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Early California Exploration and Settlement

California has always been a place of cultural interaction. Early California evolved and changed with each new group of settlers. These images depict the developing interconnectedness of California's early cultures.
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About the Images

California has always been a place of cultural interaction. Early California evolved and changed with each new group of settlers. These images depict the developing interconnectedness of California's early cultures. They also underscore the importance of movement and later settlement of peoples in California. Some of the modern images underscore the contested and often romanticized nature of California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage.


In the late 18th century, the Spanish in California were joined by other European groups. Russian settlements in northern California (shown in the two images of Fort Ross) connected Russia to its other sea otter trade routes, were places to grow food for their Alaskan settlements, and served as bases for trade with Californians. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the French controlled much of what would border both Spanish territory on the West Coast and the newly formed United States to the east. The ink drawing shows a French diplomat being received at Mission Carmel in 1786.

Early European images of California show these settlers' interest in Native Americans already inhabiting the area. The engraving of Captain Rogers' men being received by Native American men on the shores of California in the early 1800s depicts the two groups shaking hands and the Native Americans guiding the newcomers to shore. The engraving underscores the newness of the interaction, with the Native American men inspecting the explorers’ hair and clothing. The numbers of European and Native American men appear relatively equal in this early engraving; but the ravages of disease from exposure to Europeans would decimate Native American populations by the mid- to late 19th century. The Russian sketch of mules and an Indian boy, and the illustration of the padrone and the Indian boy, show the cultural contact and adaptations underway by the early 19th century.

Natural harbors and waterways made San Francisco an early site for the rapid influx of people and settlements. The series of three images of San Francisco illustrates the city's expansive growth in less than 40 years. The 1815 painting shows the view toward the San Francisco Presidio with the Bay and one ship in the far distance. As late as 1837, the print of the view towards the San Francisco Presidio from the ships entering the Bay still show very few settlements in the distance. By the time of the lithograph dated 1851 (one year after California joined the United States, and two years after the Gold Rush), San Francisco is teeming with buildings, tents, people, and livestock, and the Bay is clogged with arriving ships.

Military presence was central to the success of each new settlement. It is depicted in both Spanish presidio images and in American fortifications like Sutter's Fort, shown here in a book illustration. Each shows the walls and soldiers meant to provide shelter and protection to the surrounding farms.

The images in this topic tend to show California’s rapid transition from exploration to settlement from a European viewpoint. The sketches and paintings by early 19th-century Russian artist Ludwig Choris show his interest in Native American arms and utensils, dance performances, and portrait heads. But as the Spanish mission system expands, and immigrants from the Gold Rush crowd California, artists begin to reflect the power of Manifest Destiny. Their emphasis shifts to documenting "modern" progress in the construction of buildings, forts, and migration routes like the Overland Route. By 1866 (nearly fifteen years after California's statehood and heavily influenced by the ideas of Manifest Destiny), a certificate from the Society of California Pioneers uses a series of images to mark major historical transitions within California's history leading up to and glorifying United States control.

Into the 20th century and today, the legacy of California’s early exploration and settlement is apparent in daily life. By exploring the many place markers of Spanish exploration (shown in the 1960s AAA map of California's Spanish heritage), modern Californians may continue to engage with the region’s unique past. The 1979 Chicano mural depicting a fight between a Spanish conquistador and an Aztec eagle knight underscores the central role European conquest played in shaping California.

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Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Definition: Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny is the historical belief that the United States was ordained by God to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. Originally a 19th-century political catch phrase, Manifest Destiny eventually became a standard historical term. It is sometimes used as a synonym for the expansion of the United States across the North American continent which the belief inspired or was used to justify.


"Early California Exploration and Settlement" was curated and written by the University of California in 2009.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

Early California Exploration and Settlement curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2009, Regents of the University of California.