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Alta California (Upper California) was formed when Spain separated the Dominican Missions from the Franciscan Missions in approximately 1769 with the founding of the first Alta California mission in San Diego. Separate administrations were created in 1804 when the Province of the Californias, then a part of the Commandancy General of the Provincias Internas in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, was divided in two, along a line separating the Franciscan missions in the north from the Dominican missions in the south. The southern part became the territory of Baja California ("Lower California"), also referred to at times as Vieja California ("Old California"). The northern part became Alta California, also alternatively called Nueva California ("New California").

The new territory included land that today forms the modern American states of Californiamarker and parts of Nevadamarker. Since the eastern boundaries of the Province were not defined, many maps from the period show its borders including parts of today's Utahmarker, northern Arizonamarker, western Coloradomarker, and southwestern Wyomingmarker. The Province would have bordered on the east with the Spanish, later Mexican, settlements in Arizona and the Province, later Territory, of Nuevo México.

Mexicomarker gained independence from Spain in 1821 upon conclusion of a decade-long war of independence. The region was automatically included in the short-lived First Mexican Empire. With the establishment of a republican United Mexican Statesmarker in 1823, California, like many northern territories, was not recognized as one of the constituent states because of its small population. (The 1824 Constitution refers to Alta California as a "territory"). After Juan Bautista Alvarado's revolt in 1836, the territory was transformed into a department, which granted it more autonomy.

Mexico lost the territory two decades later as a result of the Mexican-American War. The last Mexican Governor of California was Pío Pico, who served until 1846. The capital of Alta California was Montereymarker.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a San Franciscomarker-based newspaper called The Daily Alta California (or The Alta Californian). Mark Twain's first widely successful book, The Innocents Abroad, was an edited collection of letters written for this publication.

Lands under Spanish rule

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Under Spanish rule, all lands in California were claimed by the king of Spain, who granted them to the Roman Catholic Church and to individuals. Specifically, the Spanish constructed and funded the missions for the Franciscans of the Catholic Church to gather and convert the Native American people, presidios to house Spanish soldiers who would enforce the peace, and Spanish settlement lands. The presidios and missions were the first lands chosen and developed.

By law, the mission land and property was to pass to the resident Native Americans of California after a period of about ten years, when the natives would become Spanish citizens. In the interim period, the Franciscans were to act as mission administrators who held the land in trust for the Natives. The Franciscans, however, prolonged this power arrangement and ran the missions for more than 60 years.

Once the Spanish began to send settlers to Northern California, a gray area began to grow over the future (and boundaries) of the mission properties. Property disputes arose over the mission (and adjacent) lands, between the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church, and also between the Natives and the Spanish settlers: There were heated debates between the Spanish state and ecclesiastical bureaucracies over the government authority of the missions. Setting an interesting precedent, the Franciscan priests of Santa Clara sent a petition to the Governor in 1782, claiming the "missions Indians" owned both land and cattle, and represented the Natives in a petition against the Spanish settlers of the Pueblo of San José. The fathers mentioned the "Indians' crops" were being damaged by the San Jose settlers' livestock, and also mentioned settlers "getting mixed up with the livestock belonging to the Indians from the mission." They also stated the Mission Indians had property and rights to defend it.

Under Spanish rule, Southern California and the Ranchos prospered and grew with the Missions. Californio cattle ranchers and the local people evolved into a different society from the northern American settlers of the fur trapping and mining economy that developed in the Sacramento River valley. This dichotomy of evolution was reflected during the Mexican-American War where the American immigrants of the north coveted the property, lands and riches of the more prosperous Southern California Californios and their vast Ranchos.

Mexican-American War

Upon the declaration of war by the United States Congress—partly in response to events in Texasmarker after its annexation by the United States, and partly in response to calls from Northern California's American residents who were striving for independence from MexicomarkerUnited States Army and Navy forces entered into the territory and overpowered the remaining Mexican military units.

In Southern California, the Californios formed a defensive army and were victorious after the Siege of Los Angeles, the Battle of San Pasqual, and the Battle of Domínguez Rancho; but the subsequent encounters at the Battle of Río San Gabriel and the Battle of La Mesa were indecisive. They formally surrendered with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga on 13 January 1847. California was ceded to the United States in 1848 by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Flags over California

Spanish Empire, first by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, upon entering the bay of San Diegomarker, then sailing north to the Russian River. Claim validated and area mapped in 1602 during the sea voyage of the San Agustín under Sebastián Vizcaíno.
St. George Cross of England, June 1579, voyage of the Golden Hind under Captain Francis Drake at Bodega Baymarker, Tomales Baymarker, Drakes Baymarker or Bolinas Bay (exact location disputed).
October 1775, the Sonora at Bodega Baymarker, under Lt. Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra until 1821, when New Spain gained independence from the Spanish Empire.
Russian-American Company, by Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskovmarker, the founder of Fort Rossmarker and, from 1812 to 1821, its colonial administrator. Note: There is an overlap of rule with the Mexican Empire (second item below), until the Russians sold Fort Rossmarker in 1841 to John Sutter, and subsequently left the area in 1842.
Argentinamarker, by Hippolyte de Bouchard, a French corsair who occupied Montereymarker from November 24 to November 29, 1818, raising the Argentine flag there and claiming Alta California for that country.
First Mexican Empire, August 24, 1821, Mexicomarker under Emperor Agustín de Iturbide (October 1822, probable time new flag raised in California) until 1823.
Mexican Republicmarker, 1823, until January 13, 1847 at Los Angelesmarker.
Bear Flag of the California Republicmarker, June 14, 1846, at Sonomamarker until July 9, 1846.
United States of Americamarker, 9 July 1846; see History of California.

Spanish Governors of Alta California

Ranchos of California

The Spanish, and later the Mexican governments, encouraged the establishment of large land grants, which were turned into ranchos, devoted to the raising of cattle and sheep. Hides (at roughly $1 each) and tallow (used to make candles as well as soaps) from the livestock were the primary exports of California until the mid-19th century. The owners of these ranchos styled themselves after the landed gentry in Spain. Their workers included some Native Americans who had learned to speak Spanish and ride horses.

Alta California in popular culture

See also

Spanish and Mexican control

Russian colonies

United States control



  • Beebe, Rose Marie (2001). Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535–1846. Berkeley: Heyday Books. ISBN 1-890771-48-1.
  • Fink, Augusta (1972). Monterey, The Presence of the Past. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. .
  • Milliken, Randall (1995). A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769–1910. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press Publication. ISBN 0-87919-132-5

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