Welcome to the California History Page!

As you read through this summary of California history up to the time of the Gold Rush, click on any green colored link to go to a website about that particular topic if you would like to find out more information!


 The Native Californians-

According to tests on archaeological finds, scientists believe people came to the area known as California some 12,000 years ago. The people were descendants of those who had crossed the land bridge from Asia to North America. The crossing of the land bridge, which spanned the area now occupied by the Bering Strait, occurred approximately 40,000 years ago. The original people in North America traveled as hunters and simply followed the food over the land bridge. They traveled southward and finally reached the area we know as California. These people were the first Native Americans.

Culture is the way a group of people live. Some of the different parts of culture are the language spoken, the clothes worn, the food eaten, the beliefs of the people and the types of homes in which the group lives. As the people spread out throughout California, different cultures came to life. The cultures were shaped by the geography and climate of the area and available resources. The chart below shows how some groups of Native Californians lived:

 Tribe Culture Group   Where Lived  Resources Homes  Activities   Leadership
Chumash  Southern coast near present day Santa Barbara along the Santa Barbara Channel

ocean, shells, clams, fish, abalone, bones, plant fiber, asphalt charcoal, grasses, soap plant, otter furs, deer, turtles, steatite


made of poles driven into the gournd then tied together; mats of woven grass placed over the frame dancing, games, music, and rock painting

each village had a chief called a wot

(average village size was 2,000 people)

Hupa Northwestern along the Trinity River in northwest California salmon, oaks, acorns, redwood, cedar, deerskins  made of cedar planks; homes were partially below the ground; sweathouses were used White Deerskin Dance, Jump Dance

Leaders had less power than the Chumash leaders; conflicts were generally settled peacefully


 Cahuilla Colorado River Mojave Desert along the Colorado River Colorado River water, honey mesquite, prickly pear, cholla cactus, fan palm, farming & crops such as: beand, corn, pumpkins, squash, melons homes had fan palms covering the top for coolness V

Shaman were religious leaders, healers and brought rain-the belief was that they could improve the crops


The Shaman was important in all tribes












Juan Rogriguez Cabrillo










Francis Drake

click the photo for more information~






Sebastian Vizcaino






Father Serra









San Diego de Alcala




San Carlos Borromeo


































Jedediah Smith


Johan Sutter
John C. Fremont
Mariano Vallejo






The resources that were available to each tribe greatly affected the way each group lived. The items that were needed by each group were acquired in trades with other tribes. Items that each group had a great deal of were traded for items of which they had little or none.



The Spanish Claim California

Spain sent several explorers across the Atlantic Ocean to conquer lands, find riches, and spread the Roman Catholic religion.

Hernando Cortes arrived in present day Mexico in 1519. Cortes set out to conquer the Aztec Empire. After initially being turned away, Cortes returned in 1521 with more soldiers and weapons and was successful in conquering the Aztecs. Cortes went on to capture more land and named the areas he took over as New Spain.

Spain wanted to find a waterway from Europe to Asia that would quicken the trade route they were using. They thought there was a waterway which cut through North America, which they called the Strait of Anian. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was selected to search for the strait.

Cabrillo had two small, poorly built ships: the San Salvador and the Victoria. Cabrillo entered what is now San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. After a week of exploring, gathering food and fresh water and meeting with the natives of the area, Cabrillo sailed north. In mid-October, Cabrillo's ships reached the Chumash area. He was told of a great river which flowed into the sea. His spirits were raised that this could be the Strait of Anian.

In early November, Cabrillo's ships reached present day San Luis Obispo. A storm hit one night and tore the ships apart. Using a smaller boat saved from his larger ones, he took his crew and sailed north and reached the mouth of the Russian River. There was no Strait of Anian though. Cabrillo headed south once again.

Cabrillo decided to stay in the Channel Islands, which are off the coast of Santa Barbara, to wait for better weather to set sail north again. While going ashore to help in a conflict between his men and the Chumash Indians, Cabrillo fell and broke his arm. He died from his injury a couple months later.

Bartolome Ferrelo took over for Cabrillo and led the expedition northward again. They may have gone as far north as present day Oregon, but still had not found the Strait of Anian. On April 14, 1543, the ships returned to Spain unsuccessful in their search for a strait that never did exist in the first place!

The English became interested in finding the same passage that the Spanish wanted to find. They called the passage the Northwest Passage rather than the Strait of Anian. England sent Francis Drake to find the passage in 1577. Drake raided Spanish settlements in the Indies and filled his ship, the Golden Hind, with 60,000 pounds of stolen silver. He had to find a place to land or risk his ship sinking with all the extra weight on board. He landed at a place we now call Drake's Bay which is northwest of San Francisco on the Point Reyes Peninsula. Drake named it Nova Albion, or New England. He stayed for six weeks and repaired his ship, which had been damaged during storms. England saw Drake as a hero, but to Spain, he was nothing but a thief and pirate.

Trade between New Spain and the Philippines was important. The Philippines offered valuable silks, jewels, spices and pottery. The return trip to New Spain was dangerous and time consuming. Therefore, New Spain wanted a harbor where the ships could dock and supply the sailors with food, fresh water, and safety after a long voyage and then send the ships on to Spain. Sebastian Rodriguez Cermenho was the man put in charge to find the safe harbor.

Cermenho left the Philippines on July 5, 1595, and reached the coast of California in early November. He landed around Cape Mendocino. From there he was to explore the coast of California. He reached the same bay that Drake had found 16 years earlier. Cermenho eventually found Monterey Bay using a small boat after his galleon had been smashed in a storm. Spain, however, never did find the safe harbor it was looking for even after sending another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, out to look. For over 150 years after these early explorations, Spain largely ignored California and left it for the Native Californians.



Spain Settles California-Visit ranchos and missions

Jose de Galvez was an official of the Spanish king and arrived in New Spain in 1765. Galvez was an ambitious man who wanted to settle California for Spain and bring riches to the Spanish empire. England and Russia had both shown interest in the California area and Galvez reminded the king that each of those countries might take control of the land if Spain didn't. Galvez decided to set up missions in California to settle the territory and spread the Roman Catholic religion. He turned to a padre named Father Junipero Serra to help him.

Father Serra was a missionary who believed it was his duty to convert the Native Californians to his religious beliefs. Galvez asked Father Serra to build a chain of missions in California where he could bring Christianity to the Native Californians and Spain could gather riches and glory.

Galvez lead an expedition to San Diego. The expedition was split into several groups. Two groups traveled by land and three more traveled by sea. The land journey was difficult. Father Serra had trouble with his leg but he continued onward, eventually healing due to medicine usually used for mules. The six week journey saw members of the expedition starving and suffering from scurvy. Finding food in the environment was a challenge. When the land travelers reached San Diego Bay, the two ships had arrived and were waiting, but only half of the ships' crews had survived the trip. One of the ships in the group had been lost at sea. With the surviving members of the expedition, it was time to create settlements.

Gaspar de Portola was selected to lead a group up the coast to Monterey Bay to begin a settlement there. One of the ships from San Diego was sent back to New Spain to gather additional supplies that would be used to help the settlements get started. Father Serra stayed in San Diego and founded California's first mission: San Diego de Alcala.

Portola took Father Juan Crespi with him to find Monterey Bay. The group was relying on the words of the explorer Vizcaino to find the bay. Vizcaino had described Monterey Bay as a "fine harbor sheltered from all winds." Portola did not recognize Monterey Bay as such and continued northward. He reached San Francisco Bay which the group described as a "very large and fine harbor" big enough to hold all the warships of "all Europe". The bay was so large that the group couldn't get around it and returned to San Diego unsuccessful in its effort to recognize Monterey Bay when in fact, they had actually found it.

The San Antonio arrived with more supplies and Portola made another attempt at finding Monterey Bay. This time, he recognized the bay he had seen before as the one about which Vizcaino had written. Father Serra founded California's second mission at Monterey Bay and called it San Carlos Borromeo.

Settlers from countries such as England and France were coming into California. Spain continued to build missions along the coast of California as a way to settle the land and spread the message of the Roman Catholic Church. A total of twenty-one missions were created with Father Serra having started nine of the missions. Each mission was about one day's walk from the next one, and the missions were connected by a dusty road known as El Camino Real, or The Royal Road. At the larger missions, more than a thousand Native Californians lived there while the smaller missions had only a few hundred. There were two priests at each mission and a half dozen or so soldiers. Soldiers enforced the rules of the mission and breaking the rules was met with severe punishment such as beatings or death.

The Spanish needed to protect their settlements from other countries who might want to take their land. This caused the Spanish government to build presidios at some of the missions. Presidios were forts where about 60 soldiers lived. These soldiers also protected the missions against attacks by Native Californians who were angry at the way the Spanish were treating them and in some instances, were leading revolts at the missions.

The missions needed more food to keep all the people in good health. The solution was to develop pueblos around the missions. Pueblos were towns which would largely grow food for the missions. The alcalde was an important person in the pueblo. He was the mayor and judge for the town. As time went on and the settlers learned farming skills, the pueblos grew to be successful. They eventually became cities that we know today such as Los Angeles, Monterey and San Francisco.



Spain Loses California

New Spain continued to grow. As time went on, the people began to complain about the way they were being ruled. They disliked being ruled by people who lived in Europe while they were in North America, and there were laws that they thought to be unfair. The citizens of New Spain decided to fight for their independence from Spain. They began a war in 1810 which ended in 1821. The people of New Spain were victorious and had won their independence. New Spain built their own government under the name of Mexico.

The Mexican government took control of California and change followed. Mexico's rulers felt the missions had too much power and that they treated the Native Californians poorly. In 1833, the new governor of California, Jose Figueroa, developed a plan to close the missions. The priests could stay and run their churches; the missions, though, would lose their land. The land was to be divided among the Native Americans and Mexican settlers. Many of the Native Americans did not receive land, however. Of those who did, many sold the land to Mexican settlers. Some Native Americans tried to return to their old ways of living, but they had been in the missions so long that they no longer had the skills of their ancestors in surviving in nature. Many of the Native Americans simply ended up working for the Mexican settlers and their life away from the missions didn't change a great deal.

The mission lands were given away as land grants. A land grant could be applied for in writing and any Mexican citizen could apply. Not all got land grants though. The presidio soldiers and wealthy land owners received most of the land. Many of the lands given in land grants were developed into ranchos which were huge ranches that primarily raised cattle. The pueblos continued to grow since many people still lived there and more were coming to them.

Russia also had become interested in California. Russia is a cold country and the people were very interested in the sleek, waterproof furs of seals, sea lions and sea otters. Hunters from Russia traveled to an area north of Bodega Bay and built a settlement named Fort Ross. After the extensive hunting left few animals in the water, the Russians left the area in 1841, selling the fort to Johan Sutter.

Many traders began coming to California. When Spain ruled the land, trade with other countries was not allowed, but the Mexican government encouraged trade with other countries. This not only brought goods from all over the world, but new ideas, people and cultures as well.



The United States and California

Trappers also began coming into California. There were many beaver in the San Joaquin Valley and a pioneer by the name of Jedediah Smith encouraged other trappers to join him there for hunting. These trappers tended to be mountain men who lived from the resources of the mountains and traveled from place to place. Jose Echeandia, the California governor at the time, felt that Smith was a spy from the United States and put Smith in jail. Smith was released after promising to leave California. Smith continued to trap beaver thinking that the area he was in was not part of California. Smith's journeys were important because they showed people from the United States that there was a way to get to California by land.

People from all over the world were coming to California by the 1840's. A man named Johan Sutter came from Switzerland after he had many failed business ventures. In 1840, Sutter became a citizen of Mexico which allowed him to request a land grant. He was given 78 square miles of land in the area where the American and Sacramento Rivers came together. He then built a large settlement which he called New Helvetia (New Switzerland). This settlement was established in present day Sacramento and would help many people who came overland into California from the United States. The goal in overland travel to California was always to get to Sutter's Fort.

The desire for the United States to stretch from the East Coast to the West Coast was strong during the 1840's. The United States felt it had the right to take over other countries' lands in order to do so. This idea was known as Manifest Destiny. President James K. Polk wanted the United States to gain Texas, New Mexico, and California. Texas was an independent country which had already broken away from Mexico, and California and New Mexico were the property of Mexico.

John C. Fremont was an officer in the United States Army. He had lead journeys through the American West in the 1840's. In 1845, he came to California with 60 armed men and met with Colonel Jose Castro at Monterey. Fremont and his men were ordered out of California. As Fremont left, he spread rumors to other American settlers that they would also be sent out of California. Fremont crossed into Oregon but sent his men back to California. The settlers in California were happy to see Fremont's men return as they were nervous that they would be sent out of California. Fremont encouraged a group of about 30 people to rebel against the Mexican government and take control of the area.

The rebels surrounded the home of Colonel Mariano Vallejo in Sonoma. Vallejo was an important citizen of California and actually was one of the most friendly of the Mexican officials. On June 14, 1846, Fremont ordered Vallejo taken prisoner. The rebels then declared California an independent republic-free from Mexican rule. A flag of a star and grizzly bear with the words "California Republic" was hung in Sonoma. This event was known as the Bear Flag Revolt.

On May 13, 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico. President Polk had hoped a quick war would add California and Texas to the United States. Fighting had broken out in Texas along the Rio Grande River. On July 7, the war reached California. The Bear Flag Rebels joined the American forces during the war.

The fighting continued until February 2, 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. The treaty brought peace to California. In the treaty, Mexico agreed to give to the United States more than 525,000 square miles of land. The treaty also promised to protect the rights of the Mexican citizens living in the land now governed by the United States. California had finally become property of the United States of America and the dream of the country stretching from one coast to the other had been realized. No one knew, however, how the soon-to-be state would be forever changed because of a simple discovery by a carpenter in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains!