Spanish California

The first humans in the Americas are thought to have migrated out of northern Asia about 15,000 B.C. They were hunters and gathers but gradually some groups began to enjoy a more advanced culture. By 200 B.C. very sophisticated civilizations were beginning to appear in Mesoamerica. In the fourteenth century the Aztec Civilization created a monarchy centered in the Valley of Mexico. Their capital was Tenochtitlan. and it grew into a powerful and wealthy city/state.

The fifteenth century saw the completion of the reconquest of Spain and the emergence of Ferdinand and Isabella as the rulers of an expansionist empire eager to spread Christianity to distant lands and increase the wealth and power of Spain in the process.. Immediately after Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas in 1492, Spain began a series of expeditions into North, Central and South America. In 1519 Hernan Cortes began a campaign to conquer Tenochtitlan. It took several years but eventually he prevailed. The Aztec capital was razed to the ground and replaced by Mexico City. Mexico City quickly became the political/military center for most of Spain's possessions in North and Central America - what they were to call New Spain.

The conquistadores brought great wealth to the throne but they also posed potential political risks as they grew stronger. The Spanish monarchy sought to neutralize those risks. A royal judicial body, the audencia, reporting directly to the Spanish crown was created in Mexico City in 1527. .In 1535 Antonio de Mendoza was named the first viceroy of New Spain. The viceroy was the king's representative and as such controlled the bureaucracy (but not the audencia). Military figures in New Spain had important ties to political figures in Madrid and their relationship to the viceroy flucuated. The Catholic Church hierarchy was largely independent of the viceroy as well. Friction and intrigue was constant between these various organizations both in Mexico City and in the outlying areas.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this political/military/judicial/religious system continued virtually unchanged. The degree of local autonomy exercised by different bodies and officials varied greatly but the distances involved between Madrid and Mexico City and within New Spain itself ensured a considerable degree of freedom of action for individuals should they chose to exercise it.

Socially, the population of New Spain was stratified into four main groupings. At the top of the social pyramid were the peninsulares: European born Spaniards. Next were the criollos: Spaniards who had been born in New Spain. Next were the mestizos: people who had mixed Spanish and native parentage. At the bottom were the indigenous peoples.

From Madrid's point of view, New Spain was important as a source of valuable resources, primarily silver, from which the crown took its "royal fifth." The individual soldiers that conquered New Spain sought personal gain initially in the form of plunder and later in the form of encomiendas. An encomiendero was a person who was granted authority over a tract of land and all of the people living on it. The encomiendero was responsible for the welfare of the people under his charge and, in return, the people in the encomienda were required to provide him with tribute and free labor. The encomienderos, akin to feudal lords, quickly became an important element in the political life of New Spain.

Spain's northwestern most colony was California, claimed first by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. Several early Spanish conquistadores looked seriously at California as a possible source of treasure, but none was found and Spain's attention quickly shifted elsewhere. In 1565 Miguel de Salcedo added the Philippine Islands to Spain's empire and a brief thought was given to developing a port on the coast of California to be used in support of the Spanish galleons sailing from Manila to Acapulco. Once again nothing was done and California remained undisturbed by European settlement for another two centuries.

In the second half of the eighteenth century the world balance of power was shifting and New Spain was being threatened by several European powers including England, France and Russia. The Spanish King, Carlos III, decided that Spain would have to physically occupy California or risk losing it. In 1769 Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra led an expedition that established missions and presidios in San Diego and Monterey and discovered the hitherto unknown port of San Francisco. Serra, who remained in California after Portola departed, together with his successors established a system of missions running from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. These together with a few undermanned presidios and very small towns were to constitute the high water mark of Spanish involvement in California.

The Spanish crown did not see California as a source of revenue. It was, however, seen to have political/military importance in protecting New Spain's northwestern position in the Americas. Spain never did strengthen its military position in California sufficient to thwart hostile military action by any save the local Indians, but relied instead on the Spanish presence to pose a political trip wire - hostile action in California would result in war with Spain. Political and military leaders in California charged with it's development and defense were constantly frustrated and angered by what they perceived as inadequate attention and support by their superiors in Mexico City. Authorities in Mexico City saw California as an economic drain on resources. It was a strained relationship at best.

As elsewhere in New Spain ultimate political power in California was exercised by Spanish born political, military, and religious personalities. As time went on the Criollo (American born Spaniards) grew more numerous. These Californios, as they were called, were the sons and daughters of retired Spanish soldiers who had received land grants from the government. These land grants (the successor institution to the encomiendia) were operated as large ranches throughout central and southern California. Cattle and horses thrived on these ranches and cattle hides became the defacto currency for a cash starved economy. The ranch owners and their families became the social aristocracy of the state.

As time went on more and more resentment emerged between various social groups throughout New Spain including California. In the second half of the eighteenth century revolutions in the United States (1776), France (1789), and Haiti (1804), had a profound impact on political thought within all of Spain's American colonies. The criollos resented the political power of the peninsulares, but the power of the Catholic Church and their shared loyalty to the Spanish crown worked against revolution. In 1808, however, Napoleon Bonaparte put his brother Joseph on the throne in Madrid and thus called the legitimacy of the Spanish crown into serious question. Revolutionary thought throughout New Spain gained momentum as a result.

On September 16, 1810, in Guanajuato, Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a criollos parish priest, gave the Grito de Dolores, the Cry of Dolores, which called for Mexican independence. In California events in Mexico were followed as closely as possible and stimulated a great deal of discussion. The Californios were definitely attracted to political concepts found in the American constitution, but were horrified by the political chaos that they saw in Mexico. After Mexican independence had been won in 1821, Californios continued to feel neglected by the Mexican government just as they had been under Spanish authority. In California the political discussion revolved around the question of an independent California separate from Mexico.

    The Mexican Period...