California Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

To a much greater extent than in other states, California is a naturally defined region with a distinct history of its own.

History of California

To a much greater extent than in other states, California is a naturally defined region with a distinct history of its own. Its differences begin with its natural geography. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sierra Madre range along the east, California had limited contacts with the outside world until the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, little was known about its abundant natural resources beyond the fact it had an equable climate and fertile land.

An estimated 300,000 Native Americans inhabited the region before Europeans arrived. Though they were among the most numerous and prosperous Indian societies in North America, most of them lived outside the main currents of Native American history. Compared to many cultures outside California, their culture was simple. Metallurgy, pottery, intensive cultivation, horses, and draft animals were all unknown to them. With economies based mostly on fishing, hunting, and gathering, they nevertheless achieved comparatively high levels of prosperity and lived largely peaceful lives.

Early Exploration

European contact with California began in 1542, when the Spanish navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo found San Diego Bay. English navigator Francis Drake followed thirty-seven years later, when he reached Northern California. Little came out of these early explorations. Busy colonizing Mexico, Spain paid little attention to the California region over the next two centuries. Permanent European interest in the region finally began in the late eighteenth century, when Spain authorized members of the Franciscan order to build a chain of mission stations up the California coast. Father Junipero Serra founded California’s first mission at San Diego in 1769; twenty other mission stations followed over the next fifty-four years.

During those years California was nominally a Spanish colony, but the government exercised only light control, and the burden of imposing European culture on California’s peoples was left to the Franciscans. The missionaries began systematic agricultural development and gathered Indian communities around their mission stations. Meanwhile, Russian traders established posts north of the mission chain without interference. After a half century of formal Spanish colonization, the non-Indian residents of California numbered only about 3,300–a fraction of the number of Indians.

Mexican Rule

By this time, Spain was losing its hold on its New World empire and Mexico was in open revolt. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, and California’s Spanish governor peacefully recognized Mexican rule, and California became a Mexican province. Mexico then followed Spain’s example by taking little active interest in the region until the early 1830’s, when it began secularizing California’s mission stations and distributing titles to large blocs of land among favored families. In 1837 the Mexican government granted California’s administration a large measure of autonomy, continuing California’s tradition of comparative isolation.

Secularization was a disaster to the Indian communities attached to the former mission stations. The departure of the Franciscans left the Indians at the mercy of private landlords, who had little interest in their welfare. Most of the Indians left the missions for their original homes, where harsh economic conditions and European diseases reduced their numbers greatly. By the turn of the twentieth century their numbers fell to their lowest level ever–about fifteen thousand people, about one-twentieth their precolonial number.

By the early 1840’s, Americans hungry for land and new opportunities were moving west and settling in California. Conflicts soon arose between these new, non-Spanish-speaking residents and the established Spanish and Mexican settlers, known as Californios. Soon, the U.S. government was taking an interest in the region, which it feared might be occupied by Great Britain or Russia. In 1845 it instructed its consul in Monterey to promote local interest in annexation to the United States. The following year, disgruntled American settlers in Northern California found an excuse for rebelling against the Mexican regime and proclaimed an independent republic in Sonoma–a short-lived rebellion known as the Bear Flag Revolt, after the flag the rebels used.

For reasons largely unrelated to California, the United States declared war against Mexico in 1846. Placed under military rule by Mexico, California played a small role in the Mexican-American War. The Mexican government surrendered California to the United States when John C. Frémont arrived with an occupation force in 1847. In the peace accord that followed, Mexico formally ceded California, along with most of what became the American Southwest, to the United States. California officially became an American territory in early 1848; however, its territorial status was short-lived. Two years later, before its territorial government was fully organized, California entered the Union as a state. Its rapid transition to statehood owed much to an unexpected and spectacular event that fundamentally changed the region’s future: the discovery of gold near Sacramento.

The Gold Rush and Statehood

Scarcely a week before the treaty ending the Mexican-American War was signed, news of the discovery of gold in Northern California became public, and the seeds of one of the world’s great gold rushes began. The effect the gold rush had on California would be difficult to overstate. Within a matter of only a few years, California was transformed from a sleepy backwater to perhaps the fastest-growing economy in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the state from the East and other parts of the world. Within ten years California’s non-Indian population rose from less than ten thousand to several hundred thousands. Meanwhile, San Francisco grew from little more than a village to a booming metropolitan center offering virtually every service and amenity available in big eastern cities and controlling the commerce of the West Coast.

The multitudes who rushed to California dreamed of striking it rich from mineral wealth; however, the real fortunes made there grew mostly out of the many enterprises that arose to support the gold industry. Great profits were made in agriculture, retail trade, transportation, and countless other industries and services. For the first time, agriculture was undertaken on a large scale. As the gold rush made food production a critical priority, the agricultural potential of California’s great Central Valley was finally recognized. Eventually, California’s agricultural production would not only lead the nation but also reach a level exceeded by only a handful of nations in the world.

The gold rush peaked during the early 1850’s; by 1861, when the Civil War began, the rush was essentially over. Nevertheless, California’s economy continued to expand. The war interrupted commerce with the eastern United States but actually helped the local economy. Once again isolated from the East, California had to diversify its production to make up for what it could not import. Pro-Unionists outnumbered Confederate sympathizers within California, but the state played no direct role in the war.


When California attained statehood in 1850, it was separated from the rest of the states by the Central Plains, Rocky Mountains, and arid Southwest. With people and goods arriving at increasing rates, cheaper and more rapid transportation became a paramount need. With overland travel slow and expensive, much of the goods and people reaching the state came by ship–by way of Central America. In 1860 the Pony Express was begun to speed mail service between California and the East. It lasted little more than a year–but only because it was displaced by transcontinental telegraph service. Completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 linked California’s capital, Sacramento, with St. Joseph, Missouri. These new links with the East were major steps in ending California’s isolation.

With the building of the railway and the end of the Civil War, California settled down to a period of steady growth and development. Settlers continued to pour in from the East, doubling the state’s population every decade–a rate of growth that continued through the twentieth century. As the proportion of European Americans rose, their tolerance for other immigrants diminished and racially discriminatory laws were passed. Particular targets of white intolerance were the thousands of Chinese workers who had come to California to help build the railroads. Most of these people stayed working at low-paying jobs shunned by whites, who pressed the state government to legislate against Asians.

Agricultural production grew and diversified until California led the nation in production in the late 1940’s. Meanwhile, other industries arose to contribute to the state’s growing economy. In 1895 oil was discovered in Southern California, just as the invention of motor-driven automobiles was creating new demand for petroleum products. Through the first four decades of the twentieth century, California led all states in oil production.

Most of California’s early development occurred in the northern part of the state. During the twentieth century, the balance shifted to the south, where such new industries as petrochemicals, aeronautics, and entertainment attracted new immigrants from the East. By 1920 most of the state’s residents lived in southern counties. However, its bicameral legislative system left the balance of political power in the north. With most water resources also in the north, supplying water to the largely arid south became a critical issue in state politics. Correction of the political imbalance finally came during the early 1960’s, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision forced reapportionment of the state legislature. By this time, California ranked as the most populous state in the nation.

Over the next three decades, a central issue in state politics was the changing composition of the population. Opposition to immigrants of all kinds is an issue with roots going back to the late nineteenth century. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, for example, the state tried, unsuccessfully to keep out swarms of poor farmers fleeing the drought-stricken Midwest. After World War II, Californians became alarmed by the rising influx of Mexicans seeking higher-paying jobs–particularly in agriculture. Immigration from Asia, Mexico, and Central America grew through the rest of the twentieth century, making California the most multicultural state in the Union.

Categories: History Content