California Origins

How California was formed

California is home to a very rich and characteristic ecosystem which started developing during the Pliocene, supporting many species of megafauna. The coastal plains of California began to lift and to give way under pressure, thereby forming the coast range. Later, during the Pleistocene era, intense and specific environmental changes occurred. First, California's Mediterranean climate started to form. Second, the Pacific and North American plates shifted and uplifted the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges. In addition, changes in sea levels formed the 'stepped' coastal terraces so necessary for the support of the coastal prairie megafaunal communities.

These striking changes created new climate conditions on several levels, reaching a climax during the Rancholabrean Period (named for the fossils found in the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits), from 300,000 - 11,000 years ago. The extensive California grasslands were home to perhaps the most immense numbers of wildlife on Earth. This assemblage of prehistoric predators, scavengers, grazers, and browsers is one of the largest in the world. Not even eastern Africa claims greater numbers.

The Holocene Period brought an even greater change: humans. This meant the days of an ecosystem ruled by grazing megafauna were over. Humans are generally credited with these mass-scale species extinctions (the so-called 'Pleistocene overkill' hypothesis). However, the Mediterranean climate is also cited as another possible cause of their demise.


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Humans Arrive in California

California's Native American Tribes

The Bering Strait land bridge is the most widely accepted theory of migration to the New World. This theory holds that approximately 16,500 years ago, people crossed into the Americas from Asia by way of this land bridge. Around that time, roughly 30 different tribes or groups inhabited what is now California. This large cross-section of people was one of the largest in North America, and is likely attributable to many different invasions and migrations over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years.

By the time the first Europeans made contact, many Native American tribes lived in the area. Some of these include the Hupa, Chumash, Mohave, Maidu, Yurok, Miwok, Pomo, Ohlone, Modoc, Serrano, Tongva, Tataviam, Shasta, and Wintu.  Most lived by hunting and gathering and were well-adapted to the very diverse Californian sub-climates. The relative strength of the tribes was constantly changing; the most successful broadened the size of their territories, while the least successful ones contracted.

War amongst the tribes and slave trading punctuated periods of peace. Estimates show that at the time of the 18th century Spanish colonization , around 300,000 Native Americans lived in what we now know as California, constituting about one-third of all natives in what is now known as the US. Unlike other cultures  to the south, these Native Americans did not live as one single society. Rather, they lived in many small, separate groups, each with their own societal norms and customs. For example, each group spoke their own language, consumed different foods, and worshiped their own religion. Unfortunately, these native people had not developed an alphabet, so written records were non-existent. Therefore, what we do know about these native peoples is based mainly on archaeological evidence, accounts of colonists and European explorers, and tribal elders' oral histories that have been passed down for generations.

These tribes inhabited every terrain in California; from beaches to valleys, mountains, forests, and deserts. In each of these areas, their methods of cultivating and tending to the land involved processes such as weeding, tilling, controlled burnings, irrigation, pruning, and replanting. These methods did alter the terrain and landscape, of course, but did so in a way that imitated nature. As a result, when the Europeans arrived, they erroneously assumed that these people lived in a completely 'wild' area that had remained untouched. In fact, humans had been transforming the environment for thousands of years. 

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European Arrival

How Europe changed California forever

Although the Spanish had conquered the Aztec Empire in Central Mexico in the early 16th century, there were no major European settlements established until the mid-18th century. While Spain centered on its core zones in Peru and Mexico, other countries paid little attention to this part of the new world, as their focus was on more populated zones. In 1524, Hernan Cortes, in a letter to the King of Spain, wrote of legends of a very rich island to the north called Cihuatan, populated by fierce and beautiful Amazonish women. In 1539 Francisco de Ulloa led an expedition to find this wonderful land. The expedition diarist, Francisco Preciado, referred to the territory as 'California', after a mythical island in the popular Spanish romance novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián. (Up through the 1730s, Europeans widely assumed the Baja California peninsula was an island.)

An expedition started in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is thought to be the first time Europeans landed in California, but they never found wealth or highly advanced native civilizations, thus making the region of little further interest for the Spanish. Tensions between Spain and England, the superpowers of the time, led to an expedition headed by Francis Drake, which is believed to have landed somewhere north of San Francisco in 1579, claiming California for England, and naming it "Nova Albion", but there was no English follow-up to this trip.

In 1769, after the threat of incursion by Russian fur traders and potential settlers, the Spanish separated California into two parts: Alta California and Baja California, naming Monterey the capital of Alta California. The first Alta California mission was founded in San Diego by Padre Junipero Serra. He continued to establish 21 missions along a 650-mile trail, the 'El Camino Real', from San Diego to Sonoma. Four 'Presidios', or forts, were built, leading to the creation of several towns to support them: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Jose, and Santa Cruz.

Many of the same issues that drove the English away from their colonies in the New World led to the independence of Mexico from Spain in 1821. A new era began in California as ranch life flourished and American and European trappers began to trade and settle. Hostilities between the U.S. and Mexico, inspired mainly by territorial disputes between Mexico and the Republic of Texas, and later by the American annexation of Texas, lead to the Mexican-American War in 1846. That same year,  a revolt staged by several non-Mexican settlers, the so-called 'Bear Flag Revolt', ended in the proclaiming of the California Republic, which lasted only a week until  the U.S. Army, led by captain John C. Fremont, took over on June 23.

On February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo formally ended the Mexican-American War. Mexico ceded California and other northern territories to the United States for an amount of $18,250,000, and after being controlled under a series of military governors, California was granted official statehood by Congress on September 9, 1850.

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The Beginning of a New Era

Gold Rush to the 21st Century

The Gold Rush, started by the discovery of gold by James W. Marshall in 1848, brought both foreign and domestic immigrants by the thousands. This and later mass migrations, combined with the state's natural riches, assured California's success as it developed its diversified agriculture and industry. Shipping and construction suddenly boomed, and the railroads permanently connected California with the rest of the country. These advancements came at a big price, though, as the extraction of gold eventually became more difficult and scarce, which made the use of more environmentally-taxing methods of mining a necessity. In addition, the Native American population was pushed away from their traditional lands and even persecuted and exterminated.

Because of its location, California didn't play a prominent role during the Civil War. The state predominantly favored the Union, though, as it was controlled by Republican supporters of Lincoln.  Its involvement included sending gold and troops east to support the war effort, while forts and combat units that stayed in the state were destined primarily to fight hostile natives.

After the war, the surge in the transport industry grew even more, giving rise to the establishment of the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Railroad, both started before the war but stopped because of it. Many other industries flourished, and highly skilled workers became a necessity. This led to the establishment of labor laws and the creation of labor unions.

During the years before the turn of the century, the state continued to grow rapidly. Important events during this era include the creation of Yosemite's National Park in 1890, the founding of the environmental conservation non-profit Sierra Club in 1892, and the successes of the wine, fruit growing, and oil industries.

As a result of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, the west coast center of trade, industry, and population growth moved largely from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

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The 1910s brought the nascent film industry, becoming a staple of the state in the following years. The total population of the state increased by 60% in that decade, reaching more than 2,000,000. The Mexican Revolution brought a huge influx of migrants from south of the border, thereby re-establishing the Latino heritage. It should be noted that the Great Depression brought another wave of migrants, this time from the impoverished prairie states of the Dust Bowl.

Throughout and after WWI, Douglas, Lockheed, Curtiss, and others established the aircraft industry. Later, as WWII was brewing,  aviation manufacturing helped to free  California from the grips of the Great Depression. By the time WWII ended, California had received billions of dollars from the federal government for military contracts. The 1950's through the 1970's were a time of great economic growth for the state, thanks to defense contractors. In addition, the Cold War was responsible for spurring economic expansion.  Many companies involved in the space program were headquartered in California, as well.

California has always been a leader in new attitudes and social movements, and even more so during the 20th Century, which saw the birth of the ‘Beat’ movement, the hippie counterculture and the Gay Rights and other Minority Rights movements. California has also always been at the forefront of the technology revolution, being the birthplace of the computer and electronics industries, and it's the place of choice as the hub of future technologies.

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Edited/Contributed by: John C. Derrick
Published/Updated on: 02-21-2016

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