Pre-Hispanic Baja (12,000 B.C.-16th C.)
The earliest Mexicans were Stone Age hunter-gatherers from the north, descendants of a race that had probably crossed the Bering Strait and reached North America around 12,000 B.C. They arrived in what is now Mexico by 10,000 B.C. It is likely that Baja was inhabited by human populations well before mainland Mexico, as Baja was the logical termination point for the coastal migration route followed by Asian groups crossing the Bering Strait. The San Dieguito culture migrated south into Baja somewhere between 7000 and 5000 B.C. Sometime between 5200 and 1500 B.C., in what is known as the Archaic period, they began practicing agriculture and domesticating animals.
Between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 300, the San Dieguito culture either developed into, or was superseded by, the Yumano culture, believed to be the creators of the rock paintings and petroglyphs found on the central interior of the peninsula. The Yumanos made use of more sophisticated hunting equipment as well as fishing nets, and also created ceramics. Paintings also indicate a fundamental knowledge of astronomy and depict solstice celebrations. Descendants of this culture were the natives found living here by the Spanish in the 16th century.
The three most populous indigenous groups at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards were the Cochimi and Guaycura of the north and central regions, and the Pericú who dominated the south. All three groups were nomadic hunter-gatherers without permanent means of shelter.
The Cochimi were centered near modern-day San Javier and El Rosario and were hunter-gatherers. They spoke a language that is similar to that of the modern Yuman indigenous peoples who still live in parts of California and Arizona. Among their notable practices was maroma, in which a piece of meat was tied to a string and systematically consumed and regurgitated by several people until there was nothing left.
The Guaycura populated the region around Loreto and Todos Santos and are credited with being the first to create Damiana, a liqueur made from a shrub native to Baja. It's still produced and sold as an aphrodisiac today (it's said to be the secret ingredient in Sammy Hagar's Waborita), although the Guaycura used it only for ceremonial purposes. Modern archaeologists have found milling stones and arrowheads in their burial caves. Their shamans or spiritual leaders usually had a small amount of facial hair and carried wands or spirit sticks.
In the south, the Pericú utilized wooden rafts and paddles and had complicated fishing techniques. Their loose political system, based on age, often had female leaders. They practiced both monogamy and polygamy, the latter of which caused a revolt when the Jesuit priests tried to prohibit it. Although the Pericú and Guaycura were neighbors, they didn't appear to speak the same language -- literally or figuratively; skirmishes over land control were frequent.
Several smaller indigenous groups existed in the region including the Monqui, who may have been the first to greet Spanish explorers near La Paz, and the Kiliwa, Pai Pai Cocopa, and Kumayaay, who were all centered near modern day Tijuana and Tecate.
Cortez, Moctezuma & the Spanish Conquest
In 1517, the first Spaniards arrived in what is today known as Mexico and skirmished with Maya Indians off the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán peninsula. A shipwreck left several Spaniards stranded as prisoners of the Maya. Another Spanish expedition, under Hernán Cortez, landed on Cozumel in February 1519. The coastal Maya were happy to tell Cortez about the gold and riches of the Aztec empire in central Mexico. Disobeying all orders from his superior, the governor of Cuba, Cortez promptly sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and landed at what is now Veracruz.
Cortez arrived when the Aztec empire was at the height of its wealth and power. Moctezuma II ruled over the central and southern highlands and extracted tribute from lowland peoples. His greatest temples were plated with gold and encrusted with the blood of sacrificial captives. A fool, a mystic, and something of a coward, Moctezuma dithered in Tenochtitlán, sending messengers with gifts and suggestions that Cortez leave. Meanwhile, Cortez blustered and negotiated his way into the highlands, cloaking his intentions. Moctezuma, terrified by the Spaniard's military tactics and technology, was convinced that Cortez was the god Quetzalcóatl making his long-awaited return. By the time he arrived in the Aztec capital, Cortez had accumulated 6,000 indigenous allies who resented paying tribute to the Aztec. In November 1519, he took Moctezuma hostage in an effort to leverage control of the empire.
In the middle of Cortez's manipulations, another Spanish expedition arrived with orders to end Cortez's unauthorized mission. Cortez hastened back to the coast, routed the rival force, and persuaded the vanquished to join him on his return to Tenochtitlán. The capital had erupted in his absence, and the Aztec chased his garrison out of the city. Moctezuma was killed during the attack -- whether by the Aztec or the Spaniards is not clear. For a year and a half, Cortez laid siege to Tenochtitlán, aided by rival Indians and a devastating smallpox epidemic. When the Aztec capital fell, all of central Mexico lay at the conquerors' feet, vastly expanding the Spanish empire. The king legitimized Cortez's victorious pirate expedition after the fact and ordered the forced conversion to Christianity of the new colony, to be called New Spain. By 1540, New Spain included possessions from Vancouver to Panama. In the centuries that followed, Franciscan and Augustinian friars converted millions of Indians to Christianity, and Spanish lords built huge feudal estates with Indian farmers serving as serfs. Cortez's booty of silver and gold made Spain the wealthiest country in Europe.
Spanish Exploration (16th C.)
In 1532, nearly a decade after he defeated the Aztecs in Mexico's capital, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez was looking for a new angle. Among the bounty of the defeated Aztec leader Moctezuma were many precious pearls; when Cortez asked of their origins he was told they came "from an island in the west." That fit irresistibly with a legend from the times of Marco Polo about a magical land called Calafia where beautiful women and abundant jewels were available for the taking. Putting two and two together, Cortez sent his cousin, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, to investigate. Mendoza and his men sailed up from present day Nayarit, but never spotted land.
Cortez persisted and sent another two ships the next year. The first ship, under the charge of Hernán Grijalva, turned back after discovering the Revillagigedo Islands, uninhabited by beautiful women or pearls. The second ship, led by Diego Bercera de Mendoza, fell to mutiny. Bercera and several crew members were killed, and Fortun Ximenez led the survivors to the shore in present day La Paz, where many likely perished in clashes with the indigenous population. The survivors returned to mainland Mexico with tales of black pearls that convinced Cortez he was on the right track.
Cortez led the next mission himself in 1535. He was 50 years old, had two useless fingers on his left hand, a fractured arm from falling off a horse, and a bad leg from falling off a wall in Cuba. But, with a crew of 300 men and 20 women, he made his way to Santa Cruz, later the modern city of La Paz. And although he never discovered the land of available women, he left his legacy here in the name California: either a corruption of the yearned-for magical land of Calafia, or of the Latin "Cala Fornix," or "cove arch" -- for a rock formation he particularly liked. (It's not as sexy as naming it after an island of Amazon women, but the name is closer.)
Although Cortez made at least one trip to mainland Mexico for grain, pigs, and sheep, the small settlement eventually ran out of supplies and had to be abandoned.
Cortez sent out one final expedition in 1539 under the direction of Capt. Francisco de Ulloa, who explored the entire perimeter of the Sea of Cortez, establishing that Baja was not an island, but a peninsula.
The Mission Period (17th-18th C.)
Among the subsequent expeditions sent by the Spanish crown, many included Catholic priests seeking to establish missions for converting the native cultures to Christianity. Padre Juan Maria Salvatierra was the first to succeed in establishing a permanent settlement on the Baja peninsula, when he founded the mission Nuestra Señora de Loreto in 1697, at the site of present-day Loreto. This began the Jesuit Mission period in Baja, which lasted until 1767. In this time, Italian and Spanish priests established 20 missions, covering an area from the southern tip of the peninsula into Central Baja near present-day Cataviña. The mission system worked by offering protection to the natives by the Church and the Spanish crown, in exchange for submitting to religious instruction. That's "protection" in the Mafia sense of protection from the people who were offering them protection: If they resisted, they were generally punished or massacred. If they played along, they were given religious instruction, European-style trade and farm training, and refuge in the mission, which they helped to build.
Unlike their counterparts on the mainland, none of the Jesuit priests operating in Baja ever produced a text recording the indigenous languages. During the mission years, the local populations were decimated by a combination of repeated epidemics of smallpox, syphilis, and measles, as well as lives lost in rebellions, leaving Baja primarily to the new European settlers. The Jesuit missions were followed by missions established by the Franciscans and Dominicans, leading to a more diverse population of European cultures. By the end of the 18th century, the native population in Baja numbered fewer than 5,000.
Highway to Opportunity (20th C.)
The Baja peninsula was for years one of Mexico's least populated regions. With the exception of the stretch of coast between Tijuana and Ensenada, whose lenient liquor laws began attracting spirited travelers from the U.S. during Prohibition, only a few hardy souls resided in the central and southern parts of the peninsula working as ranchers or fishermen.
It wasn't until the Carretera Transpeninsular (Hwy. 1) was completed in 1973, connecting Tijuana with Cabo San Lucas, that the peninsula opened up to settlers and travelers. Before the highway, it took 10 days to travel the rugged dirt roads between Tijuana and La Paz (today -- at a speed of 80kmph/50 mph, it would take 23 hr.). The population in the southern region exploded, and the area has flourished ever since.
In the last few years, the Mexican tourism crisis, brought on by a triple whammy of the world economic downturn, H1N1 flu, and the Mexican drug war, has prompted some Baja soul-searching. Baja is proudly Mexican, but its own tourism doldrums are a case of guilt by association -- the H1N1 flu scare and the drug war have barely touched the peninsula, but tourists are staying away nonetheless. There's talk in tourism circles of rebranding Baja, Mexico, as simply Baja, a stand-alone destination apart from Mexico, but it would be a controversial and, many feel, unpatriotic, move. Meanwhile, the real-estate boom that mushroomed here as everywhere else has gone bust too, and with it some of the boom-town attitudes that old-timers lamented were turning the whole peninsula into a Cabo-in-waiting. But if Baja's past is any indication of the future, any major changes will be a long time in coming.