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Pio Pico.jpgAndres Pico.jpgJose Antonio Estudillo painting.jpg
Notable Californios
Pío Pico · Andrés Pico · José Antonio Estudillo · José Antonio Carrillo
Total population
Spanish & Mexican
92,597 Californios
were in the 1850 Alta California population

Flag of New Spain.svg · Flag of Spain (1785-1873 and 1875-1931).svg  · Flag of Mexico.svg
Californios and Spaniards
in Alta California

Regions with significant populations
Flag of Spain (1785-1873 and 1875-1931).svg Alta California Less than (92,597) 1850
Flag of San Diego, California.svg San Diego (650 pop) 1850
Flag of San Francisco.svg San Francisco (56,802) 1860



Roman Catholic

Californio (historic and regional Spanish for "Californian") is a term used to identify a Californian of Latin American descent, regardless of race, during the period that California was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, governed from Mexico City. The territory of California was annexed in 1848 by the United States following the Mexican-American War.

Californios included the descendants of agricultural settlers and escort soldiers from Mexico. Most were of mixed backgrounds, usually Mestizo, contrary to popular media representations in books and films in the United States, such as the "Zorro" stories. Few were of "pure" Spanish (Peninsular or Criollo) ancestry.[1] Spanish, and later, Mexican officials encouraged people from the northern and western provinces of Mexico, as well as people from other parts of Latin America, most notably Peru and Chile, to settle in California, and encouraged them to become Mexican citizens.

Much of Californio society lived in ranchos or agricultural settlements near the many missions, which were established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the start of the 19th century, 21 missions under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church were located along the royal highway, El Camino Real. The Californio rancho society produced the largest cowhide and tallow business in North America, which provided exports for trading with merchant ships from Boston. Ships put in to San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Pedro, San Buenaventura (Ventura), Monterey and Yerba Buena (San Francisco).


Early colonization

By the late colonial period (the late seventeenth and eighteenth century), the population of Mexico is estimated to have been around one million Indians and 100,000 Spaniards. The agricultural settlers and escort soldiers who founded the towns of San José de Guadalupe and La Reina de Los Ángeles were primarily mixed-race and from the then-province of Sonora y Sinaloa. An example of this are the settlers of Southern California. Recruiters in Mexico of the Fernando Rivera y Moncada expedition, who were charged with founding an agricultural community in Alta California, had a difficult time persuading people to emigrate to such a isolated outpost, so the majority of settlers were recruited from the northwestern parts of Mexico.

The final make-up of the party who founded the Pueblo of Los Angeles in 1781 was eleven pobladors, that is, agricultural settler families and 64 soldiers, who escorted them. Only half were españoles (Spanish), the rest had Casta (caste) designations such as mestizo and indio. Some of these were changed in the California Census of 1790, as often happened in colonial Spanish America.[2]

In a frontier society, Casta designations did not carry the same weight as they did in older communities of central Mexico. The significant criteria was the concept of the gente de razón, a term literally meaning “people of reason.” It was used to designate peoples who were culturally Hispanic (that is, they were not living in traditional Indian communities) and had adopted Catholicism. This served to distinguish the Mexican Indio settlers and converted Californian Indios from the barbaro (barbarian) Californian Indians, who had not converted or become part of the Hispanic towns.[3] California’s Governor Pío Pico was himself descended from Mestizo and mulato settlers.

In the period between 1850 and 1900, descendants of the original colonists found it expedient to nurture a myth that they were all “Spanish” in the face of racist feelings on the part of Anglo-Americans who came during and after the Gold Rush. By claiming a purely European background, the early Californios tried to avoid the discrimination that confronted more recent Mexican immigrants to California.[4][5]

The United States invasion

The Mexican governor of California, Pío Pico, was forced to abandon the Californios at the outset of the American invasion. The Californios organized a militia to defend themselves against the United States. The Californios defeated an American force of Marines in Los Angeles on September 30, 1846, at the Siege of Los Angeles. Several battles were fought in defense of California, but the Californio Lancers were defeated in January 1847 after American Army reinforcements arrived overland from New Mexico. The southern Californios signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, bringing an end to hostilities in the south. The next year Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, accepting American sovereignty over California on February 2, 1848.[6] [7]

In the 1840s European and Anglo-American settlers in Northern California had already threatened to rebel against Mexican rule. Among them was John Sutter, a land owner from Switzerland and founder of New Helvetia, in present-day Sacramento. The revolt against Mexican rule, which established the so-called California Republic, was led by John Frémont in an independent action.

Sacramento became famous in the 1848 California Gold Rush after miners found gold on the banks of the American River. When thousands of American immigrants came to the conquered lands, tensions rose between Americans squatters and the Californios whose lands were being overrun.[8] Squatters harvested or burned crops, killed livestock, erected homes on Californio land, acted violently against the landowners, and the numbers of them overwhelmed the ability of Californios to defend their land.[9] Californios were taxed for all their property including any portion held by squatters, but the Euro-Americans were not similarly assessed. Landowners were forced to defend themselves in court—the burden of proof was on them, not on the intruders. The laws effectively encouraged squatting.[10]

Key Californio battles

The war campaign in California ended on January 13, 1847, after the signing of Treaty of Cahuenga.

The end of Mexican rule

In the 1830s Californios differentiated themselves from Mexicanos, migrants from the Mexican interior, by asserting exclusionary land grant laws after the dissolution of the mission lands in 1834. These laws created favoritism in the parceling of mission lands that had been worked by the Mexicans and Indians for many years. Many Mexicans and Indians were able to assert their rights to mission lands, but they were not given official papers documenting these claims.

Following the discovery of gold in 1848, Congress set up a Board of Land Commissioners to determine the validity of Spanish and Mexican land grants in California. California Senator William M. Gwin presented a bill that, when approved by the Senate and the House, became the Act of March 3, 1851,[11] which stated that unless grantees presented evidence supporting their title within two years, the property would automatically pass into the public domain.[12]

This proviso was contrary to Articles VIII and X of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which guaranteed full protection of all property rights for Mexican citizens.[13][14] The Commission eventually confirmed 604 of the 813 smaller claims they received, but the cost of litigation, surveys, and permits forced most of the larger Rancho Californio land owners to lose their property. This land in turn was parceled out to American immigrant settlers under the 1862 Homestead Act. The treaty also promised that Californios and their descendants would be guaranteed educations, a promise that was never met.

Californios after U.S. annexation

Californios did not disappear. Many people in the area still have strong identities as Californios. There is a huge group who are descended from the Sepulveda family that still meets and keeps in contact via the Internet. Thousands of people who are descended from the Californios have well-documented genealogies of their families.

The romantic history of Californios has fueled the politically volatile issues of the La Raza movement by some Chicano activists, who depict Mexican Californios or Hispanics as the state's original people. They discount claims to this status by the indigenous peoples such as Coast Miwok, Ohlone, Wintun, Yokuts and other Native American ancestors who inhabited the region for thousands of years before European contact.

Other Californio descendants claim they had an integrated society of Mexicans, Indians, Mestizos and American immigrants, which had evolved over 150 years beginning with the founding of Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó in the California territory in 1697. They believe they lost their land, businesses and society to the United States due to the American aggression that propagated the ideals of Manifest Destiny.

The agricultural economy of California allowed many Californios to continue living in pueblos alongside Native peoples and Mexicanos well into the 20th century. These settlements grew into many modern California cities, including Santa Ana, San Diego, San Fernando, San Jose, Monterey, Los Alamitos, San Juan Capistrano, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Arvin, Mariposa, Hemet and Indio.

From the 1850s until the 1960s, the Californios (of Spanish, Mexican and native Californian origins) lived in relative autonomy, practicing some acts of social segregation by custom, while maintaining Spanish-language newspapers, entertainment, schools, bars, and clubs. Cultural practices were often tied to local churches and mutual aid societies.

At some point in the early 20th century, the official modes of record-keeping (census takers, city records, etc.) began lumping together all Californios, Mexicanos, and Native ("Indio") peoples with Spanish surnames under the terms "Spanish", "Mexican", and sometimes, "colored".

Californio identity in the 20th century

In an article published by the Society of Hispanic Historical & Ancestral Research, Alexander V. King has estimated that there were between 320,000 and 500,000 descendants of Californios alive in 2004.[15]

Notable Californios

Californios in literature

Richard Henry Dana, Jr., recorded his 1834 visit as a sailor to California in Two Years Before the Mast. Other Americans such as Joseph Chapman, a land realtor, hailed the first Yankee to reside in the old Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1831, described Southern California as a paradise yet to be developed. He mentions a civilization of Spanish-speaking colonists, "Californios," who thrived in the pueblos, the missions, and ranchos.

The Squatter and the Don by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, a novel set in 1880s California, depicts a very wealthy Californio family's legal struggles with immigrant squatters on their land.[16] The novel was based on the legal struggles of General Mariano G. Vallejo, the author's good friend. While the novel is by no means representative of the majority of Californios' lives and standard of living, it is truthful in its depiction of the legal process by which Californios were often "relieved" of their land. This process was long (most Californios spent upwards of 15 years defending their grants before the courts), and the legal fees alone were enough to make many Californios landless. Californios felt confused about having to pay land taxes to American officials, because they opposed the idea on paying for land ownership that was not in Mexican law. In some cases Californios had little fluid capital because their economy had operated on a barter system, and they often lost their land because they were unable to pay the taxes.[17] They could not compete economically with all the European and Anglo-American immigrants who arrived in the region with large amounts of money.

The end of Californio culture is depicted in the novel Ramona, written by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1884.

The fictional character of Zorro has become the most identifiable Californio due to short stories, motion pictures and by the 1950s on television. The historical facts of the era are sometimes lost in the story-telling.

See also


Culture, race and ethnicity

History and government


  1. ^ Mason, The Census of 1790; Gostin Southern California Vital Records; Haas Conquests and Historical Identities in California; and Pitt, Decline of the Californios.
  2. ^ "The Census of 1790, California", California Spanish Genealogy. Retrieved on 2008-08-04. Compiled from William Marvin Mason. The Census of 1790: A Demographic History of California. (Menlo Park: Ballena Press, 1998). 75–105. ISBN 9780879191375. Information in parentheses () is from church records.
  3. ^ Rios-Bustamante, Antonio. Mexican Los Ángeles, 43.
  4. ^ "Unfortunately, the subjects of California's early African heritage and extensive interracial mixture both remain controversial among nonscholars." Forbes, Jack D. "The Early African Heritage in California" in Lawrence Brooks de Graaf, Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylor, eds., Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California (Los Angeles: Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 2001), 74. ISBN 9780295980836
  5. ^ See Mitchell, John L. "Diversity Gave Birth to L.A." for the debate among contemporary Angelenos.
  6. ^ St. Pierre, Sarah (1996). "Los Californios," "The Battle of San Pasqual".
  7. ^ St. Pierre, S. (1996). "Aftermath," The Battle of San Pasqual.
  8. ^ "Hispanic Americans: Spanish Colonization and Californios (1769–1800s)". California Cultures. The Regents of The University of California. 2010. Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  9. ^ "A History of Mexican Americans in California: Post-Conquest California". Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California. National Park Service. November 17, 2004. Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  10. ^ Augenbraum, Harold; Margarite Fernández Olmos (2000). U.S. Latino literature: a critical guide for students and teachers. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 13–14. ISBN 0313311374. Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  11. ^ Robinson, p. 100
  12. ^ House Executive Document 46, pp. 1116–1117
  13. ^ Article VIII, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Center For Land Grant Studies.
  14. ^ Article X, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Center For Land Grant Studies.
  15. ^ Alexander V. King, "Californio Families, A Brief Overview", San Francisco Genealogy, January 2004
  16. ^ Ruiz de Burton, Maria Amparo; Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita (1992). The Squatter and the Don (2nd ed.). Houston: Arte Publico Press. ISBN 9781558850552
  17. ^ Pitt, Decline of the Californios, 83–102


External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also californio


Wikipedia has an article on:


Proper noun

Californio (plural Californios)

  1. A resident of California; a Californian.


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