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

Spanish California

Europeans’ contact with California began in the mid 1530s when Cortez's men ventured to Baja California. Not until 1542 did Spaniards sail north to Alta California, and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's expedition that year made landings as far north as modern Santa Barbara.

Illustration II : Isle of Cuba [Cortez Expedition]. Engraving. From Histoire de la Conquete du Mexique by Anotonio de Solis y Rivadeneyra, 1691. LC-USZ62-3011. #6595.

Still, more than two hundred years passed before Spain made any concerted effort to colonize the coastal regions Cabrillo claimed for the crown. Coastal winds and currents made the voyage north difficult, and Spanish captains failed to find safe harbors for their crafts. Baja California became the northwest limit of Spanish colonization, and even there, efforts to settle the area and bring native tribes to Christianity and European ways were halfhearted at best. Not until the Seven Years War (1756-1763) realigned European alliances and their colonial empires did Spain seriously attempt to assert control of Alta California.

This attempt was made through a combination of military forts (presidios) and mission churches overseen by Franciscan fathers led by Junípero Serra. In 1769, the first parties set north from Baja California, and the line of Spanish settlement along the coast was inaugurated when soldiers and priests established a presidio and mission church at San Diego. By the end of the Spanish colonial period, Alta California had three more presidios (at Monterey, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara) and no fewer than twenty-one missions. In addition to the missions, where the Franciscans ministered to local converts, and the military presidios, small towns or pueblos sprang up. The earliest of these were associated with the missions and presidios, but in 1777 an independent civil pueblo was created at San Jose, and others followed. The pueblos tried to attract settlers with land grants and other inducements and were governed by an alcalde (a combination of a judge and a mayor) assisted by a council called the ayuntamiento.