African Ancestry in California
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    The Naming of California

    The state of California was named for Califia, reputedly a Black virgin queen. She was said to rule an "island nation" of Amazons, where gold was the only metal. Even as late as 1707, some European maps continued to depict California as an island. While many California children hear the story in school of the origin of our State’s name, not many are made aware that she was said to be Black. See More about Queen Califia.

    Were there Blacks in California at such an early date? Could Queen Califia's legend possibly bear seeds of truth regarding her racial identity? Indeed there is a long history of Africans having arrived on American shores at very early dates, and of Spanish ancestry sometimes having been mixed with Black.

    Spanish California (Northern New Spain) - Before 1821

    Racially mixed Spaniards became somewhat common as early as 800 A.D. with the conquest of Spain by the Muslims, who then ruled there for 500 years. There was further mixing during Spain's long period of trade with Carthage and Morocco. African sailors were also members of the Spanish expeditions which came to parts of North America, including Mexico, where a fair number of them stayed and became permanent residents in the 1500s. Further, there are a number of Native American legends, which often appear to be historically accurate, concerning the arrival of early Blacks, some of whom were shipwrecked sailors.

    Many Afro-Spaniards were fully integrated into their societies, while others were slaves. Those in Mexico played a huge role in helping to expand the frontier areas northward from Old Mexico. At that time "New Spain" consisted of today's Mexico and the lands now occupied by Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California and other parts of the southwestern United States. It has been estimated by several respected historians that by 1790, one of every four Spanish speakers in Lower California (now the country of Mexico) had some degree of Black ancestry, and a Spanish census of that time actually identified 18% of the California population as being of African descent. See Changing of Race in the Melting Pot.

    Before 1821, European-born Spaniards held the most power in California, followed next by American-born Spaniards, and then by light-skinned mixed bloods. Few African Americans attained high rank in the army, but they could often rise to influential positions in civilian life. Many were in positions as supervisors at the Missions, and a number of them were granted choice tracts of land called Ranchos. Mexico’s independence from Spain, won in 1821, helped mixed-bloods obtain more (and larger) land grants, and to attain higher military rank and wealth. Slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829.

    The Missions, Presidios and Pueblos

    In the 1700s, many frontier soldiers and settlers were Afro-Mexican, and groups of these were integral to the founding of the California Missions (where Natives were to be “civilized”), the military Presidios (to guard the Missions and settlers), and the Pueblos (the farming communities which became our cities). For descriptive information on each Mission, see Mission Sites.

    The Mexican Republic of California -- 1821-1846

    By 1821, when Mexico became independent of Spain, the colonists of Upper California had learned to trade and co-exist with trappers, sailors, traders, explorers, and hunters from other countries. Because Spain had been involved in a number of wars, the Spanish fleet had often been unable to spare ships to bring supplies to them. The colonists had turned to trade with England, France, Russia and the United States. Regular trade was carried on with St. Louis through the Santa Fe Trail, and hides from Spanish cattle (which later became known as “California greenbacks”) were being supplied to Boston shoe manufacturers by sea.

    Once the new Mexican government took over Upper California, life there began to change dramatically. The Spanish government had already begun issuing land grants for Ranchos in 1786, but these were few, under tight control, and the land had remained the property of the Crown. Only the "use" of the land had been granted. Once the area became the Mexican Republic, however, hundreds of huge Rancho land grants were made, which included ownership of the land itself.

    Jealous of the amount of lands controlled by the priests, the Republic abolished the Mission system in 1834. Many of the churches fell into disrepair, but have been restored and can be visited. Within 12 years after the secularization of the Missions, over 700 Rancho land grants were made, many to white Californians, who were required to become nominal Catholics and citizens of Mexico, and who often married into prominent Mexican families. Others were granted to new immigrants from Mexico who already had position, money and connections. While originally intended to encourage agriculture and industry, reward soldiers, and provide for settlers who had no land, the land grant system rapidly deteriorated into one of favoritism. The Mission Indians (who had been well trained as Spanish peons by then), became Rancho workers to survive.

    Since paperwork was not always in order by American standards, however, many of these land grants were not recognized by the Land Commission set up in 1851 after U.S. Statehood was granted. In fact, some remain "unconfirmed" to this day.

    Ranchos and Adobes

    Anyone can tour the Missions and Presidios, or visit the greatly expanded cities which the Pueblos eventually became. Even many Californians, however, are unaware of the giant Ranchos, which have become incorporated and annexed as parts of cities throughout California. While their borders of the Ranchos are seldom evident, some cities bear their names.

    A large number of the beautiful old Adobe houses (made from mud) are also still in existence. While some can not be visited (and may only be viewed from the street), others do offer tours and sometimes have small museums connected to them. A few are currently used as the homes of Historical Societies.

    California Becomes a State -- 1846-1850

    Statehood for California became inevitable after the 1836 revolt of Texas and its declaration of independence from Mexico. When Texas was finally annexed to the United States in 1845, the U.S. unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate the purchase of New Mexico and California. By then the Mexican government had become suspicious of American encroachment into Upper California by troops and surveyors. Finally, in 1846 there was an uprising in which a group of Americans created their own flag with a grizzly bear, and claimed their locality to be independent of Mexico. Shortly afterwards the U.S. declared war on Mexico, and by 1847 had occupied Mexico City. Andres Pico, a Black-Mexican, met with Major John Fremont as the representative from California to discuss the terms of surrender. A military officer, this famous Pico brother is best known for having defeated Gen. Stephen Watts Kearney at the Battle of Pascual. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848, and Mexico ceded all its territories in the Southwest to the United States, including Upper California.

    The wheels of government turned slowly, however, with considerable discussion as to whether the form of government in California should be that of a Territory or a State. Meanwhile, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Fort! Local residents grew tired of waiting, drew up a state constitution making California a "free" state excluding slavery, and chose state officials in 1849. Finally, the Bill giving Statehood to California was signed in February 1850.

    The Gold Rush Era - - 1848-1860

    Gold Rush Country is considered to cover 300-400 miles along the California side of the Sierra Nevada, mainly along what is now Highway 49. It has been estimated by the California Division of Mines and Geology that at least 500 towns were established there between 1848 and 1860. Most have disappeared, but some towns were able to adapt to 20th Century changes, and their people found reasons to stay after the gold had played out. Some locations now consist only of a historical marker erected by various Chambers of Commerce, the California Division of Highways, local historical societies, and the like. Many maps are available for tourists who wish to visit the ghost towns, and several of the towns that lasted and thrived have tours and hold commemorative events.

    In 1849 alone, at least 41,000 people arrived by sea for the Gold Rush. By mid-summer, 400 deserted ships sat in San Francisco Bay. Some Forty-Niners had sailed from the East coast around the Cape of Good Horn; some had chosen a much harder shortcut through the jungles of Panama, where the canal had not yet been built. Others came by land in wagon trains, and even on foot. Numerous countries were represented by immigrants from China, Europe, South America and several Pacific Island nations. Blacks also came to California, as servants, slaves and free men, alone and in groups, to work in various capacities.

    There are numerous books available about the Gold Rush; most barely mention Black Mining Camps and even fewer tell of Black Miners. We know they were there, because the foreign press of the time often published engravings of them, and there are also some photographs of them in print in America. Their presence is also mentioned in a number of diaries and letters found in special collections. Rudolph Lapp has done a tremendous service with his book entitled Blacks in Gold Rush California.

    Discrimination in California - 1846 – the early 1900s

    Many white Americans brought their prejudices with them from their old homes when they came to California. Laws and policies similar to those “back home”, such as lack of equal education, disenfranchisement and the inability to testify in court were enacted and carried out, and discrimination often ran high. While not allowed to serve in the military in California in the very early years, African-American military men and their units have belatedly been recognized at several U.S. National Historic Parks in California as having guarded and worked in the areas in later years where these parks are located.

    Although the African-American population was never large by comparison, that did not keep them from fighting against second-class citizenship, or from creating social, cultural and political structures for themselves. Because of discrimination, they formed their own churches, newspapers, literary societies, libraries, relief agencies, social clubs, fraternal groups, political organizations, women’s clubs and civil rights organizations.


    Libraries, Archives, Etc.

    If you have found resources at a Library that is not mentioned here, please inform us so that it can be added to our site. This is especially true of facilities outside of the Los Angeles area (where our society is located).

    California Genealogical Societies

    If YOU belong to a genealogical society in YOUR area of California, please let us know so that we can add it to our list. We also encourage you to contact one of the African-American Genealogical Societies, and inquire about joining. It is often helpful to have others with whom you can share our unique perspectives and challenges. In addition, the African-American societies in California are involved annually in a 3-day West Coast Summit, featuring a nationally known speaker, and the opportunity to network with other Black researchers in the area. (Black societies from other western States also participate in this.)


    Some helpful books are listed here, but there are many others. If YOU have a book to recommend, please let us know and we will add it to the list. An excellent bibliography online, which lists books and articles in journals about Blacks in California and other western States can be found at


    We are always interested in learning of additional websites about California; please suggest any helpful site you may have used. Please let us know if you find a broken link here.

    Regional Black History < MORE COMING >

    This portion of the site is a continuing work in progress. Currently, only Black History in San Diego is online here, but more areas are in the works!

    Donated Extractions, Transcriptions, Etc. < COMING >

    We welcome YOUR donations of material about African-Americans in California which may be of assistance or interest to researchers.

    Slave Ads from California Newspapers < COMING >

    Black Miners Database < COMING >


    California Query Board and Mail List

    This page is linked to a Mail List / Query Board for those researching California. In order to receive the full benefits of this List, you must first register as a member. Please ‘Go To’ our affiliated site at and follow the directions there. We hope you will be able to make some connections through posting queries and by sharing tips, methods and data with others who are researching your area of California.


    Please frequent the Surname Database here at AfriGeneas.


    Volunteers are needed !!!!

    YOU could be of great help to another researcher by doing lookups in a resource you have or at a research facility you have access to. If you are willing to do lookups, please contact us, so that we can post your name, eDress, and the name of your resource. We ask that those who request lookups be patient and not overwhelm our generous volunteers. Remember that they too have “other lives”, and undertake your lookup as a favor to you.

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