The first voyage (1542) to Alta California (Upper California), as the region north of Baja California (Lower California) came to be known, was commanded by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who explored San Diego Bay and the area farther north along the coast. In 1579 an English expedition headed by Sir Francis Drake landed near Point Reyes, N of San Francisco, and claimed the region for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno, another Spaniard, explored the coast and Monterey Bay.

Colonization was slow, but finally in 1769 Gaspar de Portolá, governor of the Californias, led an expedition up the Pacific coast and established a colony on San Diego Bay. The following year he explored the area around Monterey Bay and later returned to establish a presidio there. Soon afterward Monterey became the capital of Alta California. Accompanying Portolá's expedition was Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary who founded a mission at San Diego. Franciscans later founded several missions that extended as far N as Sonoma, N of San Francisco. The missionaries sought to Christianize the Native Americans but also forced them to work as manual laborers, helping to build the missions into vital agricultural communities (see Mission Indians). Cattle raising was of primary importance, and hides and tallow were exported. The missions have been preserved and are now open to visitors.

In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza founded San Francisco, where he established a military outpost. The early colonists, called the Californios, lived a pastoral life and for the most part were not interfered with by the central government of New Spain (as the Spanish empire in the Americas was called) or later (1820s) by that of Mexico. The Californios did, however, become involved in local politics, as when Juan Bautista Alvarado led a revolt (1836) and made himself governor of Alta California, a position he later persuaded the Mexicans to let him keep. Under Mexican rule the missions were secularized (1833–34) and the Native Americans released from their servitude. The degradation of Native American peoples, which continued under Mexican rule and after U.S. settlers came to the area, was described by Helen Hunt Jackson in her novel Ramona (1884). Many mission lands were subsequently given to Californios, who established the great ranchos, vast cattle-raising estates. Colonization of California remained largely Mexican until the 1840s.

Russian fur traders had penetrated south to the California coast and established Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, in 1812. Jedediah Strong Smith and other trappers made the first U.S. overland trip to the area in 1826, but U.S. settlement did not become significant until the 1840s. In 1839, Swiss-born John Augustus Sutter arrived and established his kingdom of New Helvetia on a vast tract in the Sacramento valley. He did much for the overland American immigrants, who began to arrive in large numbers in 1841. Some newcomers met with tragedy, including the Donner Party, which was stranded in the Sierra Nevada after a heavy snowstorm.

Political events in the territory moved swiftly in the next few years. After having briefly asserted the independence of California in 1836, the Californios drove out the last Mexican governor in 1845. Under the influence of the American explorer John C. Frémont, U.S. settlers set up (1846) a republic at Sonoma under their unique Bear Flag. The news of war between the United States and Mexico (1846–48) reached California soon afterward. On July 7, 1846, Commodore John D. Sloat captured Monterey, the capital, and claimed California for the United States. The Californios in the north worked with U.S. soldiers, but those in the south resisted U.S. martial law. In 1847, however, U.S. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny defeated the southern Californios. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico formally ceded the territory to the United States.

In 1848, the year that California became a part of the United States, another major event in the state's history occurred: While establishing a sawmill for John Sutter near Coloma, James W. Marshall discovered gold and touched off the California gold rush. The forty-niners, as the gold-rush miners were called, came in droves, spurred by the promise of fabulous riches from the Mother Lode. San Francisco rapidly became a boom city, and its bawdy, lawless coastal area, which became known as the Barbary Coast, gave rise to the vigilantes, extralegal community groups formed to suppress civil disorder. American writers such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain have recorded the local color as well as the violence and human tragedies of the roaring mining camps.

With the gold rush came a huge increase in population and a pressing need for civil government. In 1849, Californians sought statehood and, after heated debate in the U.S. Congress arising out of the slavery issue, California entered the Union as a free, nonslavery state by the Compromise of 1850. San Jose became the capital. Monterey, Vallejo, and Benicia each served as the capital before it was moved to Sacramento in 1854. In 1853, Congress authorized the survey of a railroad route to link California with the eastern seaboard, but the transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869. In the meantime communication and transportation depended upon ships, the stagecoach, the pony express, and the telegraph.

Chinese laborers were imported in great numbers to work on railroad construction. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 (see Burlingame, Anson) provided, among other things, for unrestricted Chinese immigration. That was at first enthusiastically endorsed by Californians; but after a slump in the state's shaky economy, the white settlers viewed the influx of the lower-paid Chinese laborers as an economic threat. Ensuing bitterness and friction led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (see Chinese exclusion).

A railroad-rate war (1884) and a boom in real estate (1885) fostered a new wave of overland immigration. Cattle raising on the ranchos gave way to increased grain production. Vineyards were planted by 1861, and the first trainload of oranges was shipped from Los Angeles in 1886.

By the turn of the century the discovery of oil, industrialization resulting from the increase of hydroelectric power, and expanding agricultural development attracted more settlers. Los Angeles grew rapidly in this period and, in population, soon surpassed San Francisco, which suffered greatly after the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Improvements in urban transportation stimulated the growth of both Los Angeles and San Francisco; the advent of the cable car and the electric railway made possible the development of previously inaccessible areas.

As industrious Japanese farmers acquired valuable land and a virtual monopoly of California's truck-farming operations, the issue of Asian immigration again arose. The bitter struggle for the exclusion of Asians plagued international relations, and in 1913 the California Alien Land Act was passed despite President Woodrow Wilson's attempts to block it. The act provided that persons ineligible for U.S. citizenship could not own agricultural land in California.

Successive waves of settlers arrived in California, attracted by a new real-estate boom in the 1920s and by the promise of work in the 1930s. The influx during the 1930s of displaced farm workers, depicted by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath, caused profound dislocation in the state's economy. During World War II the Japanese in California were removed from their homes and placed in relocation centers. Industry in California expanded rapidly during the war; the production of ships and aircraft attracted many workers who later settled in the state.

Prosperity and rapid population growth continued after the war. Many African Americans who came during World War II to work in the war industries settled in California. By the 1960s they constituted a sizable minority in the state, and racial tensions reached a climax. In 1964, California voters approved an initiative measure, Proposition 14, allowing racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing in the state, a measure later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1965 riots broke out in Watts, a predominantly black section of Los Angeles, touching off a wave of riots across the United States. Also in the 1960s migrant farm workers in California formed a union and struck many growers to obtain better pay and working conditions. Unrest also occurred in the state's universities, especially the Univ. of California at Berkeley, where student demonstrations and protests in 1964 provoked disorders.

Republicans generally played a more dominant role than Democrats in California politics during the 20th cent., but by the early 21st cent. the state had become more Democratic. From the end of World War II through the mid-1990s, five of the seven governors were Republicans, starting with Earl Warren (1943–53). Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor and a leading conservative Republican, was elected governor in 1966 and reelected in 1970; he later served two terms as U.S president. The two Democrats were liberals Edmund G. (Pat) Brown (1959–67) and his son Jerry Brown (1975–83). In the late 1970s, Californians staged a tax revolt that attracted national attention, passing legislation to cut property taxes.

During the 1970s and 80s California continued to grow rapidly, with a major shift of population to the state's interior. The metropolitan areas of Riverside–San Bernardino, Modesto, Stockton, Bakersfield, and Sacramento were among the fastest growing in the nation during the 1980s. Much of the state's population growth was a result of largely illegal immigration from Mexico; there was also a heavy infux of immigrants from China, the Philippines, and SE Asia.

Population growth and immigration contributed to growing economic pressures, as did cuts in federal defense spending; meanwhile, social tensions also increased. In Apr., 1992, four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of brutality charges after they had been videotaped beating a black motorist; the verdict touched off riots in South-Central Los Angeles and other neighborhoods, resulting in 58 deaths, thousands of arrests, and approximately $1 billion in property damage.

In addition to periodic heavy flooding and brushfires, earthquakes have caused widespread damage in California. In Oct., 1989, a major earthquake killed about 60 people and injured thousands in Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay area. In Jan., 1994, an earthquake hit the Northridge area of N Los Angeles, killing some 60 people and causing at least $13 billion in damage.

In a backlash against illegal immigration, California voters in 1994 approved Proposition 187, an initiative barring the state from providing most services—including welfare, education, and nonemergency medical care—to illegal immigrants. Federal courts found much of Proposition 187 unconstitutional; the appeal of their rulings was dropped in 1999, at a time when the state's economy had rebounded and a Democratic administration was in Sacramento.

In late 2000, California began experiencing an electricity crisis as insufficient generating capacity and increasing short-term wholesale prices for power squeezed the state's two largest public utilities, who, under the deregulation plan they had agreed to in the early 1990s, were not allowed to pass along their increased costs. As the state worked to come up with both short-term and long-time solutions to the situation, consumers experienced sporadic blackouts and faced large rate hikes under the terms of a bailout plan. The crisis was severe enough that it was expected to slow the state's economic growth. Evidence subsequently emerged of both price gouging and market manipulation by a number of energy companies.

The economic downturn in the early 2000s resulted in enormous budget shortfalls for California's state government, and made Gov. Gray Davis increasingly unpopular. A recall petition financed mainly by a Republican congressman who withdrew from the subsequent election led to a vote (Oct., 2003) that removed Davis from office. The actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was elected to succeed him. The year the state experienced devastating wildfires in the greater San Diego area; the area was again hit with particularly dangerous wildfires in 2007. The housing bubble that burst in 2007 and the significant recession that followed it had especially severe consequences in California, both for the state's economy (which experienced unemployment levels not seen since the early 1940s) and government (which faced enormous budget shortfalls for several years).

In 2014 three consecutive years of below normal rainfall combined with hotter temperatures resulted in California's worst drought on record (and by some measures the worst in more than a millenium); the drought continued through 2016. In Oct., 2017, and Nov., 2018, the state experienced some of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in its history in N California, and was ravaged by other extensive and destructive wildfires in the intervening months.

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