“The Shaping of California History”

  by James N. Gregory

This essay traces the geopolitical and demographic history of California. It appeared originally in the Encyclopedia of American Social History (New York: Scribners, 1993); an abreviated version was republished in Major Problems in California History , eds. Sucheng Chan and Spencer C. Olin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997)

California Migration History 1850-2010

click below to explore the state's migration history with an interactive chart and decade-by-decade data

James N. Gregory has published two books and several articles on aspects of California history.

American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).Winner of the 1991 Ray Allen Billington Prize from the Organization of American Historians; winner of  the 1990 Annual Book Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.

"Dust Bowl Legacies: The Okie Impact on California 1939-1989"  California History (Fall 1989)

"The West and the Workers, 1870-1930" in A Companion to the American West, ed. William Deverell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 240-55

"The Dust Bowl Migration," in Poverty in the United States: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and Policy, eds. Gwendolyn Mink and Alice O'Connor (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2004)

Upton Sinclair. I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked. Introduction by James N. Gregory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

California is not just another state. Lord James Bryce saw that over a century ago when he devoted a chapter of his two-volume study of the American Commonwealth to California "because it is in many respects the most striking in the whole Union, and has more than any other the character of a great country, capable of standing alone in the world." In the 1990s that statement no longer carries surprise.

With its citizenry now exceeding thirty million, there are more Californians in the world than there are Canadians, Australians, or Greeks; more Californians than Czechoslovakians and Hungarians combined; more than all the Scandinavians in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Still larger is the state's share of global economic activity. California's gross domestic product makes it the eighth largest economy in the world; larger than People's Republic of China, just behind Great Britain and Italy. And if consumption is the measure, the California presence looms still larger. Californians possess more automobiles, VCRs, and personal computers than all but the United States and four other countries, each with at least twice its population. The state enjoys the same distinction in the consumption of water, petroleum, chemicals and in the generation of trash.  

But Bryce was not talking about size. In 1889 he located the uniqueness of California in its exuberance, its unconventionality, its admixture of populations, and most of all in its location, half a continent removed from the rest of American civilization. An outpost on the Pacific, California was in Bryce's day a staging ground for the resettlement of the final third of the continent, the mountain and Pacific West--a mission that encouraged its premature expressions of grandeur and spirit of independence.

Nowadays the mission has changed. The state's function within the national community is no longer peripheral. In the regional restructuring of the late twentieth century, California has emerged as the nation's second financial and cultural center, a rival, though still junior, to the East Coast power corridor. Global economic shifts and the massive internal redistribution of peoples, industries, and public policy priorities since World War II have turned the United States into a bi-polar nation. California is the capital of the newer America that faces west and south towards Asia and Latin America.

The state's growing authority in world and national affairs rests least of all on formal politics. Although Southern California money and celebrity play a large role in national politics, and while three of the last four Republican presidents have been Southern Californians, it is in the realms of business and media that California's influence is chiefly felt. The state's relationship with Japan and the Pacific Rim is key. California is the chief port of entry for Japanese goods and capital and the Japanese for that reason collaborate in the development of this west coast power center. One of their contributions is to the already powerful California banking industry. America's high tech electronics and bio-science industries, heavily concentrated in the state, also boost California's international authority while further tying the state to Japan and other Pacific Rim countries.

Media is the other leg on which California rises. First with the advent of Hollywood as the international film capital in the 1920s, then with the addition of television studios in the 1950s, Southern California has exerted an enormous role in the production of popular entertainment and the consequent shaping of consumer values. In the last two decades, Los Angeles has also made a multi-billion dollar effort to become a high-culture capital with the establishment of new museums (the Getty, the Norton Simon, the Armand Hammer, the Museum of Contemporary Art), symphonic and performing arts centers, and dozens of theatre groups. As Mike Davis notes in City of Quartz, his penetrating study of Los Angeles in the 1980s, Southern California's elites are currently engaging in the kind of wholesale art grab that brought "culture" to gilded age New York a century ago.

Like Texas and one or two other states, California is really a region unto itself. Geography makes it part of the western United States but history sets it partially outside the regional culture area called the West. To be sure it shares with the other states of the Pacific and Mountain time zones a number of characteristics that lend coherence to the region. It's topography--mountains, valleys, deserts--is decidedly western as is its mostly arid climate and resulting water distribution problems. Its political-economy also followed regional patterns: cities, mining, and railroads came first, then agriculture; the federal government owned and still owns much of the land and played and still plays a critical role in economic development. Furthermore one can speak of the state's politics as western. Turn-of-the-century sectional and developmental conflict yielded a western "progressive" political system, with weak parties, strong executives, and liberal provisions for voter initiative. Also in the western mode, California has remained throughout the twentieth century a stronghold of Republicanism.

But there are other historical features that it does not share with other western states, matters of demography and mythology that advance California's claim to uniqueness. Underpopulation and a system of ethnic relations based on what Patricia Limerick calls the "legacy of conflict" have been, until recently, defining features of the West. Most western states have known minimal diversity, with few African-Americans or foreign-born immigrants. What they have had is minority populations of Native Americans or Mexican Americans living in clear subordination to a largely undifferentiated white population. And western regional mythology dwells on that relationship, celebrating the founding dramas of conquest and repopulation with the same callousness that the South shows in its plantation mythology.

California has built its population and its identity quite differently. Rapid growth and escalating ethnic diversity are the keys. Throughout its American history California has been a population accumulation zone without parallel. For nearly a century and a half the state has sustained a growth rate that essentially doubles its population every two decades. And that has kept the state's demography in motion. Indeed, continuous repopulation is the critical drama of California's history and the source of some of its unique cultural claims. Wave after wave of newcomers from an ever changing list of places have remade California again and again over the years, each time adding something new even while they allow the state to retain its most paradoxical tradition, the tradition of change.

While none of this resembles western regional traits, it does accord with population processes that the nation as a whole celebrates but which actually occur only in a few dynamic cities and states. In this and in many other matters California earns its right to claim a distinction not through difference but through emphasis. As novelist Wallace Stegner put it, California is just like "America only more so...the national culture at its most energetic end." ("California Rising" in Unknown California, Jonathan Eisen, David Fine, and Kim Eisen, eds. [1985] p.8)

The state's mythology and sense of identity also diverge from the western "conquest" model. Pioneers, cowboys, and other conquest figures do not dominate the symbolic landscape; indeed California's lore reads like something of an inversion with pristine nature idealized and a romanticized role reserved for the Franciscan missions of pre-conquest California. The state's self-conception descends principally from a pair of founding myths that substantially obscure California's own very real legacy of conquest. The first is the gold rush, that extraordinary drama of luck and adventure that forever fixed the state's reputation as a land of dreams. The second derives from the invention of Southern California in the late nineteenth century and turns on edenic images of the mediterranean climate, of sun, sand, and citrus, of new healthful ways of life. All of this, to be sure, is related to the essential western myths of the big land and the fresh start. But California softens and pluralizes the symbolism, moving away from images of tough men in a rugged land, presenting itself as gentle and therapeutic.

One thing it does share is the western emphasis on geography. Land, climate, and location are never far from consciousness and more readily than in other regions suggest their powerful impact on human habitation patterns. The incredibly varied topography and the rich array of land use capacities have made California both comparatively wealthy and sociologically diverse throughout its long history of habitation.

The state's original inhabitants, its Indian peoples, distinguished themselves from the natives of other parts of the continent on both points. Before European contact California was the most densely settled part of what is now the United States and home to one of the greatest varieties of discrete cultures of any place on earth. Quilted into the complex of valleys, foothills, deserts, riverbanks, and coastal strips were well over one hundred different tribes speaking nearly eighty discrete languages. Only the Mohave and Yuma of the Colorado River basin practiced agriculture, the rest lived simply but with remarkable stability on the foodstuffs that their small tribal territories provided, seafood for coastal peoples like the Chumasch, salmon for the river tribes of the North, acorns a staple nearly everywhere.

Geography provided for early Californians in another way, equally prefigurative. Their home was essentially an island, surrounded by sea on one side, barely passable mountains and deserts on the others. For a thousand years they had been safe from the kinds of warfare and invasions that remade tribal boundaries in other parts of the continent. The sea protected them too. Two centuries after most other coastal portions of the Americas had felt the diseased and devastating presence of Europeans, California still belonged to Native Americans.

The Spanish visited once in 1542 during the first great surge of European exploration and a few more times near the close of the same century, but found little of interest. From the standpoint of the sixteenth century, or for that matter of the two centuries that followed, California was one of the remotest spots on earth, reachable only by navigating against the winds and currents of the western Pacific. So little did Europeans know about the place that as late as the early 1700s it appeared on some maps as an island.

In truth it is not geography per se but geography in an ever-changing historical context that has shaped California's patterns of use since that first European contact. The region's history has been closely tied to geo-political processes of globalization that over the last five centuries have transformed distances, boundaries, and civilizations. California has been transformed and repeopled in three broad historical phases, each distinguished by demography, culture, and economy, each ushered in by revolutionary advances in transportation and global political-economy. Along the cultural and demographic axis the first period of transformation can be labeled Hispanic, the second period Anglo-American, the third, plural American . In spatial notation, California began as a Pacific island, spent its first American century becoming a region within an Atlantic-centered nation, and the most recent fifty years reorienting outward, westward, toward the Pacific.

It was the second age of exploration that ended California's privileged remoteness. For two centuries, Spain regarded the western Pacific as its private realm, controlling what little commerce that vast region saw. Then in the mid-eighteenth century the monopoly ended as English, French, and Russian ships wandered into the area, mapping the Pacific, looking for trading possibilities. Concerned particularly about the string of fur-trading posts that the Russians were establishing, Spanish authorities decided that it was time to solidify the claim to California. A small colonizing expedition set out from the Baja peninsula in 1769, composed of the usual Spanish frontier complement of soldiers, civilians, and priests, the former to establish presidios and pueblos, the latter to convert the Indians.

Thus began the first phase of the repeopling of California: an eighty year period of Mexicanization. The story is usually told in different terms, emphasizing the Spanish flag. Independent Mexico had charge of California only at the end, from 1821 to 1846. But the soldiers and settlers who colonized the region were Spanish only in the limited way that George Washington and George Rogers Clark were English when they drove the French from the Ohio Valley. Spain guided the settlement of California, but with only a few exceptions the settlers were mestizos from Mexico. More important the civilization that took shape in those eighty years, with its unique racial amalgamation principles, economic institutions, and cultural forms belonged exclusively to the New World, to Mexico.

Compared to the Americans who came later, Mexicans trod lightly on the land and peoples of California. Spanish frontier traditions had long emphasized the efficiencies of minimal colonization. Hispanicization of the indigenous population rather than removal and replacement by land hungry immigrants was the model settlement plan. The Franciscan padres were the chief instrument of colonization. Within thirty years they had established a string of missions from San Diego to San Francisco and brought the nearly 100,000 Indians living in the coastal portions of California under their control. Mostly it was done without the sword, the cross and corn proving effective enough. Drawn to the missions by the plentiful corn and beef that the padres were soon able to produce, the Indians became the work force for expanded levels of production, giving up in the process not only their hunting and gathering economy but also much of their culture and all of their freedom. It was a poor bargain, especially when the matter of disease is factored in. The missions were death traps. By the early 1800s the Franciscans were burying more Californians than they baptized and by the end of the Mexican period the population of coastal California had been reduced by half.

Immigration provided only a few replacements. California's remoteness remained a major impediment to Mexican immigration throughout the period. Nearly impossible to reach overland because of deserts and hostile Indians, California was tied to the Mexican mainland by the annual visits of a single ship, carrying news, supplies, soldier's pay, and occasional new recruits. Spanish land use and mercantile policies exacerbated the problem of isolation. Trade with foreign vessels was prohibited while virtually all of the productive land was held by the missions. With nothing more than soldiering or subsistence farming to attract them, immigrants arrived rarely and left almost as frequently. When the United States seized the area in 1846 there were fewer than 8,000 Mexican Californians.

Dating the end of the Mexican period and the start of Americanization is not easy. Formally California became part of the United States in 1848, but the American presence began long before then, and well before the flags changed California had become economically dependent on American ships and American goods.

The whaling ships and trading vessels that began to appear off the California coast in the 1820s represented yet another stage of global reorganization, the start of a great age of transportation improvements that would bring vast new areas into the trading and colonial system of the North Atlantic economies. Over the course of the nineteenth century the far corners of the Pacific region would gradually lose their remoteness. Still an island in every sense but the literal one at the start of this period, California would by century's end be firmly bound to the American mainland by blood, outlook, and economy.

Paradoxically Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821 opened California to American economic penetration. Abandoning the restrictive policies that had strangled economic activity in the province, the new government in Mexico city allowed free access to the ports, began the redistribution of mission lands, and liberalized immigration procedures. This was good news to the shoe and candle manufacturers of New England who now provided a market for the great herds of cattle that grazed the California hills. By the midª1830s the California economy had been completely remade, turned from self-sufficient agriculture controlled by the missions to a privatized ranching economy (still based on Indian labor) geared to the production of hides and tallow for export in Yankee ships.

The trade brought new wealth to the province and also new people, most notably Americans. A steady trickle of merchants and former sailors took advantage of lax immigration rules and settled in the coastal pueblos, sometimes becoming ranchers, more often providing commercial and artisanal services that were in short supply. More ominous from the Mexican point of view was the growing presence of Americans in the inland valleys. Coming overland or drifting down from Oregon, these newcomers stayed clear of the Mexican settlements and Mexican law and built their own base of operations in the Sacramento Valley, some of them intending to "play the Texas game." By 1846 the Yankees in California numbered close to 800, roughly ten percent of the non-Indian population.

American trade and immigration after 1820 foretold the eventual takeover of California. But the official statements of the American government were no less clear. Even as Mexico was securing its independence from Spain, American ambassadors were offering to buy California, either alone or with other parts of what eventually became the American Southwest. The port of San Francisco, ideal from both military and mercantile standpoints, was of particular interest, and in 1835 Washington made another offer solely for it. These negotiations reveal an important aspect of America's geographic ambitions. The purpose was not necessarily trans-continental completion. Washington was seeking a Pacific outpost. Cognitively and geo-politically, California remained an island, reachable only by sea, every bit as remote as the Sandwich Islands which shared the same trade route.

America's first off-shore acquisition came about not through negotiation but war. California was one of the prizes of America's first full-scale expansionist war, fought on Mexican soil in 1846 and 1847. It was in itself not a brutal experience for the residents of California, who resisted valiantly but without great loss of life. But that was merely the prelude. Signatures had not yet been affixed to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo when the real act of conquest began. The discovery of gold in early 1848 did for California in five extraordinary years what generations could not do in New Mexico and some other parts of the Southwest, completely Americanize it.

The gold rush was, as John Caughey put it some years ago, "the cornerstone," the seminal event in the creation of American California, indeed in the whole later history of the far west. As an economic event, it transformed the meaning and purpose of the frontier West. The old West, the Mississippi Valley, had been a frontier of trappers and farmers whose slowly developing commerce with the rest of the nation depending on river towns and river boats. The new West that gold-rush California introduced was not really a frontier at all. It was a ready-made enterprise zone of miners and ranchers followed almost immediately by cities and railroads. There was nothing gradual about it. As Carey McWilliams put it, for California "the lights went on all at once." (California: The Great Exception [1976], p.25) In 1848 California had been a sleepy port of call on the hide and tallow trade. Two years later, with a hundred thousand new residents and one of the busiest ports in the world, California had become the newest state in the United States--the only one west of Missouri. That was just the beginning. This instant state also claimed a sophisticated economy based not just on mining but on a dynamic urban sector that ultimately provided the financial and commercial services to begin the development of the rest of the west. And it started off with political muscle too: within ten years Congress would be talking about building a transcontinental railroad.

The key to all this was the state's instant population, the real fortune that California earned in the gold fever years. A quarter of a million newcomers poured into California between 1848-1853, all but obliterating the existing inhabitants. The tiny Mexican population was numerically overwhelmed and quickly put at an economic and cultural disadvantage. Outnumbered twenty to one, unaccustomed to the laws, language, and business culture that now governed their lives, they struggled to hold onto the land and the way of life that were guaranteed them by treaty. Within a a generation both had been lost as courts, lawyers, bankers, squatters, drought, and recession forced the sale of most of the original ranchos, and as the usual manifestations of Yankee racism and religious prejudice undermined their cultural authority. By the 1880s, many of the "Californios," as the pre-conquest Mexicans called themselves, were eeking out a shabby life in the barrios of Southern California. Poor and forgotten, they had become strangers in their own land.

California's remaining Indian populations fared much worse--indeed worse even than the usual horror that attended American westward expansion. With Congress forsaking all efforts to set up reservations, Indian policy fell to the new settlers, who opted for extermination. A twenty year campaign of slaughter abetted by the spread of disease became a veritable holocaust. Some tribes were completely eliminated, leaving not a single survivor. Altogether in 1870 census takers could find only 17,000 Indians, just six percent of the area's estimated original population of 300,000.

Thus began the American repopulation of California, a process that would steadily change the demographic mix over the years as California adopted new roles in the global political economy. Its first new population reflected its initial role as a place of high adventure, attracting an international assortment of the daring and enterprising, nearly all young males. They came principally from places reached by the rapidly expanding North Atlantic commerce system and accessible to California by water. Two-thirds were Americans, mostly from the Atlantic seaboard, especially New York and New England. Ireland, England, Germany, and France supplied most of the rest, but the ports of the Pacific region also contributed: Valparaiso, Sydney, Canton, Honolulu.

This population came to hunt gold but stayed to build California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area which stood ready to rechannel the acquisitive energies of the immigrants once the placers and mines began to play out. By 1880 the Bay Area housed forty percent of the state's population and the city itself had more than a quarter million residents, including, finally, a substantial number of females. These first decades were California's "Boston" period, a time when the commercial and cultural commitments of New England imprinted decisively on the new state. With merchants, lawyers, and other New England entrepreneurs heavily represented in the gold rush generation, California was soon blessed with an elaborate business infrastructure and an impressive array of manufactures to supply the local market with everything from shoes to steamboats.

In 1854, just six years after that first cry of "gold," a San Francisco firm was hard at work on California's first locomotive. The New England impress had even more to do with culture. In Americans and the California Dream Kevin Starr argues that the creation of a regional culture began with the Yankee preachers and literary lights who set out to civilize gold rush California. Here was born the state's intellectual infrastructure, the networks of churches and newspapers, then schools, colleges, publishers, and literary societies that gave the state its early cosmopolitan aura and flare for self promotion. And here too was born California's transcendentalist engagement with divine nature, the key to later reinventions of the state's identity.

Boston in the 1850s was shared by Yankees and Irish, and so was San Francisco, which goes a long way to explain the turbulent pattern of California politics of the late nineteenth century. Working-class Catholic Irish and the WASP business class faced off repeatedly in these decades, at times with incendiary results. In 1856 a businessman's group calling itself the Committee of Vigilance seized power, hanged several suspected criminals and tried and deported a number of corrupt city officials, mostly Irish. Twenty-two years later the revolution came from the opposite quarter. Beaten down by the mid-1870s depression and inspired by the great railroad strike of 1877, the city's Irish and laboring population joined Dennis Kearney's Workingman's party and in a climate of violent expectation elected a mayor and various other officials, initiating a long period during which San Francisco's working class would enjoy a measure of political influence unparalleled in any other major American city.

Yet there was a uniquely California aspect to this Yankee/Irish contest. The overlapping tensions of class and religion were mediated by a third factor, race, that worked to the advantage of the white working class. The Chinese were, as Alexander Saxton put it, "the indispensible enemy." Nine percent of the city's population in 1870 and competing for laboring class jobs, they became the focal point of late nineteenth century working-class politics as well as the target for riots, lynchings, and arson campaigns. The brutal "Chinese Must Go" campaigns of the 1870s and 1880s left several legacies, one of which was a tradition of antiªAsian politics which would last through World War II. And the Chinese were only the first victims. Later migrations of Japanese, Filipinos, and East Indians would be curtailed by similar explosions of organized hatred. "Yellow peril" politics was California's "peculiar institution." Just as in the South, the presence of a racial "enemy" made it possible for whites to transcend their differences. White ethnic and religious tensions were muted and immigrants like the Irish would find greater economic and social opportunities in San Francisco than in Boston in part because of the political dynamics of race hatred.

If in its first American generation California was a mining and urban frontier, its second incarnation was as a farming economy, an orientation that became practical after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. The event marked the end of California's island status. Travel to eastern population centers now took days instead of weeks or months. More important, for the first time products could be moved overland. The vast ocean of plains, mountains, and deserts had finally been bridged.

The railroad turned the state into a second Midwest, encouraging first the production of wheat, then with the spread of irrigation and the invention of refrigerated cars, a shift to fruits and vegetables. While the state remained more urban than rural, by 1870 the fastest growing areas were the inland valleys where the Central Pacific and other promoters were steering immigrants, luring them with a campaign of cornucopic advertising conducted extensively in heartland states like Iowa and Illinois. By 1890 Midwesterners had replaced North Easterners as California's principal population group and would remain so until World War II. Foreign immigration would continue but at a pace that would not match the other sources of population growth. Once forty percent of the population the foreign-born would account for less than twenty percent by 1930. Immigration in this period was almost entirely from Europe and Canada, and mostly from the same European regions that populated the Midwest: Germany, Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. After 1880 Italians and Portuguese came to California in substantial numbers but not the Eastern Europeans who in the turnªof-the-century decades were pouring into the industrial cities of the East. Meanwhile the role of non-Europeans was much reduced. Latin Americans and Asians had accounted for fifteen percent of the state's population in 1860. By 1900 they were less than seven percent and remained at about that level through 1930s. Working mostly in agriculture or in the tiny service sectors that their isolated, much harrassed communities required, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicans, and the even smaller population of African Americans held on precariously. Like the Midwest, California's population was emphatically Euro-American.

Midwesternization entered a second phase around the turn of the century with the invention of southern California. In 1880 the six counties of southern California claimed less than 50,000 residents, only six percent of the state's population. By 1930 there were 2.8 million southern Californians, just about half of the state's total. This new population magnet was built out of orange groves, oil, tourism, real estate and a huge dose of imagination. Railroads again opened the way, pushing competing lines into Los Angeles in 1876 and 1885, setting off an immediate fare war and putting both the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe into the southern California promotion business.

Tourism was what they promoted. Southern California was the creation of a maturing industrial society with a growing middle class and new appetites for leisure. The gilded age wealthy had discovered Europe and the Grand Tour. Southern California, with its mediterranean climate became the middle-class alternative, especially for Midwesterners, a mere five days away by rail. Sun and beaches, the area's natural endowments, were only part of the appeal. As Carey McWilliams and more recently Kevin Starr have pointed out, southern California was an exercise in fantasy, a barnumesque work of promotion and imagination focused initially on the theme of mediterraneanization.

Italy, Greece, and especially Spain rose anew in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles. Using the new building material, stucco, developers laid out a revival cityscape of villas, chateaus, temples, and haciendas, creating not only fanciful hotels but entire theme communities, the most famous of them being Abbott Kinney's beach-side Venice, complete with canals, imported gondoliers, and stucco recreations of Renaissance buildings. But Spain rather than Italy supplied the most compelling version of southern California's mediterranean idyll. In the region's heretofore denigrated Hispanic past, especially in the crumbling old Franciscan missions, southern California gained, says Starr, "the public myth which conferred romance upon a new American region." Spanish colonial architecture, "Old Spanish Days" parades and fiestas, new streets and towns tagged with Spanish names, new history lessons in the tourist magazines and school texts--after a generation of deliberate Anglicization of form and consciousness, California now reversed course in a carefully constructed campaign to claim a Spanish (but not Mexican) past.

Collaborating with the image makers was the one grounded industry that southern California could claim in its first period of growth. Orange growing became another exercise in mediterranean romance, a gentlemanly form of agriculture ideally suited to the fantasies of inhabitants of harsher climes, farmers and townsfolk alike. Later there would be a less glamorous blue-collar economy with oil producing most of the revenues, construction most of the jobs, and with a growing branch plant manufacturing sector. But southern California's image as a leisure frontier had been firmly set. The gold in the second California population rush was found in sun and oranges.

Hollywood completed the fantasy. Chasing the sun like everyone else, the infant film industry drifted into Los Angeles in the early years of the twentieth century just as movies were replacing Vaudeville as the dominant popular entertainment medium. The young city and the young industry were a perfect match, each thriving on artifice and invention, both products of an era that was rapidly democratizing the pleasures of consumerism.

Hollywood also gave California its first glimpse of its future influence. By the 1920s the film industry had kicked into high gear. Attracting a growing colony of celebrities, writers, and artists, the studios cranked out miles of celluloid to be seen weekly by tens of millions not just in the United States but around the world. The leading edge of the century long project of American globalism, Hollywood's films spread far and wide enticing images of American opulence and equally refracted representations of California. To the older imagery of climate, health, and wealth were added new ones suggesting experiment and excess. Replacing Greenwich village as the locational symbol of social experimentalism, Los Angeles became synonymous with sex, celebrity, hedonism, architectural and religious oddities, and wacky politics, in short with nearly everything new and outrageous. Film would make Los Angeles the Peter Pan of American cities, bringing legions of dreamers and doers who would keep the cycles of reinvention going, making sure the city never slowed down, that it would never grow up.

Hollywood aside, California's first American century had been all about development and integration into the evolving regional structures of industrial America. American regional relations during much of this period have often been characterized as neoªcolonial, favoring the interests of the industrial Northeast to the detriment of the South and West. That does not fit the California case. Its role was definitely subordinate, but unlike the single export economies of the South and Great Plains and the mining and ranching states of the far west, California supplied the nation with a range of specialized products and services--fruits, vegetables, oil, lumber, tourism, film--for which in most cases it was well paid. And although the state decried the discriminatory railroad policies and wall street investment patterns that slanted the state's economy away from manufacturing, a large internal market left room for a variety of consumer manufacturers. The result was hardly exploitative. California enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the nation and an economy diverse enough to cushion many of the downturns that battered other areas. Nevertheless California was definitely on the periphery. Its 5.6 million people made it the fifth largest state in 1930 but left it very much still in the shadows. The "coast" as it was called in eastern circles, was an amusing, distant place known for its redwood trees, its orange groves, and its Hollywood luminaries. Not a place anyone took very seriously.

That would all change very shortly. World War II initiated California's third developmental era. Starting with an orientation that was entirely Atlantic centered, California would turn westward, assuming much of the responsibility for America's involvement on the Pacific Rim. And starting as a marginal region providing products and leisure services to core markets, it would become a leading center of both economic and cultural production, home to some of the critical industries and cultural innovations of the last half century.

The federal government was almost entirely responsible for California's new role. Federal policy had always to some extent privileged the state, reflecting the nation's interest in maintaining a credible military presence in the Pacific. A naval shipyard in San Francisco Bay was the first substantial federal investment in the 1850s. There would be others. Transportation services were the major nineteenth century target for federal funds, and California received more than its share for harbor and river improvements and for railroad building. Federal land reclamation and water development projects pumped additional millions into the state in the early decades of the twentieth century, as did the Pacific military buildup that began in earnest in the 1890s. By the end of the first World War, California already possessed a substantial military-industrial segment, including shipyards, navy and army bases, and the beginnings of the aircraft industry that was be so important to its later development.

World War II turned this stream of federal funds into a torrent. Committed to a two-ocean war, Washington poured ten percent of its entire war budget into California. Some of this went into building and operating the more than one hundred military installations that funneled men and material into the Pacific war. Most of the rest went into war production, giving the state a huge new industrial base. The San Francisco Bay became the nation's shipbuilding center while southern California turned out planes, more than 200,000 of them. Every bit as important for California in the long run were the federal dollars spent on scientific research, principally for the nuclear program at the University of California and the rocketry research at the California Institute of Technology.

Second only to the gold rush, writes historian Gerald Nash, the war remade California and other western states, giving them the kind of economic structure and population that moved them out of the regional margins. California emerged from the war with a highly diversified economy, perhaps the most modern in the world. A huge military-industrial complex loaded towards the fast-breaking aerospace and electronics industries now complemented the increasingly efficient agricultural economy. Added to that was a educational/business service sector that would develop rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s as forwardªlooking state officials invested massively in schools and universities, building what they hoped would be the finest public education system in the country. All this turned California into a job creating and population attracting machine unlike any other in the late twentieth century. Numbers tell the story. The 1940 population of 6.9 million jumped to 15.7 million by 1960, hit 23.7 million by 1980, and raced on past 30 million in 1990. Along the way, somewhere about 1962, California became the nation's most populous state.

California's new economy brought also a new demography, one befitting the increasingly global outlook of both state and nation. The ensuing fifty years would completely break the Midwestern pattern. Ninety percent white in 1940, California would become an ethnic kaleidoscope by 1990, with forty-three percent of its population claiming Asian, African, Latin American, or native American ancestry.

African-Americans had been only a slight presence in California before the war, preferring the industrial North to the unknown West during the great Southern diaspora of the teens and twenties. But shipyard jobs after 1942 primed the pump for a massive migration from the western South. By 1950 California had a population of almost 500,000 blacks which would spiral to 1.4 million by 1970. Migration slowed after that and even reversed somewhat in the 1980s, bringing the 1990 black population to just over 2 million or seven percent of the state's population.

Latin-American population growth followed a different trajectory. Beginning after the turn of the century and helped along by the revolutionary turmoil south of the border, Mexican immigration initially focused mainly on farm and construction labor jobs in southern and central California. The 1930s depression brought that cycle to a close, but immigration restarted in the 1940s guided mostly by urban opportunities. Much of this was legal immigration, since Mexicans enjoyed various loopholes and entitlement under the immigration restriction statutes passed in the 1920s. But an increasing percentage of the post-war flow was undocumented. The state's largest ethnic minority with an estimated 400,000 members in 1940, the Chicano/Latino population grew exponentially, passing the three million mark in 1970 then exploding in the next two decades. In the 1990 census Hispanics numbered 7.7 million, more than one-quarter of the state's population. Mostly Mexicans, they now also include substantial communities from each of the Central American countries.

The Asian story is different still. Although World War II and its immediate aftermath removed some of the restrictions on Asian immigration, it was not until congress re-wrote immigration law in 1965 that the way was cleared for the extraordinary proliferation of peoples that in the last two decades has given new meaning to the term diversity in California. One out of every two legal immigrants into the United States in this period has come from Asia and the Pacific Islands, and more than half of them have gone to California. This new wave is entirely different from the earlier immigrants from China, Japan, and the Philippines who came mostly as unskilled laborers. Often well educated and equipped with commerical or technical skills, Asian immigrants come now from all over the Pacific Rim, from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, as well as India and Pakistan, giving the state a combined Asian population of 2.7 million in 1990, nine percent of California's total.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new demography has been the repopulation of California by native Americans, who now number almost 200,000. Some of this can be credited to the original California peoples whose numbers have grown steadily throughout the twentieth century. But the largest increase has come from outside the state, as Navaho, Lakota, Cherokee, Choctaw and members of other nations of the interior have followed the trail of post-war opportunity to California.

The trail ends in Los Angeles which is to the late twentieth-century what New York was to the century before: a crossroads of the world, the Pacific half of the globe in microcosm. Here spread out in the legendary city of sprawl are the unmelted millions, dozens of ethnicities and nationalities, no one constituting a majority. A million African-Americans, over three million Latin-Americans, the largest concentration of Japanese outside Japan, of Koreans outside Korea, and Vietnamese outside Vietnam, Chinese from several different nations, as well as substantial enclaves of Filipinos and South Asians. Then there are the recent Arab, Iranian, Israeli, and Russian immigrants. And the older ethnic communities: the Jewish westside, the southside Okie suburbs. The story goes on and on.

The war that opened up the new demography also marked a fundamental change in the politics and consciousness of California. The state had spent its first American century unabashedly promoting poulation growth except during depression cycles when Asians, Latin Americans, and occasionally other groups would be targeted for exclusion. In the last half century both boosterism and xenophobia diminished greatly, replaced by a less discriminatory politics of overpopulation anxiety. Especially since the 1960s, Californians have been more and more aware of the consequences of rapid population growth and have answered with the toughest environmental restrictions in the nation, though not tough enough to resolve the mounting problems of congestion, air pollution, water scarcity, waste disposal and the other inevitable consequences of a culture dedicated to escalating consumption.

The burden of racism and xenophobia has proven only slightly less formidible. The troubled 1930s had seen a surge of exclusionist politics, directed first at Mexicans who were sent back across the border by the tens of thousands in a repatriation campaign carried out under federal auspices. Then followed a campaign aimed ironically not at foreigners but at impoverished American-born whites from the cotton South, the Okies and Arkies who crossed the state border looking for farm labor jobs. But the worst and last incident awaited the special passions of wartime. Pearl Harbor provided the excuse to carry out the agenda that had many times tempted the state's powerful anti-Asian lobby. In April 1942, with President Roosevelt's approval, the West Coast military commander, General John DeWitt, ordered the removal and incarceration of the state's entire Japanese population, some 93,000 individuals, two-thirds of them citizens. Forced to sell or abandon homes, farms, and businesses, the internees spent most of the war in guarded, barbed-wire enclosed camps in remote spots in the western interior.

California turned a corner in the years following this last xenophobic exercise. After the war the state began to dismantle its legal apparatus of caste and exclusion. In 1948 the state's supreme court threw out the long-enforced antimiscegenation statute and four years later invalidated the notorious Alien land law that kept first-generation Asian immigrants from owning land. Meanwhile Congress and the U.S. Supreme court abolished provisions in immigration law that prevented Asians from becoming naturalized citizens. Two changes were evident in these moves: the liberalizing trend that would soon result in the broad civil rights agendas of the late 1950s and 1960s; and a shift in the axis of racial tension from Asian/white to black/white, a change that brought California out of its exceptionalist past into line with the industrial North.

California would move through the civil rights era more or less in line with Northern patterns, readily abandoning de jure racial restrictions, not so readily accepting legislation and court decisions aimed at de facto segregation. Mandated school segregation ended in the late 1940s, but it took another long decade of legislative battles before the state passed in 1959 its first law banning racial discrimination in employment. When that was followed four years later by similar "fair housing" legislation, the white majority rebelled, passing a 1964 repeal initiative by a two to one margin, only to see the courts overturn the overturners and reinstate the anti-discrimination measure.

Watts exploded the next summer, leaving 34 people dead and initiating a decade and a half of desperate conflict in the streets and courts. A rising tide of militancy in the black and later Chicano communities was matched by the backlash mood of many whites, particularly when the courts in the 1970s began ordering school boards to initiate desegregation plans. Affirmative action programs raised further resistance. As was the case nearly everywhere, the result was a standoff. The old system of racial caste had been broken but neither equality nor integration had taken its place. The new system of inequality works on principles of class associated with race, privileging middle-class minorities with both occupational and political opportunities, isolating all those who cannot make the cut: the working poor, the dependent, the nonªEnglish speaking.

The new regime's ambiguities are heightened by the multi-ethnic character of California society and the uneven distribution of problems and opportunities among the different groups. Asians, African-Americans, and Latinos find different niches in the social order. Blacks face the greatest economic difficulties and the most severe social stigmas, but have developed the greatest political resources, wielding political influence at both state and community levels out of proportion to their numbers. Asians are in the opposite position: more economically successful (in the aggregate) than other minorities, but politically almost voiceless. Latinos fall in the middle, gaining economic standing and slowly emerging as a political force.

Where it all leads is anything but certain. Along with the rest of America, California enters the 1990s poised either to move forward into a new era of pluralist understanding or backwards into familiar cycles of conflict. The last few years offer portents of both. There is on the one hand the example of the University of California at Berkeley where the undergraduate student population has become a showpiece of colors and cultures and where the inevitable tensions are muted by a nearly consensual desire to make it work. On the other had there are the ominous signs that Mike Davis reads in the changing polity and cityscape of Los Angeles, where white homeowner associations erect gated "fortress" communities, where billions are spent on the fine arts while poverty proliferates, where English-only ordinances and building codes are used to fight immigrant "invasions," where industry and public officials alike retreat from the central city, where the war on drugs turns into a police war against a whole generation of blacks and Latinos, where a modern metropolis veers towards the Dickensian future foretold in Ridley Scott's film The Blade Runner.

Some would say that the greatest reason for hope lies in the state's transcendent cultural traditions, in particular its capacity for innovation and change. This notion, itself a feature of the newer, global California, operates more on the plain of myth than fact. It would be hard to demonstrate that Californians in the aggregate are any more creative or attuned to change than anyone else. It is relatively easy, however, to show that they think they are and to demonstrate that the state's self-image in the post-war period increasingly involves a claim to cultural leadership. California is "the pace setter," Carey McWilliams told his adopted state in 1949 and Californians have repeated it ever since, taking pride in a whole list of supposed cultural exports, from lifestyle innovations (hippies, hot tubs, hedonistic Beverly Hills, gay Castro Street) to business breakthroughs (branch banking, health maintenance organizations, personal computers) and of course politics (campus rebellions, environmental controls, taxpayers revolts, and Reaganism).

Creative perhaps. More clearly the list shows the state's capacity for social diversity and political schizophrenia, for sustaining a range of discrete, even antagonist, subcultures while moving erratically between public policy agendas. It is all nicely postªmodern--the many voices, the invented personas and plastic lifestyles, the short attention span--a microburst cultural system capable of continuous surprise.

Whatever its entertainment value, it is hard to believe that mercurial California has any special gift for solving the complex problems of pluralism let alone the other pressing issues of a globally interdependent age. In the end, like the nation that it aspires to lead, California will try to get by the way it has always gotten by, relying on its geographic gifts and economic good fortune to feed the inflated consumer passions of its growing and changing population, hoping that the regime of abundance will last forever, or at least for another generation.


--James Gregory 1993




McWilliams, Carey. California: the Great Exception (1949) and Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946)
Nunis, Doyce B. and Lothrup, Gloria, eds. A Guide to the History of California (1989) the most recent bibliography
Rice, Richard B., Bullough, William A., Orsi, Richard J. The Elusive Eden: A New History of California (1988)
Starr, Kevin. Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (1973); Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era (1985); and Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s (1990)


Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of California 7 volumes (1884-90)
Camarillo, Albert. Chicanos in a changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California (1979)
Cook, Sherburne F. The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization (1976)
Heizer, Robert.F. and Elsasser, Albert B. The Natural World of the California Indians (1980)
Monroy, Douglas. Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (1990)
Weber, David J. The Mexcian Frontier: 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico (1982)

1840 TO 1940

Balderrama, Francisco E. In Defense of La Raza: The Los Angeles Mexican Consulate and the Mexican American Community, 1929 to 1936 (1982)
Caughey, John W. Gold is the Cornerstone (1948)
Fogelson, Robert M. Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930 (1967)
Gregory, James. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (1989)
James S. Holliday. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (1981)
Issel, William and Cherny, Robert W. San Francisco, 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development (1986)
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior (1975) and China Men (1980)
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987)
Lotchin, Roger. San Francisco, 1846-1856: From Hamlet to Modern City (1974)
Pisani, Donald J. From Family Farm to Aggribusiness: The Irrigation Crusade in California, 1850-1931 (1984)
Romo, Ricardo. East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio (1986)
Saxton, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti- Chinese Movement in California (1971)
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989)


Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990)
Kotkin, Joel and Grabowicz, Paul. California, Inc. (1982)
Nash, Gerald D. The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War (1985)
Walters, Dan. The New California: Facing the 21st Century (1986)
Wollenberg, Charles. All Deliberate Speed: Segregation and Exclusion in California Schools, 1855-1975 (1976)