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A Historical Perspective

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Mission style oak settle early 20th century
Mission style oak settle early 20th century

In 1521 the supremely audacious conqueror, Fernando Cortes, described by one of his contemporaries as a man "of little belly and somewhat bow-legged," occupied Mexico City and destroyed the empire of the Aztecs. Eleven years later, Fortun Jimenez, adventurer, mutineer, and cosmographer, sailed westward from the mainland and discovered a barren peninsula which rumor soon endowed with gold, pearls, mermaids, and precious stones. In the course of time, the land was called California after a fabled island that lay, according to a contemporary Spanish writer of colorful and fantastic tales, "at the right hand of the Indies . . . very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise . . . inhabited by black women."

Some ten years after the Jimenez voyage, while Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, in command of what had once been "the most brilliant company ever assembled in the Indies to go in search of new lands," was still wandering in the wilderness of the Southwest in a vain endeavor to find the Seven Cities of Cibola, the Kingdom of the Gran Quivira, and other insubstantial creations of the Spaniards' too-active imagination, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, "a good man and well versed in navigation," sailed from the small port of Navidad on the west coast of Mexico, crossed the Gulf of California, rounded the tip of the peninsula, and continued up the coast to "see what lay beyond." His vessels, the ‘San Salvador and Victoria’, were small, poorly equipped, wretchedly provisioned and inadequately manned. It is written of them, too, that they had no decks.

On September 28, 1542, the Spaniards entered the bay now known as San Diego, which Cabrillo called San Miguel, and thus became the first Europeans to visit the coast of present-day California. The expedition sailed as far north as the mouth of the Rogue River in southern Oregon and barely survived the perils of the voyage. There were days and nights of never-ending storm; there were times when the waves swept over the prows of the helpless ships as breakers sweep across a rock; there were hours when weariness and despair drove the half-starved men so close to raving madness that "if God and His blessed mother had not miraculously saved them they could not have escaped."

When the heroic Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo died of a hurt, presumably on the island of San Miguel, the chief pilot, Bartolome Ferrelo, took over his command and, after three months more of bitter struggle, brought the battered ‘San Salvador and Victoria’ back to Navidad. The Cabrillo-Ferrelo voyage added materially to geographic knowledge, but more than two and a quarter centuries elapsed before the Spaniards occupied the remote, half-legendary region that gradually came to be known as Alta California. During that long interlude, however, the land was not completely neglected or forgotten. In 1577- 1579 Francis Drake, circumnavigator of the globe and "Master theefe of the unknown world," passed through the Straits of Magellan in the ‘Golden Hind’, seized enormous treasure as he sailed up the coast, visited one of the ports of California, and claimed the country as Nova Albion for Her Majesty, the first Elizabeth.

Following Drake's voyage, a number of Spanish vessels from the Philippine Islands visited or were wrecked on the California coast, and in 1593 the king authorized a single ship to sail annually between Manila and New Spain. This "Manila Galleon," with its precious cargo and scurvy-stricken crew, normally made the landfall of California near Cape Mendicino and skirted the coast southward to the historic port of Acapulco. The trade continued until the close of the eighteenth century.

In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino, a Spanish navigator of somewhat chequered experience, sailed from Acapulco on an especially significant exploratory voyage of the California coast. With relatively few misadventures and brief landings here and there, the expedition reached a small, well-sheltered bay, "the best that could be desired," which Vizcaino named Monterey after the Viceroy of New Spain, the generous sponsor of the voyage.


Beyond Monterey, the voyage in search of the constantly receding Strait of Anian - known to the English as the Northwest Passage - that united the Atlantic Ocean with the South Sea, became a nightmare of almost unendurable hardship and near-disaster. Violent storms threatened to capsize the ships; fog, mist, and blinding rain made the sky "as dark in the daytime as at night"; and scurvy played such havoc with the crew that when the vessels finally returned to New Spain the sick "were crying aloud," and the few sailors still able to walk or "go on all fours" were too weak to raise the anchors or manage the sails. The Vizcaino expedition marked Spain's last effort for well over a century and a half either to explore or plant a colony on the California coast. Meanwhile, that "land of distance, silence, and solitude" slept the generations through, undisturbed by conquistador, colonist, or priest, untroubled by contact with the wars, commerce, and culture of the West.

But in 1763 the close of the Seven Years' War brought the long sleep to an end. The French withdrew from the New World, Canada became an English province, and the boundary of English empire moved westward to the Mississippi. This threat of English encroachment upon the Kingdom of New Spain, "the treasure chest of the world," actively revived the long-dormant plan of planting a colony in California. The measure was given additional impetus by the threat of a Russian advance down the coast from Alaska, the necessity of providing a port of refuge and supply for the Manila galleon, and a renewed outburst of zeal for the conquest of new lands for the Church. California was at last to be occupied for the glory of God, the honor of the king, and the security of New Spain.

Three remarkable leaders, each in a different field were responsible in large measure for initiating and carrying through the California venture. Don Jose de Galvez, the newly appointed visitador-general, or special representative of the king, threw himself into the organization and direction of the undertaking with almost fanatical enthusiasm. Don Caspar de Portola, the civil and military commander of the enterprise, proved to be courageous, resourceful, loyal, and determined. Finally, the zeal, devotion, and contagious faith of the Franciscan friar Junipero Serra - scholar, mystic, practical administrator - gave to the enterprise the character of a spiritual crusade.

The actual occupation of California was accomplished by two maritime and two overland parties. The former, in spite of careful planning and generous supplies, at least for the day and time, suffered severely from the ravages of scurvy, but those who came overland experienced relatively little hardship. The last of the four companies reached San Diego on July 1, 1769, and a few days later Portola formally recognized the port as a royal presidio. On July 14, "the day of the seraphic doctor, San Buenaventura," the same undaunted leader set forth at the head of a small company (whose members, as he said, more closely resembled skeletons than men), to rediscover and occupy Vizcaino's long-lost port of Monterey.

On October 1, 1769, the company reached, but failed to recognize, that bay. A month later, a few of Portola's trail-weary men saw the shores of an immense arm of the sea and gazed - with what wonder and amazement we can only guess - upon the lonely, seemingly endless reaches of San Francisco Bay, one of the noblest of all the harbors of the world.

Reduced to a diet of mule meat and "smelling frightfully of mules," as Portola wrote, the expedition returned to San Diego on January 24, 1770, after an absence of six months. A second quest for Monterey fortunately proved more successful than the first, and on June 3, in the shelter of an ancient oak, Father Serra said the Mass, the soldiers raised a large cross, and Portola took formal possession of the land.

But even after the establishment of presidios at San Diego and Monterey and the subsequent erection of several missions between the two widely separated bases, Spain's hold on California remained precariously weak until the able Viceroy, Antonio Bucareli, dispatched a large party from Sonora under command of a certain Don Juan Bautista de Anza to make further settlements in the province. "Tough as oak and silent as the desert from which he sprang," this heroic frontier captain carried out his difficult mission with such amazing ingenuity and success that he has well been called the savior of Spain's colonizing venture in California.

A decade after the critical years that closed with the success of the Anza colony, life in California began to assume a pastoral simplicity whose tranquil routine was seldom broken by either domestic disturbance or repercussions from the outside world. Presidios, missions, and pueblos - the three effective institutions designed by the skillful architects of Spain's vast empire to control, colonize, and convert the frontier - were established at strategic places along or near the coast from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. The Presidio was a military fort or garrison that served to protect the province against Indian uprising and the intrusion of a foreign power. Such posts were established at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco.

A second characteristic Spanish frontier institution, designed for civilian colonists and called a pueblo, was represented by settlements at San Jose and Los Angeles. The mission, "a conspicuous example of Spain's frontiering genius," was responsible for the conversion of the Indian, his training in the elementary features of European culture and useful occupations, and his transformation into a loyal subject of the crown. Each of the twenty-one California missions was indeed church, school, agricultural and industrial center, and outpost of western civilization on Spain's latest and most remote frontier. The privately owned land grant, or cattle ranch, constituted a fourth important institution of Spanish colonial California. Relatively few of these large holdings were created during the Spanish regime, but some twelve years after Mexico acquired independence, the government secularized the missions, repossessed the millions of acres the Spanish crown had originally permitted them to use, and distributed the land in league-wide grants, often embracing tens of thousands of acres, to private claimants. The era thus begun has often been called the golden age, the idyllic years of California history.


Life on the ranches was simple and unaffected and nearly all of its activities took form and color from the customs, practices, and traditions of the open range. The Californian's limited demands for such luxuries as silks, clothing and dress of foreign make, liquors, combs, shawls, hardware, and furniture - commodities ranging in variety from "Chinese fireworks to English cartwheels" - were supplied by the English or New England hide-and-tallow ships which Richard Henry Dana immortalized in his classic tale of the sea, ‘Two Years before the Mast’. Living under a simple economy of trade and barter, blessed with unrestricted freedom, untroubled by the fret, competition, and devastating anxieties of modern life, given to natural, unaffected hospitality, they were content to devote themselves with enviable success to "the grand and primary purpose of the enjoyment of life."

American interest in California with its sparse, widely dispersed population, almost fabulously rich but undeveloped natural resources, and virtually unprotected harbors, began when New England merchant adventurers were "vexing strange seas with their industry" after the close of the American Revolution and continued to grow for upwards of half a century.

This interest, popular as well as official, was the product of such diverse factors as New England trade; the establishment of a Russian colony at Fort Ross and the Russian threat to San Francisco Bay; the opening of overland trails to the province by the beaver trappers or mountain men - those hard-bitten adventurers who "first took seisin of the vast and lonely spaces of the West, explored its mysteries, discovered its hidden trails, and 'marched with the sun to the last frontier'"; a flood of books, letters, newspaper comments, and magazine articles designed to attract favorable attention to California; John C. Fremont's expeditions to the coast and his graphic writings on western travel and adventure; a chronic state of confusion, revolution, and near-anarchy both in Mexico and California which gave rise to a persistent rumor that the province would soon become an independent republic or fall under British rule; and the growing belief that Manifest Destiny required the United States to expand to the Pacific, obtain control of San Francisco Bay, and dominate the trade of China and the East.

Three Presidents - Jackson, Tyler, and Polk - attempted in vain to purchase California from a bankrupt Mexican government, and Polk even instructed his confidential agent at Monterey - a New England merchant named Thomas 0. Larkin - to encourage the Californians to break with Mexico and seek the support of the United States. But while Larkin was busily engaged in these activities, American settlers in the Sacramento Valley, later aided and abetted by John C. Fremont, rose in revolt against the California government and on June 15, 1846, proclaimed the Bear Flag Republic. Early in July, however, word reached California that war had at last broken out between Mexico and the United States, and both Bear Flag Revolt and Republic came to an abrupt end.

Though the annexation of California was one of the major objects of the Mexican War, the subjugation of the province itself constituted only a minor military operation. The conquest consisted of two phases. The first involved the bloodless occupation of California's principal settlements and harbors and began with the seizure of Monterey by Commodore John B. Sloat of the United States Navy and a formal declaration, July 7, 1846, of American sovereignty over the province. This phase ended on October 23 when a mob of embittered Californians, "filled with patriotism and perhaps with wine," forced the small American garrison stationed in Los Angeles to evacuate that notoriously turbulent pueblo. The local Los Angeles uprising rapidly developed into a province-wide revolt that constituted the second phase of the war in California.

During this brief period, the Californians, though poorly organized and inadequately equipped with arms and ammunition, fought a number of spirited hit-and-run engagements with the Americans and in the so-called battles of Dominguez Rancho and San Pasqual definitely worsted their opponents; but the odds were too uneven and on January 13, 1847, the small body of Californians still under arms accepted the terms of a liberal and conciliatory document known as the Cahuenga Capitulation and brought the useless struggle to an end.


The Mexican War itself closed with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2, 1848. Under the terms of that treaty, Mexico formally ceded her two border provinces, California and New Mexico - a huge, vaguely defined territory of some 529,000 square miles - to the United States and received $15,000,000 in return. Almost simultaneously a rumor got abroad in California that gold had been discovered at a sawmill near Coloma in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A few months later the little-credited rumor was officially confirmed; the startling news spread to the four quarters of the earth and almost overnight the previously isolated, thinly populated Mexican cattle frontier had aroused the cupidity and excited the desire of the world.

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