California Family History Research
This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford, Thelma Berkey Walsmith, and Nell Sachse Woodard for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of California
In 1769 a small group of military men and missionaries, sent by the Spanish crown, arrived at what was to become San Diego. Alta (Upper) California, as it was known during the Spanish and Mexican eras, was inhabited at that time by various indigenous tribes. It was Spain’s goal to conquer the natives and settle the area. They built missions a day’s journey apart on El Camino Real (the King’s Highway) in fertile valleys beside permanent streams. Inhabitants raised crops and livestock. Several missions were destroyed when a severe earthquake struck in 1812. However, construction continued until the Mexican government secularized the mission holdings in 1833 and the land passed into private ownership. Citizens of Spain and Mexico occupied the coastal area between San Diego and the San Francisco Bay.
The first considerable gold discovery in California was made thirty-five miles north of Los Angeles in 1842 by a Mexican rancher named Francisco Lopez. This was followed by a larger discovery at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma in 1848. But California is not only known for its yellow ore. California’s reputation as the “Golden State” came from the early sea otter and cattle-hide trade, the black gold of oil, the fruit-growing industry in Southern California, and the large development of agriculture statewide beginning in the nineteenth century.
In 1800 the Russian American Fur Company of Alaska had loaned twenty Aleut natives to a New England ship captain to engage in the illegal but highly successful hunting of sea otters off the California coast. The Russians followed and built Fort Ross about eighty miles north of San Francisco Bay. Some of their descendants are living in the area today.
On 31 July 1846, over 200 Mormons from New York landed in San Francisco after sailing around Cape Horn. These Mormons decided to stay on the Coast and work in lumber camps on the Marin Peninsula across the Golden Gate from San Francisco.
Following the discovery of gold and the Mexican War in 1848, the United States acquired all of the southwestern Mexican possessions. A large number of immigrants, including a substantial influx of Italians, began arriving in California after the declaration of statehood on 9 September 1850. The acquisition of the southwestern lands resulted in many land claims, and much litigation was required both in the courts and in the regulatory agencies before these cases were adjudicated. Not until March 1851 did Congress send land commissioners west to review all grant titles.
The Central Railroad (later Southern Pacific), after its completion in May 1869, brought thousands of new migrants and goods westward. Numerous towns grew up along the transcontinental route. Thousands of Chinese migrated to California, providing cheap labor in the mines as well as on the railroads. The most severe earthquake in California’s recorded history occurred on 18 April 1906 in San Francisco. The quake and subsequent fire destroyed much of the city and caused the loss of many important records.
The depression of the 1920s and drought of the 1930s were followed, with the advent of World War II, by an ever-growing demand for labor and military and naval personnel. Since 1945 the growth of the state has been phenomenal. The census bureau counted almost thirty-four million residents in 2000, ten million more than 1980. While early settlers may have been drawn to California for fishing, hunting otters, raising livestock, searching for gold, and engaging in grain agriculture, others later came to the “Golden State” attracted by the entertainment, aerospace, and technological (computer) industries.