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History of California

Field of California poppies, circa 1910

The history of California is long and colorful.

Many indian tribes lived in California. They specialized by environment. No tribe developed agriculture or writing. California was a major source of trading beads, wampum, which were produced from mussel shells using stone tools.

In the 1600s, Spain explored and settled the coastal areas. To maintain communication, they developed a central highway, "El Camino Real" that connected a series of settlements called missions, that were used to subjugate the natives and convert them to Christianity. The missions were spaced one day's travel apart, and penetrated as far north as San Francisco. Most missions remain in existence, and many retain congregations. El Camino Real is the route of a major highway, U.S. 101.

In 1769, a Spanish army under Gaspar de Portola marched north from San Diego along the route of El Camino Real. Portola became the first European to view San Francisco Bay, discovering it from the land. Within a few years, the mission at San Francisco, the town of Yerba Buena and a military base at the entrance to the bay, the Presidio of San Francisco, had been founded to protect and colonize the bay.

In the early 1800s, the Russian Empire, which had already claimed Alaska, briefly explored the west coast, and set up trading posts as far south as Fort Ross. A prominent marriage between a leading californio family and an imperial noble almost caused Russian trade to advance into Southern California. The scion from Russia died of disease while crossing Siberia to get a dispensation to marry a Catholic from the Eastern Orthodox Elders. His would-be bride entered a convent after his death.

The Spanish encouraged settlement with large land-grants. These were used for ranches with cattle and sheep. Hides for leather were the primary export of California until the mid-19th century. The owners of these "rancheros" were called "Californios".

Spanish California had a long sleepy history until Mexico declared its independence in 1821. Thereafter, Mexico paid little attention to its northern province until July 7, 1846 when Commodore John Drake Sloat, acting on instructions from Washington, DC, ordered his naval troops to occupy Monterey and Yerba Buena which began the United States annexation of California.

In 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills, at Sutter's Mill, about 40 miles east of Sacramento. This started a gold rush of immigrants, mostly from the U.S. The merchants to support the mining settled in the nearest deep-water seaport, San Francisco Bay. Gold is still found in many watersheds, in amounts near 3/4 oz./ton, an amount that would be economical to mine, except for California's pollution laws, and a Federal court's prohibition on hydraulic mining.

In the 1840s, after a series of revolutions in Mexico upset settlers, California briefly declared its independence as the California Republic. A number of battles were fought in south-central California between Mexican troops and California Volunteers. Slightly later, the Republic applied to the U.S. for protection from Mexico, and the U.S. purchased California and large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico from Mexico under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

After the U.S. purchase, California was on the Union side in the U.S. Civil War, supplying several thousand volunteer troops and a large amount of gold to help fund the Union war effort. At this time, the U.S. established a number of military bases to control California, notably the coastal defenses of San Diego and San Francisco Bays, and Ft. Tejon, where the El Camino Real passes through Tejon Pass into the central valley.

During this time, the Central Valley of California remained relatively unpopulated because it was warm year-around. The lack of frost caused reservoirs of mosquito-borne disease, notably yellow fever and malaria. The discovery of vector control strategies made large settlements possible in the 20th century. Control of disease vectors such as mosquitos and fleas remains a major duty of local public health organizations.

With the Trancontinental Railway and the Suez Canal creating more permanent links to the east coast of the United States, and the Spanish-American War establishing that the United States was an international power, military bases were established to help protect the new U.S. teritories in the Philippines.

Some major developments in California history are the building of Hoover Dam (which is in Nevada, but provides power and water to Southern California), Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and the California Aqueduct.

An important development in this era was that a series of lawyers successfully overturned Spanish land grants and acquired the land for themselves and their business allies under U.S. law. The most famous resulting development was the city of Anaheim. A number of other Spanish land-grants were successfully protected by the original Californios, notably Tejon Ranch, north of Los Angeles, and Irvine Ranch to the south.

This era also saw the rise of the studio system. MGM, Universal and Warner Brothers all acquired land in Hollywood, which was then a small town on the desert side of Los Angeles. The attraction was a mild climate, cheap land, and a wide selection of topography within a short drive by truck. Many westerns of this era were shot in the Owens Valley, east of the Sierras. Desert movies were shot in the Mojave or in Death Valley. Pirate movies were shot in Carmel. Winter movies were shot in the San Bernardino Mountains. Movies set in the Mediterranean or the eastern U.S. were shot on outdoor sets on studio land, often with simulated rain or snow.

During World War II, California's mild climate became a major resource for the war effort. Numerous air-training bases were established in Southern California, and most aircraft manufacturers expanded or established factories. Major naval shipyards were established or expanded in San Diego, Long Beach and San Francisco Bay. San Francisco was the home of the liberty ships.

After the war, hundreds of land developers bought land, subdivided it, built on it, and got rich. In 1954, Disneyland opened in Anaheim. The population of California expanded dramatically, from 3 million, to nearly 20 million by 1970. This was the coming-of-age of the baby boom.

In the late 1960s the baby-boom generation got to draft age, and many opposed the war in Vietnam. There were numerous demonstrations and strikes, especially on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, across the bay from San Francisco. In 1968, race riots shut down Los Angeles. Some comentators predicted revolution. Then the federal government promised to withdraw from the Vietnam War. The radical political movements, having achieved a large part of their aim, lost members and funding.

The high populations of this era caused tremendous problems with traffic, pollution, and crime. Solutions to these problems were hampered because U.S. law is theoretically opposed to combining or annexing local government by higher government. For this reason, regional solutions were not possible, and developed areas of California became, and remain, crazy-quilts of streets and laws.

In the 1970s, the wars in Asia inspired a new wave of immigrants, many of whom settled in California. Most were enterprising and became valuable citizens.

In this period, high technology companies in Northern California began a spectacular growth that continued for the next thirty years. The major products included personal computers, video games, and network systems. The majority of these companies settled along a highway stretching from Santa Clara to San Jose, the so-called "Silicon Valley," named after the material used to produce the integrated circuits of the era.

The air and pollution problems became less acute because of strict laws. However, pollution from storm water drains began to kill organisms near the inhabited seacoast, inspiring numerous conservation organzations.

In the 1980s, power problems were again predicted, as several nuclear power plants were proposed to cope with projected summer power shortfalls. In California at the time, a large amount of power was provided by hydroelectricity, which is less available near the end of the summer, the dry season in which air-conditioning is used. An innovative deregulated power-market was invented to make alternative energy sources viable. The result in summer of 2000 was chaotic real-time manipulation of the electricity market by commercial power companies, an issue which is not resolved as of 2002.

In the 1990s, a deadly (to grapevines, at least) phylloxera epidemic swept through California vineyards, devastating wine grapes, and causing billions of dollars of damage. Most Californians failed to notice.

21st Century Politics


In the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic incumbent Gray Davis defeated challenger Bill Simon with a plurality of 47.4% of the vote. Days after the election, it was discovered Davis had hid a record $34.6 billion budget deficit. Davis' approval rating dropped to 24%, the lowest ever in the history of the California Field Poll. Nearly two million Californians signed petitions calling for a recall election against Davis. The effort against Davis marked the first time since the 1911 inclusion of a recall clause into the State Constitution that a California governor faced a recall election. There had been 31 attempts in that time.

There were two parts to the recall ballot. The first part asked whether or not Davs should be recalled. The second part asked, if the recall occurred, which candidate besides Davis should the new governor. 135 candidates ran to replace Davis.

On October 7, 2003, Davis successfully recalled, with 55.4% of the voters supporting the recall (see results of the 2003 California recall). With a plurality of 48.6% of the vote, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was chosen as the new governor. Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante received 31.5% of the vote, and Republican State Senator Tom McClintock received 13.5% of the vote.

See also: Los Angeles, California#History, San Francisco, California#History