Think July 4, 1776, Independence Day for the United States, and sights and sounds crowd the imagination—the Liberty Bell, American flag, George Washington, fifes and drums, smoking muskets, and fireworks. Red, white, and blue, rat-a-tat-tat. Clear across the continent, colonial life in California—with its missions and modest military outposts—was just beginning. It would be almost 75 years before California would join the first and subsequent United States, as the 31st state in the union. But foreign exploration had been underway since at least 1543, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his men rode at anchor in San Diego Bay.
What was it like to live in California on July 4, 1776?
Depends on who you were.
If you were a local, in most places life was probably going on much as it always had. And what an abundant life. About one-third of all Native Americans in what we now recognize as the United States lived here, in California, some 100,000 to 300,000 people organized into more than 100 distinct communities or bands, defined by geography and kinship. Native agriculture as practiced elsewhere didn’t exist here, but the landscape was fully managed nonetheless with various forms of “forest gardening” and “fire-stick farming”—using fire, selective harvests, and other practices to encourage a mix of useful plants and animals, and to discourage insect infestations, disease, and the catastrophic fires that plague the state today.
In almost every case of early contact between explorers and these well-established native California communities, the Californians were gracious and generous. But that contact with Europeans and, later, Americans—explorers, missionaries, hunters and trappers, settlers, gold seekers—would devastate these first people, who had no immunity to the diseases the newcomers brought with them. That was before the new folks took the land itself.
The Spanish were the first newcomers to settle in, and were here in California on July 4, 1776, U.S. Independence Day, though barely. They rarely traveled inland from the coast. It’s fair to say the conquistadors were still figuring things out.
Cortés “discovered” land he called California in 1535; his California went on forever, though, unlike the fictional island that inspired the name. But Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo first sailed the coast of Alta California—“upper,” as opposed to “lower” or Baja California, which then included all of Mexico—and in 1543 rode at anchor off San Diego’s shores. Sebastian Vizcaíno entered Monterey Bay in 1602—18 years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, please note—but it wasn't until 1746 that even the Spanish realized California wasn't an island.
It wasn’t until 1769 that Gaspar de Portolá discovered San Francisco Bay; the Golden Gate and all that fog had done a great job of hiding it from outsiders, for centuries. And it wasn’t until 1770 that the Spanish established their early settlements in San Diego and Monterey. The earliest missions included both a church and a military presidio for protection, connected communities made up of soldiers, Franciscan priests, and the nearby native Californians the padres conscripted for religious education and free labor. Cattle, mules, and horses completed the settlements.
In 1776, when the East Coast’s English colonies were declaring their independence and creating these United States, the Spanish made Monterey the capital of the barely settled territory of Alta California and had started walking El Camino Real, or “the royal road,” a sketchy trail that eventually connected all 21 missions.