Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press


California (kăl´Ĭfôr´nyə), most populous state in the United States, located in the Far West; bordered by Oregon (N), Nevada and, across the Colorado River, Arizona (E), Mexico (S), and the Pacific Ocean (W).

Facts and Figures

Area, 158,693 sq mi (411,015 sq km). Pop. (2010) 37,253,956, a 10% increase since the 2000 census. Capital, Sacramento. Largest city, Los Angeles. Statehood, Sept. 9, 1850 (31st state). Highest pt., Mt. Whitney, 14,491 ft (4,417 m); lowest pt., Death Valley, 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. Nickname, Golden State. Motto,Eureka [I Have Found It]. State bird, California valley quail. State flower, golden poppy. State tree, California redwood. Abbr., Calif.; CA


Ranking third among the U.S. states in area, California has a diverse topography and climate. A series of low mountains known as the Coast Ranges extends along the 1,200-mi (1,930-km) coast. The region from Point Arena, N of San Francisco, to the southern part of the state is subject to tremors and sometimes to severe earthquakes caused by tectonic stress along the San Andreas fault. The Coast Ranges receive heavy rainfall in the north, where the giant cathedrallike redwood forests prevail, but the climate of these mountains is considerably drier in S California, and S of the Golden Gate no major rivers reach the ocean. Behind the coastal ranges in central California lies the great Central Valley, a long alluvial valley drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. In the southeast lie vast wastelands, notably the Mojave Desert, site of Joshua Tree National Park.

Rising as an almost impenetrable granite barrier E of the Central Valley is the Sierra Nevada range, which includes Mt. Whitney, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite National Park. The Cascade Range, the northern continuation of the Sierra Nevada, includes Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lying E of the S Sierra Nevada is Death Valley National Park. The drier portions of the state especially are subject periodically to large, wind-driven fires; in certain hilly areas sometimes devastating mudslides occur, particularly in the rainy season after large fires.

Sacramento is the state capital. The largest cities are Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland, and Sacramento.


California has an enormously productive economy, which for a nation would be one of the ten largest in the world. Although agriculture is gradually yielding to industry as the core of the state's economy, California leads the nation in the production of fruits and vegetables, including carrots, lettuce, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, and almonds. The state's most valuable crops are grapes, cotton, flowers, and oranges; dairy products, however, contribute the single largest share of farm income, and California is again the national leader in this sector. The state also produces the major share of U.S. domestic wine. California's farms are highly productive as a result of good soil, a long growing season, and the use of modern agricultural methods. Irrigation is critical, especially in the San Joaquin Valley and Imperial Valley. The gathering and packing of crops is done largely by seasonal migrant labor, primarily Mexicans. Fishing is another important industry.

Much of the state's industrial production depends on the processing of farm produce and upon such local resources as petroleum, natural gas, lumber, cement, and sand and gravel. Since World War II, however, manufacturing, notably of electronic equipment, computers, machinery, transportation equipment, and metal products, has increased enormously. Defense industries, a base of the economy especially in S California, have declined following the end of the cold war, a serious blow to the state. But many high-tech companies and small low-tech, often low-wage, companies remain in S California, in what is said to be the largest manufacturing belt in the United States. Farther north, "Silicon Valley," between Palo Alto and San Jose, so called because it is the nation's leading producer of semiconductors, is also a focus of software development.

California continues to be a major U.S. center for motion-picture, television film, and related entertainment industries, especially in Hollywood and Burbank. Tourism also is an important source of income. Disneyland, Sea World, and other theme parks draw millions of visitors each year, as do San Francisco with its numerous attractions and several entertainment-dominated Los Angeles–area communities. California also abounds in natural beauty, seen especially in its many national parks and forests—home to such attractions as Yosemite Falls and giant sequoia trees—and along miles of Pacific beaches.

One of the state's most acute problems is its appetite for water. The once fertile Owens valley is now arid, its waters tapped by Los Angeles 175 mi (282 km) away. In the lush Imperial Valley, irrigation is controlled by the All-American Canal, which draws from the Colorado River. In the Central Valley the water problem is one of poor distribution, an imbalance lessened by the vast Central Valley project. Cutbacks in federally funded water projects in the 1970s and 80s led many California cities to begin buying water from areas with a surplus, but political problems associated with water sharing continue. California's failure to develop a long-term plan to end surplus withdrawals from the Colorado led the federal government to stop the release of surplus water to the state in 2003.

Government, Politics, and Higher Education

The state's first constitution was adopted in 1849. The present constitution, dating from 1879, is noted for its provisions for public initiative and referendum—which have led at times to difficulties in governance—and for recall of public officials. The state's executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term. California's bicameral legislature has a senate with 40 members and an assembly with 80 members. The state elects 2 senators and 53 representatives to the U.S. Congress and has 55 electoral votes. In the 1980s and 1990s, California elected Republican governors—George Deukemejian (1982, 1986) and Pete Wilson (1990, 1994)— before the Democrat Gray Davis was elected in 1998 (and reelected in 2002). In 2003, Davis was recalled and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to succeed him; Schwarzenegger was reelected in 2006. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who had been been governor in the 1970s and 80s, was elected to the post again in 2010 and 2014. In 1992, California became the first state to simultaneously elect two women to the U.S. Senate—Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

Among the state's more prominent institutions of higher learning are the Univ. of California, with nine campuses; the California State University System, with 23 campuses; Occidental College and the Univ. of Southern California, at Los Angeles; Stanford Univ., at Stanford; the California Institute of Technology, at Pasadena; Mills College, at Oakland; and the Claremont Colleges, at Claremont. After a period from the 1960s through the 1970s when the state's well-financed public institutions were the envy of the nation, California's colleges have been forced to retrench by tax-cutting initiatives.


European Exploration and Colonization

The first voyage (1542) to Alta California (Upper California), as the region north of Baja California (Lower California) came to be known, was commanded by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who explored San Diego Bay and the area farther north along the coast. In 1579 an English expedition headed by Sir Francis Drake landed near Point Reyes, N of San Francisco, and claimed the region for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno, another Spaniard, explored the coast and Monterey Bay.

Colonization was slow, but finally in 1769 Gaspar de Portolá, governor of the Californias, led an expedition up the Pacific coast and established a colony on San Diego Bay. The following year he explored the area around Monterey Bay and later returned to establish a presidio there. Soon afterward Monterey became the capital of Alta California. Accompanying Portolá's expedition was Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary who founded a mission at San Diego. Franciscans later founded several missions that extended as far N as Sonoma, N of San Francisco. The missionaries sought to Christianize the Native Americans but also forced them to work as manual laborers, helping to build the missions into vital agricultural communities (see Mission Indians). Cattle raising was of primary importance, and hides and tallow were exported. The missions have been preserved and are now open to visitors.

In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza founded San Francisco, where he established a military outpost. The early colonists, called the Californios, lived a pastoral life and for the most part were not interfered with by the central government of New Spain (as the Spanish empire in the Americas was called) or later (1820s) by that of Mexico. The Californios did, however, become involved in local politics, as when Juan Bautista Alvarado led a revolt (1836) and made himself governor of Alta California, a position he later persuaded the Mexicans to let him keep. Under Mexican rule the missions were secularized (1833–34) and the Native Americans released from their servitude. The degradation of Native American peoples, which continued under Mexican rule and after U.S. settlers came to the area, was described by Helen Hunt Jackson in her novel Ramona (1884). Many mission lands were subsequently given to Californios, who established the great ranchos, vast cattle-raising estates. Colonization of California remained largely Mexican until the 1840s.

Russian and U.S. Settlement

Russian fur traders had penetrated south to the California coast and established Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, in 1812. Jedediah Strong Smith and other trappers made the first U.S. overland trip to the area in 1826, but U.S. settlement did not become significant until the 1840s. In 1839, Swiss-born John Augustus Sutter arrived and established his "kingdom" of New Helvetia on a vast tract in the Sacramento valley. He did much for the overland American immigrants, who began to arrive in large numbers in 1841. Some newcomers met with tragedy, including the Donner Party, which was stranded in the Sierra Nevada after a heavy snowstorm.

Political events in the territory moved swiftly in the next few years. After having briefly asserted the independence of California in 1836, the Californios drove out the last Mexican governor in 1845. Under the influence of the American explorer John C. Frémont, U.S. settlers set up (1846) a republic at Sonoma under their unique Bear Flag. The news of war between the United States and Mexico (1846–48) reached California soon afterward. On July 7, 1846, Commodore John D. Sloat captured Monterey, the capital, and claimed California for the United States. The Californios in the north worked with U.S. soldiers, but those in the south resisted U.S. martial law. In 1847, however, U.S. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny defeated the southern Californios. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico formally ceded the territory to the United States.

The Gold Rush

In 1848, the year that California became a part of the United States, another major event in the state's history occurred: While establishing a sawmill for John Sutter near Coloma, James W. Marshall discovered gold and touched off the California gold rush. The forty-niners, as the gold-rush miners were called, came in droves, spurred by the promise of fabulous riches from the Mother Lode. San Francisco rapidly became a boom city, and its bawdy, lawless coastal area, which became known as the Barbary Coast, gave rise to the vigilantes, extralegal community groups formed to suppress civil disorder. American writers such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain have recorded the local color as well as the violence and human tragedies of the roaring mining camps.

Statehood and Immigration

With the gold rush came a huge increase in population and a pressing need for civil government. In 1849, Californians sought statehood and, after heated debate in the U.S. Congress arising out of the slavery issue, California entered the Union as a free, nonslavery state by the Compromise of 1850. San Jose became the capital. Monterey, Vallejo, and Benicia each served as the capital before it was moved to Sacramento in 1854. In 1853, Congress authorized the survey of a railroad route to link California with the eastern seaboard, but the transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869. In the meantime communication and transportation depended upon ships, the stagecoach, the pony express, and the telegraph.

Chinese laborers were imported in great numbers to work on railroad construction. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 (see Burlingame, Anson) provided, among other things, for unrestricted Chinese immigration. That was at first enthusiastically endorsed by Californians; but after a slump in the state's shaky economy, the white settlers viewed the influx of the lower-paid Chinese laborers as an economic threat. Ensuing bitterness and friction led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (see Chinese exclusion).

A railroad-rate war (1884) and a boom in real estate (1885) fostered a new wave of overland immigration. Cattle raising on the ranchos gave way to increased grain production. Vineyards were planted by 1861, and the first trainload of oranges was shipped from Los Angeles in 1886.

Industrialization and Increased Settlement

By the turn of the century the discovery of oil, industrialization resulting from the increase of hydroelectric power, and expanding agricultural development attracted more settlers. Los Angeles grew rapidly in this period and, in population, soon surpassed San Francisco, which suffered greatly after the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Improvements in urban transportation stimulated the growth of both Los Angeles and San Francisco; the advent of the cable car and the electric railway made possible the development of previously inaccessible areas.

As industrious Japanese farmers acquired valuable land and a virtual monopoly of California's truck-farming operations, the issue of Asian immigration again arose. The bitter struggle for the exclusion of Asians plagued international relations, and in 1913 the California Alien Land Act was passed despite President Woodrow Wilson's attempts to block it. The act provided that persons ineligible for U.S. citizenship could not own agricultural land in California.

Successive waves of settlers arrived in California, attracted by a new real-estate boom in the 1920s and by the promise of work in the 1930s. The influx during the 1930s of displaced farm workers, depicted by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath, caused profound dislocation in the state's economy. During World War II the Japanese in California were removed from their homes and placed in relocation centers. Industry in California expanded rapidly during the war; the production of ships and aircraft attracted many workers who later settled in the state.

Growing Pains and Natural Disasters

Prosperity and rapid population growth continued after the war. Many African Americans who came during World War II to work in the war industries settled in California. By the 1960s they constituted a sizable minority in the state, and racial tensions reached a climax. In 1964, California voters approved an initiative measure, Proposition 14, allowing racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing in the state, a measure later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1965 riots broke out in Watts, a predominantly black section of Los Angeles, touching off a wave of riots across the United States. Also in the 1960s migrant farm workers in California formed a union and struck many growers to obtain better pay and working conditions. Unrest also occurred in the state's universities, especially the Univ. of California at Berkeley, where student demonstrations and protests in 1964 provoked disorders.

Republicans generally played a more dominant role than Democrats in California politics during the 20th cent., but by the early 21st cent. the state had become more Democratic. From the end of World War II through the mid-1990s, five of the seven governors were Republicans, starting with Earl Warren (1943–53). Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor and a leading conservative Republican, was elected governor in 1966 and reelected in 1970; he later served two terms as U.S president. The two Democrats were liberals Edmund G. (Pat) Brown (1959–67) and his son Jerry Brown (1975–83). In the late 1970s, Californians staged a "tax revolt" that attracted national attention, passing legislation to cut property taxes.

During the 1970s and 80s California continued to grow rapidly, with a major shift of population to the state's interior. The metropolitan areas of Riverside–San Bernardino, Modesto, Stockton, Bakersfield, and Sacramento were among the fastest growing in the nation during the 1980s. Much of the state's population growth was a result of largely illegal immigration from Mexico; there was also a heavy infux of immigrants from China, the Philippines, and SE Asia.

Population growth and immigration contributed to growing economic pressures, as did cuts in federal defense spending; meanwhile, social tensions also increased. In Apr., 1992, four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of brutality charges after they had been videotaped beating a black motorist; the verdict touched off riots in South-Central Los Angeles and other neighborhoods, resulting in 58 deaths, thousands of arrests, and approximately $1 billion in property damage.

In addition to periodic heavy flooding and brushfires, earthquakes have caused widespread damage in California. In Oct., 1989, a major earthquake killed about 60 people and injured thousands in Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay area. In Jan., 1994, an earthquake hit the Northridge area of N Los Angeles, killing some 60 people and causing at least $13 billion in damage.

In a backlash against illegal immigration, California voters in 1994 approved Proposition 187, an initiative barring the state from providing most services—including welfare, education, and nonemergency medical care—to illegal immigrants. Federal courts found much of Proposition 187 unconstitutional; the appeal of their rulings was dropped in 1999, at a time when the state's economy had rebounded and a Democratic administration was in Sacramento.

In late 2000, California began experiencing an electricity crisis as insufficient generating capacity and increasing short-term wholesale prices for power squeezed the state's two largest public utilities, who, under the "deregulation" plan they had agreed to in the early 1990s, were not allowed to pass along their increased costs. As the state worked to come up with both short-term and long-time solutions to the situation, consumers experienced sporadic blackouts and faced large rate hikes under the terms of a bailout plan. The crisis was severe enough that it was expected to slow the state's economic growth. Evidence subsequently emerged of both price gouging and market manipulation by a number of energy companies.

The economic downturn in the early 2000s resulted in enormous budget shortfalls for California's state government, and made Governor Gray Davis increasingly unpopular. A recall petition financed mainly by a Republican congressman who withdrew from the subsequent election led to a vote (Oct., 2003) that removed Davis from office. The actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was elected to succeed him. The year the state experienced devastating wildfires in the greater San Diego area; the area was again hit with particularly dangerous wildfires in 2007. The housing bubble that burst in 2007 and the significant recession that followed it had especially severe consequences in California, both for the state's economy (which experienced unemployment levels not seen since the early 1940s) and government (which faced enormous budget shortfalls for several years). In 2014 three consecutive years of below normal rainfall combined with hotter temperatures resulted in California's worst drought on record (and by some measures the worst in more than a millenium), with exceptional drought conditions across more than half the state.


See L. Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish Speaking Californians, 1846–1890 (1967); R. Kirsch, West of the West: Witnesses to the California Experience,1542–1906 (1968); R. J. Roske, Everyman's Eden: A History of California (1968); C. A. Hutchinson, Frontier Settlement in Mexican California (1969); W. Bean, California: An Interpretive History (2d. ed. 1973); M. W. Donley, Atlas of California (1979); D. W. Lantis, California: Land of Contrast (3d ed. 1981); C. Miller and R. S. Hyslop, California: The Geography of Diversity (1983); T. H. Watkins, California: An Illustrated History (1983); J. D. Hart, A Companion to California (1984); T. Muller, The Fourth Wave: California's Newest Immigrants (1985); A. F. Rolle, California: A History (4th ed. 1987); P. Schrag, Paradise Lost (1998).


Copyright The Columbia University Press

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press

Alta California

Alta California (äl´tə kăl´Ĭfôr´nyə), term used by the Spanish to refer to their possessions along the entire Pacific coast north of the Mexican state of Baja California. California was often represented on maps as an island some 3,000 mi (4,800 km) long until the 18th-century explorations of the Jesuit father Eusebio Kino proved conclusively that the southern part of the area was a peninsula and the rest of it mainland. Thereafter the peninsula came to be called Baja (Lower) and the mainland Alta (Upper) California.