Californios: Definition & History

Californios: Definition & History
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  • 0:04 What Is a Californio?
  • 0:48 History of Spanish California
  • 2:25 Californio Society
  • 3:57 The Treaty of…
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history and culture of the Californios and test your knowledge of American history, world politics of the 19th century, and the Spanish peoples of California.

What Is a Californio?

'Sup dudes and dudettes. This lesson's gonna be totally tubular 'cause it's, like, all about California or whatever. Where people who talk like this come from, right?

As it turns out, California has a long history before surfers, valley girls, and movie stars. Before 1848, California wasn't even part of the United States, it belonged to Mexico. And the people who lived there were the Californios. A Californio was a Spanish speaking, Catholic person of Latin American descent born in Alta California between 1769 and 1848. Alta California is the area that roughly corresponds to modern-day California, as opposed to Baja, California, which is a state in northwestern Mexico.

History of Spanish California

The Spanish began colonizing Mexico starting in 1521 and immediately began expanding. Over time they made their way north, and in 1769 founded the Presidio (fort) of San Diego in Alta California. Three friars on the expedition established a mission church, which is a church designed to convert Indians in the frontier, called Mission San Diego de Alcalá. These churches appeared across Alta California as more settlers and priests moved north. In 1770, the city of Monterey was founded, which became the capital of California from 1777 until 1849. The priests, accompanied by soldiers, moved north and established a mission in San Francisco by 1776, and in 1781 Spanish settlers founded the small town of Los Angeles.

Around 1769, people of mixed Spanish and Indian or African heritage began coming north from Mexico, bringing with them huge herds of cattle, and began using the land for ranching. These new settlers, often called Mestizos or Mulattos, the latter now being a pretty offensive term, had struggled in the colonial cities in Mexico. Even though they were culturally Hispanic, they didn't have the same opportunities as Mexicans with purely Spanish ancestry. In Alta California, blood mattered less than being culturally Hispanic. So as long as the settlers lived in a Spanish town, spoke Spanish, and were Catholic, they could be successful. The Californios were born from the culturally Hispanic settlers, soldiers, government officials, and priests of Alta California, both purely Spanish and of mixed heritage.

Californio Society

In the colonial era (1769-1810), the Viceroy in Mexico City appointed a governor to oversee Alta California. The territory was very sparsely populated. Missions controlled huge amounts of land for ranching, which was worked by the hundreds of Indians who lived around the mission. In reality, they were little more than slave labor for the missions.

For Hispanic settlers, the Californios, there was opportunity in Alta California. Poorer families established cattle ranching businesses. A married woman in the Spanish system was allowed to own her own property, even if her husband died. This was very rare in the world at the time, and it meant that many women, especially widows, could become very rich and politically powerful in places like Alta California where there was plenty of land to buy.

In 1810, Mexico began fighting for independence from Spain. Mexico became independent in 1821, but for many years the new government was very unstable. For years, military leaders fought each other for the presidency. The Californios already had a strong local identity, but after 1821 they were isolated and almost entirely self-sufficient. The Californios even tried to make California its own country a few times, including one nearly successful attempt in 1836.

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