A Land of Immigrants and Entrepreneurs
When migration to California began in earnest in the 19th century, lighthouses became necessities to protect ships skirting the rough rocky coast. Many of the lighthouses were remote and hard to reach on land, and the job of keeping the lights burning was a challenging and difficult one, especially in bad weather when they were needed most. Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, above, on the Central Coast near San Simeon, was damaged by an offshore earthquake on December 31, 1948, and had its lantern room and lens removed. The tower was capped off, and in recent years has been renovated and is open for tours.
The Spanish Franciscan
friar blessing an adobe church at Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá in 1769; the Chilean miner trying his luck panning for gold in a cold Sierra cataract in 1849; the Chinese laborer crossing the heaving Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad in 1869; the African American leaving the South to build warships on the Oakland waterfront in 1942; the Haight-ashbury hippie with her wakeful dreaming in San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967; the Indian engineer launching a high-tech startup in Palo Alto in 2018, all have something in common: starting over.
The United States is said to be a place where the world comes to begin again—to reinvent itself, in the current coinage. If so, California is the “America” of America. This was so even in pre-history, when the first migrants from Asia crossed the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, hung a right, walked southward, found pastures of plenty, rich marine life and heart-stoppingly beautiful mountains and either decided to keep walking or stop right where they were.
The place wasn’t called California then, of course. That came later, the name taken from a 16th-century Spanish novel and used by explorers, soldiers and missionaries, who were themselves starting over in the New World. The Spanish built 21 Roman Catholic missions, from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, from 1769 to 1823. In converting native communities to Christianity, the newcomers overwhelmed
native cultures. Of necessity, the Native Americans started over in a bewildering new world.
In 1821, Mexico, with its remote northernmost province, Alta California, wrenched itself free of the Spanish Empire. In 1833, the missions were secularized by the Mexican government and abandoned. Their buildings moldered, their pioneering vineyards and olive groves were eventually overgrown and forgotten. Not until the 20th century were the missions restored and revived. Many flourish today as redoubts of history and contemporary worship, handsome, evocative reminders of the first major European presence.
The Gold Rush
Alta California grew slowly in its isolation. That changed on January 24, 1848, with the discovery of gold on the American River. The California Gold Rush, beginning in earnest in 1849, gave fortune-seekers a second—some said a last—chance to make good. Half-a-million newcomers—many from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa— globalized California in a hurry. The Mexican descendants of Spanish settlers—the Californios, with their sprawling ranchos and lives attuned to the slow turning of the seasons—were swept aside, left to start over.
Many 49ers stayed on and found another kind of gold: richly productive new lives in a place where beginning afresh—personally, financially, even spiritually—was already a common rite of passage. In 1850, pried loose by the U.S. victory in the Mexican War and accelerated by the Gold Rush, California became the 31st state of the United States. New Californians brought the new Golden State into being, plowing its fields, founding its great universities, building its cities.
California’s lustrous reputation was tarnished on the morning of April 18, 1906, when a massive
PIEDRAS BLANCAS Light Station in San Simeon, opposite; Bodie Ghost Town residence, above; Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma Peninsula, San Diego, right; Carmel Mission, below.