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The first Spanish missionaries arrived in California in the 1700s, but California didn’t become part of the United States until 1847, as part of the treaty ending the Mexican-American War. Shortly thereafter, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 inspired a wave of settlers to head to the West Coast in search of fortune. In 1850 California became the 31st state.

With millions of acres of farmland, California leads the United States in agricultural production. The state is also home to famous cultural institutions and national parks including Hollywood, Disneyland, Yosemite National Park, Alcatraz, Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.

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California’s Native American History

The first people migrated to California nearly 20,000 years ago from Asia across the Bering Straits. California’s mountain ranges and deserts isolated Native American tribes from each other, and they lived in peaceful family clans with little political structure. More than 500 tribes, each with their unique culture, developed across the state, such as the Pomo, Tolowa, Miwok, Maidu, Cahto, Wintun, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Chumash, Karok, Mojave, Yokuts, Paiute and Modoc.

When Spanish missionaries first came to California in the mid-1700s, the native population was estimated to be about 30,000—or 13 percent of the total Indigenous population in North America at the time. The population was gradually decimated, first in the 18th century by disease and forced labor in Spanish missions, and then in the late 19th century by American settlers.

California Missions

Concerned about Russian and English encroachment on western New Spain territory, Spain ordered an expedition north from Baja Mexico in 1769. The first Spanish soldiers and priests traveled and established a presidio (military fort) and mission church in San Diego. This marked the first of at least 21 California missions, which were often accompanied by presidios and pueblos (small towns).

Greatly outnumbered by native inhabitants, Franciscan missionaries came with the blessing of the Spanish state to convert Indigenous people to Christianity and train them into loyal Spanish citizens. Missionaries introduced agriculture and ranching to indigenous peoples. They taught them Spanish culture and language as well as skills like weaving, construction and blacksmithing. They also forced natives to build and stay within their walled communities and flogged those who disobeyed. Forced labor along with foreign disease, which spread rapidly in crowded living conditions, halved the indigenous population by the time the Mexican government secularized the mission system in 1834.

European Exploration

Spanish explorers began sailing the West Coast of North America looking for the mythical “Island of California,” entirely populated by beautiful women, described in Garcí Rodríguez Ordóñez de Montalvo’s book Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián). They named the Baja California peninsula of Mexico after the book.

Spanish conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to explore the West Coast of the United States, naming the area “Alta California.” Sent by New Spain to find a water route to Asia, Cabrillo and his crew left from Mexico and set foot on modern-day San Diego on September 28, 1542, then traveled north to Monterey Bay.

Sailing for the English in 1579, Sir Francis Drake looted Spanish settlements in the Americas and escaped to Point Reyes Peninsula, near San Francisco. Portuguese merchant-adventurer Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño landed in Drake’s Bay in 1595 and explored parts of northern California including Monterey, an area revisited several years later by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno.

The Spanish only settled in California with the Franciscan establishment of presidios and missions beginning in 1769. Spanish commander Juan Bautista de Anza created an overland route from California to New Spain and brought the first families to California in 1776. Fewer than 4,000 settlers lived in California until the mid-1800s.

From Mexico to the United States

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 following the Mexican War of Independence, and Alta California became a Mexican province in 1822. The Mexicans established a ranching culture, and Mexico’s liberal trading policies encouraged Californians to trade with the Americans and the English.

In 1826 trapper Jedediah Smith led the first group of U.S. citizens overland into the area. In 1841, John Bidwell and John Bartleson led the first group of organized American settlers into California. Immigration continued until American immigrants outnumbered Mexican citizens by the mid-1840s. American settlers revolted against the Mexican government in 1846 and declared California an independent nation in what became known as the Bear Flag Revolt.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government had gained interest in expanding its territory and was fighting the Mexican-American War. One month after the Bear Flag Revolt, the U.S. military occupied California. In January 1847, California surrendered to the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the war’s end gave California to the United States on February 2, 1848. Without ever becoming a territory, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state on September 9, 1850.

California Gold Rush & Immigration

WATCH: The California Gold Rush

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at a sawmill he was constructing at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, ushering the California Gold Rush. Most of the first treasure-hunting immigrants came from outside the United States, including from Mexico, Chile and China. After President James Polk recognized the discovery that December, prospectors known as “forty-niners” began pouring into the state the following year.

In 1849 alone, more than 100,000 people moved to California from the United States and worldwide, including Europe, Australia, New Zealand and China. Some came looking for gold, while others set up saloons and other businesses. Between 1847 and 1860, the state’s population tripled to 308,000 residents. The Gold Rush changed the lives of California’s Native Americans, who within years, were almost wiped out due to the massive immigration the Gold Rush inspired. Most prospectors never struck it rich, but miners did extract an astonishing 28,280,711 ounces of fine gold between 1850 and 1859.

By the 1870s, almost all of the 63,000 Chinese immigrants in America lived in California, and anti-Chinese sentiment arose. Chinese filled jobs building the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s and then in agriculture in the early 1870s. This combined with an economic downturn in the 1870s spurred the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred Chinese immigration until China sided with the United States in World War II.

The next big wave of California immigrants came to escape the Great Depression and a series of droughts in the 1930s. More than 300,000 people migrated to California from midwestern “Dust Bowl” states, including Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Texas. These poverty-stricken “Okies” faced discrimination and were the subject of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

When the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act opened up U.S. immigration, people from all over the world arrived in California, especially from Mexico, China, the Philippines, Central America and India.

California's Economy

California’s balmy climate and strong economy continue to attract new residents. As of 2021, the state boasted the largest population in the United States with more than 39 million residents. Many come to work in agriculture. Despite urbanization, drought and the loss of land to industry, California leads the country in agricultural production: More than a third of U.S. vegetables and two-thirds of fruit and nuts are grown in California. As of 2021, California also grew more than 3.9 million tons of wine grapes on 620,000 acres each year, producing more than 80 percent of all U.S. wine.

A thriving tech industry emerged in northern California in the 1960s, earning the area the name Silicon Valley after the main element in integrated circuits. In the 1970s and 80s, California businesses including Intel and entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple helped create personal computing. As of 2022, California boasted the most tech jobs of any state in the United States, accounting for 1.88 million jobs and a quarter of national tech productivity.

California is also known for its film industry. Los Angeles was home to the first motion picture theater in the United States, which opened in 1902. Industrial jobs and a real estate boom encouraged many people to move to Hollywood from the early to mid-1900s. The 1930s welcomed the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, cemented by the creation of Technicolor and Walt Disney’s studios. Almost half of today’s film sector jobs in the United States are based in Los Angeles.

As of 2022, California had the largest economy of any state in the U.S. In 1997, it was the first state to reach the trillion-dollar benchmark in gross state product (GDP). As of 2021, California was ranked the fifth-largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $3.1 trillion.

Date of Statehood: September 9, 1850

Capital: Sacramento

Population: 37,253,956 (2010)

Size: 163,694 square miles

Nickname(s): The Golden State; The Land of Milk and Honey; The El Dorado State; The Grape State

Motto: Eureka (“I have found it”)

Tree: California Redwood

Flower: Poppy

Bird: California Valley Quail

Interesting Facts

  • The highest and lowest points in the continental United States are located within 100 miles of one another in California: Mount Whitney measures 14,505 feet, and Badwater Basin in Death Valley is 282 feet below sea level.
  • Considered to be the hottest, driest place in the United States, Death Valley often reaches temperatures greater than 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer and averages only around two inches of rain each year.
  • With a trunk slightly greater than 36 feet in diameter at its base and 275 feet tall, the General Sherman in Sequoia National Park is the largest living tree (by volume) in the world. It is estimated to be about 2,200 years old.
  • About one-half of California's land is federally owned. National parks located throughout the state are devoted to the preservation of nature and natural resources.
  • Southern California has about 10,000 earthquakes each year, although only 15 to 20 of them have a magnitude greater than 4.0.
  • Dr. Maya Angelou was San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor. The civil rights activist, poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings went on to recite one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration.
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