California History

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Introduction

California's history is unique. It has been shaped, in part, by its geography. California has four main regions. The temperate coastal region, the Central Valley, once an inland sea, the desert, and the mountain region. The imposing Sierra Nevadas caused California to develop in relative isolation from the rest of the nation. After Americans began to settle in California in large numbers during the nineteenth century, it would usually be weeks before news would arrive from the East.

Four flags have flown in earnest over California. Russia, Spain, Mexico, and the United States.

The Name "California"

The name "California" came from a knightly romance book that was published in 1510. It was about an island paradise near the Indies where beautiful Queen Califia ruled over a country of beautiful black Amazons with lots of pearls and gold. Men were only allowed there one day a year to help perpetuate the race. Cortez's men thought they found the island in 1535, because they found pearls. Later, Francisco de Ulloa found that the island was really a peninsula.

The Spanish & Russians

The first settlers to arrive in California after the Native Americans were Spanish, and later Mexican. Russia had some small settlements for the purpose of whaling and fur trapping in Northern California, but Russia didn't attempt to colonize the area except in very isolated areas. Spanish priests were sent to California to covert the Indians to Christianity. Spain hoped to make the California native population into good Spaniards, loyal to Spain. Spain was becoming alarmed that the Russians and English were encroaching on lands claimed by Spain.

The English

The fight for California began almost 500 years ago with Queen Elizabeth I. She sent Sir Francis Drake to harass and raid the Spanish galleons. England was beginning to realize the value of California. England did not want Spain claiming more land in the new world, upsetting the balance of power between the super powers of the time. Tensions were already high between Spain and England. Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess. In order to accomplish the divorce, England severed ties with Catholicism and Henry had instituted protestantism as the State religion. Henry and Jane Seymore's son had assumed the throne after Henry's death and continued Henry's policies. But when Edward VI died at the age of 16, Mary I came to the throne after Lady Jane Grey ruled for a brief 9 days. Mary was the daughter of Henry and his first wife, Catherine. Her ties to both Spain and Catholicism were strong. Elizabeth was suspected of plotting to overthrow Mary and was imprisoned in the Tower. After "bloody Mary" died and Elizabeth I became monarch, the power struggle between catholics and protestants did not end. Eventually, Elizabeth had Mary, Queen of Scots, executed for treason. Mary was her greatest threat to the throne since Mary claimed it as her right by way of England's ties with the French throne. Even though Mary had abdicated her rights, she still remained a threat to Elizabeth since Spain and France could use Mary as a cause to move against England. With the death of Mary Queen of Scots, England had secured protestantism and Elizabeth's reign, but was short on allies. In order to build new European allies, England had to remain a power to be reckoned with. Spanish settlement along the west coast of North America could bolster Spanish power. This was the last thing England wanted.

The Mission Period

200 years after the superpowers of Spain and England first began to fight over California, Spain decided to send priests in significant numbers in order to start missions. Spain wanted the missions to serve as supply and trading posts for her galleons in addition to the purpose of converting the Indians. Spain knew she needed settlers to keep her tenuous hold on to these new lands. England had ceased to become a real threat since the American Colonists had driven England from much of the New World. England had left something just as dangerous in her stead; English culture. Though the United States was a hodgepodge of different nationalities, English culture was the overriding tie that bound these people together.

Spain couldn't find enough Spaniards willing to leave Spain for the New World, and her attempts to convert the Indians into Spaniards was failing. The settlers in New Spain, which would soon become Mexico, were beginning to pose a problem to the Spanish as well. Spain had made some of the same errors that the English had made with the Colonies. Spain forbade New Spain from trading with any other nation besides Spain, and Spanish settlers who were born in Spain were considered to be a higher class than pure Spanish born in New Spain. Even though New Spain had adopted the culture of Spain, the Spanish restrictions would soon drive Spain from the New World just as the English had been driven out.

The effect that the missions had on the native population was enormous. Many traditions were abandoned or forbidden. As attempts to convert the natives were unsuccessful, tensions between the Indians and the Spanish heightened. Eventually, the missions were used as a means to control the Native American population and the Indians were kept in virtual slavery at some of the missions depending on the disposition of the head priest. There were Indian uprisings and one of the missions was burned to the ground and all priests were killed.

Despite the negative effect that the missions eventually had on the Indians, they did learn to excel at Western crafts. They were taught European painting and music, among other things. Since the Indians were already excellent craftspeople, they learned these new skills quickly. The mission period lasted only about 60 years. The missions were left to decay and were eventually taken over by the new state. The earthquake of 1812 destroyed many of the missions in Southern California. The missions have since been reclaimed and rebuilt and have become important historical sites.

The 1971 Sylmar quake destroyed the San Fernando Mission for the second time. Even though the San Fernando Mission was destroyed by an earthquake twice, one original building remains intact. This is unusual, because after the missions were abandoned the roof tiles were taken. This left the adobe, which is only mud and straw, open to the elements. The only reason that this building remained intact was because it was used for other purposes after the mission period ended. It has only recently been open to tourists because it had to be reinforced to meet California earthquake standards. The inside of this building contains many historical treasures including a painting from fourteenth century Spain.

The Rancho Period

In addition to starting the missions to gain settlers, the Spanish King, and later the Mexican government, gave people land grants to start ranchos and encourage settlers. Eventually, ranchos were given to Anglo settlers to encourage loyalty to Spain and to discourage alliance with the United States. The Spanish policy of purchasing loyalty remains to the present time as can be seen by the attempt of Argentina to offer the Falkland citizens a large amount of money to ally themselves with Argentina rather than England. The Anglo settlers tended to accept the land but remain loyal to the United States.

Some of the ranchos lasted even beyond statehood. Descanso Gardens, in the city of La Canada, was donated to the state by descendants of the original grant holder. Even though Mexicans had positions of political power at the beginning of California's statehood, most of the California Mexicans, or Californios, lost their land soon after. Even so, the Californios played a large part in early California politics.

Early American Settlers

By the mid nineteenth century, California had come from obscurity to statehood because of the Gold Rush which started in earnest in 1849. Even though California was now part of the United States, coming to California was no small feat. If settlers on wagon trains made it over the Rockies safely, they were often stopped by the hostile Sierra Nevadas. Winter comes early and savagely and many settlers lost their lives like the Donner party.

The most common method of travel for those that could afford the passage was by ship. Settlers would leave the East Coast and have to travel South all the way around the tip of South America. Since it is so close to the South Pole at that point, ships would have to skirt ice bergs. The only short cut was through the Straits of Magellan near the tip of the South American continent. This was often perilous since the straights were rocky and often stormy. The only other way to get to California was to get off the ship in Panama, cross the isthmus by land, and pick up a ship on the West coast of Panama that was headed North. Many travelers died of disease crossing the tropical isthmus.

The Gold Rush

Prior to the Gold Rush, settlers very slowly filtered into California until 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. Suddenly, people from all over the world looking to strike it rich flooded through San Francisco. They travelled up the Sacramento River to the gold fields. The Gold Rush was devastating to the Native Americans in the area and depleted many natural resources. What is now San Francisco was once a redwood forest. Whole native tribes were scattered or destroyed. In some areas there were bounties on Indians. The California tribes still have a rich culture and heritage, but the nineteenth century was a period of great loss for all native tribes in the area.

It was this discovery of gold that hastened California's statehood. On September 9, 1850, President Fillmore officially made California the thirty-first state.

One thing that helped ease California's isolation was the telegraph. By 1861, telegraph lines stretched across the country. Unfortunately, buffalo on the plains often knocked down the poles, leaving California isolated again until the line was fixed.

The Transcontinental Railroad

Read the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 that authorized the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

or see the Central Pacific Railroad History site.
People dreamed of a railroad, but no one dreamed it more than a man named Theodore Judah. He and his assistant, Daniel Strong, vowed to find a way through the Sierras. After exploring the Sierras, and almost losing their lives to the rugged mountains, they eventually found a route that would work.

Judah needed funds to build the railroad. Eventually he found four wealthy men willing to invest. These men were Leland Stanford (Stanford University is named for his son), Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. The money that these investors made from the railroad was such a huge fortune, that they became known as the Big Four. The Central Pacific Railroad was born. Judah travelled to Washington to ask the Union government to help. His timing was perfect. The Union wanted California to help in the Civil War. Congress helped with Judah's railroad and they also helped a company build from the East toward California. The other railroad was the Union Pacific.

Judah had a problem though. The Big Four wanted the railroad built quickly and cheaply. Judah wanted it built well. In 1863 He decided to travel to the East Coast to find new investors. Unfortunately, Judah never made it. He died of yellow fever while crossing the isthmus of Panama, never seeing his dream become a reality.

With Judah out of the pictures, the Big Four could build the railroad like they wanted to, sometimes laying as much as ten miles of track a day. Many people would not work in the dangerous conditions of the Sierras, so the Big Four needed to find someone that would. They found the Chinese to be diligent workers, so they hired all they could find, even sending to China for more immigrants. The weather was so harsh that the Chinese had to dig into the ground at night to keep from freezing to death. The Chinese were paid the same monetary wage as white workers, but they were not fed like the white workers were. This actually ended up being an unexpected benefit for the Chinese since their diet was much healthier than the often rancid dietthe whites were eating.

The Big Four eventually became very unpopular men in California because of the ruthless way they made their money. Time was of the essence since the United States Government was giving land to the railroads based on how much track they layed. The Chinese were not valued as equals, and had most of the more dangerous jobs partly due to their experience with explosives. Often, Chinese lives were not valued by foremen and explosives were deliberately blown before the Chinese workers had time to clear away from the blast.

The two railroad companies met at Promontory Point in Utah in May of 1868. No one thought to invite Theodore Judah's widow to the ceremony. A famous picture was taken that day with workers and management from the Union and Central Pacific. The Chinese, to whom the railroad owed everything for such a timely completion, were excluded from the photo. California was now linked to the rest of the nation.

Agriculture

California offered a lot to the nation. The rich Central Valley eventually became known as the breadbasket of the world. California's mild climate allowed for year-round farming and fruits and vegetables could be grown in California that would grow in very few other places. The Chinese eventually prospered, despite extreme prejudice and jealousy over their success, by growing fruits and vegetables, which were an important part of their diet. The Chinese eventually started their own town in the Central Valley which remains to this day. The town has some descendants of these original Chinese immigrants.

Eventually, the railroads carried California produce to the East. California's exotic produce was in great demand in the East. Ice cars, the precursors to the refrigerated cars of today, began in response to the demand for California produce. Agriculture was responsible for generating great wealth in the state. Agriculture is still a major industry today.

For more information on the history of California, visit the following websites: History and Culture of California.
California Historical Society.