California: European Exploration and Colonization

European Exploration and Colonization

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.

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