California was a peninsula, but in spite of his discoveries the myth persisted in European circles that California was an island.

Rumors of fabulously wealthy cities located somewhere along the California coast, as well as a possible Northwest passage that would provide a much shorter route to the Indies, provided an incentive to explore further.

The first European to explore the California coast was Portuguese explorer and adventurer João Rodrigues Cabrilho (Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo). Cabrillo was commissioned by theViceroy of New Spain and in 1542 he sailed into what is now San Diego, California. He continued north as far as Pt. Reyes California.

On November 23, 1542, the little fleet limped back to “San Salvador” (Santa Catalina Island) to overwinter and make repairs. There, around Christmas Eve, Cabrillo stepped out of his boat and splintered his shin when he stumbled on a jagged rock. The injury developed gangrene and he died on 3 January 1543 and was buried there. His second-in-command brought the remainder of the party back to Barra de Navidad, where they arrived 14 April 1543. They had found no wealth, no advanced Indian civilization, no agriculture and no Northwest passage. As a result California was of little further interest.

The Indians they encountered were living at a bare subsistence level typically located in small rancherias of extended family groups of 100 to 150 people.   They had no agriculture, no domesticated animals except dogs, no pottery, and their only tools or weapons were made out of wood, leather, woven baskets and netting, stones and horns. Most lived in rudimentary shelters made of branches and mud with a hole in the center to allow smoke to escape. Some homes were built by digging into the ground two to three feet and then building a brush shelter on top covered with animal skins, Tules and/or mud. Their clothing was minimal in the summer, with animal skins and coarse woven articles of grass clothing used in winter. Some tribes around Santa Barbara, California and the Channel Islands (California) were using large canoes to fish and trade. It would be found over 200 years later that some Indians in the California delta were using Tule rafts and some Indians on the Northwest coast were using dugout canoes. The isolation of the California tribes and the poor conditions for growing food without irrigation explains in part the lack of agriculture. Despite the fact that California now grows almost every food crop, the staple foods then used by other American Indian tribes, corn and/or potatoes, would not grow without irrigation in the typically short three to five month wet season and nine to seven month dry seasons of California (see Mediterranean climate). Indians survived by catching and eating deerTule elk, small game, fish, mollusks, grass seed, berries, insects, edible plants and roots, making it possible to sustain a subsistence hunter-gatherer economy without any agriculture. Without agriculture or migratory herds of animals or fish there are no known ways to support villages, towns or cities—small tribes and extended family groups are the typical hunter-gatherer grouping. A dietary staple for most Indian tribes in interior California was acorns, which were dried, shelled, ground to flour, roasted and soaked in water to leach out their tannin. The holes they ground into large rocks over centuries of use are still visible in many rocks today.  The ground and leached acorn flour was then usually cooked into a tasteless mush. This was a very labor intensive process nearly always done by the women in the tribe. There are estimates that some Indians might have eaten as much as one ton of acorns in one year.   A major advantage of acorns is that they grew wild, could be easily gathered in large quantities, and could be easily stored over a winter for a reliable winter food source. Almost none of these Indian food supplies were in a typical European’s diet.

Basket weaving was the highest form of art and utility, and canoes were the peak in man made products. Local trade between Indian tribal groups enabled them to acquire seasonings such as salt, or foodstuffs and other goods that might be rare in certain locales, such as flint for making spear and arrow points. But the high and rugged Sierra Nevada mountains located behind the Great Basin Desert east of California, extensive forests and deserts on the north, the rugged and harsh Sonoran Desert and Mojave Desert in the south and the Pacific Ocean on the west effectively isolated California from any easy trade or tribal interactions with Indians on the rest of the continent. The Indians located in the core of California are much different in culture than any other Indian cultures in North America. Cabillo and his men found that there was essentially nothing for the Spanish to easily exploit in California, and located at the extreme limits of exploration and trade from Spain it would be left essentially unexplored and unsettled for the next 234 years.

In 1565 the Spanish developed a trading route where they took gold and silver from the Americas and traded it for goods and spices from China and other Asian areas. The Spanish centered their trade in the Philippines at first around Cebu, which they had recently conquered, and later in Manila. The trade between the Philippines and Mexico involved using an annual passage of Manila galleon(s). These galleons returning to Mexico from the Philippines went north to about 40 degrees latitude and then turning East they could use the westerly trade winds and currents. These galleons, after crossing most of the Pacific Ocean, would arrive off the California coast from 60 to over 120 days later somewhere near Cape Mendocino (about 300 miles (480 km) north of San Francisco) at about 40 degrees N. latitude. They then could turn right and sail south down the California coast utilizing the available winds and the south flowing (about 1 mi/hr(1.6(km/h)) California Current. After sailing about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) south on they eventually got to their port in Mexico. This highly profitable trade with an almost annual trip by one to two ships (number of ships limited by Spanish Crown) down the California coast was continued for over 200 years. The maps and charts were poor and the coast was often shrouded in fog, so most journeys were well off shore. One of the greatest bays on the west coast—San Francisco Bay—escaped discovery for centuries until it was finally discovered by land exploration on 4 November 1769.

The English explorer and privateer Francis Drake sailed along the coast of California in 1579 after capturing two Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific. It is believed that he landed somewhere on the California coast. There his only surviving ship, the Golden Hind, underwent extensive repairs, and needed supplies were accumulated for a trip across the Pacific. Leaving California he followed Ferdinand Magellan on the second recorded circumnavigation of the world and the first English circumnavigation of the world, being gone from 1577 to 1580. It’s believed Drake put ashore somewhere north of San Francisco. The exact location of Drake’s landing is still undetermined, but a prominent bay on the California coast, Drakes Bay, bears his name. He claimed the land for England, calling it Nova Albion. The term “Nova Albion” was often used on many European maps to designate territory north of the Spanish settlements. Spanish maps, explorations etc., of this and later eras were generally not published, being regarded as state secrets. As was typical in this era, there were conflicting claims to the same territory, and the Indians who lived there were never consulted.

In 1602, 60 years after Cabrillo, the Spaniard Sebastián Vizcaíno explored California’s coastline from San Diego as far north as Monterey Bay. He named San Diego Bay and held the first Christian church service recorded in California on the shores of San Diego Bay.   He also put ashore in Monterey, California and made glowing reports of the Monterey bay area as a possible anchorage for ships with land suitable for growing crops. He also provided rudimentary charts of the coastal waters, which were used for nearly 200 years.

Sacramento River

Map of the Sacramento River watershed

TheSacramento has been an important transportation route since the time of the region’s first inhabitants, who settled in the river valley about 12,000 years ago. Hundreds of tribes sharing regional customs and traditions inhabited the Sacramento Valley, though they received little disturbance upon the arrival of Europeans in the 1700s. One of these early explorers, Gabriel Moraga, gave the river the Spanish name, Rio de los Sacramentos, later shortened and anglicized into Sacramento. The Sacramento’s waters were once abundant in fish and other aquatic creatures, notably one of the southernmost runs ofchinook salmon in North America. The original natives of the Sacramento Valley drew upon the vast natural resources of the watershed, which had one of the densest American Indian populations of California. The Sacramento River is an important river of Northern and Central Californiain the United States. The state’s largest river by discharge, it rises in the Klamath Mountains and flows south for over 400 miles (640 km) before reaching Suisun Bay, an arm of San Francisco Bay, and thence the Pacific Ocean. The Sacramento drains an area of about 27,500 square miles (71,000 km2) in the northern half of the state, mostly within a region bounded by the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada known as the Sacramento Valley. Its extensive watershed also reaches to the volcanic plateaus of Northeastern California. Historically, its watershed has reached farther, as far north as south-central Oregon where the now, primarily, endorheic (closed) Goose Lake rarely experiences southerly outflow into the Pit River, the most northerly tributary of the Sacramento.

In the 19th century the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada led to an enormous population influx of American settlers. Overland trails such as the California Trail and Siskiyou Trail followed the Sacramento and other tributaries, guiding hundreds of thousands of people to the goldfields and the growing agricultural region of the Sacramento Valley. By the late part of the century, many populated communities had been established along the Sacramento River, chief of which was the booming city of Sacramento. Intensive agriculture and mining contributed to pollution in the Sacramento, and significant changes to the river’s hydrology and environment.

Since the 1950s the watershed have been intensely developed for water supply and the generation of hydroelectric power. Today, large dams impound the river and almost all of its major tributaries. The Sacramento’s water is used heavily for irrigation purposes and serves much of Central and Southern California through the canals of giant federal water projects. While now providing water to over half of California’s population and supporting one of the most productive agricultural areas in the nation, these changes have left the Sacramento greatly modified from its natural state and have caused the decline of its once-abundant fisheries.


The Sacramento River and its valley were one of the major American Indian population centers of California. The river’s abundant flow and the valley’s fertile soil and mild climate ensured enough resources for hundreds of groups to share the land. Most of the villages were small. Although it was once commonly believed that the original natives lived as tribes, they actually lived as bands, or family groups as small as twenty to thirty people.    The Sacramento Valley was first settled about 12,000 years ago, but permanent villages were not established until about 8,000 years ago.  Historians have organized the numerous separate original native groups into several “tribes”. These are known as the ShastaModoc, and Achomawi/Pit River Tribes of the volcanic plateaus in the north; theWintu and Hupa in the northern Klamath and Trinity mountains; the NomlakiYukiPatwin, and Pomo of the Coast Ranges; the Yana,AtsugewiMaiduKonkow, and Nisenan in the Sierra and their western foothills; and the Miwok in the south.

Life for Native Americans in the Sacramento Valley was relatively simple and involved little violence. Little agriculture was practiced; most were hunter-gatherers and fishermen. Settlement size ranged from small camps to villages of 30–50 permanent structures.  As with tribes in the San Joaquin Valley and throughout much of California, the acorn was a staple food. The historic abundance of white oaks in the Sacramento Valley was capable of supporting a large population. American Indians usually pounded the acorns into flour, which they used to make bread and cakes. Despite the prevalence of acorns in their diet, they also consumed a variety of other foods—wild roots, seeds, berries, and game that included fish, deer, rabbits, and birds. The natural abundance of the Sacramento River and its valley, along with the San Joaquin, probably once supported most of California’s original 275,000–300,000 Native Americans.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta viewed from Mount Diablo, near where Fages and his crew are believed to have first caught sight of the Sacramento River

The first outsiders to see the river were probably the members of a Spanish colonial-exploratory venture to Northern California in 1772, led by Captain Pedro Fages. The group ascended a mountain, likely in the hills north of Suisun Bay, and found themselves looking down at the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. However, due to their vantage point, neither Fages nor any of his men saw the Sacramento clearly. They assumed that the San Joaquin, coming from the south, was the largest of the merging rivers they saw. In 1808, explorer Gabriel Moraga, on a journey to find suitable sites for the construction of missions, became the first foreigner to see the river clearly. Judging its huge breadth and power he named it Rio de los Sacramentos, or “River of the Blessed Sacrament.”  In the following years, two more Spanish expeditions traversed the lower part of the river, the last one in 1817.

The next visitors were Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur trappers exploring southwards from the disputed Oregon Country, starting in the 1820s. The first organized expedition, led by Peter Skene Ogden, arrived in the area of Mount Shasta in 1826.   By this time, California was under the control of Mexico, although few Mexican settlers had come to what would later become the state, mostly settling in the small pueblos and ranchos along the south and central coast. The HBC mountain men created the Siskiyou Trail out of several Native American paths that ran through the mountains between Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the northern part of the Sacramento Valley. In the years to come, this path, which eventually extended from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon following parts of the Sacramento,WillametteKlamathRogue, and other rivers would become an important trade and travel route.

Although just one of thousands of American emigrants that poured into California over the next few years when California became part of the United States, John Augustus Sutter became one of the most significant settlers of the Sacramento River valley. In 1841, he and his men built a fortress at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers (the latter of which was actually named by him) and he was granted almost 50,000 acres (200 km2) of land surrounding the two rivers. Naming it New Helvetia, he created an agricultural empire in the lower Sacramento Valley, attracting hundreds of settlers to the area, and relied on Native American labor to maintain his domain. Sutter had something of a two-faced relationship with the many Native American groups in the area. He was friendly with some of the tribes, and paid their leaders handsomely for supplying workers, but others he seized by force and made them labor in his fields.

Chrysopolis, one of several large steamboats that served for transportation on the river during the California Gold Rush

Sutter’s prosperity, however, indirectly led to his financial demise, and the rise of one of the most significant events in California history. When one of his employees, James W. Marshall was assigned to build a sawmill on the South Fork American River in Sutter’s interests, he discovered gold in the headrace.   It was not long before the secret slipped out attracting three hundred thousand hopefuls from all over North America, and even the world, to the Sacramento River in search of fortunes, kicking off the California Gold Rush.   People flocked to the region by the Oregon Trail-Siskiyou Trail, California TrailSouthern Immigrant Trail and various land and/or sea routes through the Isthmus of Panama and around southern South America by ship. Steamboats traveled busily up and down the Sacramento River carrying miners from San Francisco to the “gold fields.”  As the miners expanded their diggings deeper into the Sierra Nevada and Klamath Mountains, Native Americans were pushed off their land and a long series of skirmishes and fights began that continued until intervention by the state and national governments.

The influx of migrants brought foreign diseases like malaria and smallpox, which American Indians had no immunity to. These diseases killed off a large proportion of their population within a few decades of the arrival of Sutter and the following settlers,  the start of the gold rush, not to mention the numerous battles fought between the settlers and native bands as well as the forced relocation of some of the tribes to Indian reservations in several places scattered around the Sacramento Valley, mainly in the Coast Ranges.   In the early 1850s, several treaties were signed between the U.S. government and the Native Americans involving their relocation onto a reservation in the Sierra foothills; this promise was broken, of course. Therefore in 1863, the tribes from the area surrounding the middle Sacramento and Feather rivers, the Konkow group, were removed and marched forcibly to the Round Valley Indian Reservation near the Eel River. A total of 461 people were forced from their homes, but only 277 made it to the reservation before dying of disease, starvation or exhaustion.

As mining developed from simple methods such as panning and sluicing to a new form of commercialized extraction, hydraulic mining, profits from the petering gold rush made a second leap, earning more profits than those miners in the early years had ever made.   The city of Sacramento, founded on the original site of Sutter’s fort, began to flourish as the center of an agricultural empire that provided food to feed the thousands of miners working in the hills as well as a place of financial exchange of all the gold that was mined. Sacramento was officially established in 1850 and was recognized as the state capital in 1854.   As the economy of the Sacramento Valley grew, the Southern Pacific Railroad established tracks along the river to connect California with Oregon following the ancient path of the Siskiyou Trail, in the 1880s and 1890s.   Many parts of the railroad were treacherous, especially in the mountainous areas north of Dunsmuir.   It was not long after the city had reached a relatively large population of about 10,000, then the Great Flood of 1862 swept away much of it (and almost everything else along the Sacramento River) and put the rest under water. The flood waters were exacerbated by the sediments washed down by the millions of tons by hydraulic mining, which filled the beds of the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers up to 7 feet (2.1 m) in Sacramento and also covered thousands of acres of Central Valley lands.   A flood in 1875 covered the city of Marysville and when it subsided the town’s streets were filled with debris and rocks washed down from the “hydraulicking” going on upstream.

Repeated floods and increased demand for Sacramento River water saw a plethora of massive changes to the environment beginning in the 20th century. An early project was undertaken to raise the entire city of Sacramento about 11 feet (3.4 m) above its original elevation.   This, however, was followed by engineering projects to try and stem the flows of water rather than defend against it. The engineering era of the 20th century on the Sacramento thus begun.

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