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The History of California
© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini

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California's Native Americans

California encompasses a large and diverse geographical area, causing the many Native American tribes to develop very distinct cultures. Archeologists estimate that Native Americans lived in California as many as 15,000 years before the arrival of the first European explorers, and by the time of European arrival, over 300,000 Native Americans occupied the state. In general, these Native Americans were hunter-gatherers who also cultivated plants, trees, and occasionally lit controlled ground fires to replenish the soil. The main staple throughout most of the state was the acorn, though they hunted deer, antelope, elk, sheep, and bear. Nearly 150 different languages were spoken, making California home to the greatest variety of native cultures and languages in the country. Unfortunately, only about half of those languages are still spoken today.

The diversity of the tribes and the size of the state required scholars to separate the state into six geographic culture areas in order to help understand and identify the tribes. The six California culture areas are the Southern, Central, Northwestern, Northeastern, Great Basin, and Colorado River.

The southern culture area was home to some of the largest tribes. Villages along the coast depended largely on sea life and had populations reaching 2,000 residents. The Kumeyaay, like other Southern tribes, migrated annually during the spring and summer months to follow the ripening of plants before returning home for the winter. The Southern tribes include the Chumash, Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and the Tongva.

The central culture area covered about half of the state and housed three-fifths of the Native population. Some of these tribes include the Yokuts, Miwok, Maidu and the Pomo. The tribelet, containing several small villages in the area, served as the basic unit of organization. The chief usually lived in the main village. Organization was necessary because the tribes were very territorial. Trespassing upon another tribe's land was a serious offense, although tribes hardly ever engaged in large-scale warfare. The central valley climate was mild, and plant and wild life were abundant. The central tribes were known for their simple tools and dress, as well as their strikingly elaborate woven baskets.

The northwestern culture area was actually part of another culture area that extended beyond California into Alaska. Some of these tribes include the Shasta, Yurok, and Hupa. The climate in this region was drastically different from the central valley and the south, consisting of a rocky coastline, dense forests and more rainfall than anywhere in the state. The tribes in this area were quite distinctive as well. They placed an importance on material wealth that determined a family's social status. They found items such as obsidian blades, white deerskins, woodpecker scalps, and certain shells as valuable, and leadership was granted to the richest man.

Like the northwestern tribes, the northeastern tribes are also part of a larger culture area, called the Columbia-Fraser Plateau culture area. These tribes, including the Achumawi and the Atsugewi, lived in an area that had lesser amounts of resources. This population was sparse and spent much of their time foraging for seeds and hunting small game.

The Great Basin culture area contained the lands along the eastern border of the state and the eastern deserts in the southern part of the state. Food and water were scarce in these areas, so the tribes moved regularly in search of small game. The Tubatulabal and the Owens Valley Paiute were part of this group.

The last of the six California culture areas is the Colorado River culture area. These people hunted and gathered as well as cultivated corn, beans, and pumpkins. These tribes traveled as far as the coast to trade with other tribes.

Today, more than 680,000 Native Americans live in the state, the highest total of any state in the country.

Spanish Exploration

Spanish exploration of Alta (Upper California, not including Baja) California can be broken down into three distinct efforts. The first was to locate a passage to Asia, which they called the Straight of Anian. The second effort was to create a supply station for Spanish ships passing through from the Philippines. Their third effort was to permanently colonize the area in order to strengthen their claim over the land. The Spanish explorers, influenced by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo's book describing California as a mythical island inhabited by black "Amazon women," expected California to be an island inhabited by these strange and beautiful women. The Spaniards did not find the Amazon women, and instead suffered through harsh expeditions curtailed by bad weather and lack of food.

In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was asked by the government of New Spain to lead an expedition in search of the Strait of Anian. He left New Spain in June with two ships and a crew of 250 sailors and soldiers. They sailed up the coast from Mexico, discovering the San Diego Bay. They continued north and discovered San Pedro Bay, near present day Los Angeles, and sailed through the Santa Barbara Channel. They reached as far north as the Russian River before turning back. Although Cabrillo and his crew did not find a passage to the east, his expedition was very important because it resulted in the first account of Alta California. After Cabrillo died in 1543, Bartolomeo Ferrelo continued the search for the Strait of Anian. This expedition, also consisting of two ships, reached as far north as Oregon before running into bad weather where several people died. The Strait of Anian was never found.

Spain's next exploratory mission was in order to find an area suitable for a supply station to service the Manila Galleons that sailed by California from the Philippines. While exploring Alta California in search of such a place in 1857, Pedro de Unamuno made contact with Native Americans near Morro Bay, but was attacked and forced to return to Acapulco. In 1595, Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno, sailed from the Philippines in search of a location for the supply station. His exploration reached Eureka and Drake's Bay where he camped for nearly a month before being attacked by Indians and forced to leave. The next man to explore Alta California, Sebastian Vizcaino, carefully planned the expedition to help insure his success. He assembled a crew of 130 men and three ships. They sailed from Acapulco in May of 1602, but experienced a difficult expedition despite such preparation. They eventually landed in Monterey Bay and continued to sail north to Oregon. Vizcaino did not find a suitable bay that would be a good site for a supply station. (Due to fog and inclement weather, explorers continually passed by the San Francisco Bay without seeing it). In order to make his trip appear successful, Vizcaino embellished his reports about the Monterey Bay, making it seem like a better bay than it actually was. But, despite his enhanced description of Monterey, Spain called off plans to build a supply station, and Spanish exploration of Alta California ceased for over 150 years.

Spain was not the only supplier of explorers to Alta California. In the late 1750s, Queen Elizabeth I commissioned Sir Francis Drake to raid Spanish ships and settlements in the Americas and look for the Northwest Passage (the English version of the Strait of Anian) . Beginning in 1757, Drake attacked Spanish ships and took their riches, but his pirating greed got the best of him. By the time he reached Alta California, his ship, the Golden Hind, was overloaded with stolen goods and was forced ashore. The exact spot where Drake came ashore is unknown. Accounts of the voyage report that Drake entered a bay on June 17, 1759, where he and his crew remained for over a month. Drake and his crew reportedly erected a fortification, mingled with the local Indians, and erected a brass plate which claimed the land in the name of Queen Elizabeth. The plate was later found at Point San Quentin, though the location has since been debated because of conflicting evidence. The most accepted location for Drake's landing is at Drake's Estero, an arm of the Drake's Bay on the Point Reyes Peninsula.

The Creation of Spanish California

Interest in the exploration and colonization of Alta California was rekindled when the Spanish found out that the Russians were planning on extending their fur trading enterprise south along the Pacific coast. To counter the Russians' encroachment upon Alta California, the government of New Spain employed Visitor-General Jose de Galvez to reform the government of New Spain and establish a colony in Alta California. Galvez decided to carry out a government coordinated, military, civilian, and religious conquest of Alta California, which had already worked to secure Texas, New Mexico, Sonora, Arizona, and Baja. This approach centered on the creation of presidios, missions, ranchos, and pueblos. The purpose of the presidios was to control Native American resistance, the missions were to Christianize the Native Americans, the pueblos were to be the center of civilian activity, and the ranchos were to sustain the colony through livestock and agriculture. Galvez chose Father Junipero Serra to lead the missionary branch of the expedition, and Gaspar de Portola to serve as the governor of the colony.

The colonization of Alta California was difficult, and the expedition quickly ran into trouble. On the journey from Mexico to San Diego, 300 members of the colonization party died. They remained low on supplies and behind schedule, but were able to erect some fortifications and send a ship back to Mexico for supplies. Father Serra began the mission process in San Diego while Portola traveled north to Monterey. After a hard journey and being constantly harassed by Native Americans, Portola reached Monterey. To his consternation, he did not find the expansive bay that Vizcaino had embellished 150 years before, so he returned to San Diego. Here he met up with Father Serra and headed north again. They established missions along the way and named Monterey the capital of Alta California. Father Serra continued to build missions and Portola continued to travel north, eventually finding the San Francisco Bay. The colony persevered, but remained weak during the 1770s.

By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
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