California History

Human history in California begins with indigenous Americans first arriving in California some 13,000-15,000 years ago. Exploration and settlement by Europeans along the coasts and in the inland valleys began in the 16th century. California’s acquisition by the United States under the terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War caused further American westward expansion into Mexico intensified with the California Gold Rush, beginning in 1849. California joined the Union as a free state in 1850, due to the compromise of 1850. By the end of the 19th century, California was still largely rural and agricultural but had a population of about 1.4 million.

Pre European settlement

The most commonly-accepted model of migration to the New World is that peoples from Asia crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas some 16,500 years ago.

When humans first arrived in present-day California is unclear.

The remains of Arlington Springs Man on Santa Rosa Island are among the traces of a very early habitation, dated to the Wisconsin glaciation (the most recent ice age) about 13,000 years ago. In all, some 30 tribes or culture groups lived in what is now California, gathered into perhaps six different language family groups. These groups included the early-arriving Hokan family (winding up in the mountainous far north and Colorado River basin in the south), and the recently arrived Uto-Aztecan of the desert southeast. This cultural diversity was among the densest in North America, and was likely the result of a series of migrations and invasions during the last 10,000-15,000 years. At the time of the first European contact, Native American tribes included the Chumash, Maidu, Miwok, Modoc, Mohave, Ohlone, Pomo, Shasta, Tongva, and Wintu.  

Tribes adapted to California’s many climates. Coastal tribes were a major source of trading beads, produced from mussel shells using stone tools. Tribes in California’s broad Central Valley and the surrounding foothills developed an early agriculture, burning the grasslands to encourage growth of edible wild plants, especially oak trees. The acorns from these trees were pounded into a powder, and the acidic tannin leached out to make edible flour. Tribes living in the mountains of the north and east relied heavily on salmon and game hunting, and used California’s volcanic legacy by collecting and shaping obsidian for themselves and for trade. The deserts of the southeast were home to tribes who learned to thrive in that harsh environment, by making careful use of local plants and living in oases and along water courses.

The status of all these people remained dynamic, as the more successful tribes expanded their territories, and less successful tribes contracted. Slave-trading and war among tribes alternated with periods of relative peace. In all, it is estimated by the time of extensive European contact in the 1700s, that perhaps 300,000 Native Americans were living within what is now California.

European exploration (1530–1765)

The first European explorers, flying the flags of Spain and of England, sailed along the coast of California from the early 1500s to the mid-1700s, but no European settlements were established. The most important colonial power, Spain, focused attention on its imperial centers in Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines. Confident of Spanish claims to all lands touching the Pacific Ocean (including California), Spain sent an exploring party sailing along the California coast. The California seen by these ship-bound explorers was one of hilly grasslands and wooded canyons, with few apparent resources or natural ports to attract colonists.

The other colonial states of the era, with their interest on more densely populated areas, paid limited attention to this distant part of the world. It was not until the middle of the 1700s, that both Russian and British explorers and fur-traders began establishing stations on the coast.

Hernán Cortés

About 1530, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán (President of New Spain) was told by an Indian slave of the Seven Cities of Cibola that had streets paved with gold and silver. About the same time, Hernán Cortés was attracted by stories of a wonderful country far to the northwest, populated by Amazonish women and abounding with gold, pearls, and gems. The Spaniards conjectured that these places may be one and the same.

An expedition in 1533 discovered a bay, most likely that of La Paz, before experiencing difficulties and returning. Cortés accompanied expeditions in 1534 and 1535 without finding the sought-after city.

On May 3, 1535, Cortés claimed “Santa Cruz Island” (now known as the peninsula of Baja California), and laid out and founded the city that was to become La Paz later that spring.

Francisco de Ulloa

In July 1539, moved by the renewal of those stories, Cortés sent Francisco de Ulloa out with three small vessels. He made it to the mouth of the Colorado, then sailed around the peninsula as far as Cedros Island.

The account of this voyage marks the first recorded application of the name “California”. It can be traced to the fifth volume of a chivalric romance, Amadis de Gallia, arranged by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and first printed around 1510, in which a character travels through an island called “California”.

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

The first European to explore the California coast was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing for the Spanish Crown. In June 1542, Cabrillo led an expedition in two ships from the west coast of what is now Mexico. He landed on September 28 at San Diego Bay, claiming what he thought was the Island of California for Spain.

Cabrillo and his crew landed on San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands, then continued north in an attempt to discover a supposed coastal route to the mainland of Asia. Cabrillo could have sailed as far north as Pt. Reyes (north of San Francisco), but died as the result of an accident during this voyage; the remainder of the expedition, which could have reached as far north as the Rogue River in today’s southern Oregon was led by Bartolomé Ferrelo.

Sir Francis Drake

On June 7, 1579, the English explorer Sir Francis Drake saw an excellent harbor, on a land-mass that he called Nova Albion and claimed for England. The location of Drake’s port remains unknown and there was no follow-up.[3] But subsequently, English maps name the land above Baja California, New Granada, New Mexico, and Florida “Nova Albion.” Drake held the first Protestant Christian service somewhere in what is now California.

Sebastián Vizcaíno

In 1602, the Spaniard Sebastián Vizcaíno explored California’s coastline as far north as Monterey Bay, where he put ashore. He ventured inland south along the coast, and recorded a visit to what is likely Carmel Bay. His major contributions to the state’s history were the glowing reports of the Monterey area as an anchorage and as land suitable for settlement, as well as the detailed charts he made of the coastal waters (which were used for nearly 200 years).

European exploration (1765 – 1821)

British seafaring Captain James Cook, midway through his third and final voyage of exploration in 1778, sailed along the west coast of North America aboard the HMS Resolution, mapping the coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait. In 1786 Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, led a group of scientists and artists on a voyage of exploration ordered by Louis XVI and were welcomed in Monterey. They compiled an account of the Californian mission system, the land and the people. Traders, whalers and scientific missions followed in the next decades.

Spanish colonization and governance (1697 – 1821)

In 1697, the Jesuit missionary Juan María de Salvatierra established Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, the first permanent mission in Baja California Sur. The California territory at this time was part of New Spain, and not divided as it is today. Jesuit control over the peninsula was gradually extended, first in the region around Loreto, then to the south in the Cape region, and finally toward the north across the northern boundary of Baja California Sur. By 1823, 21 missions had been established in California.

During the last quarter of the 18th century, the first Spanish settlements were established in Alta California. Reacting to interest by Russia and possibly Great Britain in the fur-bearing animals of the Pacific north coast, Spain further extended the series of Catholic missions, accompanied by troops and establishing ranches, along the southern and central coast of California. These missions were intended to demonstrate the claim of the Spanish Empire to modern-day California.

The first quarter of the 19th century continued the slow colonization of the southern and central California coast by Spanish missionaries, ranchers, and troops. By 1820, Spanish influence was marked by the chain of missions reaching from Loreto, north to San Diego to just north of today’s San Francisco Bay area, and extended inland approximately 25 to 50 miles from the missions. Outside of this zone, perhaps 200,000 to 250,000 Native Americans were continuing to lead traditional lives. The Adams-Onís Treaty, signed in 1819 set the northern boundary of the Spanish claims at the 42nd parallel, effectively creating today’s northern boundary between California and Oregon.

First Spanish colonies

Spain had maintained a number of missions and presidios in New Spain since 1519. The Crown laid claim to the north costal provinces of California in 1542. Excluding Santa Fe in New Mexico, settlement of northern New Spain was slow for the next 155 years. Settlements in Loreto, Baja California Sur were established in 1697, but it was not until the threat of incursion by Russian fur traders and potentially settlers, coming down from Alaska in 1765, that Spain, under King Charles III, felt development of more northern installations were necessary. By then, the Spanish Empire was engaged in the political aftermath of the Seven Years’ War and colonial priorities in far away California afforded only a minimal effort. Alta California was to be settled by Franciscan monks, protected by troops in the California Missions. Between 1774 and 1791, the Crown sent forth a number of expeditions to further explore and settle Alta California and the Pacific Northwest.

Gaspar de Portolà

In May 1768, the Spanish Visitor General, José de Gálvez, planned a four-prong expedition to settle Alta California, two by sea and two by land, which Gaspar de Portolà volunteered to command.

The Portolà land expedition arrived at the site of present-day San Diego on June 29, 1769, where it established the Presidio of San Diego. Eager to press on to Monterey Bay, de Portolà and his group, consisting of Father Juan Crespi, sixty-three leather-jacket soldiers and a hundred mules, headed north on July 14. They reached the present-day sites of Los Angeles on August 2, Santa Monica on August 3, Santa Barbara on August 19, San Simeon on September 13 and the mouth of the Salinas River on October 1. Although they were looking for Monterey Bay, the group failed to recognize it when they reached it.

On October 31, de Portolà’s explorers became the first Europeans known to view San Francisco Bay. Ironically, the Manila Galleons had sailed along this coast for almost 200 years by then, without noticing the bay. The group returned to San Diego in 1770.

Junípero Serra

Junípero Serra was a Majorcan Franciscan who founded the Alta California mission chain. After King Carlos III ordered the Jesuits expelled from New Spain on February 3, 1768, Serra was named “Father Presidente”.

Serra founded San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. Later that year, Serra, Governor de Portolà and a small group of men moved north, up the Pacific Coast. They reached Monterey in 1770, where Serra founded the second Alta California mission, San Carlos Borromeo.

Alta California missions

The California Missions comprise a series of religious outposts established by Spanish Catholic Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans, to spread the Christian doctrine among the local Native Americans, but with the added benefit of confirming historic Spanish claims to the area. The missions introduced European livestock, fruits, vegetables, and industry into the California region, while keeping the Native Americans in virtual peonage.

Most missions were small, with normally two Franciscans and six to eight soldiers in residence. All of these buildings were built largely with unpaid native labor under Franciscan supervision. In addition to the presidio (royal fort) and pueblo (town), the misión was one of the three major agencies employed by the Spanish crown in an attempt to consolidate its colonial territories. None of these missions were completely self-supporting, requiring continued (albeit modest) financial support. Starting with the onset of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810, this support largely disappeared and the missions and their converts were left on their own. By 1827, the Mexican Government passed the General Law of Expulsion which exiled Spanish born people—decimating the clergy in California. Some of the missions were then nationalized by the Mexican government and sold off. It was not until after statehood that the US Supreme Court restored some missions to the orders that owned them.

In order to facilitate overland travel, the mission settlements were situated approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart, so that they were separated by one day’s long ride on horseback along the 600-mile (966-kilometer) long el Camino Real (Spanish for “the Royal Road,” though often referred to today as the King’s Highway), and also known as the California Mission Trail. Heavy freight movement was practical only via water. Tradition has it that the padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the trail in order to mark it with bright yellow flowers.

Four presidios, strategically placed along the California coast and organized into separate military districts, served to protect the missions and other Spanish settlements in Upper California.

A number of mission structures survive today or have been rebuilt, and many have congregations established since the beginning of the 20th century. The highway and missions became for many a romantic symbol of an idyllic and peaceful past. The Mission Revival style was an architectural movement that drew its inspiration from this idealized view of California’s past.


The Spanish (and later the Mexicans) encouraged settlement with large land grants which were turned into ranchos, where cattle and sheep were raised. Cow hides (at roughly $1 each) and fat (known as tallow, used to make candles as well as soaps) were the primary exports of California until the mid-19th century. The owners of these ranchos styled themselves after the landed gentry in Spain. Their workers included some Native Americans who had learned to speak Spanish and ride horses.

Russian attempts at colonization

Beginning in the early 1800s, fur trappers of the Russian Empire explored the West Coast, hunting for sea otter pelts as far south as San Diego. Taking advantage of the chaos created by the war between Spain and Mexico, in August 1812, the Russian-American Company set up a fortified trading post at Fort Ross, near present day Bodega Bay on the Sonoma Coast sixty miles north of San Francisco on land claimed, but not occupied by, Great Britain. This colony was active until 1841. El Presidio de Sonoma, or Sonoma Barracks, was established in 1836 by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (the Commandante-General of the northern frontier of Alta California) as a part of Mexico’s strategy to halt Russian incursions into the region.

Mexican era (1821-1846)


Substantial changes occurred during the second quarter of the 19th century. Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 marked the end of European rule in California; the missions faded in importance under Mexican control while ranching and trade increased. By the mid-1840s, the increased presence of Americans made the northern part of the California diverge from the southern part, where the Spanish-speaking “Californios” dominated.

By 1846, California had a Spanish-speaking population of under 10,000, tiny even compared to the sparse population of states in Mexico proper. The “Californios,” as they were known, consisted of about 800 families, mostly concentrated on a few large ranchos. About 1,300 American citizens and a very mixed group of about 500 Europeans, scattered mostly from Monterey to Sacramento dominated trading as the Californios dominated ranching. In terms of adult males, the two groups were about equal, but the American citizens were more recent arrivals.


First, the Mexican Congress passed the General Law of Expulsion in 1827. This law declared all persons born in Spain to be “illegal immigrants” and ordered them to leave the country. Many of the clergy were Spanish. Next, the Mexican Congress passed An Act for the Secularization of the Missions of California on August 17, 1833. Mission San Juan Capistrano was the very first to feel the effects of this legislation the following year. The Franciscans soon thereafter abandoned the missions, taking with them most everything of value, after which the locals typically plundered the mission buildings for construction materials.

Other nationalities

The Russian American Company established Fort Ross in 1812 as their most southerly colony in North America, intended to provide Russian posts farther north with agricultural goods. When this need was filled by a deal between the RAC and the Hudson’s Bay Company for produce from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, the fort’s intent was derailed although it remained in Russian hands until 1841, and for the duration had a small population of Russians and other nationalities from the Russian Empire.
In this period, American and British traders began entering California in search of beaver. Using the Siskiyou Trail, Old Spanish Trail, and later, the California Trail, these trading parties arrived in California, often without the knowledge or approval of the Mexican authorities, and laid the foundation for the arrival of later Gold Rush era Forty-Niners, farmers and ranchers.
In 1840, the American adventurer, writer and lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. wrote of his experiences aboard ship off California in the 1830s in Two Years Before the Mast.
The leader of a French scientific expedition to California, Eugene Duflot de Mofras, wrote in 1840 “…it is evident that California will belong to whatever nation chooses to send there a man-of-war and two hundred men.” In 1841, General Vallejo wrote Governor Alvarado that “…there is no doubt that France is intriguing to become mistress of California,” but a series of troubled French governments did not uphold French interests in the area. During disagreements with Mexicans, the German-Swiss francophile John Sutter threatened to raise the French flag over California and place himself and his settlement, New Helvetia, under French protection.

American interest and immigrants

Although a small number of American traders and trappers had lived in California since the early 1830s, the first organized overland party of American immigrants was the Bartleson-Bidwell Party of 1841. With mules and on foot, this pioneering group groped their way across the continent using the still untested California Trail. Also in 1841, an overland exploratory party of the United States Exploring Expedition came down the Siskiyou Trail from the Pacific Northwest. In 1844, Caleb Greenwood guided the first settlers to take wagons over the Sierra Nevada. In 1846, the misfortunes of the Donner Party earned notoriety as they struggled to enter California.

By 1846, the province had a non-Native American population of about 1500 Californio adult men (with about 6500 women and children), who lived mostly in the southern half. About 2,000 recent non-Californio, non-indigenous immigrants (almost all adult men) lived mostly in the northern half of California.

United States era (beginning 1846)

Bear Flag Revolt and American conquest

After the United States declared war on Mexico, May 13, 1846, it took almost two months (mid-July 1846) for definite word of war to get to California. Upon hearing rumors of war, U.S. consul Thomas O. Larkin, stationed in Monterey, tried to keep peace between the Americans and the small Mexican military garrison commanded by José Castro. American army captain John C. Frémont, with about 60 well-armed men, had entered California in December 1845 and was making a slow march to Oregon when they received word that war between Mexico and the U.S. was imminent.

On June 15, 1846, some 30 non-Mexican settlers, mostly Americans, staged a revolt and seized the small Mexican garrison in Sonoma. They raised the “Bear Flag” of the California Republic over Sonoma. It lasted one week until the U.S. Army, led by Fremont, took over on June 23. The California state flag today is based on this original Bear Flag, and continues to contain the words “California Republic.”

Commodore John Drake Sloat, on hearing of imminent war and the revolt in Sonoma, ordered his naval forces to occupy Yerba Buena (present San Francisco) on July 7 and raise the American flag. On July 15, Sloat transferred his command to Commodore Robert F. Stockton, a much more aggressive leader. Commodore Stockton put Frémont’s forces under his command. On July 19, Frémont’s “California Battalion” swelled to about 160 additional men from newly arrived settlers near Sacramento, and he entered Monterey in a joint operation with some of Stockton’s sailors and marines. The official word had been received—the Mexican-American War was on. The American forces easily took over the north of California; within days, they controlled San Francisco, Sonoma, and Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.

In Southern California, Mexican General José Castro and Governor Pío Pico fled from Los Angeles. When Stockton’s forces entered Los Angeles unresisted on August 13, 1846, the nearly bloodless conquest of California seemed complete. Stockton, however, left too small a force (36 men) in Los Angeles, and the Californios, acting on their own and without help from Mexico, led by José Mariá Flores, forced the small American garrison to retire in late September. 200 Reinforcements sent by Stockton, led by US Navy Capt William Mervine were repulsed in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho October 7 through October 9, 1846, near San Pedro, where 14 US Marines were killed. Meanwhile, General Kearny with a much reduced squadron of 100 dragoons finally reached California after a grueling march across New Mexico, Arizona and the Sonoran Desert. On December 6, 1846, They fought the Battle of San Pasqual near San Diego, California, where 18 of Kearny’s troop were killed—the largest number of American casualties lost in battle in California.

Stockton rescued Kearny’s surrounded forces and with their combined force, they moved northward from San Diego, entering the Los Angeles area on January 8, 1847, linking up with Frémont’s men and with American forces totaling 660 troops, they fought the Californios in the Battle of Rio San Gabriel and the next day, on January 9, 1847, they fought the Battle of La Mesa. Three days later, on January 12, 1847, the last significant body of Californios surrendered to American forces. That marked the end of the War in California. On January 13, 1847, the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed.

On January 28, 1847, Army lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman and his army unit arrived in Monterey, California as American forces in the pipeline continued to stream into California. On March 15, 1847, Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson’s Seventh Regiment of New York Volunteers of about 900 men start arriving in California. All of these men were in place when gold was discovered in January 1848.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, marked the end of the Mexican-American War. In that treaty, the United States agreed to pay Mexico $18,250,000; Mexico formally ceded California (and other northern territories) to the United States, and the first international boundary was drawn between the US and Mexico by treaty. The previous boundary was negotiated in 1819 between Spain and the United States in the Adams-Onís Treaty, which had established the present border between California and Oregon. San Diego Bay is one of the only natural harbors in California south of San Francisco, and to claim all this strategic water, the border was slanted to include it in California.

Gold Rush

In January 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 40 miles east of Sacramento — beginning the California Gold Rush, which had the most extensive impact on population growth of the state of any era.

The miners and merchants settled in towns along what is now State Highway 49, and settlements sprang up along the Siskiyou Trail as gold was discovered elsewhere in California (notably in Siskiyou County). The nearest deep-water seaport was San Francisco Bay, and San Francisco became the home for bankers who financed exploration for gold.

The Gold Rush brought the world to California. By 1855, some 300,000 “Forty-Niners” had arrived from every continent; many soon left, of course—some rich, most not very rich. A precipitous drop in the Native American population occurred in the decade after the discovery of gold.

Statehood: 1849-1850

In 1847-49, California was run by the U.S. military; local government continued to be run by alcaldes (mayors) in most places; but now some were Americans. Bennett C. Riley, the last military governor, called a constitutional convention to meet in Monterey in September 1849. Its 48 delegates were mostly pre-1846 American settlers; 8 were Californios. They unanimously outlawed slavery and set up a state government that operated for 10 months before California was given official statehood by Congress on September 9, 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. After Monterey, the state capital was variously San Jose (1850–1851), Vallejo (1852–1853) and Benicia (1853–1854) until Sacramento was finally selected in 1854.

Californios (dissatisfied with inequitable taxes and land laws) and pro slavery Southerners in lightly populated, rural Southern California attempted three times in the 1850s to achieve a separate statehood or territorial status separate from Northern California. The last attempt, the Pico Act of 1859, was passed by the California State Legislature, signed by the State governor, approved overwhelmingly by voters in the proposed Territory of Colorado and sent to Washington D. C. with a strong advocate in Senator Milton Latham. However the secession crisis in 1860 led to the proposal never coming to a vote.

The Civil War

Because of the distance factor, California played a minor role in the American Civil War. Although some settlers sympathized with the Confederacy, they were not allowed to organize and their newspapers were closed down. Former Senator William M. Gwin, a Confederate sympathizer, was arrested and fled to Europe. Powerful capitalists dominated in Californian politics through their control of mines, shipping, and finance controlled the state through the new Republican party. Nearly all the men who volunteered as soldiers stayed in the West to guard facilities, suppress secessionists or fight the Indians. Some 2,350 men in the California Column marched east across Arizona in 1862 to expel the Confederates from Arizona and New Mexico. The California Column then spent most of the remaider of the war fighting hostile Indians in the area.


In his maiden speech before the United States Senate, California Senator David C. Broderick stated, “There is no place in the Union, no place on earth, where labor is so honored and so well rewarded…” as in California. Early immigrants to California came with skills in many trades and some had come from places where workers were being organized. California’s labor movements began in San Francisco, the only large city in California for decades and once the center of trade-unionism west of the Rockies. Los Angeles remained an open-shop stronghold for half a century until unions from the north collaborated to make California a union state. Because of San Francisco’s relative isolation, skilled workers could make demands that their counterparts on the East coast could not. Printers first attempted to organize in 1850, teamsters, draymen, lightermen, riggers and stevedores in 1851, bakers and bricklayers in 1852, caulkers, carpenters, plasterers, brickmasons, blacksmiths and shipwrights in 1853 and musicians in 1856. all these efforts required several starts to become stabilized, they did earn better pay and working conditions and began the long efforts of state labor legislation. Between 1850 and 1870, legislation making provisions for payment of wages, the mechanic’s lien and the eight hour day. It was said that during the last half of the nineteenth century more San Francisco worker’s enjoyed an eight hour day than any other American city. The molders’ and boilermakers’ strike of 1864 was called in opposition to a newly formed iron-works employers association which threatened a one thousand dollar a day fine on any employer who granted the strikers’ demands and had wired for strikebreakers across the country. The San Francisco Trades Union, the city’s first central labor body sent a delegation to meet a boatload of strikebreakers at Panama and educated them. They arrived in San Francisco as enrolled union members.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, California continued to grow rapidly. Independent miners were largely displaced by large corporate mining operations. Railroads began to be built, and both the railroad companies and the mining companies began to hire large numbers of laborers. The decisive event was the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869; six days by train brought a traveler from Chicago to San Francisco, compared to six months by ship. The era of comparative protection for California labor ended with the arrival of the railroad. For decades after, labor oppressed the Chinese and politicians pushed anti-Chinese legislation.

Importation of slaves or so-called “contract” labor was fought by miners and city workers and made illegal through legislation in 1852.

The first statewide federated labor body was the Mechanics’ State Council that championed the eight-hour day against the employers 1867 “Ten Hour League”. The Council affiliated with the National Labor Union. America’s first national union effort. By 1872 Chinese workers comprised half of all factory workers in San Francisco and were paid wages far below white workers. “The Chinese must Go!” was the slogan of Dennis Kearney, a prominent labor leader in San Francisco. He appeared on the scene in 1877 and led sand lot vigilantes that roamed the city beating Chinese and wrecking their businesses.

Twice the seamen of the west coast had tried to organize a union, but were defeated. In 1875, the Seaman’s Protective Association was established and began the struggle for wages and conditions on ships. The effort was joined by Henry George, editor of the San Francisco Post. The legislative struggle to enforce laws against brutal ship’s captains and the requirement that two thirds of sailors be Americans was proposed and the effort was carried for thirty years by Andrew Furuseth and the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific after 1908, and the International Seamen’s Union of America. The Coast’s Seamen’s Journal was founded in 1887, for years the most important labor journal in California.

Concurrently, waterfront organizing led to the Maritime Federation of the Pacific.

Labor politics and the rise of Nativism

Thousands of Chinese men arrived in California to work as laborers, recruited by industry as low wage workers. Over time, conflicts in the gold fields and cities created prejudices between white and Chinese laborers. The decade long depression after the Railroad was completed, white workers began to lay blame on the Chinese laborers. Many Chinese were expelled from the mine fields. Some returned to China after the Central Pacific was built. Those who stayed mostly moved to the Chinatown in San Francisco and a few other cities, where they were relatively safe from violent attacks they suffered elsewhere.

From 1850 through 1900, anti-Chinese nativist sentiment resulted in the passage of innumerable laws, many of which remained in effect well into the middle of the 20th century. The most flagrant episode was probably the creation and ratification of a new state constitution in 1879. Thanks to vigorous lobbying by the anti-Chinese Workingmen’s Party, led by Dennis Kearney (an immigrant from Ireland), Article XIX, section 4 forbade corporations from hiring Chinese coolies, and empowered all California cities and counties to completely expel Chinese persons or to limit where they could reside. It was repealed in 1952.

The 1879 constitutional convention also dispatched a message to Congress pleading for strong immigration restrictions, which led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1889, and it would not be repealed by Congress until 1943. Similar sentiments led to the development of the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan, by which Japan voluntarily agreed to restrict emigration to the United States. California also passed an Alien Land Act which barred aliens, especially Asians, from holding title to land. Because it was difficult for people born in Asia to obtain U.S. citizenship until the 1960s, land ownership titles were held by their American-born children, who were full citizens. The law was overturned by the California Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1952.

In 1886, when a Chinese laundry owner challenged the constitutionality of a San Francisco ordinance clearly designed to drive Chinese laundries out of business, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and in doing so, laid the theoretical foundation for modern equal protection constitutional law. See Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886). Meanwhile, even with severe restrictions on Asian immigration, tensions between unskilled workers and wealthy landowners persisted up to and through the Great Depression. Novelist Jack London writes of the struggles of workers in the city of Oakland in his visionary classic, Valley of the Moon, a title evoking the pristine situation of Sonoma County between sea and mountains, Redwoods and Oaks, fog and sunshine.

Rise of the railroads

The establishment of America’s transcontinental rail lines permanently linked California to the rest of the country, and the far-reaching transportation systems that grew out of them during the century that followed contributed immeasurably to the state’s unrivaled social, political, and economic development.

Organized labor

The organized labor history of California remained centered in San Francisco for much of the state’s early history. By the opening decades of the twentieth century, labor efforts had expanded to Los Angeles, Long Beach and the Central Valley. In 1901, the San Francisco based City Front Federation was reputed to be the strongest trade federation in the country. It grew out of intense organizational drives in every trade during the boom at the turn of the century. Employers organized as well during the building trades strike of 1900 and the (San Francisco) City Front Federation strike of 1901, which led to the founding of Building Trades Council. The open shop question was at stake. Out of the City Front strike came the Union Labor Party because workers were angry at the mayor for using the police to protect strikebreakers. Eugene Schmitz was elected mayor in 1902 on the party’s ticket, making San Francisco the only town in the United States, for a time, to be run by labor. A combination of corruption and unscrupulous reformers culminated in graft prosecutions in 1907.

In 1910, Los Angeles was still an open shop and employers in the north threatened for a new push to open San Francisco shops. Responding, labor sent delegations south in June 1910. National organizers were sent in during a lockout of 1,200 idled metal-trades workers. Then occurred an incident that would set back Los Angeles organizing for years, On October 10, 1910, a bomb exploded at the Los Angeles Times newspaper plant that killed twenty-one workers.

In the decade following, the rapid growth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) in ununionized trades, logging ,wheat farming, lumber camps began extending its efforts to mines, ports and agriculture. The IWW came to public notice after the Wheatland Hop Riot when a sheriff’s posse broke up a protest meeting and four people died. It led to the first legislation protecting field labor. The IWW was harmed by anti-union drives and prosecution of members under the state’s new criminal syndacalism laws. The IWW was also involved in the 1923 seamen’s strike at San Pedro, where Upton Sinclair was arrested for reciting the Declaration of Independence. However, the man who became the most prominent Wobbly of all, Thomas Mooney, soon became a cause-celebre of labor and the most important political prisoner in America.

The Preparedness Day Bombing killed ten people and hurt labor for decades. During the 1920s, the open shop efforts succeeded through a coordinated strategy called the “American Plan”. In one case, the Industrial Association of San Francisco raised over a million dollars to break the building trades strikes in 1921 that led to the collapse of the building trades unions. This employers association cut wages twice in one year, and the Metal Trades Council was defeated, losing an agreement that had been in effect since 1907. The Seamen’s Union also suffered defeat in 1921.

The labor movement re-surged in the 1930s, accompanied by the passage of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act and the emergence of a young Australian worker, Harry Bridges as a labor leader. Within a few weeks after a charter had been secured from International Longshoremen’s Association in 1933, more than 90% of workers on the waterfront had joined. The dock workers took a strike vote on March 7, 1934. On May 15, 1934, the seamen’s unions voted to join the strike, followed by ship’s clerks and licensed officers’ organizations. on July 5, 1934, San Francisco’s “Big Strike” led to the killing of two workers and the clubbing and gassing of hundreds in what became known as “Bloody Thursday” and swept most of the California unions into the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike. The Maritime Federation of the Pacific was organized in 1935.

San Francisco in the late 1930s had 120,000 union members. Longshoreman wore union buttons on their white union made caps, Teamsters drove trucks as unionists, fishermen, taxi drivers, streetcar conductors, motormen, newsboys, retail clerks, hotel employees, newspapermen and bootlacks all had representation. Against 30,000 trade union members in 1933-34, Los Angeles by the late thirties 200,000, even against a severe 1938 anti-picketing ordinance. But Los Angeles became unionized in the mass production industries of aircraft, auto, rubber, oil and at the yards of San Pedro. Later, drives for unionization spread through musicians, teamsters, building trades, movies, actors, writers and directors.

Farm labor remained unorganized, the work brutal and underpaid. In the 1930s, 200,000 farm laborers traveled the state in tune with the seasons. Unions were accused of an “inland march” against landowners rights when they took up the early effort to organize farm labor. A number of valley towns endorsed anti-picketing ordinances to thwart organizing. In the 1933-1934 period, a wave of agricultural strikes flooded the central valley, including the Imperial Valley lettuce strike and San Joaquin Valley cotton strike. In the 1936 Salinas lettuce strike, vigilante violence shocked the nation. Again, in the spring of 1938, about three hundred men, women and children were driven by vigilantes from their homes in Grass Valley and Nevada City.

A 1938 ballot proposition against picketing, “Proposition #1,” considered fascist by commentators for the state grange, became a huge political struggle. Proposition #1 failed at the polls. Soon, racist distinctions fell as California unions began to admit non-white members.

By the advent of World War II, California had an old-age assistance law, unemployment compensation, a 48 hour work week maximum for women, an apprentice law, and workplace safety rules.

Examples of engineering

Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, there were several feats of engineering in Californian history. Among many, the first major engineering was in mining, building and railroads. Much later, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which runs from the Owens Valley, through the Mojave Desert and its Antelope Valley, to dry Los Angeles far to the south. Finished in 1911, it was the brain-child of the self-taught William Mulholland and is still in use today. Creeks flowing from the eastern Sierra are diverted into the aqueduct. This attracted controversy in the 1960s, since this withholds water from Mono Lake — an especially otherworldly and beautiful ecosystem — and from farmers in the Owens Valley. See also California Water Wars.

Other feats are the building of Hoover Dam (which is in Nevada, but provides power and water to Southern California), Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Shasta Dam, and the California Aqueduct, taking water from northern California to dry and sprawling southern California. Another project was the draining of Lake Tulare, which, during high water was the largest fresh-water lake inside an American state. This created a large wet area amid the dry San Joaquin Valley and swamps abounded at its shores. By the 1970s, it was completely drained, but it attempts to resurrect itself during heavy rains.

Automobile travel became important after 1910. A key route was the Lincoln Highway, which was America’s first transcontinental road for motorized vehicles, connecting New York City to San Francisco. The creation of the Lincoln Highway in 1913 was a major stimulus on the development of both industry and tourism in the state. Similar effects occurred in 1926 with the creation of Route 66.

Oil, movies, and the military

In the 1850s, oil was collected and refined for the first time in California, both in Ventura County and the Los Angeles area, and in the 1860s the first wells were dug. By the 1890s numerous oil fields, including the Summerland Oil Field near Santa Barbara, location of the world’s first offshore oil wells, the giant Midway-Sunset field in Kern County, and several fields in the Los Angeles Basin were contributing to an oil boom that made California one of the largest oil producers in the nation. Oil during the period was the most profitable industry in the southern part of the state.

The first decades of the twentieth century saw the rise of the studio system. MGM, Universal and Warner Brothers all acquired land in Hollywood, which was then a small subdivision known as “Hollywoodland” on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Soon, Americans from all over the country, especially the Midwest, were attracted to the mild Mediterranean climate, cheap land, and a wide variety of geography within a short drive by truck. Many westerns of this era were shot in the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, wherein rises Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Desert movies were shot in the Mojave or in Death Valley, the lowest point and hottest place in the western hemisphere. 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 location, or in outdoor sets on studio land, with simulated rain or snow as needed.

By the 1930s, the show-biz population had extended its reach into radio, and by mid-century Southern California had also become a major center of television production, hosting studios for major networks such as NBC and CBS. In the 1934 California gubernatorial election novelist Upton Sinclair was the narrowly defeated Democratic nominee, running on the platform of the socialist End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement, a radical response to the Great Depression.

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, where most aircraft manufacturers, including Douglas Aircraft and Hughes Aircraft 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.

Baby boomers and free spirits

After the war, hundreds of land developers bought land cheap, subdivided it, built on it, and got rich. Real-estate development replaced oil and agriculture as Southern California’s principal industry. In 1955, Disneyland opened in Anaheim. In 1958, Major League Baseball’s Dodgers and Giants left New York City and came to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. The population of California expanded dramatically, to nearly 20 million by 1970. This was the coming-of-age of the Baby Boom.

In the late 1960s the baby-boom generation reached draft age, and many risked arrest to oppose the war in Vietnam. There were numerous demonstrations and strikes, most famously on the prestigious Berkeley campus of the University of California, across the bay from San Francisco. In 1965, race riots erupted in Watts, in the South Central area of Los Angeles. The hippie riots on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles were also immortalized by Buffalo Springfield in “For What It’s Worth” (1966). Some commentators predicted revolution. Then the federal government promised to withdraw from the Vietnam War, which at last happened in 1974. The radical political movements, having achieved a large part of their aim, lost members and funding.

California still was a land of free spirits, open hearts, easy-going living. Popular music of the period bore titles such as “California Girls,” “California Dreamin’,” “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” “Do You Know the Way to San José” and “Hotel California”. These reflected the Californian promise of easy living in a paradisaical climate. The surfing culture burgeoned. Many took low-paying jobs and joined the surfers living in trailers at the beach and many others forsook ambition and joined the hippies free living in cities.

The most famous hippie hangout was the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The state’s cities, especially San Francisco, became famous for their gentility and tolerance. A distinctive and idyllic Californian culture emerged for a time. The peak of this culture, in 1967, was known as the Summer of Love. California became known elsewhere in the U.S. often derogatorily, as the “land of fruits and nuts.”

Economic power house

Conversely, during the same period, the Golden State also attracted commercial and industrial expansion of astronomical rates. The adoption of a Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 allowed the development of a highly efficient system of public education in the Community Colleges and the University of California and California State University systems; by creating an educated workforce, it attracted investment, particularly in areas related to high technology. By 1980, California became recognized as the world’s eighth-largest economy. Millions of workers were needed to fuel the expansion. The high population of the time caused tremendous problems with urban sprawl, traffic, pollution, and, to a lesser extent, crime.

Urban sprawl created a backlash in many urban areas, with the local governments limiting growth beyond certain boundaries, reducing lot sizes for building homes, and so on. Open Space Districts were created in several parts of the state specifically to obtain, manage, and preserve undeveloped land. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the open space districts have created a nearly contiguous range of permanently undeveloped land running through the coastal range and hills surrounding the Bay’s urban valleys, enabling the creation of huge natural parks and envisioning a hiking trail that will eventually circumnavigate the Bay in an unbroken loop.

The immense problem with air pollution (smog) that had developed by the early 1970s also caused a backlash. With schools being closed routinely in urban areas for “smog days” when the ozone levels became too unhealthy and the hills surrounding urban areas seldom visible even within a mile, Californians were ready for changes. Over the next three decades, California enacted some of the strictest anti-smog regulations in the United States and has been a leader in encouraging nonpolluting strategies for various industries, including automobiles. For example, carpool lanes normally allow only vehicles with two/three or more occupants (whether the base number is two or three depends on what freeway you are on), but electric cars can use the lanes with only a single occupant. As a result, smog is significantly reduced from its peak, although local Air Quality Management Districts still monitor the air and generally encourage people to avoid polluting activities on hot days when smog is expected to be at its worst.

Traffic and transportation remain a problem in urban areas. Solutions are implemented, but inevitably the implementation expense and the time required to plan, approve, and build infrastructure can’t keep pace with the population growth. There have been some improvements. Carpool lanes have become common in urban areas, which are intended to encourage people to drive together rather than in individual automobiles. San Jose is gradually building a light rail system (ironically, often over routes of an original turn-of-the-century electric railroad line that was torn out and paved over to encourage the advent of the automobile age). None of the implemented solutions are without their critics. The sprawling nature of the Bay Area and of the Los Angeles Basin makes it difficult to build mass transit that can reach and serve a significant portion of the population.
In the 1970s, the end of the wars in Southeast Asia inspired a new wave of newcomers from those countries, especially Vietnam, many of whom settled in California. Most worked hard and lived under difficult circumstances. Little Saigons were established in Westminster and Garden Grove in Orange County.

The California legal revolution

During the 1960s, under the aegis of Chief Justice Roger J. Traynor, California became liberal and progressive, emphasizing the rights of defendants even as the crime rate soared. Traynor’s term as Chief Justice (from 1964 to 1970) was marked by a number of firsts: California was the first state to create true strict liability in product liability cases, the first to allow the action of negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) even in the absence of physical injury to the plaintiff, and the first to allow bystanders to sue for NIED where the only physical injury was to a relative.

Starting in the 1960s, California became a leader in family law. California was the first state to allow true no-fault divorce, with the passage of the Family Law Act of 1969. In 1994, the Legislature took family law out of the Civil Code and created a new Family Code. In 2002, the Legislature granted registered domestic partners the same rights under state law as married spouses. In 2008 California became the second state to legalize same-sex marriage when the California Supreme Court ruled the ban unconstitutional.

Since the mid-1980s, the California Supreme Court has become more conservative, particularly with regard to the rights of criminal defendants. This is commonly seen as a reaction against the strict anti-death penalty stance of Chief Justice Rose Bird in the early 1980s, which she maintained even as violent crime soared to record heights statewide. The state’s outraged electorate responded by removing her (and two of her anti-death penalty allies) from the court in November 1986.

High-tech expansion

Starting in the 1950s, high technology companies in Northern California began a spectacular growth that continued through the end of the century. The major products included personal computers, video games, and networking systems. The majority of these companies settled along a highway stretching from Palo Alto to San Jose, notably including Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, California, all in the Santa Clara Valley, the so-called “Silicon Valley,” named after the material used to produce the integrated circuits of the era. This era peaked in 2000, by which time demand for skilled technical professionals had become so high that the high-tech industry had trouble filling all of its positions and therefore pushed for increased visa quotas so that they could recruit from overseas. When the “Dot-com bubble” burst in 2001, jobs evaporated overnight and, for the first time over the next two years, more people moved out of the area than moved in. This somewhat mirrored the collapse of the aerospace industry in southern California some twenty years earlier.

By 2004, it seemed that many of the coveted high-tech jobs were either “off-shored” to India at ten percent of the labor costs in the U.S., or “on-shored” by recruiting newcomers from among the billions in India and China. New laws have removed caps to visas, especially since the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tens of millions of people from the third world have entered the U.S. since 1960, settling at first mainly in California and the Southwest, but now throughout the continent. In 1960 (when the birth rate nearly equaled the replacement rate) the population of the U.S. was 180 million; in 2000, it was 280 million.

A victim of its own success?

Although air pollution problems have been reduced, health problems associated with pollution have continued. The brown haze known as “smog,” has been substantially abated, however, asthma continues as a problem. Pollution from storm water drains began to kill organisms near the inhabited seacoast, inspiring numerous conservation organizations. Lagoons at creek mouths along the coast disappeared under urban building projects, leading to restrictions on coastal development.

Electric power supply became an occasional issue. For example, in the spring and summer of 2000, rolling blackouts were used by electricity providers such as Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric Company to prevent demand from exceeding supply. In the 1990s, a phylloxera epidemic came into California vineyards, killing wine grapes, and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Still, the ongoing demand for skilled workers over the decades continued. Housing prices in urban areas continued to increase, with reversals during times of economic slow-down. An average home that, in the 1960s, cost $25,000, cost half a million dollars or more in urban areas by 2005. More people commuted longer hours to afford a home in more rural areas while earning larger salaries in the urban areas. This pattern began to change in 2007, when housing prices began to decline.

Third millennium politics

In the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic incumbent Gray Davis defeated Republican challenger Bill Simon.

On October 7, 2003, Davis was 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.

Schwarzenegger began his shortened term with a soaring approval rating and soon after began implementing a conservative agenda. This initially resulted in sparring with the heavily Democratic Assembly and Senate over the state budget, battles which provided his infamous “girly men” comment but also began taking their toll on his approval rating. Schwarzenegger then embarked on a campaign to enact several ballot propositions in a 2005 Special Election touted as reforming California’s budget system, redistricting powers, and union political fundraising. The union-led campaign spearheaded by the California Nurses Association contributed heavily to the defeat of every proposition in the Special Election. Since this conspicuous failure, Schwarzenegger has made a turn back to the left, criticizing the Bush Administration at many junctures, reviving his environmental agenda, and compromising with the legislature on the traditionally Democratic issue of education spending. His approval rating has also been revived, and he was re-elected in 2006.