Historians and archaeologists find evidence that there were people living in what is now California at least 10,000 years ago. It is likely that the ancestors of the first Californians came from the continent of Asia. They may well have come to the North American continent by crossing the Bering Strait. At the Bering Strait, Siberia (a region of eastern Russia) is only 50 miles away from Alaska. It is likely that the two continents were connected here in the past by a land bridge or an ice bridge.
Hunters in the north, along the west coast of the North American continent, probably began moving southward in search of food. More than 10,000 years ago, the first bands of people may have reached California. Here they found warm weather, plentiful food, and material to build shelters. Here they stayed. Over the centuries, other bands may have found their way to California through the great plains area or the southwest. The last groups of early people to come to California arrived before AD 1300.
For thousands of years, bands of early Californians lived in the mountains, the deserts, and along the seashores of California. How they lived was determined by where they lived, as they made use of every natural resource around them. Groups that lived in the interior valleys or mountains caught deer, elk, bear, smaller forest animals, and fish from rivers and streams. They gathered acorns, nuts, berries, and seeds. They made their houses from poles bent to form a cone shape, and covered with pieces of bark or thatched with bundles of grasses or reeds.
Those who lived along the coast depended more on fish, shellfish, seaweed, and sea mammals for their food supply. Desert dwellers ate piñon nuts, yucca roots, and the fruit of cactus plants. In the warmer areas, the need for shelter and clothing was less than in the mountains or the northwest coast.
The first Californians spoke a great variety of languages, perhaps more than 300 different dialects. Most bands lived in isolation, rarely traveling far from their villages. Each developed unique skills that enabled them to survive and thrive in their environment.
The first record of life in California came from early explorers who sailed along the California coast. It is estimated that there were over 300,000 California Indians here in the 16th-17th centuries, though the number could have been closer to 500,000.
Cabrillo, Drake, and Vizcaíno explored the California coast
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is believed to be the first European to visit what is now California. He was sent by the Spanish ruler of Mexico to look for a water passage (the fabled "Northwest Passage") across the North American continent. In 1542 Cabrillo sailed northward from Baja (Lower) California along the coast, stopping at San Diego Bay, Catalina Island,
Francis Drake, an English adventurer, made a landing on the California coast just north of San Francisco Bay. The year was 1579, and Drake was on his way home to England on the last lap of his voyage around the world. He had raided Spanish settlements along the coast of South America. Now his ship, the Golden Hind, was loaded with Spanish treasure. A search for the same Northwest Passage across North America drew Drake up the California coast. It was the need to repair his ship that made him stop near San Francisco Bay, where he was met by Miwok Indians. He claimed the land for England. A few years later, a group of settlers set off from England bound for the place Drake had described on the California coast. They got to the coast of Brazil, in South America, where they were attacked by the Spanish. The English did not try to send settlers to California again.
Sebastián Vizcaíno was a Spanish merchant-adventurer who gave names to many places along the California coast, including San Diego Bay, the Santa Barbara Channel, and Monterey Bay. He was sent by the Spanish government in 1602 to find good ports for Spanish ships on their way back to Spain from the Philippines, and to identify good places for colonial settlements. At stops along the coast, Vizcaíno met California Indians from the Chumash, Esselen, Costanoan, and other groups. It was Vizcaíno who chose San Diego Bay and Monterey Bay as the locations for the first Spanish settlements. Governor Portolá and Father Junípero Serra followed his recommendations in founding the first two missions in California at these places.
In the more than 160 years between Vizcaíno’s trip and the Portolá-Serra expedition, there is no record of Europeans visiting what is now California.