Peoples from Siberia and Northwest Asia were the earliest immigrants to the Eastern Pacific shore of ‘Turtle Island.’ Starting more than 18,000 years ago, most probably moved along the shoreline from the Bering Strait or across its land bridge, then down along the Alaska Coast to the more temperate and even tropical coastline of what is now California. There is some evidence Polynesians could have visited California and other coastal areas further to the south even earlier. But Europeans didn’t arrive until the mid-1500s, several millennia later.
The earliest European, working for Spain in 1542, was the Portuguese captain Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. He explored the San Diego Bay, then up to the Channel Islands, off Los Angeles. For the English, in 1579, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe from around Cape Horn in South America. He stopped north of the Bay Area in today’s Marin County, where he landed to repair his ship, pulling it ashore. He met with the local Natives and claimed the area for the Crown, calling it New Albion. But nothing ever came of it as a settlement.
The Russians came later, sailing from Siberia in 1741. Alexei Chirikov departed from the Kamchatkan port of Petropavlovsk in June. On July 15, 1741, Chirikov sighted land in southeast Alaska. He sent a group of men ashore in a longboat, making them the first Europeans to land on the northwestern coast of North America. The Russian fur hunters and traders that followed migrated southward in several stops, finally settling what is now Fort Ross– ‘Rus’ for Russian–north of the Bay Area in 1812. By 1850, the Russians were gone.
But let’s start earlier. Just before ‘first contact’ by any Europeans, the Indigenous population ranged between an estimated 300,000 to 700,000, living in more than 100 groups immediately on the West Coast or slightly inward. Four of the larger groupings were known as the Pomo, Chumash, Tongva, and Kumeyaay peoples.
About 4000 BCE to 5000 BCE, some of the proto-Pomo migrated into what is now called the Russian River Valley and north to present-day Ukiah. According to Wikipedia, the name Pomo derives from a conflation of the Pomo words [pʰoːmoː] and [pʰoʔmaʔ]. It originally meant ‘those who live at red earth hole.’ It was once the name of a village in southern Potter Valley near the present-day community of Pomo, California in Mendocino County. It may have referred to local deposits of the red mineral magnesite, used for red beads, or to the reddish earth and clay. The Pomo native to the coastline and Fort Ross were known as the Kashaya. They interacted and traded with the Russians.
The Pomo faced great hardship after the takeover of California by the U.S. as a result of the Mexican War and the 1849 Gold Rush. The conquest lasted from 1846 into 1847 until military leaders from Californios and Americans signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, ending the conflict in California. During the 1850s, two settlers, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, enslaved many Pomo people to work as cowboys on their ranch. They forced the Pomo men to work in harsh conditions and were disrespected by the Anglo settlers. The settlers also sexually abused the Pomo women. Eventually, the Pomo Indians got sick of the horrid practices and rebelled, killing Stone and Kelsey. As a result, United States Lieutenant J. W. Davidson and Captain Nathaniel Lyon sent an army to retaliate. The event was called the Bloody Island Massacre, where the 1st Dragoons US Cavalry slaughtered between 60 and 400 people, primarily women and children of the Clear Lake Pomo and neighboring tribes. From that point forward, the U.S. officially adopted a policy of extermination or genocide.
The Chumash lived south of the Pomo. They originated near the Santa Barbara coast, and their name meant ‘bead makers’ or ‘seashell people.’ According to Wikipedia, some researchers believe that the Chumash may have been visited by Polynesians between AD 400 and 800, nearly 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. The reason was that the Chumash used sea-going canoes of an advanced sewn-plank design known throughout the Polynesian Islands. This design was unknown in North America except by the Chumash and one other tribe, the nearby Tongva, and this is given as the chief evidence for Polynesian contact.
As noted above, Spain’s Juan Cabrillo, sailing north from Mexico, was the first European to make contact with the coastal ‘Upper’ or ‘Alta California’ tribes in the year 1542. (‘Lower’ or ‘Baja California’ is part of Mexico). However, the Spaniards didn’t colonize the Chumash’s domain until 1772 when Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was established in Chumash lands.
The Chumash and most Native societies also had roles for mixed-gender or transgender people, who the Spanish referred to as joyas, who they saw as “men who dressed as women.” Joyas were responsible for the death, burial, and mourning rituals and performed many of women’s esteemed social roles. Indigenous societies had their own terms to refer to them. The Chumash referred to them as ‘aqi.’ The early Spanish settlers detested and sought to eliminate them.
Along with the neighboring Chumash, the Tongva were the most influential people during the European encounter. Living near what became Los Angeles, they had developed an extensive trade network through te’aats (plank-built boats). Their vibrant food and material culture was based on an Indigenous worldview that positioned humans as one strand in a web of life (as expressed in their creation stories). Over time, different communities came to speak distinct dialects of the Tongva language, part of the Takic subgroup of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Some descendants prefer the endonym Kizh, which they argue is an earlier and more historically accurate name.
As they lacked any acquired immunity, these West Coast Native Americans, along with others over Turtle Island, suffered epidemics with high mortality, leading to the rapid collapse of Tongva society and lifeways. They retaliated by armed resistance and rebellions, including an unsuccessful rebellion in 1785 by Nicolás José and a female chief Toypurina. During the occupation by ‘Gold Rush’ Americans in the 1850s, many of the Tongva, like the Pomo mentioned above, were targeted with arrest. Unable to pay fines, they were used as convict laborers in a system of legalized slavery to expand the city of Los Angeles for Anglo-American settlers, who became the new majority in the area by 1880.
The Kumeyaay or Tipai-Ipai were formerly known as the Kamia or Diegueños, the former Spanish name applied to the Mission Indians living along the San Diego River. (They are referred to as the Kumiai in Mexico). The term Kumeyaay translates as ‘Those who face the water from a cliff,’ with the word meyaay meaning ‘steep’ or ‘cliff.’ The Kumeyaay had land along the Pacific Ocean from present Oceanside, California in the north to south of Ensenada, Mexico, and extending east to the Colorado River. The Spaniard Sebastián Vizcaíno also visited the area in 1602 and met with a band of Kumeyaay during the San Diego de Alcalá feast, thus giving the San Diego region its name. But this did not immediately lead to Spanish settlement.
When it came, the Kumeyaay also resisted colonization. In 1775, some 600 Kumeyaay warriors converged on the fledgling Spanish settlement of San Diego in the early morning of November 5, determined to kill every Spaniard and burn the outpost to the ground. This was no ordinary raid but a mass uprising of Indians from more than 40 villages who had united to expel the newly arrived foreigners from their land. The plan of attack was simple, calling for half the Kumeyaays to hit the mission and the other half to go for the nearby presidio. The sky was soon aglow as the fire rapidly consumed what was once Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Awakened by the crackling of the flames, the handful of settlers assembled to confront what appeared to be an unstoppable onslaught. Eventually, the Kumeyaay were subdued and diminished, but a remainder survived to side with the Mexican revolution in 1910.
The Early Spanish Expansion
Worried about Russian exploration and fur trading in the northwest, Spain organized to expand its influence. The means chosen was forming a string of ‘missions’ run by priests and guarded by neighboring ‘presidios’ or military garrisons. The first was founded in San Diego on July 16, 1769, by the Spanish Franciscan Friar Junípero Serra y Ferrer. Serra soon set out to establish 20 more missions in California, all along the Californian coast up to the Bay Area, each self-sustaining but connected by an overland road, El Camino Real (‘The Royal Road’).
The last one, San Francisco Solano, was set up in Sonoma in July, 1823, just north of San Francisco and south of the Russian-dominated Fort Ross. Three small towns or pueblos were also created, two growing into San Jose and Los Angeles.
The typical mission was a spiritual, educational, and economic institution. It raised horses and livestock, planted fields in grain, and raised other food crops. Blacksmiths smelted ores and shaped tools and weapons. Wool was turned into cloth and clothing. Native men were camped on the mission grounds or close by. Native women were consigned to ‘nunneries’ and only allowed connection with Native men if they were sold into marriage. (In fact, many were still abused by the soldiers and even the friars). The presidio’s soldiers were used to discipline the Natives for infractions of the friar’s notions of property or propriety, often at odds with Native ways. All were to attend religious services, convert to Catholicism, and learn Spanish while abandoning their languages and customs.
Father Serrano was the architect of the mission ways. For some, this took hold, perhaps after a generation. For many, it did not. There were frequent runaways and revolts. Serrano had two sides to him. On the one hand, he tried to protect Mission Natives from abuse by soldiers and other Spaniards. On the other, as typical of the times, he did not hold back from violent discipline against Native disobedience or insurgency and often said as much in his writings. When the Catholic church moved to make him a Saint in recent years, started by Pope John Paul II and concluded by Pope Francis, powerful protests were organized throughout California, denouncing Serrano for cultural genocide and tortuous treatment.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain, the missions, as religious institutions, were abolished. They were secularized as ‘rancheros’ and run by descendants of the Spaniards, especially the presidio militia, now referred to as ‘Californios.’ Under Mexico, Californios remained the local ruling class. After California became a U.S. state, many remained in high positions and inter-married with the incoming Americans. Today, some use the term less strictly, as any California resident today descended from non-Anglo Spanish speakers.
The U.S. Conquest of California started in June 1846, when thirty-three American immigrants in Alta California’ who had entered without official permission rebelled against the Mexican government and declared the ‘Bear Flag Republic.’ Three weeks later, on July 5, 1846, the Republic’s 100 to 200 men military was subsumed into the U.S. California Battalion. Two days later, July 9, 1846, the Bear Flag Revolt and whatever remained of the ‘California Republic’ ended when Navy Lieutenant Joseph Revere was sent to Sonoma from the USS Portsmouth, carrying two 27-star United States flags, one for Sonoma and the other for Sutter’s Fort. The Bear Flag was taken down that day. California was officially ‘ceded’ to the United States in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Notably, very few of the ‘49er’ gold miners got rich, and most remained impoverished. The merchants who supplied the miners with all their goods and equipment were the ones who got most of the gold.
California was admitted to the Union as a ‘Free State’ on Sept 9, 1850. It was the only new state admitted without first being a ‘territory,’ and its ‘free’ status was part of a package deal that allowed for the possibility of slavery in newly ceded New Mexico territory. However, California’s early years as a state saw widespread enslavement of captured Native peoples and outright extermination of those not captured. In recent years, California acknowledged its treatment of Native peoples ‘as genocide.’
One odd question is still outstanding: How did California get its name? The fact is that even today, no one is quite certain. A leading theory is that it comes from an epic novel of Middle Age chivalry, Las sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián), written around 1510. In the novel, authored by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, and noted by Wiki, “Calafia is a pagan warrior queen who ruled over a kingdom of black women living on the Island of California (an island off the coast of Asia). Calafia is convinced to raise an army of women warriors and sail away from California with a large flock of trained griffins so that she can join a Muslim battle against Christians who are defending Constantinople.” Calafia, a queen, is likely derived from the Arab term for prominent leader, a Calif. In the end, Queen Califia sides with the Christians and returns to the magical and beautiful world-island of California with her griffins and Christian husbands for her women.
Others noted that ‘The Song of Roland’ refers to ‘Califerne,’ a domain of Muslim califs. Still others note the ancient Persian ‘Kar-i-farn,’ a mythological ‘mountain of Paradise,’ and still more to the Greek ‘Kali,’ for beautiful. After these, a dozen more get far more improbable. We’ll stick with the Black Queen, her Amazons and griffens, and a magical land.