Four Not-So-Well-Known Facts About California History

The Flag of California

My home state of California is the home of more than 10% of all Americans, living in a state that stretches as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as South Carolina. Within its borders are some of North America’s tallest mountains, vast, fertile valleys filled with some of the nation’s most productive farms, one of the world’s hottest deserts, and miles of coastline with one of the world’s rarest climates.

Today, in honor of my home state, I’ve decided to talk about some not-so-well-known facts the history of the land I call home. For example, did you know…

California had an incredible diversity of indigenous cultures

Chumash canoe image by Robert Schwemmer

When we think of Native American cultures, we usually picture the buffalo hunters of the Great Plains, or the famous Southwestern tribes like the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo peoples, or the forest-dwelling east coast farmers like the Iroquois, Cherokee, or Powhatan. However, the Indians of California receive very little attention in our history books and our popular culture.

This is a real shame, because prior to European contact, California was home to more than 500 Indian groups, speaking more than 100 languages! California had the highest population density north of Mexico, with a population that was able to sustain itself off of California’s abundant natural resources without the need for agriculture. Those who lived near the coast, like the Chumash people who lived in the Central Coast area where I live now, would support themselves with the abundant sea life just off shore. Those who lived further inland would ensure good hunting and gathering every year by taking advantage of something Californians of today fear – wildfires. They would intentionally start forest fires to fertilize the soil and make room for the fresh growth that deer and elk love.

Tragically, very little survives of this rich history. Some groups, like the Chumash, were able to preserve some of their culture over the generations. On the other hand, there were groups like the Yahi, who are now completely extinct. The only reason we know about the Yahi is because their last surviving member, Ishi, was able to impart the knowledge, history, and culture of his people to anthropologists at UC Berkeley before he died. Who knows how many groups went extinct without an “Ishi” to preserve their history? Today, there are numerous archaeologists hard at work in California trying to learn what we can about this gap in our history.

California is the only U.S. state to have been invaded by Argentina

Hippolyte Bouchard, the Argentine captain who once made Californians quake in fear.

Hippolyte Bouchard, the Argentine captain who once made Californians quake in fear.

In 1810, Revolution in the streets of Buenos Aires led to Argentina’s War of Independence. The war did not stay confined to Argentina for long. On land, Argentine general José de San Martín led campaigns in Chile and Peru, while at sea the French-born Argentine naval commander Hippolyte Bouchard attacked Spanish forces as far away as the Philippines, Hawaii, and, yes, California.

On November 20, 1818, Argentine ships were spotted approaching Monterey Bay. The Spanish authorities evacuated the civilians to the Soledad Mission, and prepared the cannons of the presidio (Spanish fort). That night, the first ship anchored just offshore, only to discover at dawn that they had accidentally parked just within cannon-fire range.

Whoopsie daisy!

Whoopsie daisy!

The first ship was quickly forced to surrender, but Bouchard did not give up. Landing about four miles away, he led his men up to the presidio, and after a brief fight, he captured it, raising the Argentine flag. For the next nine days, the Argentinians ransacked the city, looting everything they could use and killing all the livestock they could find.

Eventually, they left Monterey, and began a campaign against various targets along the California coast – Point Conception, Santa Barbara, and San Juan Capistrano. Each time, Bouchard’s forces would attack, steal what they could use, destroy what they couldn’t, and leave. Californians naturally started referring to Bouchard as “California’s only pirate”. By the end of the year, Bouchard had moved on to targets further south, putting an end to the Argentine campaign in California just as quickly as it had begun.

California under Mexican rule was politically unstable

Capture of Monterey image from The Bancroft Library

This fact is actually not all that surprising when you consider that Mexico itself was quite politically unstable. From 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, to 1848, when the United States formally defeated Mexico and annexed California, there were 40 changes of government in Mexico! Mexico had gone from being a monarchy to a federal republic to a centralized dictatorship, with rebellions and coups and three different constitutions. Is it any wonder that some of that chaotic mess rubbed off on California?

At first, California was pretty insulated from all the trouble down south. Things started to heat up when some groups started trying to curtail some of the power of the Roman Catholic Church. In California, much of the Spanish colonization effort had been in the form of missions built and run by Franciscan monks along the California coast, where priests would convert the natives to Christianity and train them in Spanish cultural ways. In 1826, Governor José María de Echeandía tried to break up the missions, declaring the Indians there to be free to leave if they so chose and become full Mexican citizens. In 1831, a new governor, Manuel Victoria, tried to reverse course and restore the missions, but he was overthrown in just less than a year by an uprising by local Californians led by Pío Pico.

Pico tried to declare himself governor, but Los Angeles refused to accept him. He resigned after only 20 days in office. Taking advantage of the confusion, Agustín Zamorano led a rebellion in northern California and took control there. Meanwhile, Echeandía launched his own government in southern California. Finally, order was restored when Mexico sent Jose Figueroa to take over as California’s governor and finish the dismantling of the mission system, breaking up church lands into large, secular land grants called “ranchos”.

After Figueroa, California had two governors in a row who were so unpopular they were quickly deposed in military coups, with the last coup bringing Juan Bautista Alvarado to power. Alvarado was basically running an independent regime at this point, but still claimed loyalty to Mexico. This arrangement didn’t please everyone. He failed to get the support of southern Californians for his rule, and Mexico wasn’t willing to lose control of California. Mexican authorities sent their own pick for California’s governor to Los Angeles, leading to a Californian civil war between Alvarado’s supporters in the north and loyalists in the south. Alvarado won, but tensions remained high, and eventually Mexico tried to send another expedition to reclaim their rogue territory.

This led to one of the most laughable moments in California history. A U.S. Navy officer sailed into Monterey, thinking that the U.S. was at war with Mexico, and was able to capture the presidio. Once he realized his mistake, he tried to apologize to Alvarado, but Alvarado had already fled to his rancho. This left the Mexican military commander that had been sent to reclaim California as the only authority figure available.

Even this didn’t end the chaos. At the Battle of Provedencia, the Mexican forces were defeated by Californian rebels, and Pío Pico returned as governor. Pico wound up sharing power with Jose Castro, with the line between their domains drawn through San Luis Obispo. The net sum of all of this chaos and fighting was that California was weak and divided when the United States decided to take it by force when it declared war on Mexico in 1846. Even with American troops marching in, California still found itself struggling with civil unrest, as some U.S.-born residents of Sonoma decided to declare an independent “California Republic” and raised a flag with a bear on it over the town barracks, giving rise to what would become the official state flag to this day.

Los Angeles is an oil boom town

Oil Pump image from California Air Resource Board

New York City has been America’s most populous city since the American Revolution. Chicago has been in the top five U.S. cities since 1870. Los Angeles may be the second-most-populous city today, but it has only held that rank since 1990. In fact, it wasn’t even in the top five until 1930! How did this city by the sea turn into the behemoth it is today? It has to have been Hollywood, right? Everybody wanting to live near the greatest stars, to dream about making it big as a movie star?

Actually, the reason L.A. is so big today has less to do with black-and-white films and more to do with black gold.

That’s right, not only was Los Angeles built on oil, it continues to be a major oil producer to this day! The oil derricks are just all well-hidden behind clever construction – an office building here, a fake island there. Many traces of the city’s current and past oil sites have been hidden from public view. Back in the city’s oil heyday, though, people were much less secretive about it.

Oil pumps image from Gizmodo

The first oil discovery in Los Angeles was in 1892, when prospectors Edward L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield found a well near where Dodgers Stadium is located now. Most of the oil was concentrated in the hills just northwest of Downtown, but there was oil to be found all the way down to the beach.

Oil pumps image from USC

Even private homeowners got in on the action, digging their own wells on their property. Even today the Beverly Hills Unified School District supplements its income with money from an oil pump on the Beverly Hills High School campus. By the 1940s, though, new residents started to complain about the noise the derricks made and the ugliness of their appearance, leading to many wells being closed and the ones that still operate being camouflaged. It is a testament to how well-hidden the current oil wells are that I lived in Southern California for two years, and I had no idea. I only learned about this “secret” oil history many years later. It is a testament to just how much our history books leave out.

Congratulations to Amy Orvin, winner of the Cat Flag giveaway. Thanks to everyone who participated!