Just like the rest of the country California was the home to various tribes of Native Americans. Names like Ohlone, Hupi and Chumash are found along the West Coast.
After Christoffer Columbus "discovered" America other than the Spaniards were interested in the new continents. Portugal and Spain had a treaty about who was to "own" territories north-south of a line of demarcation and also England was curious about the new territories, not the least because the Spaniards brought home so much gold. The East Coast of what was to become USA and Canada soon saw British colonies, but to get to the West Coast you had to sail around the dreaded Cape Horn.
One of the more daring captains, Elizabeth I's favorit privateer/pirat Sir Francis Drake, made the trip around the Horn and all up the West Coast. The famous fog around Golden Gate led him not once but twice to pass the entry to the bay without discovering one of the best and biggest natural harbors in the world. You really don't want to get too close to the rocky outcrops on the West Coast - and certainly not in a sailboat in fog. Sir Francis found Drake’s Bay but surely world history had looked very different had he turned starboard a little further south and brought home to his queen the knowledge that the West Coast could very well be colonized.
After the Spanyards colonized Mexico they turned their eyes north. In 1769 the first mission was founded in San Diego and captain Portola set out together with the Franciscan munk Junipero Serra and a small group of explorers to spread the Gospel among the heathens and see what else they could discover. On horseback and very sore feet the group reached the tip of the Peninsula; some even survived to return home to tell about the fantastic bay. The 21 missions were founded to give shelter to travelers - the distance between them being one day's walk.
The missions were connected with El Camino Real, The King's Road, although at that time if was more a food path. As the first group had advanced they had looked in the almanac, saw which saint was honored on that day, and named the mission after the saint. Hence all mission towns start with San or Santa: San Jose, San Carlos, Santa Monica, San Luis Obispo, … OK, the exception is California's biggest city El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula. Fortunately we don't need to call it Queen of Angles, our Lady's village by the River Porciuncula. Los Angeles, or just L.A., will do.
The next 80 years the munks worked hard converting the natives to Christianity. They worked so hard that many natives died under the harsh circumstances of - fortunately baptized - indentured servants of the missions. Father Serra died as an old man, proud of all he had accomplished, but somehow also doubting if he had followed the spirit of the Lord's commands. And the missions still stand. They are very popular among wedding parties, tourists - and teachers of California history.
Mexican rancheros moved into California. The hills are in many places to steep for growing grain - but they are great for cattle. Provisions were paid for with ox hides ("backs") giving rise to the nickname green backs once dollar bills were introduced. The Mexican influence is still found in many street and city names and probably will give your poor GPS device a lot of confusion if it doesn't have a Spanish module attached along with the English. And many people bearing Mexican names can trace their heritage back to these early settlers. They are certainly not illegal immigrants.
Up north Russians had colonized Alaska. But getting provisions across Siberia to the people in Alaska was a cumbersome undertaking so the Russians sailed down the continent and founded some stations in northern California. They had a lively trade with the local tribes but even the distance to California was a hindrance and the Alaskan province was not of strategic importance to the tzar. They Russians did, however, leave their mark with names like Russian River.
The settlers had by that time discovered Oregon and wagon trains set out from Independence, Missouri, on the Oregon Trail. Among the 400.000 people estimated to have walked the 3.400 km across the prairie, over the Rocky Mountains, across the Utah desert, and over the Sierra Nevada, many decided to swing south and head for Northern California instead. (Franky, I don't have much respect for those who complain that it takes 6-7 hours to fly across the continent.)
If you look at American art from that period you will see beautiful landscapes. They were not only pretty decorations. They also conveyed the message that if you hadn't reached Indepencence Rock by Independence Day, July 4th, you'd better turn back or you wouldn't make it across the mountains before the snow cut you off. Donner Pass, crowning the crossing of Sierra Nevada between Sacramento and Reno, is named after a group who perished close to safety.
In 1848 so many Americans had come to California that they opposed being subjects of Mexico. At The Bear Flag Revolt Leftenant John C. Fremont rode to the capital in Monterey with a flag, sewn from various pieces of cloth - among them a red petticoat - and declared the Republique of Californien independent. (The capital has moved at least six times before it has ended in Sacramento.) After a month the new republic joined the United States. From the perspective of the United States they couldn't have chosen a better time.
A year later, in 1849, gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada. Fortyniners has since been the name for the prospectors that flocked to California, leaving fleets of unmanned ships in the San Francisco harbor. After the gold rush, silver was also discovered in huge amounts and we still struggle with the effects of these mining operations. Big quantities of mercury was employed to wash out the gold, and much of this pollutant still sits at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. For mining the silver huge quantities of water was lead into the mine shafts bringing with it rocks and debris that has since been clogging the rivers and the bay. Before the silver mines you could sail ocean faring ships all the way down to San Jose - now the bay is surrounded by shallow marshes, many used for salt production. That all rivers leading into the bay are drained for water, converting the deserts of San Fernando and San Joaquin Valleys into a center for agriculture surely hasn't improved the situation.
Leland Stanford, a merchant from Sacramento with political ambitions, started together with three partners what would later become the Union Pacific Railway. The purpose was to build a railroad across Sierra Nevada, connecting California with the rest of USA. The U.S. Government paid the railroad builders with the land next to the tracks. All four companions became immensely rich. During part of this period Stanford also was elected governor of California.
Building a railroad across mountains required a lot of blowing up rocks and who knew more about gun powder than the Chinese? So Stanford and Co. imported a lot of Chinese workers. Many died of the hardships imposed on them and those that survived sent for Chinese brides. California may have joined the Union during the Civil War and was a refuge for run away slaves, but the treatment of the Chinese immigrants is a black mark on the state's history.
Stanford had only one child, a son who died of typhoid fever before he reached the age of going to college. Being an intelligent and knowledge loving young lad he had dreamed of going to Harvard. Hence, the story goes, his parents went to Boston, Massachusetts, to meet with the head of the university. They told him how they would like to give a donation in memory of their son. The principal had looked at the two somewhat provincial looking guests and in an arrogant tone noted how the campus would be covered in statues and fountains if everybody had such ideas. Quietly Standford had remarked that he was thinking more of a lecture hall or a professorship. To this the principal had made remarks about the cost of such an endeavor. Didn't they know that the university was valued at eight million dollars? The guests had looked at each other and decided that if it only took eight million to build a university, why didn't they build one themselves? So that is exactly what they did. (Even today headhunters will warn people from Silicon Valley that the dress code is more formal if they are looking for a job in Boston.)
Many, many years later a professor at said university mentored two young men who started tinkering in the garage of one of their parents. Mr Hewlett and Mr Packard were among the first to start a company in the electronics industry that would later give Silicon Valley its name. The garage is still there, on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto.
Names like Fremont, Portola, Junipero Serra and Stanford figure prominently on the maps of the area. The markers with "Historic Route" and a cowboy on horseback denote Fremont's ride for Monterey - they are a thorn in the side of the Californians of Mexican heritage. Fremont gives name to both a city and streets, Portola Valley is located close to Palo Alto and Juniperro Serra Freeway is the official name for Interstate 280. Stanford? The university is still there. And it still breeds entrepreneurs with daring projects. You can for example google Google.
California means agriculture, IT, and Hollywood. The third big export business comes out of the southern part of the state where the predictable sunny weather was one of the advantages in a time before good stage light was invented.
The other advantage of this location is not heralded by the film industry: The proximity of Mexico. The early film makers didn't want to pay royalty to Thomas Edison, the inventor and patent owner of the rolling camera. Edison's lawyers confiscated pirated equipment but when they showed up in California the camera crews quickly brought their equipment across the border and out of reach of the law. (Supposedly Hollywood has a different view on Intellectual Property Rights today.) 1