A mere 300 years ago, while colonies on America’s Eastern Seaboard were developing, California’s vast stretches of geographically diverse, unspoiled terrain still slumbered in the sun, husbanded by native peoples in scattered villages. They lived off the land’s abundance, as they had done for 10,000 years or more, unaware that their homeland suddenly “belonged” to an outsider in 1520 when Spain claimed ownership by right of conquest of Mexico, and by extension the North American Continent. Then in 1769, Franciscan padres arrived to colonize Spain’s unoccupied claim, by building 21 sizeable mission outposts from San Diego to Sonoma. Soldiers and their families, who had escorted the priests, established towns around the missions. A few Spanish land grants, each one thousands of acres, were awarded to encourage settlement and facilitate cattle ranching. A culture of graceful sociability and warm hospitality evolved among the new settlers, who used the term “Californios” to differentiate themselves from other Spanish citizens in Mexico proper, New Mexico, and Texas. When Mexico won its independence from Spain and acquired California by treaty in 1821, their gentle lifestyle remained largely unaltered. The new Republic of Mexico spoke the same language, espoused the same Catholic faith, and shared many cultural traditions. But Mexico’s hold didn’t last long. In May 1846 the United States declared war on Mexico over the disputed Texas border…and that July, American warships invaded and captured the province. Two years later gold was discovered in California’s foothills, drawing thousands of Americans into a territory that Congress had as yet made no provision to govern. In 1850, California became the 31st state of the Union.
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