California History Worth Remembering, Preserving, and Visiting

California may not be rich in British colonial history, but it is home to some really old things, the most prominent being the Spanish missions and presidios.  The following attractions serve to highlight the state’s cultural history and maritime location.  As author James Loewen would say, we’re here to discuss some things your old history textbooks overlooked.  An asterisk indicates San Francisco Bay Area destination.  We’d also like to point out the landmark status for historic sites:  CHL means California Historical Landmark and NRHP for National Register of Historic Places.  The national directory recognizes extant sites only whereas California’s register includes places that no longer exist.

The search functions at the national register’s official Web site (cr.nps.gov/nr/) don’t seem to work properly; you may have better luck with nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com, which provides a straight listing by state and county.  You’ll find all of California’s registered landmarks (over 1,030 as of 2004) at the state’s Office of Historic Preservation (ohp.parks.ca.gov); this site also has information on how to obtain landmark designation.  Refer to our History Resources section for books on California landmarks.

When we refer to an attraction’s Web sites, we try to list the most relevant one first, which is not always the “official” site.  Lest you run into dead links in the future, we have opted to provide third-party sites with no links.  Instead of listing certain long and cryptic Web addresses, we give you directions to get to the desired pages.  Since documents change addresses sometimes, you can always locate them again by limiting your search to a specific Web site.  For example, specify:

“five views” site:cr.nps.gov

and you will be able to find this document’s location regardless of where National Park Service places it on its Web site in the future.  The site operator works with the top three search engines from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.  We have also made the decision to dispense with secondary details such as addresses, directions, hours, and fees because this information is already maintained on the Internet.

[Historical Missions and Temples]
[Gold Rush and Silicon Valley]
[American Indian History]
[Vintage Adobes and Lighthouses]
[Cities, Neighborhoods, and Islands]
[Military History]
[More Historical Sites]
[Historic Mission Trail]
[Historical Settlements]
[Educating California]
[History Resources]

If you cannot personally visit some of the historical sites described on these Web pages, do yourself a favor and watch “California’s Gold” (calgold.com/calgold/) and its spin-off shows on your local PBS station.  It’s the next best thing to being there.  These shows provide the only video records of fast-disappearing sites in some cases, not to mention the ones that are inaccessible to the general public.  All California libraries should have copies of the shows’ videos.  Another video source is KRON San Francisco’s long-running “Bay Area Backroads” (bayareabackroads.com).  Check your TV listings.

 


Huell Howser (1945-2013)

Who knew a good ol' boy from Tennessee would become one of California's most enthusiastic boosters? He reminded all of us—no matter where we live—to take a moment and explore our own backyard. We will miss his infectious sense of wonder. Rest in peace, Mr. California.

 

Mission and Call to Action

The Mission

Our mission is to provide a more complete and accurate picture of California’s past on these Web pages.  However, our selection of historical sites is not meant to be comprehensive.  The history of the earliest European settlers in America—from the British Isles, Germany, Netherlands, France, and Sweden—is well documented.  As these Americans headed west to California before the Mexican War (1846-1848) and during the state’s formative years, they practically became the new “colonists” like the Spanish before them.  You’ll find accounts of these Argonauts in the American West—from the humble miners to the railroad barons—in numerous California history books.  One group of California pioneers ignored by old history books are the Chinese Americans (see below).

We should embrace California’s cultural history just as they do British colonial history on the East Coast.  Indeed, if Plimoth Plantation is one of the top attractions for most Americans, Californians owe it to themselves to look beyond the Spanish missions and check out some of the places on these Web pages.  It’s all part of American history.

Call to Action

We’d love to include other historically overlooked or underrepresented sites.  Note that we have a preference for pre-1900 attractions (Silicon Valley history being one exception) in Northern California (north of the San Luis Obispo-Kern-San Bernardino county lines).  Send us your suggestions.  Also alert us to any relevant Web sites that are worth mentioning.

A project for students:  Start your own “Adopt a Landmark” program.  Pick an unregistered landmark on these Web pages and work with the local government to apply for landmark status.

Unsung Pioneers

With the exception of Hawaii, California has always been more of a melting pot than the other states:  Before becoming officially part of the Union in 1850, it was first a Spanish colony for 50 years and then part of Mexico (after it gained independence from Spain) for almost 30 years.  For most of America, the racial dynamic has been—until recently—one of black and white.  The picture is totally different in California:  the Mexicans and the Chinese have been part of the mix from the beginning of annexation.

The impact of the Gold Rush (1848-1850) on California was immediate; a quarter of the state’s population was foreign-born, according to 1850 records.  By 1860, the Chinese were the largest foreign-born group or 10 percent of the state’s population.  Most of the early Chinese immigrants had come from the southern coast of China.  By the 1870s, there were more Chinese residents in San Francisco than any place outside Asia.  As gold seekers poured into California, the state’s Spanish-speaking population declined to 15 percent by 1850 and to 4 percent 20 years later.  For the better part of the second half of the 19th century, the Irish and the Chinese were consistently two of the largest foreign-born groups in California.  (It’s no wonder one of the leaders of the anti-Chinese movement in the state was an Irish-born teamster.)

The Chinese were well positioned to become one of the largest ethnic groups in the American West and possibly the entire country when the federal government intervened.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the law of the land until it and other Chinese exclusion laws were finally repealed in 1943.

As the dominant non-European immigrant group in California in the 19th century, they have finally been given their due by some historians.  As Kevin Starr wrote, “Because of those [pioneers], California would always, in one way or another, be Chinese.”  And Latino, Anglo, and so on.

What worked against Chinese Americans then makes them a great subject for research; their story is told in a steadily growing collection of books and documentaries.  All the other pioneer groups are usually lumped together.  So if, for instance, there are books documenting the contribution of Swiss Americans in 19th-century California, we’d be able to highlight something other than Sutter’s Fort.

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