Travelling through California: The History Of Its Land And People

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 2000

14 Pages, Grade: 14 Points

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Travelling through California: The History Of Its Land And People

Abgabetermin: 01.02.2000


The Golden State

When the Spanish writer Montalvo published his book ,,Las Sergas de Esplandion" in 1510 - describing a place populated by black beauties armed with weapons of gold - no one knew that this incredible place would one day be discovered. The land his compatriots should take for the Spanish crown about 30 years later was in spite of the lack of female warriors called after the queen of this expected people: Califa.

The state California we know today is of course not paradise as Montalvo described it, but in some aspects it comes close to it. It offers what I would call a extreme variety of almost everything: The highest mountain in the U.S.- Mount Whitney- and Death Valley with the deepest point on the whole northern hemisphere are in a distance of as little as 80 miles. Busy megacities and endless highways through untouched landscapes. These extremes basically reflect the natural qualities of the area. Another extreme appeared through all the years of immigration - which mainly reach from the discovery to today. Within these 450 years California developed from a land simply populated by Indians to a so called salad bowl - a mixture of races from all over the world. Asians, Europeans, Africans and Latinos who pushed into the state known as the ,,Golden State" brought their culture religion and way of living into a place which had no rules or laws in the beginning. This ethnic diversity is the basic stone for a major problem in Californian history: racism. The phenomenon occurs in all periods of time, from exploitation of native Indians in the very beginning to maltreatment of blacks and Mexicans in our times. Another problem is performed by moving landmasses which can be blamed for devastating earthquakes, which regularly shake up the area along San Andreas Fault, causing damages of some billion dollars. And if the earth doesn't shake once in a while there is of course an enormous lack of water. But efforts have been made to improve the situation. Today dams save water, so that Californians don't need to be thirsty at any time.

These characteristics don't seem to be a perfect starting situation for an upstriving country, but somehow California has managed to become the U.S.´s most important state, with an economic power comparable to those of European states. Silicon Valley as the origin of high- tech equipment, space- and aircraft industry especially under control of NASA, but also agriculture (California is the state which produces more agricultural products than any other state) are the most important sectors. California today is the pace-giving part of the USA: All kind of trends emerged here, from the fitness cult to online voting in state-elections, the Californians were always the pioneers.

This changeful country is now more and more often a touristic aim for those who travel by mobile home through national parks or enjoy beachlife near San Diego. Maybe this is nice entertainment, but in my eyes a much more interesting way of exploring this state is a voyage through history, because California has a lot of it to tell.

The Very Beginning: Indians in California

It all started at least 10.000 years ago, when Indians came over a landbridge from Asia and

settled all over the area of what is today California. They were a group of 300.000 and formed 105 tribes which all had their own language, culture and religion. In general, they worked as hunters, collectors or fishermen and not as warriors fighting each other on every occasion. Regarding to the very mild Californian climate they lived in tents or caves forming a village where everyday life was held. But this peaceful and harmonic way of living changed dramatically when Europeans started their Age of Colonization.

Hispanic California (1542-1848)

In 1533 Hernán Cortés was the first to see Californian ground when he was leading a voyage along the Mexican coast. What he saw, he called Baja California which today is part of Mexico. Some years later Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo was on the search for the Strait of Anin, a way which was meant to connect the pacific and the atlantic ocean. Although he didn't find what he was looking for, he explored something else: a bay we know now as San Diego Bay. That was 37 years before Sir Francis Drake took upper California for the British crown in 1579 and with it attracted the rage of the Spaniards who felt uncomfortable about the British rival. They thought the only way of keeping California for them was a quick colonization. The first steps were taken in Baja California, where the Spanish started construction of forts and missions. That was in 1697, and another 70 years later the first mission was established in San Diego. Many cities we know today, like San Francisco or Santa Barbara, have their roots in these first steps of settlement. 21 of these missions were called to life within the next 5 decades, stretching all the coast long of present-day California.

The basic aim of the missions was to create a system of housing possibility for those who traveled along the pacific coast. Therefore the 21 missions were built in distance of a day's walk.

They were organized by Franciscan monks who tried - and often succeeded (88.000 Indians converted) - to convert and educate Indians. As the population of a mission exceeded at times 2000 people, they required huge areas of land for cultivation and hunting which was of course land that was up to this point the homelands of the Indians. The area now belonged to the missions and for the Indians it was in many cases hard work under a master who treated them like slaves. As if this wouldn't be enough punishment, the Indians suffered under the spread of - for them - new diseases which contributed to reduction of the Indian population from estimated 300.000 to 250.000.

Spain was now proud explorer of the new land and founded several military outposts of which one - Monterey - became the political capital. In order to enforce their influence, land was given away to settlers who founded cities like Los Angeles and San José. But around 1800 Spain lost its interest in California and the Californians felt neglected because of isolation from the other Spanish colonies. Then, after Mexico had gained independence from Spain in 1821, and California with it become a colony of Mexico, still nothing serious had changed. California was still sparsely populated (1845: 7000 non-Indians), although the first settlers from the U.S. had already arrived. Of course the newcomers wanted California to be integrated into the USA, and their mood was very much against the Mexicans. As an effort to satisfy their wish, the U.S. offered to buy California but Mexico refused, so that President James Knox Polk saw the only way to cope with the situation in a declaration of war against Mexico. The war lasted 9 months, from 13.05.1846 to 13.01.1847 when Mexico surrendered and gave California to the USA (02.02.1848: Treaty of Guadeloupe Hildago). California was then integrated into the USA in 1850 as the 31st state.

Early American California

As if the Americans had known of the bright future of California, James Wilson Marshall found gold at Sutter's Mill at the American River on 24.01.1848, 9 days before the treaty was made. This discovery should be responsible for the following development.1 The owner of the mill was Johann Sutter, a German who didn't want to follow the traditional way of living. He managed to escape from Germany after he was sentenced to jail and as he arrived in the U.S. he polished up his own history and soon became - with the help of his new connections - proprietor of a land in California in the late 1830's. His land was rough and unfertile, but Sutter's optimistic attitude helped him to build up a fortified settlement : Fort Sutter. This Fort was soon very popular, as many trails passed it and Sutter became almost prominent. But the Fort wasn't what he expected from life, so he came to the idea of constructing a sawmill at the close American River.

His great day came on the 24th of January in 1848 when his employee Marshall found bright glittering metal during a routine inspection of the mill. None of the workers believed what he saw, but after several tests they came to the conclusion, that it was pure gold. News spread quickly over California made public by men like Samuel Brannan who ran through the streets of San Francisco wiping with a bag full of gold and shouting: "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" (Altmann, The California Goldrush in American History, p20)

Those who already lived in California packed their pan, pickle and shovel and tried to find their luck, but those who were still in one of the eastern states were affected by the dream of never ending gold, too. Their only problem was, that they had to get to California before many others took what might have been theirs.

They could choose between basically 3 ways of reaching "paradise": the long and hard sea journey all around Cape Horn which took about 6 months, was very dangerous and only suitable for real sailor- men.

A shorter voyage was the so called Panama Connection, which meant, that the travelers had to cross 60 miles of jungle under threat of malaria, mosquitoes and cholera in order to catch a boat at Panama-City. Especially the Companies which ran the boats were often called cutthroats as they demanded incredibly high fares. Under these circumstances the settlers tried to express their anger with the help of poems like the "Humbug Steamship Companies":

"The greatest imposition that the public ever saw,

Are the California steamships that run to Panama,

They're a perfect set of robbers, and accomplish their designs,

By a gen'ral invitation of people to the mines." 2

But probably most of the settlers decided to take the overland passage across Missouri and so 62.000 wagons started in Missouri in spring 1849. They were existing of just male participants because the way through the mountains was expected not to be a weekend-trip. It is often shown in pictures, that the travelers were permanently attacked by barbarian and cruel Indians, but the things they had really to cope with was lack of food and spreading diseases. Another problem was that the paths were not signposted, so that many of the leaders thought to know their secret shortcut and ran together with many thousand others into their doom. Many died on their way because of wrong timing: there was a golden rule that advised to leave early enough in spring, so that one could pass the icy Rockies before winter. Not everybody listened.

Nevertheless, masses arrived, but what they found was not the expected paradise, it was more like slums: rotten houses, muddy streets and astronomically high living costs. But the wish for gold made them blind and so the cities grew and grew. San Francisco was a quiet town with 1000 inhabitants in 1848 and in 1850 it had an estimated population of 30000. Everybody was mad for gold: eyewitnesses report of happenings during funerals, when the priest suddenly saw gold in the grave and closed the whole event. The diggers' working conditions were backbreaking, a 14 hour labor day was not a seldomness. In small teams of up to four men they washed gold, but what they found was not the big deal, not the expected gold nuggets but at best tiny grains of the precious metal. Despite very small earnings they spent large parts of their income in one of the many saloons and bars with gambling, whiskey or prostitutes.

But the new opportunities not only attracted honest men. The legends about California, a new land without law draw many criminals into the area who thought, they could start a completely new life. This is commented in a poem called "What was your name in the states?"

"Oh, what was your name in the states?

Was it Thompson or Johnson or Bates?

Did you murder your wife?

And flee for your life?

Oh, what was your name in the States?"2

It implies that everybody who came to California had quite a record. And as the example of Sutter, who should have gone to jail in Germany, shows, this was even realistic. In the same time, from 1849 to 1851, as most as the diggers arrived, the newcomers experienced the first time the power of nature on Californian ground. Where today drainage systems control water masses, in these days heavy rainfalls and early spring melting snow in the mountains caused such a heavy rise of the water level, that all Sacramento was flooded. In this area water demanded many victims, whereas in San Francisco fire broke out and destroyed large parts of the city. The first time many thought about what they had done. For gold they had quit their families and risked their lives and often not even found anything. This frustration soon turned into violence against other ethnic groups. Latinos were prejudiced as murderers and bandits who came over the border to steal the American gold. Some cities were even declared as Mexican- free zones. The same was with the Chinese who came between 1850 and 1852 and appeared very inscrutable. They began sifting in groups along let alone river places and even had success. Driven by jealousy and fear of the mystical, the whites attacked the breakable Chinese more and more often so that they organized themselves in Chinatowns, which still exist today.

Indian and Africans played a different role. They were not the scapegoats, but regarded as primitive life forms not worth living. Indians were put on reservations and Africans had to work for whites who brought them as slaves from other states. Although slavery was not allowed in California, blacks who came with their master stayed property. The end of the Gold Rush came fluently, fewer came and more left. In 1853 the Rush was officially ended and many of those who had come saw, that they left with less than with what they had arrived. All in all population had increased from 15.000 in 1848 to more than 100.000 in 1849 (Indians not included) and reached up to 380.000 by 1860. The diggers had mined gold of $2 billion worth and with their life-style shrinked the Indian population from 150.000 in 1845 to less than 30.000 in 1870.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Now California was a real state with large cities, citizens, a constitution (since1849), which mainly based on the one of New York, the official status of a U.S. state, and a own flag, which stands for the fight of the Californians against Mexico.

But still there was a problem in California: It had no direct connection to the eastern states. Travelers had to go come there by one of the three mentioned means of transportation. Finally in 1869 a star rose: the directors of the Central Pacific Corporation - one of them was Leland Stanford, who later founded the Stanford University -, also known as the Big Four, opened up the first transcontinental railway linking Sacramento with the eastern states. In this time especially Chinese laborers were employed for the construction of the rails. With this new mean of transportation everybody could reach the new state in a comfortable and timesaving way. Especially for the trade this was the start of a new era: farmers from California brought their products into the big cities and in exchange many new settlers, among them the first women apart from prostitutes, came from the east. O nce more the population grew rapidly to over 560.000, but when economy declined during the next ten years as a consequence to a depression, the Chinese, which had helped to bring the newcomers to their new homes in California, were blamed for the bad econo mic situation and therefore persecuted.

California at the Turn of the Century

As if it were a revenge for those who had punished the Chinese, the earth shook in 1906. It was not the first earthquake to strike California, but this one was strong enough to put San Francisco into ruins. Starting on the 18th of April, the earthquake and the following fire killed at least 450 people and destroyed 28.000 buildings. With the help of the dedicated San Franciscans only three years later the city was almost completely rebuilt and ready for further growth.

Each of the cities LA and San Franciso could soon proudly call itself a city with more than one million inhabitants. And exactly this was the next problem, because more people needed more of the rare element of water. The only way out was the construction of very large scaled projects. San Francisco decided to dam up Tuolumne River and Los Angeles came to the idea to tap the Owens River which is 150 miles away. These sources still today provide water for the cities.

The 40 Years before WW II

Once more a discovery spurred the development of population and economy. This time in the early 1920's oil, the black gold, was found in California, which made the state number one of the U.S. oil exporting states. This new economic sector attracted in addition to the basic number of immigrants many people who hoped to find a job in petrol industry. As a consequence, population in LA county, which was the center of oil production, rose in these ten years from 1.000.000 to over 2.000.000, causing the next problem: traffic by the newly invented automobiles. Every third Los Angeles citizen owned one, which meant that for the first time jams and polluted air appeared. A phenomenon even today overpopulated Los Angeles can't cope with.

Nevertheless LA was still an interesting address for all kind of business. Especially film industry settled here. The place they chose was Hollywood, a quarter of Los Angeles which had already been sold to the film companies in 1903 and from then on attracted the firms which had before been located at the east coast. The mild climate and many sun shining hours made up the perfect conditions for the relatively new industry. In World War I the American film industry profited of the lack of competition from Europe and soon controlled the world market. The big firms started a series of fusions which produced still today existing corporations like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or Paramount Pictures. The only obstacle in their way was the success of television in the early fifties. Meanwhile TV and cinema live in coexistence, but the question is if the American entertainment center of the future will stay in LA's neigbourhood or move to Silicon Valley.

In the 1930's the depression affected California. Not the economy itself declined, but due to the bad situation in the other states hundreds of thousands of job- and homeless men and women streamed into the Golden State. Once again population rose in a dramatic way. The government saw the problem and tried with the help of laws to keep out the poor. Government thought there were not enough jobs for the newcomers.

California during WW II

This condition didn't last long, because when WW II broke out many of the formerly unwanted refugees helped constructing airplanes, ships and weapons. Among the workers were all kind of races, also Japanese or people of Japanese origin. Especially for them hard times came up when in the winter of 1941 Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor. Afraid of sabotage spionage or kamikaze acts almost a hundred thousand Japanese were interned in so called relocation centers. No one cared about split families or loss of property. Critics say that this step was not because of fear of attacks, but finally a way to show the negative sentiments against foreigner which had been existing for a long time. This argument sounds very convincing if one knows, that this relocation only took place on the continent itself and not on the islands of Hawaii, where one third of the population was of Japanese origin. The first time the Californian government had shown racist tendencies.

The Postwar Era

Even in and before wartime many educated Europeans had come to California, many of whom were scientists. After war they contributed to the once more positive economic state California was in. New industry sectors as aerospace research and service industry were discovered. The 31st state was all in all proud of what it had made of itself. Proud of all? No, still there were even heavier traffic problems than ever before, and as the environmental awareness increased critics for the first time talked openly about effects air and water pollution has on health. Another movement overshadowed the perfect picture of California in the early sixties: News reported more and more often about religious groups, sects and a new movement which spread among the Californian students.

They wore colorful clothes, long hairs listened to strange music, celebrated drugs and enjoyed a liberal sex life. The reasons for this form of peaceful protest might be that they were born after WW II and saw the political attitude of their country from a different angle. Hippies saw no need for war, racial discrimination or a materialistic way of life their parents as representatives of the whole establishment followed. The movement was very popular so that in 1965 41% of all U.S. citizens under the age of 20 sympathized with it. They were organized in Peace Corps or anti war movements and tried to convey the idea of friendship in strikes, mass demonstrations and sit- ins. Their critics declared them as immature, apolitical and immoral and said it was hopeless to guide a country through non action. Nevertheless, the popular movement was hyped through high media attention so that it soon became mainstream.

Maybe that was the death-sentence for what was in the beginning meant to be new way of thinking. Hippie districts became more and more often a place of refuge for teenager, crime and violence spread which contradicted the peaceful principles.

As so often in Californian history this time after once more economy had declined war industry let industry and wealth thrive. Especially the threat of the enemy, the Soviet Union, made the USA spend incredible amounts of money into Californian war industry. With the help from the first native Californian U.S. President Nixon the state's high-tech industry was instructed to produce means which could upheld the balance of power. A job which brought in some billions of dollars.

Economy was thriving, unemployment rate sank and education service profited from stronger financial support. Meanwhile immigration had slowed down since 1970 and California had been elected the most popular state in the USA. It could not work out better, everybody thought nothing could stop progress. Until October 17th in 1989 when the earth began to shake in the Bay Area.

One of the heaviest earthquake ever to hit California caused the collapse of a highway and the Oakland Bay Bridge. All together the quake which reached 7.1 points on the Richter scale killed 270 people, destroyed 100.000 homes and caused property damage of 5-7 billion dollar. Now the Californians were warned, and they knew that this one would not be the last one. California had been affected too often by quakes in the past. This is shown in the following map, which displays the strongest historical earthquakes. It can be seen, that there is a line which stretches from Baja California through the whole state and finally leads into the open sea. The line is called San Andreas Fault and is the result of the colliding continental and pacific land masses.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The 1990's

The latest decade started not better than the old one had ended. As a positive aspect regarding humanity and the fight against communism on the one hand the Soviet Union fell apart in December of 1991. On the other hand one of California's main industrial sectors was from then on no longer needed. No enemy meant no need for weapons and so California experienced once more a economical decline. For the future California had to look for a new sector which was soon found in the growing service and computer industry. Nevertheless, the year of 1991 was the bad year for the Golden State. A videotape that proved violence of four policemen beating up a black motorist called Rodney King. The scandalous thing about it was the reason - actually it can't be called one - for the deed: the African American men exceeded the speed limit. He didn't even use force against the police. The reaction on the verdict in court, which was broadcasted live into the whole USA was fatal. A riot broke out, but this time not only in a small area like in 1965 in Watts. The violence which was also broadcasted directly spread from Watts over Westwood, Long Beach and the noble Beverly Hills. Los Angeles burned in estimated 500 places. 53 deaths, 2300 injured, a damage of one billion dollar and 16.000 arrested where the result of the street fights. The strange thing about the arrested was that they were in majority male and black, although the TV's tape-recording of the riot showed many female and white rioters, too. Was this again a sign of racism? At least critics interpreted it that way.

The actual victim of the encroachment - Rodney King - described the incident in the following way:

"They walked over me and I felt a blow on the head. He walked over to me and,

boom, he kicked me in the face. And then I heard...´ We're going to kill you nigger! Run... ´" 3 (page 216)

The case of Rodney King soon became a symbol of racism in the USA, and the city of LA had to pay a reparation sum of 3.8 million $ for physical and psychical pain. In the next years California was faced to a menace from the south: Mexican illegal immigrants came over the border into what they hoped to be was paradise. They simply climbed over the small fences, which signed the line between Mexico and the United States. Meanwhile this is no longer possible. California put up higher fences, which are now protected like prison walls. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of illegals came and still today manage to come to California. In 1994 the number of illegals was estimated at about 1.7 million. Meanwhile, these immigrants have become a very important part in society. They do the jobs many American wouldn't even think of. But as they don't pay taxes many Californians are of the opinion, that they should not be given medical health service (except from emergenc y treatment) and that illegal alien children should be excluded from any kind of school.

That were the basic aims of Proposition 187. It should help to stop immigration, reduce costs in the medical sector and boost economy as it clears jobs which are occupied by the illegal population.

But reality looks different. On the one hand saved benefits amounts for illegal aliens would make up 200 million US $ per year, but on the other hand it would swallow up a sum which exceeds the saved amount by far. For example Proposition 187 demanded an abolishment of prenatal inspection of pregnant women. The result would probably be a growing number of in some way ill children, who, because they are born in the United States are automatically citizen of the state. As every citizen has a right on medical service, costs would after a few years start to rise again. Another example is education. Children, that don't go to school tend in my eyes often to criminality, which would be followed by high costs for solving this proble m. The same situation occurs with crime in regard of faking, manufacturing and distributing any kind of documents which proof citizenship. Cost for arrestment, location in prison and court trials would go far beyond of that, what could be saved. All in all Proposition 187 is a very shortsighted step in policy. It is bad for the reputation of the country and costs too much. Nevertheless, Californian voters approved Proposition 187 in 1994 but legal challenges blocked its carrying out. Due to controversy about harm and benefit the theme is still today one of the hottest in California's policy.

A better way would in my opinion be preventive action, like a support of the economy in the states the immigrants come from. An improved economy would keep the illegals in their own country and as a result provide more jobs for the Californian population.

Looking into the past, California has always been a country of immigration. From the Indians who were looking for fertile land, over Spaniards, all kind of Europeans to Aussies and in the latest days immigrants from South America. At first all of them were not given a warm welcome, they had to struggle for their existence, but somehow became integrated into society. Everybody who arrived hoped to find better opportunities than back at home and live the American Dream. Some succeeded, many did not, but why should California deny giving at least a chance. What would California be today if no aliens would have been integrated. Today California is one of the states with the best future. California discovered very early the potential of high technology and now takes in one of the leading positions world wide. It is very remarkable that all the economic evolution from unexplored wilderness to a computerized modern state took place in a period of 450 years, a time in which other states were not even able to develop from agricultural to industrialized economy. But as times change the computer age might be over one day and it will turn out if California then has the right idea to defend its position in the international market.


- The World Book Encyclopedia (C-Ch); Chicago; World Book, Inc. ;1998
- Worldmark Encyclopedia of the States (Fourth Edition); n.p. ; Worldmark Press, Ltd.;1997; pages 60-64
-2 Linda Jacobs Altman; The California Goldrush - In American History ;
-3 David Whyatt; Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe and the Shaping of California; Reading / Massachusetts; Addison Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.; 1997; pages 215 - 217
- Leonardo Pitt; Los Angeles A-Z; London / England; University of California Press, Ltd. 1997 pages 435 - 436
- The 1960's - Opposing Viewpoints; San Diego; Greenhavens Press, Inc. 1997
- web site:

1 In the following I will refer basically to the book:

"The California Gold Rush In American History" by Linda Jacobs Altman

1 In the following I will refer basically to the book:

"The California Gold Rush In American History" by Linda Jacobs Altma n

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Travelling through California: The History Of Its Land And People
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Travelling, California, History, Land, People
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Felix Wunderlin (Author), 2000, Travelling through California: The History Of Its Land And People, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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