We dont know much about the non-European occupants who were
in California when the Spaniards arrived. We do know theirs was a a stable and peaceful
culture. Various tribes lived in the region, each in its own distinct area. The tribes
spoke different languages, which put them at a disadvantage in the face of European
Spain claimed and occupied California with the goal of spreading their
kingdom and their Catholic religion. This ultimately met with failure, as centralized
planning has throughout history (reference to "the Clintonistas" is a play on
what happened with central planning in Californias early years).
War in Mexico (18101821) slowly pushed Spanish rule from North America. But
Californians were in the dark about the war, because the Spanish government censored what
little news that came with infrequent government supply ships. Californians thought the
revolution was a minor spat soon to fade away. In 1822, they were shocked to learn they
had been Mexican citizens for nearly a year!
When Mexico gained independence from Spain, California became an isolated community,
with no support from Spain. Mexico declared California a territory (rather than a state)
and left it low on the priority list.
Citizens spent three decades with no clear political direction. In 1825, Mexico City
began sending governors to California, but Californians simply didnt respect these
peopleespecially since Mexican force was hardly a threat. Between 1831 and 1836,
California government had 11 different administrations.
The power base in California transferred to a few families descended from the Spanish
soldiers. They became owners of permanent and large ranchero grants. The richest families
sold hides and tallow from the free cattle that roamed huge ranchos. These families
intermarried, and the ties meant the battles between them seldom resulted in casualties.
To increase the non-Indian population, foreigners of all types were admitted. Soon a
sizable minority of Yankees grew, dominating the merchant class and entering into
important positions in the political and social structure. Yankees also found a new
industry in California: beaver fur.
Jedediah Strong Smith led a small party from the Great Salt Lake overland to Mission
San Gabriel in 1826. Upon returning to Utah in July, he became the first person known to
cross the Sierra Nevadas. He brought both news of a trail a beaver trapper's paradise.
Another trapper, James Pattie, entered California in the Fall of 1826. Trappers continued
to come to California from the East, developing an immigration route that would be key,
twenty years later.
In1824 ,the Chumash Indians revolted and temporarily controlled three missions (Santa
Barbara, Santa Ines, and La Purisima). In 1829, Estanislao organized Miwok tribes into a
band that successfully fought off the Californians for the rest of the Mexican era. One
guerrilla band after another wore away at Mexican influence and the existence of the
The 1830s were seminal to Californias becoming a state, and several key players
arrived during that time. They include: Thomas Larkin (1832), Jacob P. Leese (1836), John
Marsh (1836), and John Sutter (1839). These people helped form the culture that eventually
made Californian successful and predominantly "Yankee."
The United States wanted San Francisco, because of its reputation as the best harbor on
the Pacific coast. Americans remembered how weak Mexico was in the War of 1812, and
started licking their chops at acquiring California. Several attempts to purchase the
territory failed because of one fiasco or another, and making Texas a state exacerbated
difficult relations between the U.S. and Mexico.
The two landmark events were the Bear Flag Revolt (an uprising precipitated by a
clashing of egos and authorities) and the Mexican American War, taking place in 1846. At
that time, California was very weak militarilythe various Presidios were either
unmanned or so low on arms and ammunition as to be useless. Yankees made up a
rapidly-growing portion of the population, and held key positions in business and
While the Bear Flag Revolt was raging, the U.S. was at war with Mexico over Texas. The
Californians didnt know the two nations were at war. The Bear Flag Republic cast out
the Mexican Authorities, and proclaimed themselves free of Mexican rule. The U.S. decided
to take California from the Mexicans. On July 7th, the U.S. Navy raised the
U.S. Flag at Monterey. On the 9th, they raised it at Yerba Buena, and on the
11th they raised it at Sutters Fort. So, American possession displaced
the Bear Flag Republic less than a month after the birth of that republic.
Initially, Californians resigned themselves to accepting the long-expected takeover by
the U.S. But, when Commodore Robert Stockton took over, he and his cronies acted with
arrogance and unfairness. This led to further rebellion, which was doomed because of both
logistic and organizational reasons. However, the rebellion did gain respect for their
On to statehood....
In 1848, with Mexico defeated, California became a U.S. Territory on 2 February. On 11
February, an employee discovered some flakes of gold at Sutter's Mill. The political
honchos helped engineer the subsequent gold rush, which brought a flood of people into
this land so removed from the rest of the U.S.
With a huge Yankee population dwarfing the original residents, political leaders had
the clout to ratify a Constitution in November, 1849. The U.S. Congress recognized this
Constitution in 1850. The disillusioned miners turned to trade, farming, and other forms
of business. Wages were high.
With the swelling of population, enormous herds of cattle valued at $4 a head in 1846
sold for as high as $500 a head in 1850. Irrigation plays a major role throughout
California history, as it did then. It allowed the valleys to be the greatest food
producing area on earth. Agricultural revenue quickly exceeded the value all the gold
California ever produced. The Spanish and Mexican governments occupied California for 300
years, and it was an economic and cultural wasteland. Ninety years after California became
a state, Ernest Lawrence split atoms at the University of California.