European Discovery & Colonization

Although very little remains to mark the existence of West Coast Native Americans, anthropologists estimate that as many as half a million aborigines flourished on this naturally abundant land for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in the mid-16th century. Sailing from a small colony, established 10 years before, on the southern tip of Baja California, Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is credited with being the first European to "discover" California, in 1542. Over the next 200 years, dozens of sailors mapped the coast, including British explorer Sir Francis Drake.

European colonial competition and Catholic missionary zeal prompted Spain to establish settlements along the Alta (upper) California coast and claim the lands as its own. In 1769, Father Junípero Serra, accompanied by 300 soldiers and clergy, began forging a path from Mexico to Monterey. A small mission and presidio (fort) were established that year at San Diego. Most of the solidly built missions still remain -- Mission Delores, Mission San Juan Bautista, Mission San Diego de Alcala, to name just a few -- and they offer public tours.

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During that time, thousands of Native Americans were converted to Christianity and coerced into labor. Many others died from imported diseases. Because not all the natives welcomed their conquerors with open arms, many missions and pueblos (small towns) suffered repeated attacks, leading to the construction of California's now ubiquitous -- and fireproof -- red-tile roofs.

No settlement had more than 100 inhabitants when Spain's sovereignty was compromised by an 1812 Russian outpost called Fort Ross, 60 miles north of San Francisco (open to the public). But the biggest threat came from the British and their last-ditch effort to win back their territories in the War of 1812.

Embattled at home as well as abroad, the Spanish finally relinquished their claim to Mexico and California in 1821. Under Mexican rule, Alta California's Spanish missionaries lost much of their land to the increasingly wealthy Californios, Mexican immigrants who were granted vast land tracts.

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American Expansion

Beginning in the late 1820s, Americans from the East began to make their way to California via a 3-month sail around Cape Horn. Most of them settled in the territorial capital of Monterey and in Northern California.

From the 1830s on, more and more settlers headed west. Along with them came daring explorers. In 1843, Marcus Whitman, a missionary seeking to prove that settlers could travel overland through the Oregon Territory's Blue Mountains, helped blaze the Oregon Trail; the first covered-wagon train made the 4-month crossing in 1844. Over the next few years, several hundred Americans made the trek to California over the Sierra Nevada range via Truckee Pass, just north of Lake Tahoe.

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As the drive to the west increased, the U.S. government sought to extend its control over Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande, the river that now divides the United States and Mexico. In 1846, President James Polk offered Mexico $40 million for California and New Mexico. The offer might have been accepted, but America's simultaneous annexation of Texas, to which Mexico still laid claim, resulted in a war between the two countries. Within months, the United States overcame Mexico and took possession of the entire West Coast.

Gold & Statehood

In 1848, California's non-Native American population was around 7,000. That same year, flakes of gold were discovered by workers building a sawmill along the American River. Word of the find spread quickly, bringing more than 300,000 men and women into California between 1849 and 1851, one of the largest mass migrations in American history. Of course, very few prospectors unearthed a gold mine, and within 15 years the gold had dissipated, though many of the new residents remained. In fact, much of the mining equipment and Gold Rush-era buildings remain today and are on display throughout the Gold Country.

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In 1850, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state. The state constitution on which California applied for admission included several noteworthy features. To protect the miners, slavery was prohibited. To attract women from the East Coast, legal recognition was given to the separate property of a married woman (California was the first state to offer such recognition). By 1870, almost 90% of the state's Native American population had been wiped out, and the bulk of the rest was removed to undesirable inland reservations.

Mexican and Chinese laborers were brought in to help local farmers and to work on the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869. The new rail line transported Easterners to California in just 5 days, marking a turning point in the settlement of the West. Many of these original steam engines are on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

Growth & Industry

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In 1875, when the Santa Fe Railroad reached Los Angeles, Southern California's population of just 10,000 was divided equally between Los Angeles and San Diego. Los Angeles, however, began to grow rapidly in 1911, when the film industry moved here from the East Coast to take advantage of cheap land and a warm climate that enabled movies to be shot outdoors year-round. The movies' glamorous, idyllic portrayal of California boosted the region's popularity and population, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when thousands of families (like the Joads in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath) packed up their belongings and headed west in search of a better life.

World War II brought heavy industry to California, in the form of munitions factories, shipyards, and airplane manufacturing. Freeways were built, military bases were opened, and suburbs were developed. In the 1950s, California in general, and San Francisco in particular, became popular among artists and intellectuals. The so-called Beat Generation appeared, later to inspire alternative-culture groups, most notably the "flower children" of the 1960s, in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. During the "Summer of Love" in 1967, as the war in Vietnam escalated, student protests increased at Berkeley and elsewhere in California, as they did across the country. A year later, amid rising racial tensions, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, setting off riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles and in other cities. Soon thereafter, Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic Party presidential primary. Antiwar protests continued into the 1970s.

Perhaps in response to an increasingly violent society, the 1970s also gave rise to several exotic religions and cults, which found eager adherents in California. The spiritual "New Age" continued into the 1980s, along with a growing population, environmental pollution, and escalating social ills, especially in Los Angeles. California also became very rich. Real estate values soared, the computer industry -- centered in "Silicon Valley" south of San Francisco -- boomed, and banks and businesses prospered.

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Recession, Redemption & Terrorism

The late 1980s and early 1990s, however, brought a devastating recession to the state. Californians, like many other Americans, became increasingly conservative. Though they remained concerned about the nation's problems -- economic competition from abroad, the environment, drugs, and the blight of homelessness -- their fascination with alternative lifestyles ebbed as the former campus rebels among them settled into comfortable positions in industry and politics. In short, the baby boomers were growing up and settling down.

AIDS also became a major issue of the 1990s, particularly in San Francisco, where it quickly became the number-one killer of young men. Los Angeles had its problems as well, most notably the race riots spurred by the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King, by four white police officers, who were subsequently acquitted. Two years later, a major earthquake caused billions of dollars in damage to L.A.'s buildings and freeways, leaving thousands injured and homeless. Oakland's hills became a raging inferno, killing 26 people and destroying 3,000 homes.

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Midway through the 1990s, America's economy slowly yet surely began to improve, a welcome relief to recession-battered Californians. Crime and unemployment began to drop, while public schools received millions for much-needed improvements. Computer- and Internet-related industries flourished in the Bay Area, with entrepreneurialism fueling much of the explosive growth. As the stock market continued its record-setting pace through the end of the decade, no state reaped more benefits than California, which gained new millionaires by the day.

At the millennium, optimism in the state's strong economy and quality of life was at an all-time high. Unemployment rates were still low, and property rates still rising. Then came three out-of-the-blue sucker punches to California's rosy economy: (1) the rapid demise of many, if not most, of the dot.coms in the stock market slump (new websites, gleefully chronicling the death throes of the fledgling enterprises, popped up to amuse the formerly envious); (2) an energy deregulation scheme gone awry, leaving irate residents with periodic rolling blackouts and escalating energy bills (never have so many taken such a sudden, intense interest in ways to save and create energy); and (3) the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that left Californians, along with the rest of the country, stunned and added a near-deathblow to an already reeling economy.

But even the darkest clouds had a silver lining. The dot.com bomb led to a massive rise in vacancies and declines in rent (though it's still outrageous) as the thousands of itinerant gold diggers hitched up and moved out. We solved our energy crisis by outing those greedy Enron execs living in the empire of Texas. And since 9/11 we've even surprised ourselves by how patriotic we still are. Every Californian was knocked senseless by the shocking deeds of religious fanatics, but we quickly fought back -- both literally and economically -- to regain our national pride and enviable lifestyle. Oh, California -- if the world hands us a lemon, we'll slice it into our imported sparkling water.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.