Gold, Agriculture, and the Pacific: How the Environment of California Led to Population Boom

California is the most populous state with 39.5 million residents and third largest in area after Texas and Alaska. Naturally resource rich, from the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills, to the rich agricultural land of the Santa Clara and San Joaquin Valleys, through to the technological economies of the World War II Bay Area and modern Silicon Valley, this massive state which spans 770 miles north to south on the Pacific coast made it the wealthiest and most sought-after of all the states to settle. Natural resources like gold, fertile farm land and the coast line combined with waves of migrants from other parts of the United States, and immigrants from Europe and Asia, contributed the conditions to make California a diverse and cosmopolitan place that millions of people call their home.

California wasn’t always this densely populated. Prior to Spanish contact, there were only about 310,000 indigenous people living throughout the state near waterways and the coast relatively isolated from each other (Brueck, VT Week 1). Different groups traded with one another but maintained their distinct culture and languages. They took advantage of the abundance of natural resources and lived in harmony with their environment (Brueck, VT Week 1). Technological advancements and evolution in social means of production changed encouraging a more seditary lifestyle which in turn, created opportunities for the spread of disease (Brueck, VT Week 1). These were the conditions under which the Spanish explorers found the native Californians. Seeking gold, silver and souls to convert, the Spanish encountered the native peoples who were already susceptible to foreign European diseases. Disease and the introduction of non-native species of plants and animals changed ecological conditions and brought the near total destruction of the native peoples (Brueck, VT Week 1).

This decimation of the indigenous laid the foundations for the first wave of migrants to California. Upon Mexican Independence and secularization of the missions, Mexico attempted to colonize what they called Alta California. Despite their best efforts, the “non-Indian population of Mexican California never exceeded 7,000 and only 1,000 of these were adult males” ( Brueck VT Week 2). Traders and mariners from New England arrived in California and established themselves in port cities. Many married into well-established Californio families, and seemed to know that California would soon be part of the Union (Brueck, VT Week 2). When gold was discovered outside of Sacramento on January 24, 1848 this discovery, once made public, would usher in waves of people seeking their fortunes. But not before California entered the Union as a state; on February 2, 1848, Mexico and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. President Polk delayed the official announcement to the nation that gold had been discovered in California until December. This announcement caused the sudden migration of tens of thousands of people to California from across the continent and from other places as well (Brueck VT Week 3).

In 1848, the population of California had been about 10,000 but within a year of Polk’s announcement the population had swelled to 100,000 and within one more year had increased another 150 percent to 250,000 (Breuck, Week 3). People arrived to quench their thirst for the gold and silver that was found in rivers and creeks, but many stayed after the rush to settle in cities and the countryside. Indian, African American and Chinese laborers were in high demand because large scale operators could hire them to do back breaking work for low wages especially after hydraulic mining techniques were employed to extract gold from the mountainsides and riverbeds (Brueck, VT Week 3). Hydraulic mining required large amounts of water and “signaled the dominance of global capital over California’s economy and, in many ways, its environment” (Brueck, VT Week 3).

The next population explosion came to the fertile farm lands of the Santa Clara and San Joaquin Valleys. First, Chinese, then Japanese and Filipino immigrants arrived in Santa Clara Valley to farm orchards, serve as unskilled labor and eventually settle and purchase their own property before being priced out by the Silicon Valley technological boom of the 1950s and 1960s. As Tsu explained, “the Santa Clara Valley in its horticultural heyday was undeniably beautiful, covered with row upon row of fruit trees that created a canopy of delicate, sweetly perfumed pink and white blossoms, flanked by hillsides awash in orange California poppies and other native wildflowers” (Tsu, 3). Once the word got out about the beauty and abundance produced by this land, Asian farmers mainly settled in this region and worked on middling sized family farms. As they gained economic success and were able to lease or purchase land of their own, they challenged the oft promoted ideal of the American family farm.

Farmers from the southwest migrated into the San Joaquin Valley seeking a better life. Driven out of their homes by ecological and environmental devastation, these “Okies,” as they came to be called, packed up all their belongings and headed west to the San Joaquin Valley. In the introduction to The Harvest Gypsies, Charles Wollenberg tells us that from 1935 to 1938, between 300,000 and 500,000 Okies arrived in California (Wollenberg, xi). Okies fundamentally transformed the agricultural work force of California by changing the ethnic composition. Whereas farmers had relied on Mexican and Filipino immigrant laborers in the past, now there was a white labor force upon which they could call. Resistant to organizing and fiercely independent, Okies were migrants who wandered up and down the state from harvest to harvest (Steinbeck, 19). Due to federal assistance programs, Okies were eventually assisted in setting up subsistence farming communities which grown into towns in the Central Valley.

Upon entry into World War II, Okies eligible for military service enlisted or were drafted and the media largely forgot about them (Wollenberg, xvi). However, World War II brings us to the next great population boom for California. As the Pacific Coast became the manufacturing hub for the war effort, hundreds of thousands of workers from the South, including 150,000 African Americans and women from all over the nation came to California to seek employment in good paying industrial jobs (Brueck, VT Week 8). Murch quoted Sociologist Charles Johnson who explained, “To the romantic appeal of the west, has been added the real and actual opportunity for gainful employment, setting in motion a war-time migration of huge proportions” (Murch, 15-16). In northern California, it was the Pacific coast and the ports of Oakland and Richmond that provided the setting for these jobs. In southern California, it was the boom in aviation. According to Murch, “In less than a decade, the number of black residents [in Oakland] increased over 500 percent” (Murch, 16). This influx of population fundamentally changed the city of Oakland, but also profoundly impacted the economic, political and educational systems in the state.

What ties all these waves of migrants and immigrants to their California experience is the rich opportunities provided by the natural environment. Gold found in the streams and mountains provided the first economic boom and spurred development of cities like Sacramento and San Francisco and created ghost towns in the Sierra foothills. Fertile farm land nourished by the waters of the Sierra snowfalls and the Delta region made California an agricultural paradise. And finally, the proximity to Pacific Ocean provided ample ports and coastal waterways to support a vibrant wartime economy that brought migrants from other parts of the United States to our shores.