Essay: 1768-1820s: Exploration and Colonial California

Beginning in the 16th century, California's coastal peoples began catching glimpses of an ominous and wondrous sight: strange oceangoing ships filled with bearded, pale-skinned men. After conquering and plundering the Aztec empire in present-day Mexico City in 1519, Spanish conquistadors were eagerly exploring northward, lured by rumors of fabulous golden cities. Spanish explorers found the tip of what is now Baja California in 1533 and named it "California" after a mythical island in a popular Spanish novel. Nine years later, a Spanish ship commanded by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed as far north as present-day Oregon, making several landings along the way. During the following two centuries, Spanish galleons became frequent visitors to California's waters, sailing through on their way from Manila to Acapulco.

Trade and New Diseases

Native Californians were accustomed to interacting with an array of outside groups, and they generally welcomed the Spanish as fascinating — if bizarre — trading partners. Spanish sea captains recorded how local native communities greeted arriving ships with gifts of food and other displays of friendship. Driven by curiosity and a desire for European manufactured goods, native Californians established regular trading relationships with the Spanish. Access to Spanish goods increased coastal groups' power and prestige, giving them greater leverage in dealings with inland groups.

The Spanish germs and microbes that accompanied these goods, however, triggered terrible changes in the demographics of native California. Smallpox, influenza, dysentery, malaria, measles, and syphilis — all unknown to North American immune systems — inexorably spread from group to group. By 1848, diseases springing from centuries of interaction with the Spanish had reduced California's native population by more than two-thirds. This catastrophic decline disrupted families, communities, and trading networks, weakening native resistance to Spanish, Mexican, and American intrusion.

Spanish Missions and Colonization

Spain claimed California but considered it too far north to settle. California remained an uncolonized periphery of the Spanish empire until rumors of British and Russian interest in the region prompted a defensive expansion up the coast. In 1769, a "sacred expedition" (three ships and two overland parties) led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá and Franciscan Father Junípero Serra established outposts at San Diego and Monterey. By 1823, Spaniards had founded 21 missions and numerous villages from San Diego to Sonoma.

The mission system — springing equally from political, economic, and religious motivations — was Spain's centuries-old method of advancing and securing its colonial frontiers by Christianizing and Hispanicizing native peoples. Lacking sufficient settlers, Spain used natives to colonize new lands and provide a labor force to sustain its colonies. California's missions were one leg of a far-flung mission system that extended to Baja California and the present-day states of Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

A New Racial Hierarchy

Spain's empire in the Americas maintained a complex racial classification system that arranged people hierarchically based on the "purity" of their blood. The California frontier — free of imperial bureaucracy and pure-blooded elites — was a place where castas (people of mixed ancestry) could move up the racial hierarchy. Much of the population in California that referred to themselves as "Spaniards" in the 18th and early 19th centuries were of mixed Spanish, African, and Native American ancestry.

Over time, many people negated their African and indigenous ancestry by declaring themselves gente de razón (people of reason) in explicit opposition to California's native peoples. Affluent Spanish families could even purchase certificates of their blood purity from Spain. Wealthy Spanish Californians also held themselves separate from the gente corriente, working-class Spaniards who did not own their own land.

Never as racially stratified as other parts of Spanish America, colonial California (1769-1820s) developed a racial hierarchy: land-owning "Spaniards" and missionaries at the top, working-class gente corriente in the middle, and Christianized native Californians at the bottom, with non-Christian natives a constant outside presence. These racial categories were based more on perception and the ability to influence official record keeping than on actual genetics.

A Violent and Fragile New World

As time passed, the lives of Spanish settlers and native peoples became intertwined in a shifting series of uneasy relationships. Spaniards possessed manufactured goods and superior weapons, while natives had far greater numbers and intimate knowledge of the landscape. Motivated by curiosity and self-interest, many native Californians joined Spanish missions and villages only to discover they were not permitted to leave. Outbreaks of violence became a constant part of life in colonial California, but so did intercultural communication and accommodation. The Spanish suffered raids on their livestock and lived under a constant threat of uprising, while native groups fashioned new ways of life in the wake of disease, new technologies, and a foreign political structure. Spaniards and natives together created a new world in California that was dynamic and violent, unfamiliar and fragile.

Go further


Edward D. Castillo. Short Overview of California Indian History.

National Geographic Society. American Frontiers

University of Oregon. Web de Anza

In the Library

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. and Richard J. Orsi. Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

About this essay:

"1768-1820s: Exploration and Colonial California" was written by Joshua Paddison and the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

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