The name 'California' was derived from a popular Spanish novel published in 1510 in which a fictional island paradise named California was described. The name was used to designate the region by the Spanish expedition led by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, as it sailed northward along the coast from Mexico in 1542. The Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first European in the area of present-day California. In 1542 Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay and then continued north along the California coast, making frequent trips ashore to claim land for Spain. In 1579 the English explorer Sir Francis Drake sailed along the coast of northern California, which he named Nova Albion and claimed for England. In the 1740s and 1750s Russian traders in search of seal and sea otter pelts began hunting along the Pacific coastline north of California. As Spain wanted to prevent Russian claims to the area, in 1769 Governor Gaspar de Portolá of Lower California (now Baja California, Mexico) led an expedition to settle California. Accompanied by Junípero Serra, a Franciscan missionary, in July they reached the site of San Diego. There they set up a presidio, or military post, as well as a mission, where the native inhabitants were brought to be taught Christianity and to be prepared to become subjects of the Spanish king. Between 1769 and 1823 the Franciscans, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, built 20 more missions near the coast of California. Before long the missions controlled so much land that they formed a continuous chain from San Diego to north of San Francisco Bay. Most of the native peoples in the coastal region were taken to the missions and were forced to work as farm laborers under the direction of the missionaries. The Spanish built a number of presidios in addition to their first one at San Diego and created small farming settlements, known as pueblos. The first pueblo was established as early as 1777. The pueblos were inhabited for the most part by poor settlers from Mexico whom the Spanish had induced to go to the California region.
Spain, however, could not prevent foreigners from entering California. British, French, and United States ships traded with the Spanish coastal settlements in violation of Spanish regulations prohibiting such trade. In 1812 Russian fur traders built an outpost, now known as Fort Ross, less than 160 km (100 mi) north of San Francisco. They also built several settlements in the vicinity of Bodega Bay, and refused to withdraw from California until 1824, when the region was no longer under Spanish control.
In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain. In 1825, after several years of local provisional government, Alta California, as the region was then called, formally became a territory of the Republic of Mexico.
A number of influential Californians had disliked the wealth and power of the missions during Spanish rule, and after Mexican independence protested to the Mexican authorities against the missions. Eventually the new republic agreed to reduce the power of the missions, and in 1833 the Mexican congress released Native Americans from the control of the missions and opened mission lands for settlement by Californians.
Most of the former mission lands were given as grants to several hundred long-established families. Huge semifeudal estates, known as ranchos, replaced the missions as the dominant institution in California. Cattle raising, developed during the mission days, was the main economic activity on the ranchos. Ranchos traded cattle hides, tallow, horns, and pickled beef for processed food and manufactured goods from foreign ships, including some from the United States.
During the period of Mexican rule, which lasted into the 1840s, a series of largely bloodless uprisings broke out in California. Sometimes these pitted the rancheros, or ranch owners, against the Mexican authorities, but at other times they involved feuds between rancheros themselves, who fought over land or issues of pride.
E United States Settlement
Most U.S. citizens who went to California before 1840 were sailors, fur trappers, and adventurers. A number of trappers, including James Ohio Pattie and Jedediah Smith, arrived by overland routes from the East, and in 1840 several hundred settlers from the United States lived in California, in addition to several thousand Hispanic, or Spanish-speaking, settlers. United States settlers sent out exaggerated reports of the easy life in California. In the 1840s emigrant parties in the Midwest began to organize for the overland trip to California and other regions along the Pacific Coast. In 1841 John Bidwell and John Bartleson led the first group of settlers overland, and in the next five years about 800 settlers traveled to California over the western portion of the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and the California Trail. These travelers endured a long, arduous trek across plains, deserts, and mountains, and often faced hostile native peoples and bad weather. One group, the Donner party, became stranded in the Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846 and 1847; some ate dead members of the party to survive.
Most of the new Californians, many of them farmers, settled in the fertile Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, rather than along the coast. The Mexican government regarded the United States settlers with hostility and suspicion, fearing that they would encourage the United States to attempt to annex California, but the Mexican government was too weak and divided to expel them.
F Mexican War and Annexation
In 1845 Mexico ruled vast areas of what became the western and southwestern United States, including California. U.S. President James K. Polk was committed to the expansion of the United States and favored the annexation of Texas, which occurred in December 1845. The month before, Polk had sent an envoy to Mexico City in an attempt to purchase California and other parts of the Southwest. In May 1846 Mexico refused the offer. This refusal was one factor—along with the Texas annexation and lawsuits against the Mexican government by U.S. citizens—that led to the Mexican War (1846-1848) between Mexico and the United States.
United States settlers in California had become increasingly uncomfortable with Mexican rule. On June 14, 1846, they captured the presidio at Sonoma, north of San Francisco, and proclaimed the independence of the settlements. The uprising is known as the Bear Flag Revolt, because the rebels raised a homemade flag that carried the figure of a grizzly bear, as well as a star and the words California Republic. John Charles Frémont, an explorer and future Republican candidate for U.S. president, lent support to these rebels, but the republic was short-lived. On July 7, 1846, Commodore John D. Sloat, commander of U.S. naval forces along the Pacific Coast, ordered the U.S. flag raised at Monterey and formally claimed California for the United States.
In August, Sloat’s replacement, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, set up a new government in California with himself as governor. In September, however, Mexicans led by Captain José Maria Flores attacked the new republic and gained control over much of California south of San Luis Obispo. Several months later, in December 1846, a U.S. force under Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny arrived in California. They were defeated at the Battle of San Pasqual, near what is now Escondido, but Kearny’s men, in cooperation with Stockton’s troops, captured Los Angeles on January 10, 1847. At Los Angeles, the Mexicans, under the so-called Cahuenga Capitulation, agreed to accept United States rule. On February 2, 1848, California was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican War.
California gold rush
Scarcely more than a week before the signing of the treaty, on January 24, 1848, New Jersey-born carpenter James W. Marshall inspected a sawmill that he was building with his partner, John A. Sutter, on the South Fork of the American River, 56 km (35 mi) northeast of Sacramento. Marshall noticed flakes of yellow metal that later proved to be gold. By the end of that year, Marshall’s discovery had set off the greatest gold rush in United States history. In 1849 gold seekers, known as Forty-Niners, came to California from every part of the United States and from all over the world. The search for gold was concentrated on the Mother Lode country, in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. California’s population now rose to more than 90,000 by the end of 1849 and to 220,000 by 1852, the year in which gold production reached its peak. In the next two years, the gold rush ended almost as quickly as it began. Gold mining became a fairly stable and more organized enterprise. Most prospectors either became farmers, merchants, or left the state, as large mining companies took their place.
The flood of settlers following the discovery of gold created a need for effective civil government in California. The Congress of the United States had failed to organize California as a territory because of a deadlock over whether slavery would be permitted in the new states. Finally, Californians acted on their own. In September 1849 a convention met at Monterey and adopted a state constitution, including a clause prohibiting slavery. The constitution was approved by popular vote on November 13, and on December 15 the first legislature met at San Jose to create an unofficial state government. The Compromise Measures of 1850, a series of congressional acts passed during August and September 1850, admitted California as a free, or nonslave, state. On September 9, 1850, California became the 31st state in the Union. Peter H. Burnett, a Democrat, was its first governor. The state capital was moved successively from San Jose to Monterey, Vallejo, and Benicia. In 1854 it was located permanently at Sacramento.