Humans have probably inhabited California since around 20,000 – 10,000 B.C. At the time Europeans first set foot in California, an estimated 300,000 indigenous people were living there, making it one of the most densely populated areas of North America at the time. The tribes who called the area home were linguistically diverse, speaking as many as 60 different languages. The tribes from this region are known for their skilful basket-weaving, baskets being used for all manner of daily activity as well as valued as a symbol of wealth. The natural landscape has always held a strong significance for Native Americans, and the area’s numerous mountains, volcanoes and impressive rock formations have long been places invested with mysterious power and spirituality.

The first documented instance of European contact with present-day California was in 1542, when Portuguese navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, exploring on behalf of Spain, landed in the area, which he at first believed to be an island, and called it California. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake stopped in California to repair his ship, and promptly claimed territory on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, these early links existed mostly for trade, and it was to be two centuries later, in 1769, when the Spanish started sending Franciscan friars to colonise the area through religion. The first Franciscan mission was established at San Diego, and would eventually number 21 stretching along the entire coast, planned such that each mission was no more than a day’s journey on horseback away from the next. This marked the end of peaceful relations with the indigenous population – construction of the missions was often done using the natives as cheap unskilled labour, and the spread of diseases reduced the indigenous population to only about 16,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. In 1846, U.S. troops won independence for California, and the present-day Californian state flag is based on the flag used during that conflict.

In 1848, the discovery of gold by James Marshall led to the infamous Gold Rush, although most of those who thronged into California were to find their hopes of striking it rich dashed. The influx of immigrants increased the population of San Francisco by more than 30 times from 1848 to 1850, leading to hugely inflated costs of living and widespread crime and prostitution. 1850 also saw California’s admittance into the Union as the thirty-first state. The discovery of silver ore in the eastern Sierras, and the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, brought ever increasing prosperity to the area. The newly rich moved into posh addresses in San Francisco and Los Angeles, while immigrants began moving in across the country from the east, hoping to find better chances on the West Coast.

Yosemite gained national park status in 1890, and in 1893, the San Andreas Fault was discovered by Andrew Lawson, a geologist from the University of California. Just over a decade later, in 1906, San Francisco would be struck by a devastating earthquake, fires resulting from which burned nearly the entire city to ruins. Despite the tragedy, San Francisco inhabitants continued to uphold the California dream and quickly rebuilt their city.

The early 1900’s saw the rise of the film industry in Hollywood – by the 1920’s the town was famous and hundreds of silent films were being produced monthly. The first half of the twentieth century saw an influx of immigrants again, encouraged and drawn by Hollywood and the rising television industry, which became symbols of California’s prosperity. A white, middle-class existence was the sought-after goal, while Latin- and African-Americans faced a reality of discrimination. During this time agriculture boomed and new engineering feats were constructed, including the Golden Gate Bridge which opened in 1937.
In 1962 California became the most populous state in the U.S., leaving New York second. Since then, California has been central to many significant cultural and technological developments in the country. Haight Ashbury in San Francisco was home to the hippie movement in the 1960’s, and Silicon Valley rose to become the vanguard of I.T. development. With its rich natural and cultural diversity and enduring prosperity, California continues to retain its importance and its hold over popular culture today.

Writer:  Jocelyn Chng