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Spanish Colonies: 1492–1763

Spanish Settlement of Alta California

Native American Life in Alta California

Native Americans living in California prior to the Spanish invasion lived in villages and did not have to develop agriculture thanks to an abundance of food.

Many different Native American groups lived in the vast region of Alta California (the region that is now California, Nevada, and northern Arizona) and the Baja Peninsula, which is now part of Mexico. Estimates suggest about 130,000 Native Americans lived in California around the time the Spanish first explored the region in the mid-16th century. Protected by mountains in the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, California's indigenous peoples found plentiful sources of food, including acorns, insects, small game, and fish. As a result, they never needed to develop agricultural practices. Nevertheless, the abundance of food enabled them to live in established villages. The Native Americans living in California were not affiliated by tribe, but by tribelets, or clans, that lived in nearby villages. Like the Pueblos in New Mexico, California's Native Americans coexisted peacefully and rarely waged war.

Little is known about the history or customs of the Native Americans living in California before Spanish settlement in 1769. As they did elsewhere in the New World, the Spaniards established missions and populated them with the local indigenous people. Under the influence of the Spanish, California's native populations would lose their language and clan affiliations and become known simply as "Mission Indians."

Colonization of Alta California

Beginning in 1769, Spain colonized California by converting the indigenous population and forcing them to live and work in the missions.
Spanish navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first spotted the California coast in 1542—50 years after Columbus first discovered the New World. It would take Spain more than a century to claim and colonize the area. During this period, the Spanish assumed California was an island with few valuable resources. In 1769 the Spanish viceroy authorized an expedition led by the explorer Gaspar de Portolá. Accompanying him was the Franciscan priest Junípero Serra, who established the first mission at San Diego that same year. It was the first of eight missions the Spanish would build by 1777. The Spanish would eventually build a total of 21 missions along the 600-mile coast between San Diego and San Francisco. As in Florida and New Mexico, Spanish troops rounded up the local indigenous people and forced them to live and work in the missions, where the Franciscans taught them to speak Spanish and practice Roman Catholicism. The missionaries also taught the Native Americans how to farm, tend livestock, and cultivate vineyards and olive orchards, thus establishing California's agricultural economy.

California's Mission Trail, 18th-19th Century

Initially reluctant to colonize California, the Spanish established settlements there in part to anchor an overland route between the colonies in New Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.
Life in the missions resulted in the slow but steady erasure of the Native Americans' way of life and identity and led to a steep decline in their population. They were uprooted from their villages and forced to give up their language and religious practices to serve as laborers. Intermarriage in the missions led to the erasure of clan differences as well. Soon, California's Native Americans came to be known by the name of the mission in which they lived, rather than by their traditional names. They suffered from the deadly effects of European diseases, harsh living conditions, and difficulties in adapting to a new diet. The missionaries meted out harsh punishments for natives who failed to adopt Christianity, but unlike in New Mexico, there were no uprisings by the Native Americans against the Spanish.