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California: A Disputed Land

The U.S. was not the first country to claim California.

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California, the Golden State, was the 31st state to be added to the Union. It is the third-largest, after Alaska and Texas, and has a rich history in Native American life, Spanish ministry, and gold mining, which helped it grow and become what it is today.

Thousands of years ago, the Bering Land Bridge made it easier for people to travel across the ocean from Asia to North America. Asian peoples made their way across the Bering Strait over the land bridge to Alaska and then into what is now California. Because of the differing terrains, many tribes made their homes here but rarely saw each other. There were as many as 135 distinct dialects spoken locally by the time the Europeans made their way into the area; tribes included the Karok, Maidu, Cahuilleno, Mojave, Yokuts, Pomo, Paiute, and Madoc.

It was believed by Europeans that the state was an island, and early mapmakers began labeling it “California,” which is the name of a mythical island in the book Las Sergas de Esplandian (The Adventures of Esplandian). This was only one book in a series of Spanish romance stories — the story centered around Queen Califa, who ruled California. The island in the tale was populated with only female warriors who brandished gold weapons. So, when Spanish conquistador (explorer and conqueror) Herman Cortez arrived in the area in 1536, he thought he had found the legendary island – and that is how the state got its name.

In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino, another Spanish explorer, sailed to the southern coast of California and was responsible for naming a few cities, including San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina Island, and Monterey. In 1769, the Franciscan friar Junipero Serra established the first mission at San Diego. His goal was to convert the local indigenous tribes to Christianity, and the way to do so, he believed, was to set them up in the missions and teach them skills and trades to make them productive members of a European-style society. There were eventually 21 missions established by the padres.

California eventually became part of Mexico, but Americans began moving into the area. On June 10, 1846, a group of American settlers declared an independent California Republic and took up arms against the Mexicans near Sonoma. The settlers carried a homemade flag bearing a single star and the image of a grizzly bear, earning the name Bear Flag Revolt for the battle. The image is now depicted on the state’s official flag. However, the republic only lasted for a few weeks before giving control to the U.S. government.

Due to territorial disputes, the United States declared war on Mexico. The local californios (residents of Spanish heritage) surrendered to U.S. Navy captain John C. Fremont near Los Angeles in January 1847, and the U.S. won the war. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, making California a part of the U.S.

For the next several years, the area saw the mass immigration of gold seekers who moved hearth and home to try their luck mining for the precious metal during the California Gold Rush. The region officially became a state on September 9, 1850, a process hastened by the large riches found there.

During the Civil War, the state sided with the North.

Interesting Facts

  • California contains the lowest and the highest points in the U.S. – you can travel from 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley to 14,494 feet above sea level at Mt. Whitney in less than a day.
  • The world’s largest tree, General Sherman, is in Sequoia National Park.
  • More turkeys are raised here than in any other state in the U.S.
  • The state’s motto is “Eureka!” which means “I have found it!” It alludes to the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada.
  • The eastern Sierras’ Bristlecone pines are 4,600 years old and the Mojave Desert creosote bush is one of the world’s oldest living things at 43,000 years.
Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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