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Summary Article: California
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Western state of the USA, bordered to the south by the Mexican state of Baja California, to the east by Arizona and Nevada, to the north by Oregon, and to the west by the Pacific Ocean; area 403,932 sq km/155,959 sq mi; population (2015) 39,144,818; capital Sacramento. Its nicknames refer to the gold that led to the California gold rush of 1849–56, and to the state's sunshine, orange groves, vineyards, and abundant resources. Geographically the state is diverse, with features including the Sierra Nevada mountains, desert areas, and a fertile central plains region. The San Andreas Fault extends from northwest California southward, causing tremors and occasional earthquakes from San Francisco to the southeast part of the state. The state's economy is the largest in the USA, and very significant to the country as whole. California is a leader both in agriculture, producing fruit, vegetables, cotton, beef cattle, and fish, and in manufacturing, which is concentrated on engineering and technology. Silicon Valley is known for its electronics industries, while Hollywood is the centre of the US film industry. Tourism, the property market, and mining, including petroleum and boron, are also important to the state's economy. The largest city is Los Angeles (LA); other major cities are San Diego, San Francisco, San José, Fresno, Long Beach, and Oakland. California is the most populous state of the USA, with nearly two-fifths of the population being Hispanic American. Formerly a Spanish and Mexican territory, California passed to the USA following the Mexican War (1846–48). California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as the 31st US state and is governed under a constitution dating from 1879.

Physical California, over 1,240 km/770 mi in length, has a wide range of climatic and topographic zones, though generally winters are wet and main land areas: the Klamath Mountains, the Coast Ranges, the Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascade Range, the Basin and Range region, the Los Angeles ranges, and the San Diego ranges.

The Klamath Mountains in northwestern California have deep canyons, and the climate here is cooler than in the southern parts of the state. The Coast Ranges bordering the Pacific include the Diablo Range, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Santa Lucia Range. This region has higher levels of rainfall than other parts of California and is characterized by lush valleys, vineyards, and orchards. Some of California's most celebrated redwood forests are found here.

The rolling fertile Central Valley lies between the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada. Watered by the state's two longest rivers, the Sacramento, flowing north–south, and the San Joaquin, flowing southeast–northwest, the Central Valley has some of the richest farmland in the state and produces most of California's crops.

The Sierra Nevada, in the eastern part of the state, has peaks rising to 4,418 m/14,500 ft at Mount Whitney on the eastern border of Sequoia National Park. Mount Whitney is the second-highest peak in the USA (after Mount McKinley, Alaska). The Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada has spectacular glacial canyons, rivers, and waterfalls, including the Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America with a drop of 739 m/2,425 ft. The Cascade Mountains, a volcanic range, extend northwards from the Sierra Nevada and includes an active volcano, Lassen Peak (3,186 m/10,453 ft).

In the southern part of the state is the Basin and Range region, a lava plateau with large areas of desert, including the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. Death Valley, on the Nevada border, lies 85 m/280 ft below sea level and is the lowest point in North America.

The Los Angeles ranges extend east–west and include the Santa Ynez, Santa Monica, San Gabriel Mountains, and San Bernardino mountains. The southwestern tip of California is occupied by the San Diego ranges, including the Santa Ana, Agua Tibia, Laguna, and Vallecito mountains, extending into the Mexican peninsula known as Baja California.

California's coast has two major bays at San Francisco, the world's largest landlocked harbour, and at San Diego, with two lesser bays at Humboldt and Monterey. The coastline extends 1,352 km/840 mi, with wide sandy beaches and steep cliffs. The Sacramento–San Joaquin system empties into San Francisco Bay. Huge, offshore underwater volcanoes lie off the coast, with tops 8 km/5 mi across.

To the southeast, the Colorado River forms the border between southern California and Arizona, and is an important source of water for both states. In the southern part of the state California has resorted to extensive irrigation and water transport projects to service its dense population and agriculture; major schemes include the California Aqueduct, Central Valley Project, All-American Canal, and Los Angeles Aqueduct. California has 8,000 lakes, the largest of which is Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada. Salton Sea is an artificial saltwater lake created during irrigation work on the Colorado River.

Owing to its varied climate and habitat, California has a vast range of plants and wildlife, from giant sequoia trees, pronghorns, elk, wolverines, and condors in the mountains, to Joshua trees, poppies, coyote, and rattlesnakes in the deserts, and many different kinds of shellfish, seabirds, and sea life on the coast.

Features California's regional diversity encompasses Spanish and Mexican colonial sites and Hollywood memorabilia, areas of outstanding natural beauty and important cultural centres and museums. California's major cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego – are world-renowned tourist destinations. In Los Angeles the pavements of Hollywood Boulevard are famously engraved with the names of celebrities; the city's much-filmed street Sunset Boulevard winds 40 km/25 mi through the downtown area to the Pacific Ocean and the Hollywood sign on the Hollywood Hills. This internationally recognized landmark was erected in 1923 as an advertising sign for a property development, but was altered in 1945 after Hollywood had become the world's film capital. Many visitors tour the celebrity homes of Beverly Hills, Palm Beach, and Malibu.

San Francisco, celebrated for its role in the Beat Generation and hippie movements of the 1960s, has steep hills and cable cars. The Golden Gate bridge is the most significant landmark of the Bay area. San Diego has one of the world's finest deepwater bays, and is home to Sea World and the San Diego Zoo.

In all three cities, as in many parts of the state, remnants of Spanish missions can be seen: Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside, San Diego, dates from 1798, while Mission Dolores in the Mission District of San Francisco, dating from 1776, was rebuilt in 1782 after a fire. Others include Carmel Mission (1770) in Carmel, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772) in San Luis Obispo, and La Purísima Concepción Mission in Lompoc. Fort Ross, an early Russian settlement established in 1812 by the Russian-American Company, is situated on a scenic bluff on the Sonoma coast, near San Francisco. Monterey State Historic Park is the site of California's former capital under Spanish, Mexican, and US rule, and ten buildings dating from that period still stand, including the Custom House, built in 1827, and California's first theatre (1846–47).

The California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento is the largest museum of its kind in North America. Historic gold-rush sites include Downieville and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. California's oldest amusement park is Knott's Berry Farm, developed from a family farm tea room and market in the 1920s in Orange County. Also in Orange County is the Disneyland amusement park, Los Angeles. The University of California at Berkeley was the centre of student protest in the 1960s and has the largest university library in California. The Napa and Sonoma valleys are renowned wine country.

California has 18 national forests and nine national parks, as well as numerous state parks and forests. The Sierra Nevada includes the World Heritage Site Yosemite National Park and the Sequoia National Park, where Mount Whitney has a trail to its summit. The Redwood National Park is also a World Heritage Site. Other national parks in the state include Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, and Channel Islands, which encompasses the islands of Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara. The Lava Beds National Monument in Tulelake is a spectacular rugged landform created by volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano, used by the American Indian Modoc during the Modoc War of 1872–73 as a natural lava fortress.

California has a coastline with wide beaches and a rich biodiversity. The Point Reyes National Seashore harbours 20% of the state's flowering plant species on its peninsula, and over 45% of the bird species in North America have been sighted there. Point Lobos State Reserve is renowned for its sea lions. Big Sur is a major tourist resort area on the mild and sunny central coast. Monterey is home to a John Steinbeck museum, celebrating the California writer who depicted the working-class life of the sardine factories of Cannery Row, Monterey, and the struggles of the state's migrant workers. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary preserves marine life in its natural habitat and the Monterey Bay Aquarium displays many kinds of aquatic life. Marine World/Africa USA in Vallejo is a combination of oceanarium and wildlife park.

California's desert features include the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Red Rock Canyon State Park at the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada and the El Paso Range.

Culture Densely populated, cosmopolitan, and dominated by a culture of creative media, Los Angeles is home to many different ethnic groups, with Hispanic-American districts, the Asian-American districts of Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and Koreatown, and a large African-American community centred on Watts. The city is famous for its television and film studios, and has many theatre companies, a symphony orchestra, and a major opera company. There is also a significant recording industry in Los Angeles; East Los Angeles is famous for hip hop and rap artists. Although by reputation the entertainment industry dominates the city's cultural life and identity, other business and international trade serve to make Los Angeles an international hub. The Los Angeles County Museum is one of the premier visual arts museums in the USA with over 150,000 works, while the J Paul Getty Museum and Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art are also important. Other collections include the Fisher Gallery at the University of Southern California, the Korean American Museum, and the Southwest Museum.

California's second-largest city, San Francisco, has a reputation for a diverse, tolerant, and progressive cultural scene, with a large gay and lesbian community. A former centre for hippie life and the Beat Generation, San Francisco has many coffee shops, bookstores, including the City Lights Bookstore, and an important rock music legacy dating from the 1960s. The visual and acoustic arts in the city reflect an experimental and alternative emphasis, although San Francisco has a growing and wealthy high-tech community. The city also has a significant Chinese American population; Chinatown has one of the largest Chinese communities in the USA and holds a Chinese New Year celebration that has become one of San Francisco's major annual festivals. The city's Spanish and Mexican heritage is displayed at the Mexican Museum in the Fort Mason Center. San Francisco is rich in the performing arts, with the municipally-owned War Memorial Opera House and the Louise M Davies Symphony Hall staging performances by the city symphony orchestra and ballet and opera companies. Art museums include the San Francisco Museum of Art, the M H de Young Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum, the Friends of Photography/Ansel Adams Center, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, and the innovative San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Festivals and parades include the Gay Freedom Day Parade march, the Stern Grove Midsummer Music Festival, the San Francisco Jazz and Wine Festival at the Embarcadero Centre, the annual Blues Festival, Opera in the Park, and the major two-week San Francisco Jazz Festival. The San Francisco International Film Festival is held in April–May.

San Diego's year-round sun and beautiful beaches have given rise to a relaxed beach and surf culture. SeaWorld is an important centre for public education. The arts are also significant with many cultural organizations, writers' guilds, and artist cooperatives. The Gaslamp Quarter festivals feature prominent blues and jazz musicians. Museums include the San Diego Museum of Art, the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Photographic Arts.

California has many other museums, including the Huntington Gallery in San Marino, with British paintings and French furniture and tapestries of the 1700s and early 1800s; the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, a prestigious collection spanning over two thousand years of Western and Asian art; the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; the Bakersfield Museum of Art, Bakersfield; the Magnes Jewish Museum, Berkeley; the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, Fresno; the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College, Moraga Town; the Historical Glass Museum, Redlands; the Lee Institute for Japanese Art, Hanford; the Monterey Museum of Art; the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach; the Oakland Museum of California, Oakland; the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach; the San José Museum of Art, San José; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara; and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica. Music festivals in California include the Monterey Jazz Festival in September and the San Francisco Long Beach Blues Festivals.

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech), University of California at Berkeley, University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and Stanford University at Palo Alto are major education and cultural centres.

As well as a cosmopolitan urban culture, California also has a more traditional rural and American West heritage culture, and celebrates its agricultural wealth and prowess with many state fairs and annual festivals. The Tournament of Roses is a spectacular New Year's Day event held in Pasadena, with rose-covered floats, a beauty contest, and the Rose Bowl American football game. Other festivals include an Avocado Festival in Fallbrook, an Asparagus Festival in Stockton, a Strawberry Festival in Arroyo Grande, Whiskey Flat Days in Kernville, the annual state fair in Sacramento, a Clam Festival in Pismo Beach, and the Fortuna Rodeo.

GovernmentCalifornia's state constitution The constitution dates from 1849, and the current constitution was adopted in 1879, with extensive subsequent amendments. The state constitution is characterized by the people's power to propose an initiative or referendum, with the agreement of 5% of the electorate in the case of a referendum or statute initiative, and 8% in the case of an amendment initiative. Electors also have the power to recall state officers with a petition of signatures equal in number to 12% of the last vote for the office in the case of a statewide officer, and 20% in the case of senators, members of the Assembly, members of the State Board of Equalization, and judges of courts of appeal and trial courts.

Structure of state government The legislature has a Senate of 40 members and an Assembly of 80 members, elected for four-year terms and two-year terms respectively. Since 2012 legislators may serve for 12 years in total. Each represents one senatorial or Assembly district. Fifty-three representatives and two senators are sent to the US Congress. The state has 55 electoral votes in presidential elections.

California's governor serves a four-year term with a maximum of two consecutive terms. Democrat Jerry Brown took the governorship in January 2011. The lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, controller, insurance commissioner, and superintendent of public instruction are the other main government posts. The State Board of Equalization, whose five members are each elected to four-year terms, administers several important tax laws.

The Supreme Court is the highest in California, with a chief justice and six associate justices appointed by the governor to 12-year terms, subject to voter approval. There are six district courts of appeal. In every county voters elect superior court judges to six-year terms.

California has about 470 incorporated cities, and cities of 3,500 or more people have the constitutional right to home rule; about 80 California cities are governed in this way. Most California cities have council-manager governments, although some use the mayor-council form of government. The state has 58 counties with a five-member board of supervisors and a number of elected executive officials. The California constitution permits county home rule.

Economy California's economy is very important to the rest of the USA. If it were classified as a separate nation it would rank among the ten largest economies in the world. However, personal income varies broadly, and the state has some of the richest and poorest areas in the USA. California ranks first among US states in agricultural production and exports. The Central Valley is one of the world's most important agricultural regions. California produces fruit (peaches, citrus, and grapes in the San Joaquin and Sacramento river valleys), nuts, wheat, vegetables, cotton, rice, and beef cattle, as well as grapes for wine. Fishing is also a major industry. California's tuna fish catch is the largest in the country; other important catches include halibut, herring, mackerel, salmon, shark, sole, swordfish, crabs, shrimp, and squid.

California is also the leading state in the USA for manufacturing. Industry is focused on high technology and engineering, including aeroplanes, computers, electronic components, missiles, and scientific instruments. Timber, fish, and food processing are also important industries. The financial sector, particularly in Los Angeles, is internationally significant, as is the film and television industry. Many of the world's largest studios, such as Paramount Studios, Universal, Fox, and Warner Bros, are based in Los Angeles. Tourism and the leisure industry are important sources of revenue in the state.

California is also a leading mining state. Petroleum is extracted in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley and along the coast near Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. All the USA's boron, used in boric acid and antiseptics, is mined in Inyokern, Kern, and San Bernardino counties. Other resources include diatomite, sand and gravel, sodium compounds, tungsten, gold, gypsum, magnesium compounds, molybdenum, and pumice.

HistoryEarly inhabitants California's first inhabitants were diverse American Indian groups, separated from each other by deserts and high mountains: the Hupa of the northwest, the Maidu of the northeast and central regions, the Yuman in the south, and the Pomo in what are now Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties, north of San Francisco. The Miwok, Modoc, and Mojave peoples were also present.

Spanish-Mexican and Russian settlement Spanish sailors first landed in the 1540s and the English captain Francis Drake sighted the north Californian coast in 1579. There was no settlement, however, until an overland expedition from Mexico established a mission in 1769 at San Diego and a presidio (fortified military settlement) in 1770 at Monterey. By this time El Dorado, a name from a 16th-century Spanish romance, designating an island inhabited by Amazon warriors and rich with gold, had been applied to the Mexican peninsula of Baja California (then thought to be an island), and extended northwards to include what came to be called Alta California (Upper California).

Until the 1820s there was little further development. A system of missions and presidios was established between San Diego and San Francisco Bay. Each mission, designed to be within walking distance of the next, aimed to convert the local American Indians to Christianity. Many American Indians died through a lack of resistance to European diseases and through being overworked in farming and mission industries. In 1812 Fort Ross became the southernmost outpost of Russian America; the bulk of the Russian American community was in Alaska. After the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared that any further European colonial activity would be regarded as a threat, Russia agreed to limit its territories to Alaska but did not leave the California region until the early 1840s.

Mexican rule In 1821 Mexico freed itself from Spain and California's missions were secularized. The larger lands of the missions were given to cattle rearers as ranchos (‘ranches’); the rich landowners were known as rancheros. Mexico's control over the territory remained limited, however, owing to the resistance of Californians to outside rule. In the 1830s US settlers, attracted by reports from fur traders, began to filter into the area from the east. Between 1844 and 1846 the military explorer John C Frémont led two surveying expeditions that included US soldiers into the region. Although ordered out by Mexico, Frémont built a fort near Monterey and raised the US flag. Almost simultaneously, although unaware that the Mexican War had already broken out, a band of US settlers led by Ezekiel Merritt took over Sonoma, Mexico's northern headquarters, and declared the ‘Bear Flag Republic’ on 14 June 1846. As the Mexican War progressed, the USA occupied northern regions of California. The California Territory was ceded to the USA after the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848.

California gold rush The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada in January 1848 sparked the California gold rush of 1849–56 and an influx of prospectors and settlers led by the Forty-Niners. California became the 31st state on 9 September 1850 and Peter H Burnett, a Democrat, was the first state governor. More settlers arrived in the area during and after the Civil War (1861–65). The completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 linked Sacramento with the eastern USA, and fostered economic development. Railroad developers Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P Huntington, and Leland Stanford were known as California's ‘Big Four’, and introduced many Chinese labourers to California in the 1860s.

In 1887 the Santa Fe Railroad reached Los Angeles, opening southern California to urban and agricultural development. California saw a depression in the 1880s, for which its rising Chinese population was blamed. Anti-Chinese riots took place in Los Angeles in 1871 and in San Francisco in 1877. A publicity campaign throughout the USA helped to move California out of its economic depression and led to a land boom and population explosion. In 1906 a major earthquake in San Francisco, followed by three days of fire, destroyed large parts of the city. Contemporary official figures gave a death toll of 700–800 people, although later studies suggest that some 3,000 died during the quake and its aftermath. Recovery was rapid, however, and California continued in general to expand and grow.

20th-century expansion The Los Angeles area in particular flourished with the growth of the film industry after 1910, oil discoveries in the early 1920s, and the development of aircraft factories and shipyards during World War II. California witnessed mass immigration during the Depression of the 1930s with an influx from the dust bowl states, such as Oklahoma. It has also been a popular destination for South American and Asian immigrants. Approximately 100,000 Californians of Japanese ancestry were interned during World War II. California became the nation's most populous state in 1962. In 1965 serious inter-ethnic riots erupted in Watts, Los Angeles, resulting in 34 deaths. The expansion of California's education system coincided with an increase in student activism, including the activities of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 at the University of California in Berkeley. Northern California benefited from the growth of the electronics industry from the 1970s in what came to be called Silicon Valley.

Contemporary California The state has suffered a number of natural disasters over recent decades, including devastating earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay area in 1989 and the San Fernando Valley–Los Angeles area in 1994; storms and and floods in early 1995; and wildfires in October 2007 causing billions of dollars of damage and claiming lives. The state's economy suffered shocks in the early 1990s, when defence industries declined in 2001, when the ‘dot-com bubble’ burst, and again in the 2007–08 financial crisis. Air pollution regulation has become significant and, in 2001, an energy crisis resulted in mandatory electricity blackouts following the near bankruptcy of two of the largest power utility companies in California – Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.

Crime reduction and policing methods in the big cities have been a major challenge in recent times. In Los Angeles racial tensions erupted in 1992 after a judge acquitted four white police officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney King; five days of rioting ensued in which 50 people died. Two of the officers concerned were later convicted in a federal trial.

Recent decades have seen continuing immigration to the state by Hispanics and Asians. Politically, since 1990 Democrats have held the upper hand in the state legislature and won races to the US Senate, drawing strong support from African American, Latino, and ethnic Asian voters. But moderate Republicans have had success in elections to become governor. In 2003 body-builder and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, became the state's 38th governor, following the removal from office of the Democrat, Gray Davis, at a time of economic difficulties and after California's first ever recall election. Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor in 2006, after gaining centrist support through his criticism of the Bush administration and support for increased education spending. Although California is socially liberal – it was one of the first US states to legalize domestic partnerships for gay couples – in 1994 it was the first state in which voters approved the denial of social services to illegal immigrants and to end affirmative action.

Famous peoplesport Joe DiMaggio (1914–1999), baseball player; Marcus Allen, football player (1960– ); Tiger Woods (1976– ), golfer

the arts William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951), publisher; Robert Frost (1874–1963), poet; Jack London (1876–1916), writer; Isadora Duncan (1878–1927), dancer; John Steinbeck (1902–1968), writer; William Saroyan (1908–1981), writer; Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962), actor; Shirley Temple Black (1928–2014), actor and US ambassador to the United Nations; Clint Eastwood (1930– ), actor; Robert Redford (1937– ), actor; George Lucas (1944– ), film-maker; Tom Hanks (1956– ), actor

science Luther Burbank (1849–1926), horticulturist; Sally K Ride, astronaut (1950–2012)

society and education Angela Davis (1944– ), political activist

economics Mark Hopkins (1814–1878), railroad industrialist; Collis P Huntington (1821–1900), railroad industrialist; Charles Crocker (1822–1888), railroad industrialist; Henry E Huntington (1850–1927), railroad industrialist

politics and law Peter Burnett (1807–1895), first governor; Mariano Vallejo (1808–1890), military leader in colonial California; John C Frémont (1813–1890), explorer and politician; Richard Nixon (1913–1994), 37th president of the USA.


Vallejo, Guadalupe: A Nostalgic View of the Spanish Frontier


West coast states


California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849–1900


California – flag

cotton harvesters

Death Valley

Death Valley

El Capitain, Yosemite

giant sequoia

mountain lake



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