Colonial Records of California
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California’s settlement followed the usual pattern of Spanish colonization—the mission, the presidio, and the pueblo. Under the Franciscan Order’s extensive civil authority, a chain of missions bridging lower and upper California was established. Presidios were garrisoned by soldiers, with their commandants having civil and judicial authority within their respective districts located at San Diego, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. California was ceded to the United States under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The territory continued under military government until September of 1850, when it was admitted as a state.
With statehood, local records were transferred to the nine existing counties: San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Branciforte, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Sonoma. Many of these records were later transferred to the surveyor general’s office in San Francisco and consequently burned in the 1906 fire.
An extensive collection of Monterey records now held by that county includes criminal proceedings of the Monterey Court, 1807–43; military affairs, 1781–1843; papers from the prefect’s office, 1837–49; papers regarding tithes, missions, and religious affairs, 1782–1844; papers connected with Indians, 1833–48; land grants, sales, transfers, suits, and location claims, 1803–49; power of attorney, 1834–49; register of cattle brand, 1835–49; papers on the probate of estates and wills, 1830–48; papers relating claims against the Mexican government, 1841–42, 1846–47; naturalization papers, 1829–42; political affairs, censuses, and elections, 1828–49; alcalde and ayuntamiento records, 1828–50; official acts of judges, 1842–46; papers regarding ships at sea, 1833–49; index to the Spanish archives; and deeds of grants, 1822–50.
The Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley has transcripts and abstracts of some of these records, while the Huntington Library in California has sixteen volumes on microfilm.
Los Angeles records available from the Huntington Library on microfilm include alcalde correspondence, 1823; ayuntamiento minutes from 1832; judicial records of civil and criminal cases; records of the Los Angeles prefecture from 1834; register of cattle brands and marks, 1833–52; notarial records; petitions for land; claims for mines; deeds, mortgages, contracts, bankruptcy papers, and wills; inventories of personal and household goods; court-martial papers; censuses; and decrees and proclamations.
The Historical Society of Southern California also has photostats of this collection, and the Los Angeles County Recorder’s Office has indexed transcriptions and translations.
The Los Angeles County Law Library has court records from 1839–82, including criminal cases, 1839–50; civil cases, 1839–44; and miscellaneous Spanish records, 1840–50.
The Los Angeles Archives has translations of archives from 1826 to 1845, including a voters’ register of 1830 and censuses of 1836 and 1844. Transcripts of these records are in the Bancroft Library with official documents of San Francisco, 1835–57.
Records of San Diego are now in the Records of the Bureau of Land Management (Record Group 49) in the National Archives. Other early records of San Diego are in the Junipero Serra Museum in San Diego, the Bancroft Library, and the San Diego Historical Society Archives.
Records of San Jose are presently in the Santa Clara County Recorder’s office. Transcripts of this collection are in the Bancroft Library along with collections of Spanish and Mexican records relating to Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and numerous early settlements.
Provincial records of California were divided between Los Angeles and Monterey until 1846. After much shuffling between various repositories, these records were finally placed in the custody of the Surveyor General in San Francisco but were nearly all destroyed by the fire of 1906. The land records escaped, and some other documents had fortunately been issued as broadsides or pamphlets and were thus preserved in libraries, including laws, decrees, proclamations, instructions, regulations, tables, orders, notices, manifestos, reports, and expositions.
The Bancroft Library has a nearly complete collection of such materials, and a large collection of Mexican documents is also available at the Sutro Library, San Francisco State College.28
Census Records of California
As with Arizona, California census records are limited and do not include all towns, missions, or residents.
|Locality Year(s) Reference*|
|General||1777–79||AGN PI 121:2:277–374|
|General||1795–96||AGN PI 19:2:63–91|
|General||1798||AGN CA 49:3:137–188|
|Los Angeles||1790||SSC 41:181–182|
|Los Angeles||1816||SSC 41:228–229|
|Los Angeles||1816||SSC 43:350–351|
|Los Angeles||1822||CAL 4:36–39|
|Los Angeles||1844||SSC 42:360–363|
|Monterey||1770||AGN CA 76:27|
|Monterey||1773||AGN CA 66:397–397v|
|San Diego||1770||AGN CA 76:27|
|San Diego||1790||SSC 43:107–108|
|Santa Bárbara||1815||913167 item 1|
|Santa Bárbara||1840||913167 item 2|
|Santa Cruz||1845||CAL 4:45–58|
- AGN CA: Collections found at the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City for the section Californias.
AGN PI: Collections found at the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City for the section Privincias Internas.
CAL: Antepasados, published by Los Californianos.
MBL: George Hammond, Guide to Manuscript Collection of the Bancroft Library.
SAC: Saint Albert’s College, Oakland, California.
The following are identified only in published form:
SSC: Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly.
Six- or seven-digit numbers with no other reference are film numbers from the collection of the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, available through local Family History Centers.
Catholic Church Records
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Extensive Catholic sacramental registers exist for California, primarily from the system of missions extending from San Diego on the south to Sonoma on the north. The best description of the extant records is found in Rudecinda Lo Buglio’s “Survey of Prestatehood Records: A New Look at Spanish and Mexican California Genealogical Records.”29