California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is the most populous U.S. state, home to one out of eight people who live in the U.S., with a total of 38 million people, and it is the third largest state by area (after Alaska and Texas). California is bordered by Oregon to the north, Nevada to the east, Arizona to the southeast, and the Mexican state of Baja California to the south. It is home to the nation's second and fifth most populous census statistical areas (Greater Los Angeles Area and San Francisco Bay Area, respectively), and eight of the nation's 50 most populated cities (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento, Long Beach, and Oakland). Sacramento is the state capital, and has been since 1854.
What is now California was first settled by various Native American tribes before being explored by a number of European expeditions throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It was then claimed by the Spanish Empire as part of Alta California in the larger territory of New Spain. Alta California became a part of Mexico in 1821 following its successful war for independence, but would later be ceded to the United States in 1848 after the Mexican-American War. The western portion of Alta California was soon organized as the State of California, which was admitted as the 31st state on September 9, 1850. The California Gold Rush starting in 1848 led to dramatic social and demographic change, with large-scale immigration from the east and abroad with an accompanying economic boom.
California's diverse geography ranges from the Pacific Coast in the west, to the Sierra Nevada in the east – from the Redwood–Douglas fir forests of the northwest, to the Mojave Desert areas in the southeast. The center of the state is dominated by the Central Valley, a major agricultural area. California contains both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States (Mount Whitney and Death Valley), and has the 3rd longest coastline of all states (after Alaska and Florida). Earthquakes are a common occurrence because of the state's location along the Pacific Ring of Fire: about 37,000 are recorded annually, but most are too small to feel.
At least half of the fruit produced in the United States is now cultivated in California, and the state also leads in the production of vegetables. Other important contributors to the state's economy include aerospace, education, manufacturing, and high-tech industry. If it were a country, California would be the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world and the 34th most populous.
Settled by successive waves of arrivals during the last 10,000 years, California was one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in pre-Columbian North America. Various estimates of the native population range from 100,000 to 300,000, which was about one-third of all native Americans in what is now the United States. The Indigenous peoples of California included more than 70 distinct groups of Native Americans, ranging from large, settled populations living on the coast to groups in the interior. California groups also were diverse in their political organization with bands, tribes, villages, and on the resource-rich coasts, large chiefdoms, such as the Chumash, Pomo and Salinan. Trade, intermarriage and military alliances fostered many social and economic relationships among the diverse groups.
16th and 17th centuries
The first European effort to explore the coast as far north as the Russian River was a Spanish sailing expedition, led by Portuguese captain Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, in 1542. Some 37 years later English explorer Francis Drake also explored and claimed an undefined portion of the California coast in 1579. Spanish traders made unintended visits with the Manila Galleons on their return trips from the Philippines beginning in 1565. The first Asians to set foot on what would be the United States occurred in 1587, when Filipinos sailors arrived in Spanish ships at Morro Bay. Sebastián Vizcaíno explored and mapped the coast of California in 1602 for New Spain.
After the Portola expedition of 1769-70, Spanish missionaries began setting up 21 California Missions on or near the coast of Alta (Upper) California, beginning in San Diego. During the same period, Spanish military forces built several forts (presidios) and three small towns (pueblos). Two of the pueblos grew into the cities of Los Angeles and San Jose.
Imperial Russia explored the California coast and established a trading post at Fort Ross. Its early 19th Century coastal settlements north of San Francisco Bay constituted the southernmost Russian colony in North America and were spread over an area stretching from Point Arena to Tomales Bay.
Cattle ranches, or ranchos, emerged as the dominant institutions of Mexican California. After Mexican independence from Spain, the chain of missions became the property of the Mexican government and were secularized by 1834. The ranchos developed under ownership by Californios (Spanish-speaking Californians) who had received land grants, and traded cowhides and tallow with Boston merchants.
Beginning in the 1820s, trappers and settlers from the U.S. and Canada began to arrive in Northern California. These new arrivals used the Siskiyou Trail, California Trail, Oregon Trail and Old Spanish Trail to cross the rugged mountains and harsh deserts surrounding California.
In between 1831 to 1836, California experienced a series of revolts against Mexico; this culminated in the 1836 California revolt lead by Juan Bautista Alvarado, which ended after Mexico appointed him governor of the department. The revolt, which had momentarily declared California an independent state, was successful with the assistance of American and British residents of California, including Isaac Graham; after 1840, 100 of those residents who did not have passports were arrested, leading to the Graham affair in 1840.
In 1846 settlers rebelled against Mexican rule during the Bear Flag Revolt. Afterwards, rebels raised the Bear Flag (featuring a bear, a star, a red stripe and the words "California Republic") at Sonoma. The Republic's only president was William B. Ide, who played a pivotal role during the Bear Flag Revolt.
The California Republic was short lived; the same year marked the outbreak of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). When Commodore John D. Sloat of the United States Navy sailed into Monterey Bay and began the military occupation of California by the United States, Northern California capitulated in less than a month to the U.S. forces. After a series of defensive battles in Southern California, the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed by the Californios on January 13, 1847, securing American control in California.
Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war, the region was divided between Mexico and the U.S.; the western territory of Alta California, was to become the U.S. state of California, and Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Utah became U.S. Territories, while the lower region of California, the Baja Peninsula, remained in the possession of Mexico.
In 1846 the non-native population of California was estimated to be no more than 8,000, plus about 100,000 Native Americans down from about 300,000 before Hispanic settlement in 1769. After gold was discovered, the population burgeoned with U.S. citizens, Europeans, Chinese and other immigrants during the great California Gold Rush. By 1854 over 300,000 settlers had come. Between 1847 and 1870, the population of San Francisco increased from 500 to 150,000. On September 9, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the United States undivided as a free state, denying the expansion of slavery to the Pacific Coast.
California's native population precipitously declined, above all, from Eurasian diseases to which they had no natural immunity. Like in other states, the native inhabitants were forcefully removed from their lands by incoming miners, ranchers, and farmers. And although California entered the union as a free state, the "loitering or orphaned Indians" were de facto enslaved by Mexican and Anglo-American masters under the 1853 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. There were several massacres in which hundreds of indigenous people were killed. Between 1850 and 1860, California paid around 1.5 million dollars (some 250,000 of which was reimbursed by the federal government) to hire militias whose purpose was to protect settlers from the indigenous populations. In subsequent decades, the native population was placed in reservations and rancherias, which were often small and isolated and lacked adequate natural resources or funding from the government to sustain the populations living on them. As a result, the rise of California brought great hardship for the native inhabitants. Several scholars and Native American activists, including Benjamin Madley and Ed Castillo, have described the actions of the California government as a genocide.
The seat of government for California under Spanish and later Mexican rule was located at Monterey from 1777 until 1845. Pio Pico, last Mexican governor of Alta California, moved the capital to Los Angeles in 1845. The United States consulate was also located in Monterey, under consul Thomas O. Larkin.
In 1849, the Constitutional Convention was first held in Monterey. Among the tasks was a decision on a location for the new state capital. The first legislative sessions were held in San Jose (1850–1851). Subsequent locations included Vallejo (1852–1853), and nearby Benicia (1853–1854); these locations eventually proved to be inadequate as well. The capital has been located in Sacramento since 1854 with only a short break in 1861 when legislative sessions were held in San Francisco due to flooding in Sacramento.
Initially, travel between California and the rest of the continental U.S. was time consuming and dangerous. A more direct connection came in 1869 with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad through Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Once completed, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens came west, where new Californians were discovering that land in the state, if irrigated during the dry summer months, was extremely well suited to fruit cultivation and agriculture in general. Vast expanses of wheat, other cereal crops, vegetable crops, cotton, and nut and fruit trees were grown (including oranges in Southern California), and the foundation was laid for the state's prodigious agricultural production in the Central Valley and elsewhere.
Migration to California accelerated during the early 20th century with the completion of major transcontinental highways like the Lincoln Highway and Route 66. In the period from 1900 to 1965, the population grew from fewer than one million to become the most populous state in the Union. In 1940, the Census Bureau reported California's population as 6.0% Hispanic, 2.4% Asian, and 89.5% non-Hispanic white. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and 1928 St. Francis Dam flood remain the deadliest in U.S history.
To meet the population's needs, major engineering feats like the California and Los Angeles Aqueducts; the Oroville and Shasta Dams; and the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges were built across the state. The state government also adopted the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 to develop a highly efficient system of public education.
Meanwhile, attracted to the mild Mediterranean climate, cheap land, and the state's wide variety of geography, filmmakers established the studio system in Hollywood in the 1920s. California manufactured 8.7 percent of total United States military armaments produced during World War II, ranking third (behind New York and Michigan) among the 48 states. After World War II, California's economy greatly expanded due to strong aerospace and defense industries, whose size decreased following the end of the Cold War. Stanford University and its Dean of Engineering Frederick Terman began encouraging faculty and graduates to stay in California instead of leaving the state, and develop a high-tech region in the area now known as Silicon Valley. As a result of these efforts, California is regarded as a world center of the entertainment and music industries, of technology, engineering, and the aerospace industry, and as the U.S. center of agricultural production. Just before the "Dot Com Bust" California had the 5th largest economy in the world among nations.
Note: California was part of the region acquired from Mexico in 1848, and was admitted as a State on September 9, 1850 with essentially its present boundaries. Although the 1850 census covered the whole State, the 1850 returns are incomplete; those for Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties were lost before reaching Washington, and those for San Francisco County were destroyed by fire.. The 1850 total is incomplete; the returns for Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties were lost before reaching Washington; those for San Francisco County were destroyed by fire. The State census of 1852 showed a population of 2,786 for Contra Costa, 36,154 for San Francisco, and 6,764 for Santa Clara; the 1852 State total was 215,122, excluding El Dorado County, whose population was not enumerated but was estimated at 40,000.. Total for 1890 includes population (5,268) of certain Indian reservations not reported by county.
Births, Marriages, and Deaths
There is an ongoing project to provide a statewide index to these records on the Internet through the BYU-Idaho Family History Center in Rexburg, Idaho, as part of its Western States Historical Marriage Records database. It can be searched at http://abish.byui.edu/specialCollections/fhc/gbsearch.htm. Ancestry.com also has a marriage database for California at California Marriage Index, 1960-1985.
Divorce records are available in the office of the clerk of the superior court in the county in which the proceedings were conducted. Subscribers to Ancestry.com can search the California Divorce Index, 1966-1984.
There is also an index of California deaths at Ancestry.com. Subscribers can search this index at California Death Index, 1940-1997.
FamilySearch.org has a variety of collections available online for free to the public:
RootsWeb hosts a free database of California Death Records, 1940-1997. It is searchble by name, father's name, mother's maiden name, birth year and place and death year and place. The parents name fields are not fully populated.
A more complete, but more difficult to use, database can be found at Vital Search. Records go from 1905 to 2000, but unless you pay a fee, you can only search by last name. They have scanned the actual index pages, which are fairly cryptic. You need to use the explanations provided on the site to decipher the columns and the county of death.
VitalSearch also has Birth Records 1905-1995.
Outstanding guide to California family history and genealogy (FamilySearch Research Wiki). Birth, marriage, and death records, wills, deeds, county records, archives, Bible records, cemeteries, churches, censuses, directories, immigration lists, naturalizations, maps, history, newspapers, and societies.