The first Californians
Divided into more than a hundred linguistically and culturally diverse communities, their lifestyles designed to suit the varying local terrain and climate, it is believed that around 300,000 Native Americans lived in California in the period immediately prior to European discovery. Their ancestors are thought to have crossed from Siberia some 6,000 years earlier.
Despite the differences between them, the Native American communities traded peaceably with one another and there were none of the great tribal conflicts (in fact, the California settlements were too small to constitute “tribes” in the usual sense) that took place elsewhere in North America.
The native population was to decline rapidly through the first years of California’s European settlement, chiefly through contact with diseases, such as measles and smallpox, to which the indigenous inhabitants lacked immunity. As California became a U.S. possession and the gold rush brought tens of thousands of new settlers, demand for land resulted in most Native Americans being forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands and resettled on reservations.
European sightings, landings and settlements
In 1533, a Spanish expedition under Hernando Cortés made the first European sighting of Baja (or “lower”) California. Nine years later, Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to drop anchor off the present-day state of California, pausing first at what was later to be named San Diego Bay.
Believing California to be an island, the Spanish showed little interest in establishing settlements on the new land. In 1742, however, California was found to be part of the North American mainland and, in order to deter territorial advances by rival colonial powers, a series of 21 Franciscan missions was founded in California, part of the Sacred Expedition under the leadership of Padre Junipero Serra. Spread between San Diego and Sonoma, each mission was a day’s horse-ride from the next. By co-opting Native American labour and importing vast herds of cattle, several of the Californian missions not only attained self-sufficiency but also became extremely rich.
Despite Russian, French and British (in 1579, Francis Drake had landed in California, claiming it for Queen Elizabeth I of England) interest in California, Spanish control was eventually ended by the Californios, mostly California-born Mexicans, who in 1822, with Spain too tied up in European conflicts to effectively govern its overseas possessions, declared themselves under Mexican rule. Subsequently, several Californio families attained great wealth as large land grants were handed out by the Mexican government. The Spanish missions were secularized in 1834.
American interest grows
Few U.S. citizens attempted to make the difficult journey from the eastern states to California (with no known routes across the Sierra Nevada mountains, the safest passage entailed a three-month sea voyage around Cape Horn) but those who arrived acquired great influence by marrying into the leading families and displaying the business acumen that the Californios lacked.
In June 1846, with the expansionist dreams of Manifest Destiny determining U.S. foreign policy, a band of U.S. soldiers took over a poorly defended fort in Sonoma and declared California an independent republic (the so-called Big Bear Republic). This state of affairs only lasted six days but, by July, U.S. troops had occupied most major Californian settlements, encountering minimal resistance.
California formally became a U.S. possession under the terms ending the American-Mexican War in 1847, part of a deal that gave the U.S. control over the American West for $15 million.
The discovery of gold on January 24, 1848, 50 miles east of the future site of Sacramento, triggered one of the greatest population movements ever seen, increasing California’s (non-native) population from 7,000 to 100,000 in four years, and setting it on the road to becoming a powerful, independently wealthy region. Such were its riches that California was allowed to forego the usual transitional stage as a frontier territory and received full statehood in 1850.
The need for men and mining machinery to be brought in by sea enabled San Francisco to grow into a major city, increasing its population fifty-fold within two years. Other settlements were founded on the sheltered bays of the north coast and inland river ports such as Sacramento and Stock-ton evolved into important centres.
In the gold-producing areas, chiefly in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, scores of jerry-built new towns appeared. Getting rich quick was the sole concern in these rough-and-ready communities and what little law existed tended to be administered by vigilante mobs.
Within three years, however, the gold rush was over. The rivers where gold flakes had first been discovered had yielded all they were going to and it was company-owned mines – manned by a steady workforce – which provided the only access to the gold-bearing quartz still embedded in the hillsides.
The rise of southern California
As northern California enjoyed the sudden growth and vast profits of the gold rush, southern California remained a hot, dry and neglected outpost, where Los Angeles and San Diego each held populations of just a few thousand. Even the big four – a quartet of Sacramento merchants-turned-rail-barons whose transcontinental railway linked California to the rest of the nation in1869, making them the richest and most powerful men in the state – saw little point (in other words, saw little profit) in developing the southern cities.
Seizing the initiative, a band of Angelenos bribed a rival railroad company to extend its tracks from Arizona to Los Angeles, and thereby to the Pacific. The line was duly completed in 1886. Accessible at last, southern California began vigorously promoting itself as a Mediterranean paradise, and heavily-subsidized rail fares brought tens of thousands of new settlers from the east.
In 1892, the discovery of oil near Los Angeles gave birth to what were to become gigantic aeronautical and automobile industries and helped bring about a sea-change in California’s population pattern: the prospect of guaranteed employment convincing many northern Californians, rendered jobless by a post-gold rush depression, to move south.
Also eyeing southern California at this time were the visionaries and opportunists of the fledgling American film industry, hindered on the east coast by patent laws and a miserable climate. The film-makers, and subsequently thousands of would-be actors, writers and producers in search of fortune and fame, invaded a small farming town called Hollywood, then separated from Los Angeles by 8 miles of bean fields. By the 1920s, the Hollywood film industry was generating a billion dollars a year and employing 100,000 people. The new mansions spread across the Hollywood Hills housed the screen stars that made southern California synonymous with great wealth and physical perfection.
Many of the social changes that shook American society during the 1960s had their roots in California. The Free Speech Movement, formed by students of the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, was the stimulus for nationwide campus revolts and anti-Vietnam War protests. San Francisco, where beatniks had shocked middle class society during the 1950s, became the world’s number one hippie haven in 1967. And the ultra-militant Black Panthers was formed in neighbouring Oakland in 1968.
However, in electing Ronald Reagan as state governor in 1967, Californians showed themselves in general to be less than the full-bloodied revolutionaries outsiders often took them to be. The grisly activities of the Charles Manson “family,” recruited among San Francisco’s street hippies, put paid to the peace and love movement, and the Watts Riot of 1965, when a black inner-city community of Los Angeles fought a six-day battle with police and the National Guard, was a sharp reminder that the wealth being accrued in the city of superstars was not percolating downwards.
With its abundant natural resources and reputation for technical innovation such as the booming computer industry of so-called Silicon Valley in the early 1980s – California has often seemed immune from economic recession. Lately, though, the loss of government contracts has forced the state’s aerospace industries to reduce their workforces, California’s major car manufacturers have made massive redundancies, while the high business taxes levied by the state government to help finance conservation have encouraged some Californian companies to relocate to other states.
times could again occur.
The Californian character
Due to Sierran gold, Hollywood movies, or Silicon Valley computer chips, California has long been regarded as the American promised land. The one thing that has always united its exceptionally transient population has been the search for a better life. The few Californians who can trace their lineage back to the early pioneers band together in special clubs and speak of nine decades of history as Europeans might speak of nine centuries. Rarely will you meet anyone whose links with the Golden State go back more than one generation and, among younger Californians, ethnic roots in south-east Asia or in south or central America are fast becoming more common than U.S. ancestry.
To most Californians, though, history really is bunk. The potential of the present has always been uppermost in the Californian mind. To get rich (once by panning for gold; lately on the money markets of the Pacific Rim); to become famous (traditionally through films, more recently via rock music); to reach a higher level of consciousness (California was embracing eastern mysticism by the 1920s; sixty years on, the New Age movement was in full-swing): California has been the place to do it, and to do it now while the rest of the world looks on.
From the surfers of the southern beaches to the plaid-shirted lumber-workers of the northern forests, Californians come in many guises. The typical face of California, though, is one you might never notice. It’s the one that has provided the bedrock support for archly conservative politicians – California-born ones like Richard Nixon and adopted ones like Ronald Reagan – and it belongs to the white, Anglo-American middle classes who occupy the bungalow-lawn-and-two-car-garage tract housing estates of the Golden State’s many square-miles of suburbia.
Key cultural themes
California has always been the place where anything is possible but many Anglo-American residents view the modern state as a land where nightmares, rather than dreams, are about to become reality. The riots that swept through Los Angeles in April 1992 stunned the outside world; to Californians, though, they were an inevitable expression of the rage that has built up behind the state’s carefully nurtured facade of wealth and opportunity for all.
It is not just violent civil disorder that makes Anglo-Californians, who have been the state’s dominant group since the end of Mexican rule, feel threatened. Global recession and the job-losses following the post-Cold War reduction in weapons research – a mainstay of the Californian economy for years – have had an erosive effect on their free-spending lifestyles. Simultaneously, a decade of tax reductions has resulted in public services being pared to the bone and the state’s educational system becoming severely under-funded. The solution for many has been simple: a move to Arizona or the states of the Pacific North West.
While the comfortable Californian lifestyle was certainly eroded from the late 1980s into the early 1990s as the state’s economy took a hammering, it has staged a great comeback over recent years. As a result, Californians generally are approaching the last years of the century with a growing sense of optimism about the future of the state, despite the many difficulties still to be overcome.