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California - Growth

California Perhaps California's greatest disadvantage, at least until recently, is its location at the far western periphery of the United States, some 3,500 kilometers from the most important areas of economic demand and supply in the country. This relative isolation is compounded by the nature of most of the land that lies between the Sierra Nevada and the South and the Midwest, a broad section of the country that generates little local freight.

More than anything else, climate has been the key in overcoming the state's apparent locational disadvantage; climate has been important to both the state's settlement history and its agricultural development.

The pre-European American Indians in California were hunters and gatherers. For food they depended on either seafood or grains and nuts that could be collected in the wild and ground into flour. There were few large tribes. Instead, most groups were organized into small units of perhaps 10 to 20 families. At the time of the first European arrival in the Americas, perhaps 1 Native American in 10 lived in what would become California.

Although Spanish explorers brushed the edge of California in the mid-1500s and claimed it as part of Spain's large North American holdings, they basically ignored it for the next two centuries. Not until concern arose over British and Russian expansion in western North America in the late 18th century did Spanish missionaries establish a string of missions from San Diego to Sonoma, near San Francisco. These mission settlements were joined by presidios (forts) and a few pueblos (towns). During the next few decades, the Spanish and Mexican governments granted a series of large landholdings (ranchos) to immigrants. Still, the area remained peripheral; the towns were small and ramshackle, and hides and tallow were the ranchos' most important exports.

Following U.S. seizure of California in 1846, a great gold strike in the foothills of the central Sierra Nevada in 1848 brought the first significant change in the region's settlement fortunes. Within a year, 40,000 people had come to the gold fields by sea, passing through San Francisco harbor. Perhaps as many more came overland. By 1850, California was a state. The frantic period of the gold rush lasted only a few years, but it succeeded in breaking the state's isolation from the rest of the country.

Southern California, the center of Spanish occupation in the state, did not share in the early population expansion, but the completion of railroads going west in the 1880s brought a sudden end to the area's quiet existence. In an effort to create a demand for their facilities, the railroads advertised widely for settlers, aided new arrivals in finding housing and jobs, and lowered fares. During the first southern California land boom, between 1881 and 1887, the population of Los Angeles grew from 10,000 to 70,000.

A large number of crops were also introduced into southern California during this period and in the years following, including the navel orange, the lemon, the Valencia orange, the avocado, and the date. They were in demand in eastern markets, and, at that time in the United States, only southern California could provide them in large quantities. Agriculture was to remain the backbone of southern California's economy until early in the 20th century.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:01 ZULU