Ethnic Groups of California

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This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford, Thelma Berkey Walsmith, and Nell Sachse Woodard in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the California Family History Research series.
History of California
California Vital Records
Census Records for California
Background Sources for California
California Maps
California Land Records
California Probate Records
California Court Records
California Tax Records
California Cemetery Records
California Church Records
California Military Records
California Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
California Archives, Libraries, and Societies
California Immigration
California Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of California
California Gold Rush
California County Resources
Map of California


Native American

California’s Native American population was unique in that there were many small tribes living a pastoral life when the Spaniards arrived, founding missions and presidios. The missions fell into decay, and the natives dispersed after the Mexican revolution.

For research on Native Americans in California, there are several websites that provide links to the tribes themselves: “Tribes and Villages of California” www.hanksville.org/sand/contacts/tribal/CA.php and “California Tribes Contact Information by Rancheria (Reservation) Name” www.kstrom.net/isk/maps/ca/sacramento.html has valuable maps showing location of tribes in the state and contact information for the Sacramento Area Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Central, Northern, Southern, and Palm Springs agencies.

A large collection of the National Archives Indian agency records on microfilm is at the FHL. This includes a group of various censuses in one collection. Miscellaneous California Census (1907–15) is part of the NARA microfilms with copies at the FHL. The list “Native American Agency Records” refers to the tribe, Indian agency and years of collection, and the NARA location of records. Some tribes are additionally mentioned in the agency records for the border states of Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. This includes the Colorado River Agency, Fort Yuma Agency, and the San Carlos Agency, which take in tribes in both Arizona and California.

Other Ethnic Groups

By the time of the first census in 1850, California’s nonnative population swelled to 92,600. Of this population, 70,000 were Americans living mostly in Northern California.

Migrants, from every ethnic group in the country, continued to arrive at roughly the rate of 300,000 annually until 1900. Many were farmers from the southern tier of the United States including Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The population increased at an even higher rate for the next four decades.

The Golden Promised Land, as California has been thought of, has not always been a paradise for minority groups. Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, and other Asians from many eastern lands came to work on the railroad projects and were subject to the prejudices of the resident population. The Okies, from the drought-stricken dust bowl, tried to find work in southern California and the San JoaquinValley in the 1930s. The demand for workers rose abruptly during World War II, bringing many African Americans, Mexicans, and more recently Latin Americans, and Southeast Asians. The public records of California include all ethnic groups, and most libraries can be helpful in focusing research on any particular group. In addition to Ryskamp’s resource guide (see Background Sources) and Beers’ guide (see California Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript collection), the following are sources or contain background information for some California ethnic groups:

  • Beasely, Delilah Leontium. The Negro Trail Blazers of California. New York: Negro University Press, 1969.
  • Burchell, R. A. The San Francisco Irish, 1848–1880. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
  • Goode, Kenneth G. California’s Black Pioneers: A Brief Historical Survey. Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, 1974.
  • Nicosia, Francesco M. Italian Pioneers of California. Italian American Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Coast, 1960.
  • Northrop, Marie E. Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California: 1769–1850. Vol. 1. Burbank: Southern California Genealogical Society, 1986. Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California: 1769–1850. Vol. 2. Burbank: Southern California Genealogical Society, 1984.
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