Early California History

This page has more California history with an emphasis on transportation to support the Donner Pass Transportaion and Communication History Page

Originally populated by a number of small Indian tribes, who originated from people who migrated from asia across the land bridge which is now the Bering Strait from 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator exploring for Spain in 1542, was the first European to see California. No European settlements were established until Captain Gaspar de Portola, the Spanish governor of Baja California, led an expedition north in 1769-70, establishing forts at San Diego and Monterey. A string of 21 missions were founded by the Franciscans during the next 54 years. The El Camino Real, the first major transportation route in California connected these Missions. It was established by Spanish explorers Father Junipero Serra and Governor Don Gaspar de Portola (Note: There was also an El Camino Real "Royal Road" in what is now Texas and New Mexico.)

The first travelers from the eastern United States were trapers and traders. The first recorded crossing of the Sierra Nevada was in 1828 when trapper Jedediah Smith returned from California crossing near the present Ebbetts Pass. Other mountain men such as Kit Carson and Joseph Walker soon followed finding new routes over the mountains. In 1829 the first wagon road to California was the old Spanish Trail connecting Santa Fe Trail to Los Angeles. It was traveled primarily by trading caravans operating from 1829 to 1848 and passed through what is now New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California. This 1,120-mile looping pack route was the first major thoroughfare across the Southwest.

White settlers started coming from the eastern United States in the 1840's. In 1839 John Sutter, (John Sutter) a pioneer trader, arrived in Monterey via Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. ( In 1841 he built a Fort at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, what is now Sacramento. John C. Fremont discovered Lake Tahoe from Red Lake Peak near Carson Pass while on a surveying assignment in 1844.

Between 1841 and 1848 four times as many emigrants had migrated overland to Oregon (11,000) than to California (2,700).

Wagon trains were organized during the great migration starting in 1843. The 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to California took 4-5 months. In 1846 about 1,500 people took the overland route to California. Many prefered the sea route either going around the horn (a 4 month trip) or crossing by land at Panama (The Panama Railroad was completed in 1855) and taking another ship to San Francisco. The Oregon Trail to the north and Fremont Trail to southern California were originally more popular but the California Trail cutting through Donner Pass gained popularity as a more direct, although more difficult, route to the Gold Country and San Francisco. The ill fated Donner party became snowbound at Donner Lake in the winter of 1846-47 and almost half of the party died.

Gold to Silver to Farms

The discovery of gold at John Sutter and James Marshall's sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, in Coloma in 1848 started the gold rush. Auburn, Foresthill, Downieville, Sierra City, Nevada City and Placerville were established and grew during this period as over 100,000 people migrated to California. Highway 49, which intersects I-80 at Auburn, cuts through the heart of the Gold Country.

In 1859 the Comstock Lode (silver) was discovered near Virginia City, NV.. This set off a second wave of get rich fever. Most settlers did not get rich from gold prospecting. The Homestead Act, passsed in 1862, promised free land (160 acres) to settlers who would establish farms and many of the new Californians turned to farming.

California's population had grown from 26,000 in 1848 to 380,000 in 1860. In 1963 California surpassed New York as the most populous state.


In 1862 congress passed an act to build a trnscontinental railroad and and funded the project with appropriations for loans and land. It was finished in 1869. See the History of Calif. Transportation page.

Recreation and Vacation Spots

Traffic increased as Lake Tahoe turned into a vacation and recreation area starting in the early 1900's. The Tahoe Tavern Hotel just south of Tahoe City was completed by D.L. Bliss in 1902. This marked the beginning of a period when Tahoe became a posh summer watering hole for the West's wealthy. Primary access was via a rail link from Truckee to Tahoe City. The Tavern stood until 1968. Snow skiing grew in popularity starting in the 1940's. The donner summit area (Soda Springs and Norden) was the center for skiing until the 60's when it shifted to the North Tahoe ski areas following the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley and the completion of I-80.
350-155 Million Yrs. - A Pacific Island chain collided with the continent
                       in an area which is now the Sierra Nevada.
185-88  Million Yrs. - Molten granite was injected into the area.
26 - 5 Million Yrs. - A series of volcanic eruptions added to the landscape.
10 - 4 Million Yrs. - An uplifting and tilting process raised
           the area to the west while the area to the east began to sink.
1 - 2 Million Yrs. - Volcanoes to the north blocked drainage creating Lake Tahoe.
215,000 - 10,000 Yrs. - Glaciers molded the landscape during 3 ice ages.
100 Million Yrs. - Sierra Nevada Mountains formed
20,000 Yrs. - First Native Americans migrated from Asia to N. America.
10,000 Yrs. - Lake Tahoe was molded into its present form at
        the end of the last ice age.
1519 - Cortez arrives in Mexico
1542 - Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator exploring for Spain, was
       the first European to see California.
1602 - Vizcaino explores Alta California.
1769 - Ortega discovers San Francisco Bay.
1769-1824 - Franciscans establish 21 missions in western California.
1796 - The first sailing ship from the east reaches California via Cape Horn.
1769 - California's first road, El Camino Real was established.
1804-5 Lewis and Clark explored routes to the Oregon Territory
1812 - Russians establish Fort Ross on the northern coast.
1821 - Mexico independence from Spain (Sept. 16)
1828   First recorded crossing of the Sierra Nevada by trapper Jedediah Smith.
1833 - Mission system secularized (removed from administration of the Padres)
1833 - Malaria epidemic strikes most Indian populations in central California.
1841 - John Sutter builds a Fort at what is now Sacramento.
1840's - Mission lands divided into Ranchos
1844 - John C. Fremont was the first white man to see Lake Tahoe,
 while on a surveying assignment near Carson Pass.
1844 - The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party was the first wagon train over the summit.
1846 - First newspaper "The Californian" in Monterey
1846-48 Mexican American War results in the acquisition of California and the Southwest.
1846-7 The Donner Party became snowbound.
1848 - Gold was discovered near Coloma on Jan. 24, 1848.
1850 - California admitted to the Union as the 31st state.
1854 - The Flying Cloud sets a world record by sailing from New York to San
       Francisco in 88 days.
1859 - The Comstock Lode (silver) was discovered near Virginia City, NV.
1860 - Pony express delivers mail to Sacramento.
1861 - Telegraph reaches California.
1862 - The Homestead Act promised free land to settlers who would establish farms.
1863 - Construction of Central Pacific Railroad begins.
1864 - Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road (DF&DLWR) completed to help
       in building the railroad.
1865 - Southern Pacific Railroad founded.
1869 - Central Pacific Railroad completed - First transcontinental railroad.
1873 - The California state legislature outlaws gambling a second time.
1896 - Lake Tahoe Wagon Road (Hwy 50 now) becomes the first state highway. 
1902 - Tahoe Tavern near Tahoe City completed.
1909 - DF&DLWR replaced by Sate Highway.
1909 - First radio station,  SJN in San Jose (Now KCBS)
1914 - Lincoln Highway - First transcontinental highway.
1914 - First transcontinental telephone line from New York to San Francisco
1920's - Transcontinental air mail
1926 - Antioch Bridge opens, located on Highway 160 
1927 - US 40 completed over the same route.
1930's - Transcontinental air travel becomes popular
1936 - San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opens.
1937 - Golden Gate Bridge opens.
1940 - California's first freeway, the 6-mile Arroyo Seco Parkway, now
       known as the Pasadena Freeway, opens to traffic.
1952 - Train becomes snowbound and hundreds are trapped for 6 days.
1960 - Winter Olympics held at Squaw Valley.
1963 - California passes New York as the most populated state
1964 - Last section of interstate 80 over the summit completed.
non-native Growth
(1) Most of the decline in the Indian population was from diseases brought in by the Spanish. Maladies such as smallpox, syphilis, diphtheria and even children's' ailments such as chickenpox and measles caused untold suffering and death among Indians near the Spanish centers of population. In 1833 an American party of fur trappers introduced a scourge of malaria into the Sacramento and San Joaquin River drainages. See California Indian History at ceres.ca.gov

(2) People who reported race as American Indian in the US census increased 70% from the 1970 to the 1980 census to about 1.4 M. Less than half can be explained by birth rates. Most seems to be due to people changing their racial identification. The 2000 census allowed people to report mixed races. Indians in the US increased from 2 M in 1990 to 4.1M in 2000. The 4.1 M included 1.6 M who were mixed race and 2.5 who were 100%.

Download data by county in excel format at http://www.dof.ca.gov/HTML/DEMOGRAP/CALHIST2a.XLS
See Also: Californians for Population Stabilization CAPS

See Also: History of Transportation and Communications over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Gold Rush History at malakoff.com and California History Online
Timeline at Sacramento History Online
Sierra Heritage Magazine. John Sutter Timeline Caltrans History Page and 100 Years of Caltrans Service. History of gold in Placer County. San Francisco Timeline A History of American Indians in California Gold Rush Chronology
last updated 16 Oct 2004