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The beginnings

People have been migrating to California for thousands of years. Archeological sites indicate the state was inhabited soon after people came across the long-gone land bridge from Asia during an ice age as long as 25, 000 years ago. Stone tools found in the Bakersfield area have been dated to around 8000 to 12, 000 years ago. Many other sites across the state have yielded evidence, from large middens of sea shells along the coast to campfire sites in the mountains, of people from around 4000 to 8000 years ago.

The most spectacular artifact left behind by California’s early inhabitants is their rock art, dating from 500 to 3000 years ago. It gives some idea of the cultural diversity of the indigenous populations, with five identifiable styles of pictographs (designs painted on rock with one or more colors) and five styles of petroglyphs (designs pecked, chipped or abraded onto the rock). Accessible sites include the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park in the Gold Country and the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, near Santa Barbara.

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California’s Indians

The archeological evidence, combined with accounts from early European visitors and later ethnographic research, gives quite a clear picture of the Native Americans at the time of European contact. The indigenous peoples of California belonged to more than 20 language groups with around 100 dialects. Their total population ranged somewhere between 150, 000 and 300, 000, though some estimates run considerably higher. Native Americans lived in small groups and villages, often migrating with the seasons from the valleys and the coast up to the mountains.

California Indians used earthenware pots, fish nets, bows, arrows and spears with chipped stone points, but their most developed craft was basket-making. They wove baskets with local grasses and plant fibers and decorated them with attractive geometric designs.

There was some trade between the groups, especially between coastal and inland people, but generally they did not interact much, partly because even neighboring villages spoke different languages. Conflict among the groups was almost nonexistent. California Indians did not have a class of warriors or a tradition of warfare.

Several museums have good exhibits on Native American archeology and anthropology, such as the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, the Museum of Man in San Diego and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles.

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European discovery

Following the conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century, the Spanish turned their attention toward exploring the edges of their new empire. Interest was spurred by tales of a fanciful golden island to the west.

In 1542 the Spanish crown engaged Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer and retired conquistador, to lead an expedition up the West Coast to find the fabled land. He was also charged with finding the equally mythical Strait of Anián, an imagined sea route between the Pacific and the Atlantic.

When Cabrillo’s ships sailed into San Diego harbor (which Cabrillo named San Miguel), he and his crew became the first Europeans to see mainland California. The ships sat out a storm in the harbor, then sailed north. They made a stop in the Channel Islands where, in 1543, Cabrillo fell ill, died and was buried. The expedition continued north as far as Oregon, but returned with no evidence of a sea route to the Atlantic, no cities of gold and no islands of spice. The Spanish authorities were unimpressed and showed no further interest in California for the next 50 years.

Around 1565, Spanish ships began plying the Pacific, carrying Mexican silver to the Philippines to trade for the exotic goods of Asia. These ‘Manila galleons’ often took a northerly route back to the Americas to catch the westerly winds, and they sometimes landed along the California coast. The galleons were harassed by English pirates, including noted booty plunderer Sir Francis Drake, who sailed up the California coast in 1579. Like many others, he missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay, but pulled in near Point Reyes (at what is now Drakes Bay) to repair his ship, which was literally bursting with the weight of Spanish silver. He claimed the land for his ‘buddy’ Queen Elizabeth, named it Nova Albion (New England), then left for other adventures.

In 1596 the Spanish decided they needed to secure some ports on the Pacific coast, and sent Sebastián Vizcaíno to find them. Vizcaíno’s first expedition was a disaster that didn’t get past Baja California, but on his second attempt, in 1602, he rediscovered the harbor at San Diego and gave it its present name. Contrary to his orders, he renamed many of the features of the coast and made glowing reports of the value of his ‘discoveries, ’ in particular Monterey Bay, which he described as a protected harbor. Bureaucrats back home however were unimpressed by the reports and they were pigeonholed for 160 years.

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The mission period

Around the 1760s, as Russian ships came to California’s coast in search of sea otter pelts, and British trappers and explorers were spreading throughout the West, the Spanish king finally took notice. In order to protect the claim and promote the Catholic Church among the indigenous population, a combination of Catholic missions and military forts (presidios) was established in the new territory. Native American converts would live in the missions, learn trade and agricultural skills and ultimately establish pueblos that would be like little Spanish towns. Or so the plan went.

The first Spanish colonizing expedition, called the ‘Sacred Expedition, ’ was a major undertaking, with land-based parties and supply ships converging on San Diego in 1769. On July 1 that year, a sorry lot of about 100 missionaries and soldiers, led by the Franciscan priest Junípero Serra and the military commander Gaspar de Portolá, struggled ashore at San Diego Bay. They had just spent several weeks at sea sailing from Baja California; about half of their cohorts had died en route, and many of the survivors were sick or near death. It was an inauspicious beginning for Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the chain of 21 California missions.

While Serra stayed in San Diego, Gaspar de Portolá continued north on land with instructions to establish a second Spanish outpost at Monterey. In a move replicated by fog-blinded tourists even today, Portolá went right past Monterey, continuing until they arrived at today’s San Francisco Bay. Returning to San Diego, Portolá found Serra’s party desperately awaiting an overdue supply ship and without a single Native American convert after eight months of recruitment. But just in the nick of time, a supply ship appeared over the horizon and newly fortified, Serra and Portolá returned north, actually found Monterey and established a presidio there. This is now the site of the excellent Monterey State Historic Park.

Over time, three more presidios were founded, in San Diego (1769), Santa Barbara (1782) and San Francisco (1776). Ostensibly, the purpose of the presidios was to protect the missions and deter foreign intruders. In fact, these garrisons were little more than the fraternity boys from Animal House of their day, with resident soldiers spending their time raping and pillaging and doing little to protect Spanish claims.

Meanwhile, efforts to spread the word of God were hampered by the spread of disease. Native American populations on the missions were decimated by European illnesses, so the Spanish attempted to build up the pueblos in California with the families of soldiers and with civilians from Mexico. Sadly for the colonizers, these efforts also met with limited success as the new arrivals were much like the extras populating the town of an old western: they had no identifiable skills to benefit the community.

The missions did achieve modest success at farming, managing to just barely become self-sufficient, an essential achievement during the 1810-21 Mexican war for independence from Spain when supplies from Mexico were cut off completely.

As a way of colonizing California and converting the natives to Christianity, the mission period was an abject failure. The Spanish population remained small, the missions achieved little better than mere survival, foreign intruders were not greatly deterred and more Native Americans died than were converted.

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The rancho period

Upon Mexican independence in 1821, many of the new nation’s people looked to California to satisfy their thirst for private land. By the mid-1830s the missions had been secularized, with a series of governors doling out hundreds of free land grants. This process gave birth to the rancho system. The new landowners were called rancheros or Californios; they prospered quickly and became the social, cultural and political fulcrums of California. The average rancho was 16, 000 acres in size and largely given over to livestock to supply the trade in hide and tallow.

When intrepid explorer Jedediah Smith turned up in San Diego in 1827, the Mexican authorities were alarmed that the route from the east was not impassable. Frontiersman Kit Carson helped forge the Santa Fe Trail to Los Angeles in 1832. Yet the trails remained filled with peril as the Donner Party found on the Truckee Trail over the Sierra in 1846.

American explorers, trappers, traders, whalers, settlers and opportunists increasingly showed interest in California, seizing on many of the prospects for profit that the Californios ignored in favor of ranching. Some of the Americans who started businesses married locals, and assimilated into Californio society.

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The Bear Flag Republic & statehood

Impressed by California’s potential wealth and imbued with Manifest Destiny (the doctrine to extend the US border from coast to coast), US President Andrew Jackson sent an emissary to offer the financially strapped Mexican government $500, 000 for California. Though American settlers were showing up by the hundreds, especially in Northern California, Jackson’s emissary was tersely rejected. A political storm was brewing.

In 1836, Texas had seceded from Mexico and declared itself an independent republic. When the USA annexed Texas in 1845, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations and ordered all foreigners without proper papers to be deported from California. Outraged Northern California settlers revolted, captured the nearest Mexican official and, supported by US soldiers led by Captain John C Frémont, declared California’s independence from Mexico in June 1846 by raising their ‘Bear Flag’ over the town of Sonoma. The Bear Flag Republic existed for all of one month. (The banner lives on, however, as the California state flag.)

Meanwhile, the USA had declared war on Mexico after the two countries clashed over the disputed Texas territory and the USA invaded Mexico. By July, US naval units occupied every port on the California coast, including the capital, Monterey. But militarily, California was a side show, as the war was mostly fought in Mexico.

When US troops captured Mexico City in September 1847, putting an end to the war, the Mexican government had little choice but to cede much of its northern territory to the USA. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, turned over California, Arizona and New Mexico to the USA. Only two years later, California was admitted as the 31st state of the United States.

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The gold rush

By an amazing coincidence, gold was accidentally discovered in Northern California within days of the signing of the treaty with Mexico. The discovery quickly transformed the future state. The population surged from about 14, 000 at the time Mexican rule ended to more than 90, 000 by 1849, as people from across the USA and other countries flooded into California.

The growth and wealth stimulated every aspect of life, from agriculture and banking to construction and journalism. As a result of mining, hills were stripped bare, erosion wiped out vegetation, streams silted up and mercury washed down to San Francisco Bay. San Francisco became a hotbed of gambling, prostitution, drink and chicanery, a situation that continues in some neighborhoods today.

Ostensibly under military rule, California had little effective government at all. The currency was a mixture of debased coinage, gold slugs and foreign cash; the main law was ‘miners law, ’ an arbitrary and often deadly way of dealing with crimes - real or imagined. It was a free-wheeling time that rewarded those with the wiles to take advantage of it.

California experienced a second boom with the discovery of the Comstock silver lode in 1860, though the lode was actually over the border in what would soon become Nevada. Exploiting it required deep-mining techniques, which meant companies, stocks, trading and speculation. San Francisco made more money out of stocks than Nevada did out of mining: huge mansions sprouted on Nob Hill, and Californian businessmen became renowned for their audacity and earned the sobriquet ‘robber-barons.’

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The transcontinental railroad

The transcontinental railroad was simple in conception, vast in scale and revolutionary in impact. It shortened the trip from New York to San Francisco from two months to four or five days and opened up markets on both coasts. Tracks were built simultaneously from Omaha in the east and Sacramento in the west, eventually converging in Utah in 1869. The track going east from Sacramento was financed by the Central Pacific Railroad, which hired thousands of Chinese laborers to get the job done. One of its principals, Leland Stanford, became state governor in 1863.

The American Civil War (1861-65) slowed down the import of goods from the East Coast to California, thus spurring local industry to pick up the slack. Agriculture diversified, with new crops (especially oranges) being grown for export. As California oranges found their way onto New York grocery shelves, coupled with a hard-sell advertising campaign, more and more easterners heeded the advice of crusading magazine and newspaper publisher Horace Greeley to ‘Go west, young man.’ California’s population increased by 47% during the 1860s and by another 54% in the 1870s.

Inevitably the boom was followed by a bust in the late 1870s. Speculation had raised land prices to levels no farmer or immigrant could afford, the railroad brought in products that undersold the goods made in California, and some 15, 000 Chinese workers, no longer needed for rail construction, flooded the labor market. A period of labor unrest ensued, which culminated in anti-Chinese laws and a reformed state constitution in 1879.

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Industry & agriculture

Los Angeles was connected to the transcontinental railroad in 1876, when the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) laid tracks from San Francisco to the fledgling city. The SP monopoly was broken in 1887, when the Atchinson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company laid tracks linking LA across the Arizona desert to the East Coast. The competition greatly reduced the cost of transport and led to more diverse development across the state, particularly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. The lower fares spurred the so-called ‘boom of the ‘80s, ’ a major real-estate boom lasting from 1886 to 1888. More than 120, 000 migrants, mostly from the Midwest, came to Southern California in those years, many settling into areas developed from the former Spanish ranchos.

Farms tended to be developed by large companies, who had the necessary financial wealth to bring in irrigation and political clout to gain title to the huge tracts of land. Because of this, California never had the same level of family-farm traditions found in the Midwest. Among the outgrowths of this situation that still resonate today was the need of these huge ‘agribusinesses’ to get cheap labor by bringing in poor immigrants.

In the absence of coal, iron ore or abundant water, heavy industry developed slowly, something that left the state without the same aging industrial legacy that plagued much of the rest of the US in recent decades.

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The 20th century

The population, wealth and importance of California grew dramatically throughout the 20th century. The big San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed most of the city, but it was barely a hiccup in the state’s development - the population increased by 60% in the decade to 1910, reaching 2, 378, 000. The revolutionary years in Mexico, from 1910 to 1921, brought a huge influx of migrants from south of the border, re-establishing the Latino heritage that had been largely smothered by American dominance. The Panama Canal, completed in 1914, made bulk shipping feasible between the East Coast and West Coast.

During the 1920s, California’s population grew by 2.25 million people to 5.7 million: a mammoth 66% increase, the highest growth rate since the gold rush. The Great Depression saw another wave of migrants, this time from the impoverished prairie states of the Dust Bowl, a phenomenon so movingly chronicled in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

WWII had a major impact on California, and not just from the influx of military and defense workers and the development of new industries. Women were co-opted into war work and proved themselves in a range of traditionally male jobs. Anti-Asian sentiments resurfaced at this time, many Japanese Americans were interned, and more Mexicans crossed the border to fill labor shortages. Many of the service people who passed through California actually liked the place so much that they returned to settle after the war.

Throughout the 20th century, a number of aspects of California life emerged as recurring themes.

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Growth, migration & minorities

California’s population has grown exponentially since it was admitted to the union in 1850, and most of the growth has come from immigration. This has resulted in a richly multicultural society, but also one in which race relations have often been strained.

Immigrants are typically welcomed in times of rapid growth, only to be rejected when times get tough. Chinese railroad workers, for instance, were in great demand in the 1860s but were victimized in the 1870s. The Webb Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented some Asian minorities from owning land. During WWII, upwards of 120, 000 people of Japanese heritage - many of them American citizens - were forcibly placed in internment camps. African Americans came in large numbers to take jobs in the postwar boom, but often became unemployed when the economy took a downturn.

Mexican and Latin American workers still do most of the farm labor and domestic work, but in 1994, in the face of increasing unemployment and state government deficits, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 187, which denied illegal immigrants access to state-government services, including schools and hospitals. It is estimated more than 2.5 million illegal immigrants are currently in California, despite ongoing efforts to seal the notoriously porous border. Illegal immigration remains a volatile political topic, especially among conservatives who often ironically employ these people to tend their yards cheaply while also calling for their ouster.

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The military

During and after WWI, Douglas and the Lockheed brothers in Los Angeles, and Curtiss in San Diego, established aircraft industries. Two decades later, with another world war brewing, the aviation industry helped lift California out of the Great Depression. By the end of WWII, billions of federal dollars had been poured into Californian military contracts.

Good weather and the now alien concept of cheap land spurred the creation of huge military bases across the state as well as the accompanying military-industrial complex. California, more than any other place, was enriched by the Cold War and throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, California defense contractors helped spur the state’s continuing growth. Many of the companies working on the space program were also based in California.

But the end of the Cold War in 1990 meant that the glory days of this business were over. Huge military bases, such as those that once dotted the San Francisco Bay Area, were closed and defense contractors moved or diversified. But other parts of the state’s economy were surging and ultimately these changes mattered little.

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The film industry

Few industries have symbolized California, and especially Los Angeles, more than movie-making. Independent producers were attracted here beginning in 1908 for numerous reasons. Southern California’s sunny climate allowed indoor scenes to be shot outdoors - essential given the unsophisticated film technology of the day. Any location, from ocean to desert to alpine forest, could be realized nearby.

The industry has done a lot to promote California’s image throughout the country and the world. As film, and later TV, became the dominant entertainment medium of the 20th century, California moved to center stage in the world of popular culture. TV viewers have largely watched a world based on Southern California, as most shows were produced close to the studios in Hollywood. And such dubious concepts as the ‘Valley Girl’ and ‘Mall Rat’ stem from this idealized lifestyle.

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Social change

Unconstrained by the burden of traditions, bankrolled by affluence and promoted by film and TV, California has always been a leader in new attitudes and social movements.

With 1950s affluence, the ‘Beat’ movement in San Francisco reacted against the banality and conformism of suburban life, turning to coffeehouses for jazz, philosophy, poetry and pot. When the postwar baby boomers hit their late teens, many took up where the Beat generation left off, rejecting their parents’ values, doing drugs, dropping out and screwing around in a mass display of adolescent rebellion that climaxed, but didn’t conclude, with the San Francisco ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967. Though the hippie ‘counterculture’ was an international phenomenon, California was at the leading edge of its music, its psychedelic art and its new libertarianism. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were big on the West Coast.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, New Left politics, the anti-Vietnam War movement and Black Liberation forced their way into the political limelight, and flower power and give-peace-a-chance politics seemed instantly naive. Still, the ethos of the era remains very much a part of the state’s collective culture - especially in the north. In Santa Cruz and Berkeley there are times when you’d think the 1960s had never ended, and the state’s mild climate means that large numbers of original Volkswagen Beetles and microbuses have yet to fall prey to rust.

California has spawned a number of social movements. Gay Pride exploded in San Francisco in the ‘70s, and San Francisco is still the most openly, exuberantly gay city in the world.

In the late 1980s and ‘90s, California catapulted right to the forefront of the healthy lifestyle, with a mood-altering array of aerobics classes and self-actualization workshops on offer. Leisure activities, such as in-line skating, snowboarding and mountain biking, were industries spawned by California. Be careful what you laugh at. From pet rocks to hybrid cars, California’s flavor of the month will probably be next year’s world trend.

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California has always been at the forefront of the technology revolution. In the 1950s, Stanford University in Palo Alto began leasing space to high-tech companies that might in some way benefit the university. Hewlett-Packard was an early tenant and this is now considered the germ cell of Silicon Valley (the term itself didn’t achieve widespread use until the 1980s). Major Silicon Valley milestones were the inventions of the microchip by Intel in 1971 and the first widely popular personal computer (PC) by Apple in 1977.

In 1969 a UCLA computer science professor named Len Kleinrock first succeeded at sending data from a computer in Los Angeles to another at Stanford, 360 miles away. He typed in ‘L’ and, sure enough, the letter appeared on the screen in Palo Alto. He typed the letter ‘O.’ Same thing. Then he typed ‘G’ - and as billions of users since will empathize - the system crashed. But the Internet was born.

Silicon Valley and the rest of the state rode the first wave of the digital revolution with the development of the PC during the 1980s. Eventually this boom reached the end of its cycle and hundreds of businesses went bust. However, the state had become a hotbed of innovation and creativity and it was only a matter of time before another boom occurred. This time it was the World Wide Web on the Internet and it soon became the greatest investment bubble of all time. By the late 1990s unemployment in Silicon Valley had fallen to a near-mythical 0% and thousands of entrepreneurs were able to collectively secure billions in financing from lenders hoping to cash in on the next big thing. It was not unlike the Gold Rush 150 years before, only this time you could make millions with a business plan that said in essence: ‘details to come.’ Inevitably this boom crashed as well and as the state crossed the millennium, businesses (often with little more than a catchy name and snappy logo) closed by the score. With energy shortages bedeviling California there was something of a statewide funk.

Luckily, deep in the heart of the Golden State is the boundless optimism that the next big thing (nanotechnology? stem cell research?) will soon provide more of the good times that have been the promise for so long.

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