California, today the largest US state by population, looks back on a changeful history. Being widely inhabited by Native American peoples before the first European explorers arrived, it was discovered in 1542 by the Portuguese explorer Cabrilho who was working for the Spanish crown. From 1769 on, Spain laid claim on the area. They built 21 mission stations along the coast and later, from 1821, added it to the state of Mexico which had been founded by the Spanish.
In 1846, Mexico and the United States entered into war, in whose consequence California claimed independence. This however lasted only until 1848, when California was added to the US in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and became the 31st state of the USA in 1850.
In the meantime, the American interest in the area had risen sharply. After first gold discoveries, the gold rush had begun in the entire country and countless courageous adventurers from the eastern states were hunting for their luck in California. About 250,000 people began the utterly burdensome journey to the West between 1846 and 1848, not only to search for gold but also to begin a better, easier life in a climate better suited for agriculture than in their home. The largest group of migrants making California their new home were farmers from the South and Midwest. Only the fewest actually found the gold they had hoped for, but the mass migration had caused changes in society and attitudes, that stamp America to this day.
In the American Civil War, California stood on the side of the North’s union troops, which it supported with soldiers and financially. Most soldiers however stayed at the West Coast where they guarded army forts or staved off occasional Indian revolts. At the end of the war, in 1869, California for the first time got a direct link to the rest of the country by means of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. This also was the decisive turning point for the ensuing economic boom and the industrialization of California from the turn of the century on.
The new challenges in an industrialized society caused, in California as well as elsewhere, strugglers between workers and employers which every now and then discharged in violence, for example when a bomb exploded in the printing press of the Los Angeles Times in 1910. When the labor movement became stronger it led to a long, comprehensive strike in 1934 in cities at the coast, which led to the establishment of worker’s unions in America. The hard and badly paid work on the farms and plantations however, for which every year some 200,000 people move to and through California, remained untouched by these changes.
In World War II, California played a very important role for the war entry by the US. Because the West Coast was closest to the Japanese enemy, numerous new military installations were founded here. In Richmond for example, a suburb of San Francisco, thousands of military vehicles and many navy ships wer assembled.
The war entry by the US had been caused by the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian base at Pearl Harbor. Following that, the US government put more than 100,000 Japanese and Americans with Japanese backgrounds living at the West coast into detention centers, in order to prevent an expected large-scale attack by Japan. Life conditions in these hastily built camps were at least partly hard to tolerate, even though in general there were no degradations or even acts of violence against the inmates. However, in 1988 the American government in the Ronald Reagan administration officially apologized and paid compensations, as many people had been forced to leave their homes over night and had to live under unworthy conditions. Many of these camps had been set up on Californian soil.
After the end of World War II, California experienced another rapid population growth, thanks to the mild climate, the idealized image spread by Hollywood movies and the common, distinct free spirit, which was finally expressed by the hippie movement. The California entertainment and high tech industries developed at a rapid pace. A comprehensive and progressive education system that had been created and applied early, further put California on the right track to become one of the strongest regions of the world in terms of economic strength.