Five hundred Native American nations called this land home for some 150 centuries before 16th-century European arrivals gave it a new name: California. Spanish conquistadors and priests came here for gold and god, but soon relinquished their flea-plagued missions and ill-equipped presidios (forts) to Mexico. The unruly territory was handed off to the US in the Treaty of Hidalgo mere months before gold was discovered here in 1848. Generations of California dreamers continue to make the trek to these Pacific shores for gold, glory and self-determination, making homes and history on America's most fabled frontier.
Immigration is hardly a new phenomenon in California, where settlers have been arriving for millennia. Humans were settling California as early as 19,000 years ago, leaving behind traces of early California cuisine in large middens of seashells along the beaches and campfire sites on the Channel Islands.
From the beginning, the Californian menu was abundant and varied. Seafood and small game such as rabbits and deer were sopped up with acorn-meal bread. Native Californians were highly skilled at preparing foods, and did not need to stray far from their small communities to secure their staple foods with fishing nets, bows, arrows, and spears with chipped stone points. Food and water were carried in finely woven baskets decorated with elegant geometric patterns.
Native Californians spoke at least 100 distinct languages, and passed knowledge of hunting grounds and turf boundaries from generation to generation in song. Northern coastal fishing communities such as the Ohlone, Miwok and Pomo built subterranean roundhouses and sweat lodges, where they held ceremonies, told stories and gambled for fun. Northern hunting communities, including the Hupa, Karok and Wiyot, constructed big houses and redwood dugout canoes, while the Modoc lived in summer tipis and winter dugouts – but all their paths converged during California's seasonal salmon runs. Kumeyaay and Chumash villages dotted the central coast, where they fished and paddled canoes as far out into the Pacific as the Channel Islands. Southern Mojave, Yuma and Cahuilla nations made sophisticated pottery and developed irrigation systems for farming in the desert.
When English sea captain Sir Francis Drake harbored briefly on Miwok land north of San Francisco in 1579, the English were taken to be the dead returned from the afterworld, and shamans saw the arrival as a warning of apocalypse. The omens weren't far wrong: within a century of the arrival of Spanish colonists in 1769, California’s indigenous population would be decimated by 80% to 90%, falling to just 20,000 due to foreign diseases, conscripted labor, violence, marginalization and hunger in their own fertile lands.
Feature: Fierce Queen Calafía, California's Namesake
Gold is the usual reason given for the madcap course of Californian history, but it all actually started with a dazzling pack of lies. Have you heard the one about the sunny island of Amazon women armed with gold weapons, who flew griffins fed with their own sons? No, this isn’t a twisted Hollywood Wonder Woman remake. It’s the plot of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 16th-century Spanish novel Las Sergas de Esplandían – the legend that inspired Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, who claimed in a 1524 letter that he hoped to find the island a couple of days’ sail to the northwest of Mexico.
Apart from the mythical bird-beasts and filicidal wonder women, Montalvo and Cortés weren’t entirely wrong. Across the water from mainland Mexico was a peninsula that Spanish colonists called Baja (Lower) California after Queen Calafía, Montalvo’s legendary queen of the Amazons. Above it was Alta (Upper) California, where gold was discovered some 50 years after the Spaniards gave up looking for it. At the end of Montalvo's story, warrior Queen Calafía willingly changed her wild ways, settled down and converted to Christianity – not quite what destiny had in store for California.
The Spanish Mission Period
In the 18th century, when Russian and English trappers began trading valuable pelts from Alta California, Spain concocted a plan for colonization. For the glory of God and the tax coffers of Spain, missions would be built across California. According to plan, these missions would be going concerns run by local converts within 10 years. This venture was approved by quixotic Spanish colonial official José de Gálvez of Mexico, who was full of grand schemes, including controlling Baja California with a trained army of apes.
Almost immediately after Spain’s missionizing plan was approved in 1769, it began to fail. When Franciscan friar Junípero Serra and Captain Gaspar de Portolá made the overland journey to establish Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769, only half the sailors on their supply ships survived. Portolá had heard of a fabled cove to the north, but failing to recognize Monterey Bay in the fog, he gave up and turned back.
Portolá reported to Gálvez that if the Russians or English wanted California, they were welcome to it. But Serra wouldn’t give up, and secured support to set up presidios (forts) alongside missions. When soldiers weren’t paid regularly, they looted and pillaged local communities. Clergy objected to this treatment of potential converts, but still relied on soldiers to round up conscripts to build missions. In exchange for their forced labor, Native Californians were promised one scant meal a day and a place in God’s kingdom – which came much sooner than expected, due to diseases such as smallpox and syphilis that the Spanish introduced.
California's indigenous tribes often rebelled against the Spanish colonists, and the missions barely managed to become self-sufficient. Although they did plant California's first vineyards, the Spanish failed to colonize California. Spanish colonists gave up, other foreigners moved in, and more Native Californians died than were converted.
California Under Mexican Rule
Spain wasn’t sorry to lose California to Mexico in the 1810–21 Mexican War of Independence – and Californian settlers known as rancheros (ranchers) saw an opportunity. The Spanish, Mexican and American ranchers who had intermarried with Native Californians had become a sizable constituency known as ‘Californios’, but the best grazing land was still reserved for the missions. So in 1834 Californios convinced Mexico to secularize the missions.
Californios quickly snapped up deeds to privatized mission property, and capitalized on the growing market for cowhides and tallow (a key ingredient in soap). Only a few dozen Californios were literate in the entire state, so boundary disputes that arose were settled with muscle, not paper. By law, half the lands were supposed to go to Native Californians who worked at the missions, but few actually received their entitlements.
Through marriage and other mergers, most of the land and wealth in California was held by just 46 ranchero families by 1846. The average rancho (ranch) was now 16,000 acres, having grown from cramped shanties to elegant haciendas where women were ordered to stay confined to quarters at night. But rancheras (ranch women) weren’t so easily bossed around: women owned some Californian ranches, rode horses as hard as men and caused romantic scandals worthy of modern telenovelas (soap operas).
Meanwhile, Americans were arriving at the trading post of Los Angeles via the Old Spanish Trail. Northern passes through the Sierra Nevada were trickier, as the Donner Party tragically discovered in 1846 – stranded by snow near Lake Tahoe, some survivors resorted to cannibalism.
Still, the US saw potential in California. When US president Andrew Jackson offered the financially strapped Mexican government $500,000 for the territory in 1835, the offer was tersely rejected. After the US annexed the Mexican territory of Texas in 1845, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations and ordered all foreigners without proper papers deported from California. The Mexican–American War was declared in 1846, lasting two years with very little fighting in California. Hostilities ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded much of its northern territory (including Alta California) to the US. The timing was lucky for the US, and most unfortunate for Mexico: just a few weeks after the US took possession of California, gold was discovered.
The Bear Flag Republic
In June 1846, American settlers tanked up on liquid courage declared independence in the northern town of Sonoma. Not a shot was fired – instead, they captured the nearest Mexican official and hoisted a hastily made flag. Locals awoke to discover they were living in the independent ‘Bear Republic,’ under a flag painted with a grizzly that looked like a drunken dog. The Bear Flag Republic lasted only a month before US orders telling settlers to stand down arrived.
California's Gold Rush
The gold rush era in California began with a bluff. Real-estate speculator, lapsed Mormon and wily tabloid publisher Sam Brannan was looking to unload some California swampland in 1848 when he heard rumors of gold flakes found near Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Figuring this news should sell some newspapers and raise real-estate values, Brannan published the rumor as fact.
At first Brannan's story didn’t generate much excitement – gold flake had surfaced in southern California as far back as 1775. So he ran another story, this time verified by Mormon employees at Sutter’s Mill who had sworn him to secrecy. Brannan kept his word until he reached San Francisco, where he legendarily ran through Portsmouth Sq brandishing gold entrusted to him as tithes for the Mormon church, shouting, ‘Gold on the American River!’
Other newspapers around the world weren’t scrupulous about the facts either, hastily publishing stories of gold near San Francisco. By 1850 – the year California was fast-tracked for admission as the 31st US state – California’s non-native population had ballooned from 15,000 to 93,000. Early arrivals from across the country and around the world panned for gold side by side, slept in close quarters, guzzled locally made wine and slurped Chinese noodles. When they struck it rich, miners ordered the 'Hangtown Fry,' an omelette made with salt-cured bacon and local oysters – ingredients worth up to $200 in today's terms.
With each wave of new arrivals, profits dropped and gold became harder to find. In 1848 each prospector earned an average of about $300,000 in today’s terms. By 1849 earnings were less than half that, and by 1865 they had dipped to $35,000. When surface gold became scarce, miners picked, shoveled and dynamited through mountains. The work was grueling and dangerous and, with few doctors around, injuries often proved lethal. The cost of living in cold, filthy mining camps was sky-high – and with only one woman for every 400 men in some camps, many turned to paid company, booze and opium for consolation.
Vigilantes, Robber Barons & Railroads
Gold prospectors who did best arrived early and got out quick, while those who stayed too long either lost fortunes searching for the next nugget or became targets of resentment. Native Californian laborers who helped miners strike it rich were denied the right to hold claims. Successful Peruvians and Chileans were harassed and denied renewals to their mining claims, and most left California by 1855. The 'Chilecito' neighborhood they established in San Francisco is now called Jackson Sq, but you can still order the drink these early settlers brought to San Francisco circa 1848: Pisco punch.
Criminal wrongdoing was sometimes hastily pinned on Australians, especially arrivals from Australia's penal colonies. The dockside district below Telegraph Hill called 'Sydney-town' was burned down at least four times by arsonists – fires promptly blamed on Australian ex-cons dubbed the ‘Sydney Ducks.' Starting in 1851, San Francisco’s self-appointed Committee of Vigilance hastily tried, convicted, lynched and deported several ‘Sydney Ducks,’ jumping to convenient conclusions in proceedings that became known as 'kangaroo trials.' When another gold rush began in Australia that same year, many Australians swiftly headed home.
As mining became industrialized, fewer miners were needed, and jobless prospectors turned anger toward a convenient target: Chinese workers. Frozen out of mining claims, many Chinese opened service-based businesses that survived when mining ventures went bust. By 1860 enough Chinese pioneers had endured to become the second-most populous group in California after Mexicans, but this hard-won resilience met with irrational resentment. Discriminatory Californian laws restricting housing, employment and citizenship for anyone born in China were passed and extended with the 1882 US Chinese Exclusion Act, which remained law until 1943.
Inter-ethnic rivalries obscured the real competitive threat posed not by fellow workers, but by those who controlled the means of production: California’s ‘robber barons.’ These Californian speculators hoarded the capital and industrial machinery necessary for deep-mining operations. Laws limiting work options for Chinese arrivals served the needs of robber barons, who needed cheap labor to build railroads to their mining claims and reach East Coast markets.
To blast tunnels through the Sierra Nevada, workers were lowered down sheer mountain faces in wicker baskets, planted lit dynamite sticks in rock crevices then urgently tugged the rope to be hoisted out of harm’s way. Those who survived the day’s work were confined to bunkhouses under armed guard in cold, remote mountain regions. With little other choice of legitimate employment, an estimated 12,000 Chinese laborers blasted through the Sierra Nevada, meeting the westbound end of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
Oil & Water
During the US Civil War (1861–65), California couldn’t count on food shipments from the East Coast, and started growing its own. California recruited Midwestern homesteaders to farm the Central Valley with shameless propaganda. ‘Acres of Untaken Government Land…for a Million Farmers…Health & Wealth without Cyclones or Blizzards,’ trumpeted one California-boosting poster, neglecting to mention earthquakes or ongoing land disputes with rancheros and Native Californians. The hype worked: more than 120,000 homesteaders came to California in the 1870s and '80s.
These homesteaders soon discovered that California’s gold rush had left the state badly tarnished. Hills were stripped bare, vegetation wiped out, streams silted up and mercury washed into water supplies. Cholera spread through open sewers of poorly drained camps, claiming many lives. Because mining claims leased by the US government were granted significant tax exemptions, there were insufficient public funds for clean-up programs or public water works. Smaller mineral finds in Southern California mountains diverted streams, turning the green valleys below into deserts. Recognizing at last that water, not gold, was the state's most precious resource, Californians passed a pioneering law preventing dumping into rivers in 1884.
Amid California's first water crisis, frustrated farmers south of Big Sur voted to secede from California in 1859. These calls for secession were set aside during the Civil War, but were soon back on the table. With the support of budding agribusiness and real-estate concerns, Southern Californians passed bond measures to build aqueducts and dams that made large-scale farming and real-estate development possible. By the 20th century, the lower one-third of the state claimed two-thirds of available water supplies, inspiring Northern California's own calls for secession.
Meanwhile, flat-broke mining prospector and failed real-estate speculator Edward Doheny made an unexpected discovery in Los Angeles: oil. In 1892 Doheny drilled his first oil well near where Dodger Stadium now stands, and within a year it was yielding 40 barrels daily. Five years later, 500 wells were operational in Southern California. By 1900 the state was producing four million barrels of ‘black gold’ annually, Downtown LA had boomed to 100,000 inhabitants, and California oil kickbacks greased the palms of politicians all the way to DC. Doheny's own back-door dealings were exposed in the 1920s Teapot Dome bribery scandal, inspiring Upton Sinclair's darkly satirical 1926 novel Oil! and the 2007 Oscar-winning oil drama There Will Be Blood.
While pastoral Southern California was urbanizing, Northern Californians who had witnessed mining and logging devastation firsthand were jump-starting the nation’s first conservation movement. Scottish immigrant John Muir moved to San Francisco to make his living, but found his true calling as a naturalist on a week-long trip to the Yosemite Valley. Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and devoted his life to defending Yosemite and vast tracts of California's wilderness against the encroachments of dams and pipelines to urban centers. After backpacking with Muir in Yosemite in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt was convinced to preserve Yosemite as a national park. Muir's passionate objections, however, couldn't prevent Woodrow Wilson from signing the 1913 bill to build Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies Bay Area water today. In drought-prone California, tensions between land developers and conservationists still run high.
Reforming the Wild West
When a massive earthquake struck San Francisco in 1906, it unearthed a terrible truth. The earthquake sparked fires across town, but there was no water to put them out. In a city surrounded by water on three sides, there were only two functioning water mains: a fountain donated by opera star Lotta Crabtree at Market and Kearny Sts, and a Mission hydrant atop Dolores Park (still painted gold today, in honor of its service). Public funds for citywide fire hydrants had been siphoned off by corrupt political bosses. For three days, fires swept across the city. When the smoke lifted, one thing was clear from this unnatural disaster: it was time for the Wild West to change its ways.
While San Francisco was rebuilt at a rate of 15 buildings a day, political reformers set to work on city, state and national policies, one plank at a time. Californians concerned about public health and trafficking in women pushed for the passage of the 1914 Red Light Abatement Act, which shut down brothels statewide. Mexico’s revolution from 1910 to 1921 brought a new wave of migrants and revolutionary ideas, including ethnic pride and worker solidarity. As California’s ports grew, longshoremen’s unions coordinated a historic 83-day strike in 1934 along the entire West Coast that forced concessions for safer working conditions and fair pay.
At the height of the Depression in 1935, some 200,000 farming families fled the drought-struck Dust Bowl on the Great Plains and headed to California, where they found scant pay and deplorable working conditions. California’s artists alerted middle America to the migrants’ plight, and the nation rallied around Dorothea Lange’s haunting documentary photos of famine-struck families and John Steinbeck’s harrowing fictionalized account in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. The book was widely banned, while the 1940 movie version, its star Henry Fonda and Steinbeck himself were accused of harboring communist sympathies. But in California, farm workers rallied and became an organizing force in 'Left Coast' politics.
California’s workforce shifted during WWII, when women and African Americans were recruited for wartime industries and Mexican workers were brought in to fill labor shortages. Contracts in military communications and aviation attracted an international elite of engineers and skilled women technologists, founding California’s high-tech industry. Within a decade after WWII, California’s population had grown by almost 40%, surpassing 13 million.
California’s Civil Rights Movement
Before the 1963 march on Washington, DC, the civil rights movement was well under way in California. When almost 120,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast were ordered into internment camps by President Roosevelt in 1942, the Japanese American Citizens League immediately filed suits that advanced all the way to the US Supreme Court. These lawsuits established groundbreaking civil rights legal precedents, and in 1992 internees received reparations and an official letter of apology signed by President George HW Bush.
Adopting the nonviolent resistance practices of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, labor leaders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta formed United Farm Workers in 1962 to champion the rights of immigrant laborers. Four years later Chávez and Californian grape pickers marched on Sacramento, bringing the issue of fair wages and the health risks of pesticides to the nation’s attention. When Bobby Kennedy was sent to investigate, he sided with Chávez, bringing Latinos into the US political fold.
California was again on the front lines during the fight for marriage equality. In open defiance of the 1996 US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between opposite-sex partners, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples in 2004. The issue went to the courts, which found DOMA in conflict with California's constitution. Opponents of marriage equality rallied around Proposition 8, a ballot measure that proposed to change California's constitution to invalidate same-sex marriage. Proposition 8 passed by a narrow margin, but was found unconstitutional in 2008 and on appeal in 2013. With this key legal precedent established, the US Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional the same day, and marriage equality was established nationwide.
Today civil rights remains top of mind in California, where new Americans represent over half the population, including 26.9% foreign-born immigrants, and 30.7% naturalized citizens or US-born children of immigrants. A dozen California cities have passed sanctuary statutes, including Berkeley's pioneering 1971 sanctuary resolution and San Francisco's 1989 citywide sanctuary law. These laws protect local police stations, schools and hospitals from having to detain undocumented people not charged with any crime for deportation by federal authorities. Under threat of the removal of federal funds by the Trump administration in 2017, San Francisco and Berkeley reaffirmed their sanctuary policies, and California legislators are considering measures that would extend sanctuary statewide.
Hollywood & California Counterculture
By the 1920s California’s greatest export was the sunny, wholesome image it projected to the world through its homegrown film and TV industry. With consistent sunlight and versatile locations, Southern California proved to be an ideal movie location. Early in its career, SoCal was a stand-in for more exotic locales, and got dressed up for period-piece productions such as Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush (1925). But with its beach sunsets and palm-lined drives, California soon stole the scene in Technicolor movies and iconic TV shows. California shed its bad-boy Wild West reputation to become a movie star, dominating the screen behind squeaky-clean beach boys and bikini-clad blondes.
But Northern Californians didn't picture themselves as extras in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). The Navy discharged WWII sailors for insubordination and homosexuality in San Francisco, as though that would teach them a lesson. Instead they found themselves at home in North Beach’s bebop jazz clubs, bohemian coffeehouses and City Lights Bookstore. San Francisco was an outpost of free speech and free spirits, and soon everyone who was anyone was getting arrested here, including dancer Carol Doda for going topless, comedian Lenny Bruce for dropping F-bombs onstage, and City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl. Doda won and kept dancing for 45 years. Writers including Woody Allen, James Baldwin and Bob Dylan vocally defended Bruce, who was posthumously pardoned. City Lights continues to celebrate its landmark 1957 victory for free speech, publishing thousands of volumes of fresh verse and provocative prose annually.
The final button of convention was popped not by San Francisco artists, but by the CIA. To test psychoactive drugs intended to create the ultimate soldier, the CIA gave LSD to writer Ken Kesey. He saw the potential not for war but for a wild party, and spiked the punch at the 1966 Trips Festival organized by Stewart Brand. The psychedelic era hit an all-time high at the January 14, 1967 Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, where trip-master Timothy Leary urged a crowd of 20,000 hippies to dream a new American dream and ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’ As the high wore off and hippy 'flower power' faded, other Bay Area rebellions, including Black Power and gay pride, grew in its place.
Northern California had the more attention-grabbing counterculture in the 1940s to '60s, but nonconformity in sunny SoCal shook the country to the core. In 1947, when Senator Joseph McCarthy attempted to root out suspected communists in the film industry, 10 writers and directors refused to admit to communist alliances or to name names. The 'Hollywood Ten' were charged with contempt of Congress and barred from working in Hollywood, but their impassioned defenses of the US Constitution were heard nationwide. Major Hollywood players boldly voiced dissent and hired blacklisted talent until lawsuits finally curbed McCarthyism in the late 1950s.
California’s beach-paradise image – and its oil-industry dealings – would be permanently changed not by Hollywood directors, but Santa Barbara beachgoers. On January 28, 1969, an oil rig dumped 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel, killing dolphins, seals and thousands of birds. Playing against type, the laid-back SoCal beach community organized a highly effective protest, spurring the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the California Coastal Commission and pioneering legislation against environmental pollution.
Geeking Out in California
When Silicon Valley introduced the first personal computer in 1968, advertisements breathlessly gushed that Hewlett-Packard’s new ‘light’ (40lb) machine could ‘take on roots of a fifth-degree polynomial, Bessel functions, elliptic integrals and regression analysis’ – all for just $4900 (over $33,000 today). Consumers didn’t know quite what to do with such computers, but Trips Festival organizer Stewart Brand had a totally psychedelic idea: what if all that technology could fit into the palm of your hand? Maybe then, the technology governments used to run countries could empower ordinary people.
When Brand shared this radical notion of 'personal computing' in his 1969 Whole Earth Catalog, it inspired a generation of technologists. At the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire, 21-year-old Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introduced the Apple II, a personal computer with unfathomable memory (4KB of RAM!) and microprocessor speed (1MHz!). But the question remained: what would ordinary people do with all that computing power?
By the mid-1990s an entire dot-com start-up industry boomed in Silicon Valley, and suddenly people were getting everything – mail, news, pet food and, yes, sex – online. But when dot-com profits weren’t forthcoming, venture-capital funding evaporated. Fortunes in stock options disappeared when the Nasdaq plummeted on March 10, 2000, popping the dot-com bubble. Overnight, 26-year-old vice-presidents and Bay Area service-sector employees alike found themselves jobless.
But online users continued to look for useful information and human connection in those billions of web pages, and search engines and social media boomed. Technology became ever more personal, and Steve Jobs was finally able to call Stewart Brand in 2007 with some news: he'd finally shrunk computers to fit into the palm of a hand. Smartphones took off, and more than two million apps have been launched since.
Meanwhile, California's biotech industry has been quietly booming. An upstart company called Genentech was founded in a San Francisco bar in 1976, and quickly got to work cloning human insulin and introducing the Hepatitis B vaccine. In 2004 California voters approved a $3-billion bond measure for stem-cell research, and by 2008 California had become the USA's biggest funder of stem-cell research, as well as the focus of Nasdaq's new Biotechnology Index. With cloud computing to store and access data, machine learning is now able to make rapid advancements in medical imaging and diagnostics.
So will machines save us all, or surpass us? Dude, that sounds like a good subject for a Hollywood movie – or at least a far-out conversation in a California marijuana dispensary (legal as of 2017, in case you're wondering). No matter what happens next, you can say you saw it coming in California.