California history is amazing! Could Southern California have been split off to join the Confederacy during the early part of California’s history? Almost! That’s just one surprising fact I learned on my recent road trip with my kids to explore the history of California (and do some sightseeing!).
Since my youngest son is about to start the fourth grade here in California, I wanted to make sure he learned about and saw some important places in California (the fourth-grade history curriculum in California focuses only on California history).
Our California History Trip Begins in Northern California
We drove on the original path the Spanish established as El Camino Real (The Royal Road). Today it’s Highway 101. It was along this path that the Spanish, early in California’s history, built 21 missions and four Presidios (forts). Our first stop was the San Luis Obispo Mission which was Founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1772 as the fifth mission. Learning about the Spanish Mission Era is an essential part of the curriculum in fourth grade.
For us, this was the sixth Spanish mission we have visited. If you ever visit California, I highly recommend visiting at least one of the missions, including the missions at San Juan Capistrano and Santa Barbara. They offer a detailed look into life before statehood while the Spanish colonized Alta California.
Which President Gave the Missions Back to the Catholic Church?
Here’s another surprising fact about California history. Who was the President who signed the document to return the missions back to the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church abandoned the missions after México became the ruler of Alta California. The Church abandoned or sold off the missions. Believe it or not, Abraham Lincoln returned the missions to the Catholic Church!
California fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War after achieving statehood in 1850. John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln before he got the chance to visit California on a planned trip. In one of the last documents he signed before his death, he upheld the 1855 decision by the US Land Commission to return the missions to the Catholic Church.
The Capital of Spanish California
Monterey, located on the bay by the same name, was discovered by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. He and other early California explorers mapped California for later expeditions. Father Serra actually established a mission and presidio in Monterey. The Spanish kept the presidio in Monterey while moving the mission to Carmel. Monterey was also the capital of Mexican Alta California.
Of course, you can’t go to Monterey without visiting the world-famous aquarium! Monterey Bay was important to the Spanish, and later the Russians who started building forts and outposts in California. Why were the Russians in Alta California? Sea otter furs!
That is one reason the sea otter almost became extinct in California. But with the help of the aquarium, their numbers are roaring back! We also visited Cannery Row made famous by the California Pulitzer Prize winner, John Steinbeck, who was born in nearby Salinas, California. You can see that this city is very famous in annals of California history.
California History Booms in San Francisco
Did you know that after gold was discovered in California in 1848? San Francisco (originally called Yerba Buena by the Spanish), went from about 800 people in 1847 to 25,000 in 1849! Talk about unrestricted growth. But San Francisco has also played many other roles in California History. Did you know that San Francisco is home to the Ellis Island of the west coast? Yes! Angel Island, now a California State Park, was the place immigrants from China and many other nations passed through to a new life in the United States.
San Francisco is also home to one of the four Presidios the Spanish built to control Alta California. The Presidio is now a national park with lots to see. Though we didn’t visit The Presidio on this visit, we did go to Chinatown, climb all the way up Coit Tower and took a bay cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge. By the way, the Spanish did NOT discover San Francisco Bay during the explorer period, but two hundred years later during the colonization period. Why? Fog of course! Every time the Spanish sailed by the entrance to the bay, it was shrouded by fog.
Sacramento, California State Capital, and Capitol
It was now time to head northwest towards Gold Country and the capital of California, Sacramento. We stayed in nearby Folsom, which is about 20 minutes east of Sacramento. This is where I learned something new about California History.
During a tour of the State Capitol Building, our tour guide had many interesting stories not only about the building but about early California History. It seems that after California became a state, the two California senators (Gwin and Broderick) who served California before the Civil War, were on opposite sides of the slavery issue!
It had gotten to the point, in which Senator Gwin, who was pro-slavery and a southern sympathizer, thought it a good idea to split the state between the north and the south. The north would continue as a free state, while the south would allow slavery. Of course, it never came to fruition though it was surprising to me that this was even considered! If that doesn’t surprise you, then did you know the other Senator from California, Senator Broderick was killed in a duel with the California Chief Justice, David Terry!
What’s inside the Capitol Building?
In the State Capitol Building, we were also given a tour of both the Assembly and Senator rooms. They are completely different. Surprisingly, they are modeled after the British Parliament. The State Assembly room is green like the House of Commons, while the State Senate room is red like the House of Lords. Also, the State Assembly has microphones, laptops and electronic voting screens for the digital age.
The State Senate is a little more formal and does not have an electronic voting screen nor buttons for voting. A State Assembly Person votes by touching a button on their desk which immediately shows up on the electronic voting screen. A State Senator still has to vote with Yay or No and someone records the votes.
In the Assembly Chamber hangs a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, who was very popular in California, a state which helped elect him to the presidency. In the State Senate room, hangs a picture of George Washington (a copy of a famous portrait and the oldest painting hanging in the Capitol building.
There’s also a very interesting portrait of Governor Brown. It is a state law that every California Governor must have his portrait painted after leaving office. All the portraits hang in the building. By modern times, the governors broke from tradition, including Governor Brown. The tour guide said it took five sittings of three hours each for the artist, Don Bachardy, to get this expression.
Here’s another surprising fact about splitting California to support slavery. One of California’s earliest governors, John Bigler, later became a Southern sympathizer. California named its deepest lake in his honor while he served as governor for two terms. Since Bigler supported slavery and the South, Lake Bigler was erased from history and renamed Lake Tahoe. Surprise!
If it were not for the Gold Rush…
It’s 1848 and James Marshall discovers gold in California near Sutter’s Mill on the American River. Statehood would not happen until 1850. This area is about 45 minutes east of Sacramento up in the hills in what is the town of Coloma. Coloma got its name from a southern Maidu village. The Maidu were one of California’s earliest inhabitants.
The Native American Experience in California History
You can not talk about the Gold Rush without talking about the impact on California’s Indians. When the Spanish arrived in 1542, California was home to about 300,000 California Indians living very differently from each other.
California has four regions: Coastal, Central Valley, Mountain and Desert Regions. Based on the region, California’s Native Americans lived off the land and its resources. California’s Indians were for the most part hunters and gatherers, except for the desert tribes who were also farmers.
When the Spanish began building the missions, they used Indian labor. It was very much slave labor. The Spanish Mission Era and the Mexican Rancho Era (the time in which México owned California) contributed to the demise of 100,000 California Native Americans. However, it was the Gold Rush that triggered a genocide of California’s Tribes.
Disease, fighting, warfare, and greed killed over 100,000 California Indians during the first years of the Gold Rush. The survivors fought back and tried to hang on but with over 100,000 settlers and gold seekers, there was little chance of surviving.
“A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.” – California Governor Peter H. Burnett, January 1851.
If these are the official words of our elected officials, I believe that we teachers who teach about California History must present these historical facts to our students. Most history books present the Gold Rush as exciting. But California’s first inhabitants look at that as one of their darkest moments.
What’s in nearby Coloma?
Coloma is located California’s Marshall Gold Discovery Site State Park. There you will see a replica of the sawmill James Marshall was building for John Sutter. There are lots of other buildings and artifacts that show who came to find the gold: there’s a Chinese Store, the Chilean Mill, and the Mexican arrastre. People think miners panned for gold. Not true. Miners also used hydraulic mining. Hydraulic mining uses a high-pressure hose to tear off mountain tops (can you say strip mining).
If you ever go to see this site, don’t forget to see the Blacksmith. The blacksmith shows you the skills that were used back in the Gold Rush days.
What are California’s symbols?
Finally, one of the most important details I pointed out to my soon to be a fourth grader was California’s symbols. From the Golden Poppy to the Roman goddess Minerva, symbols of the state were all over the State Capitol building. The symbols on the state seal represent all of the histories of California. Fourth graders learn all about California’s symbols as they learn about its history.
Digital is here! California State Symbols Interactive Digital Notebook
Check out this Digital Interactive Notebook for Google Slides that helps students research the most iconic of California’s symbols. I’ve taken 12 of California’s iconic symbols and created an interactive digital notebook for students to research California’s flag, state seal, state insect, state tree and much more.
Symbols link to a video and a web page with information for that particular California symbol. The student researches the symbol and completes the slide with information gathered. There are also slides to hear California’s state song and construct a timeline of adopted California symbols. Finally, students write an opinion piece on the best symbol to represent California.
The Digital Interactive Notebook for Google Slides has 20 slides.
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More Articles about History
Want to know more about the Civil Rights Movement? Check out this blog post on Civil Rights read alouds.
Or click HERE to read more about how I teach about the Civil Rights Movement.
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