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Collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900

The Name and the Geography

California's history is so romantic and filled with legend that it is fitting that the region was named for a fictional island paradise described in the 16th century Spanish romance Las Serges de Esplandian, which was popular when Spain’s explorers first came to this part of North America's Pacific Coast.

Illustration I: Mirror Lakes, Yosemite Valley. Photograph by Carleton E. Watkins, 186_. Lot 4590. USZ62-46914. #47082.

At first, "California" meant the peninsula on the west coast of modern Mexico now known as Baja California or Lower California, and the Spaniards believed that they had discovered an enormous island. Only as they ventured further inland did the Spaniards find that "California" extended north to join the continent, and they named this extension "Alta California," the region that now forms the 31st state of the United States of America.

Even in physical terms the state is a region of extremes. It stretches 825 miles from its northwest corner on the 42nd parallel on the Pacific Ocean to its southeast corner on the 32nd parallel at the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers. The winding shoreline contains 1,264 miles of beaches and harbors. Elevations run from 14,495 feet at the peak of Mount Whitney to 282 feet below sea level at Death Valley, with both of these landmarks little more than fifty miles apart in Inyo County.

The complex geologic forces behind these phenomena created a region with exceptionally complicated and challenging topography. On the west, the Coast Ranges of mountains run along the Pacific from the Oregon boundary to Marin County. The Transverse and Peninsular Ranges continue the line of mountains along the Pacific below that point. The state's northern boundary runs through the Klamath and Cascade Mountains and the Modoc Plateau. Running south from these northern highlands, the Great Valley of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers extends 400 miles, bounded by the Coastal Mountains on the west and the Sierra Nevadas on the east. The Sierra Nevadas--the state's largest single mountain range--run south for 400 miles from Lassen Peak to Tejon Pass in Los Angeles County. East of the southern Sierra Nevadas are the mountains of the Great Basin, with the Sierras and Basin ranges bounded on the south by the Mojave Desert. Below the Mojave lies the Salton Trough, the last of California's great geological regions, a desert created when the Baja California peninsula pulled away from the Mexican mainland.

California's climates are as varied as her physical regions. There are heavy snows in the high mountain ranges, mild and temperate conditions along the coast, wide variations in temperature and humidity in the valleys, and arid conditions and great temperature fluctuations in the desert. The geologic forces that shaped the state's terrain and dictated patterns of climate also created spots of extraordinary beauty like the geysers of Sonoma County and the grandeur of the Yosemite Valley.