California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third most extensive (after Alaska and Texas). It is home to the nation's second and sixth largest 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). The capital city is Sacramento.
California's diverse geography ranges from the Pacific Coast in the west, to the Sierra Nevada mountains 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 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 due to the state's location along the Pacific Ring of Fire: about 37,000 are recorded annually.
The name California once referred to a large area of North America claimed by Spain that included much of modern-day Southwestern United States and the Baja California peninsula. Beginning in the late 18th century, the area known as Alta California, comprising the California territory north of the Baja Peninsula, was colonized by the Spanish Empire as part of New Spain. In 1821, Alta California became a part of Mexico following its successful war for independence. Shortly after the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, a group of American settlers in Sonoma declared an independent California Republic in Alta California. Though its existence was short-lived, its flag became the precursor for California's current state flag. American victory in the war led to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States. Western areas of Alta California became the state of California, which was admitted as the 31st state on September 9, 1850.
The California Gold Rush beginning in 1848 led to dramatic social and demographic change, with large scale immigration from the U.S. and abroad and an accompanying economic boom. Key developments in the early 20th century included the emergence of Los Angeles as the center of the American entertainment industry, and the growth of a large, state-wide tourism sector. The late 20th century saw the development of the technology and information sectors, punctuated by the growth of Silicon Valley (part of the San Francisco Bay Area). California's prosperous agricultural industry also emerged; at least half of the fresh fruit produced in the United States are now cultivated in California, and the state also leads in the production of vegetables. Other important contributors to its economy include aerospace, education, and manufacturing. If California were a country, it would have the 8th largest economy in the world and it would be the 34th most populous nation.
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; 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.
The first European to explore the coast as far north as the Russian River was the Portuguese 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. Sebastián Vizcaíno explored and mapped the coast of California in 1602 for New Spain.
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 this period, Imperial Russia explored the California coast and established a trading post at Fort Ross.
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 first and 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 1848 the non-native population of California was estimated to be no more than 15,000. After gold was discovered, the population burgeoned with U.S. citizens, Europeans and other immigrants during the great California Gold Rush. By 1854 over 300,000 settlers had come. 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 despite the fact that 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 very 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 1846. In 1849 the Constitutional Convention was first held there. Among the duties was the task of determining the 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. The large earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1906 devastated the city.
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.
In order 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. A couple of decades later, 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 currently 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.