July 4, 1776, the first and original Independence Day for these United States: The Stars and Stripes, Liberty Bell, George Washington, with or without cherry tree. Fifes and drums, rat-a-tat-tat, smoking muskets, fireworks, the rockets’ red glare. Those thirteen colonies finally busting loose.
It would be almost 75 years—the California Gold Rush—before anyone on the Eastern Seaboard gave a thought to the continent’s western coast, if there even was a coast over there.
What was it like to live in California on July 4, 1776? Depends on who you were, and where.
If you were a local—meaning, among the people here at least 10,000 years; let’s call them native Californians—in most places, life went on much as always. And such an abundant life. So rich was the land that about one-third of all Native Americans in what we now recognize as the U.S. lived here, in California, up to 300,000 people organized into distinct communities or bands. Thanks to their industry, this was no untouched wilderness. They used fire, selective harvests, and other practices to encourage useful plants and animals, and to discourage infestations of insects and disease, and the catastrophic fires that plague the state today.
In early contact with explorers and missionaries, most Californians were described as quick-witted, gracious, and generous. But that contact with Europeans and, later, Americans—more explorers and missionaries, hunters and trappers, settlers, gold seekers—would devastate these first residents, who had no immunity to diseases newcomers brought.
The Spanish were the first newcomers to settle in. They were here in California on July 4, 1776, U.S. Independence Day, though barely, dependent on unpredictable supply ships, struggling to feed and house themselves. They rarely traveled inland. But the diseases they brought with them traveled far, and fast. Well before the California Gold Rush of 1849, much of Native California had died of pestilence, women and children the hardest hit.
Other facts about the Spanish here are still disputed, largely because historical archives were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. But thanks to historian Leon G. Campbell we know, as he says:
“In 1774, the same year that Bostonians resisted the Intolerable Acts of the English government, Spanish authorities in Mexico dispatched Captain Juan Bautista de Anza from the Tubac presidio south of Tucson to blaze a trail overland to Alta California. De Anza reached Monterey in the spring of 1774.
“The following year, on his second expedition, he pushed further north to the Bay of San Francisco. And, shortly after the Americans penned their Declaration of Independence, the mission and presidio of San Francisco were founded, on September 17, 1776. With this established, the Crown decreed the following year that the capital of the Californias should be transferred from Loreto, in Baja, to Monterey.”
As a PS: Monterey’s mission and presidio were already there, established in 1770, and a small pueblo. In fact, Sebastian Vizcaíno entered Monterey Bay in 1602—18 years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, please note. Next time you’re in Monterey, visit the impressive period buildings that still survive from its days as California's capital.
Until next time, when we answer the question “Why travel?”