These are some of my favorite resources for studying, appreciating and teaching about the geography, culture and history of early California. There are plenty of other resources out there, but this list is limited to the ones I am familiar with. Whenever I find out about a resource that I believe can be helpful, I will add it.
If you have a resource you would like me to check out, feel free to drop me a line here.
This website grew out of a summer seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. On it you can find well-researched information about a broad range of topics related to the California mission era. Some of today’s most most knowledgable scholars contributed their expertise to this project.
The best way to access the digital collections of archives, museums and libraries all over California. You can find images, documents, sound recordings and other online resources connected to the history and culture of California.
The CMRC provides a ton of easy to access information about the California mission era, including maps, timelines and images. One of the main features of the site is an online store where you can purchase books and other educational products.
Christian Clifford is a teacher and author who has written a number of books for young people about the California mission period. You can read more about Christian and his books here.
Saint Francis is a recognized figure throughout the world, and the Hispanic world has a special affiliation with him. Based at the University of Arizona, this website explores his influence today and throughout history, especially among Hispanics. SFA is cooperative and based on voluntarism.
A clearinghouse for materials for teaching students of all ages about history, developed by George Mason University in Washington D.C.. The site is divided according to age group and theme.
A research institute affiliated with the Franciscan School of Theology in Oceanside, CA. They are dedicated to the encouragement of the study of the Franciscan Order in the Americas primarily through the publication of monographs, documents, a scholarly journal, as well as sponsoring seminars, conferences, & public lectures.
Founded in 1871, the CHS is the official historical society of the state of California. Its headquarters in downtown San Francisco house a research library and archives, as well as a gallery and exhibit space. The Society publishes books under its auspices in collaboration with UC Press and Heyday Books, as well as the journal California History.
The California Missions Foundation is dedicated to preserving and restoring the California Missions. The organization recently merged with the California Mission Studies Association (CMSA), whose focus is on supporting scholarship on things directly or indirectly related to the California missions. I’ve been a member of CMSA/CMF for many years now and love participating in their annual conferences.
The California Mission Walkers are dedicated to promoting a walking route along the historic El Camino Real between the twenty-one California Spanish missions, and to supporting those who walk it. Today there are over 500 members, with nearly 100 who have walked to multiple missions, and 23 who have completed the 800 mile walk to all twenty-one missions. The California Mission Walkers publish the Hiker’s Guidebook, which details the walking route between all 21 missions.
An organization that oversees a number of historical sites and collections throughout the City of San José. In addition to managing large collections of historical documents available to researchers, genealogists and others, they also coordinate the maintenance and activities of several historical museums, such as the Luis María Peralta Adobe and Kelley History Park, and provide educational outreach and activities for people of all ages. History San José also maintains a collection of approx. 6,000 digitized documents dating to the 1780s until statehood. It can be found here.
This is the best place to go to get information about the 1775-76 adventure that brought about 240 men, women and children some 1800 miles to found settlements near the San Francisco Bay. You can find maps, photos, and many other resources for teachers and researchers.
Dedicated to protecting, preserving and honoring the legacy of Joseph Jacinto Mora (1876-1947), the legendary and prolific artist renowned for his paintings, sculptures and illustrations of the American West, especially Spanish and Mexican California.
The SBTHP does a wonderful job of making history come alive by caring for historic sites all over Santa Barbara County, including the Santa Barbara Presidio, right in downtown Santa Barbara. They are also a great resource for books and other materials related to the California mission frontier. They also publish a fascinating quarterly journal for members, La Campana.
exists in order to promote local history through sponsoring research, educational programs, and publications. They are actively engaged in the rescue of endangered archival documents and often act as a clearing house for the placement of archival collections in appropriate repositories. The Academy maintains an extensive photograph and ephemera collection relating primarily to the history of Santa Clara County and Valley, and the central coast region of California.
The primary special collections library at the University of California, Berkeley. One of the largest and most heavily used libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States, Bancroft supports major research and instructional activities and plays a leading role in the development of the University’s research collections. The Bancroft Library officially dates from 1905, when the University of California acquired Hubert Howe Bancroft’s personal library. It maintains a vast collection of materials related to the history of California.
One of the premier research libraries in California. The Library collection includes more than seven million manuscripts; 420,000 rare books; and 1.3 million photographs, prints and ephemera. The general public can view some of the finest rare books and manuscripts of Anglo-American civilization, including the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, and a world-class collection of the early editions of Shakespeare’s works. The Huntington is also among the nation’s most important centers for the study of the American West.
The Santa Bárbara Mission Archive- Library is committed to collecting and conserving historical material for the study of Franciscan Missions and Native Peoples of the Americas. The SBMAL acquires, maintains and preserves books, maps, photographs, and documents, and other sources relating to the history of the California missions, Franciscan history, and the history of native peoples in the Southwest, up to roughly 1846. The Archive-Library organizes and participates in educational, professional and community events which support its mission, and that help increase the knowledge of the California missions, their past, and the heritage of California and the Americas. They also have an excellent Instagram feed @sbmissionarchive.
My recent research deals with persons and events connected with Mission Santa Clara. So I often find myself relying on the important documents found in SCU’s special collections. They house scores of manuscripts and other materials dealing with the history of the mission and the local area.
Dedicated to the cultures of the American West. Located in Los Angeles, it also encompasses the Southwest Museum, which has a particular focus on Native American culture and history. In addition to its museums and archival resources, the Autry does outreach to schools and educational groups interested in the rich history of California and the West.
Located at Santa Clara University, it houses a collection of artifacts and exhibits from California’s native, Spanish and Mexican cultures, including objects from the history of Mission Santa Clara.
As one of the oldest cultural institutions in Santa Barbara, SBHM is home to the vast archival collection of documents and artifacts within the Gledhill Library and collections vault. Two historic adobes are preserved in the Museum’s lower courtyard, with the Casa Covarrubias adobe dating to 1817 and the Historic Adobe to 1836.
It houses a great collection of artifacts and objects related to the culture and history of the Chumash people, and is one of the foremost centers for the study of this unique group.
In my own research there are a number of books I find myself consulting frequently, depending on the specific project I am working on. The ones below are some that I have returned too often, across various projects. If you are interested in knowing more about any of them, or want to buy them, you can click on the link. A few of them are out of print. Most can be found at libraries, some in free online versions. Wherever appropriate, I have included Amazon links. If you order something through Amazon, a small percentage will go to the California Frontier Project, without affecting the price of the product.
California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction. This small but rich volume is a great guide to the ways that California’s native peoples were able to take advantage of the state’s landscape, plants and animals in order to sustain their lives. Filled with photos, maps and tables, California Indians and Their Environment is a useful reference for anyone who wants to study the what life was like in pre-contact California.
California Place Names. Whenever I am curious about the history of a particular town or city, the first place I check is California Place Names. This book is very thorough, and also includes natural landmarks such as lakes and mountain ranges. Although it has been recently updated, it mainly deals with toponyms that have some history behind them, so don’t expect to find the name of the recent high-density housing development in your area.
Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8: California This book is part of a 20-volume series published by the Smithsonian. And although some of the information may be outdated (it was published in 1978), it is one of the few places where you can get well-researched information about the native groups of California all in one place.
History of California by H.H. Bancroft. Hubert Howe Bancroft was an Ohio native who moved to California in the 1850s. He opened a bookstore in San Francisco and soon began gathering materials about what he saw as the vanishing history of the new state. The result was a multi-volume project eventually made up of 39 volumes encompassing all of the states west of the Rockies and north to Alaska. While Bancroft’s name is on all of the volumes, they were mainly compiled by a team of researchers who fanned out across the Western U.S. to gather the materials for his opus.
Bancroft’s 7-volume History of California covers three centuries of California history, from Cabrillo’s 1542 voyage to the end of the 19th century. The volumes covering Spanish and Mexican California made use of interviews with scores of surviving Californios and other eyewitnesses to the events of the 18th and 19th centuries. As with Engelhardt’s Missions and Missionaries of California, much of the narrative reflects the biases of the time, but because of its scope and source material, the work forms the basis of all subsequent histories of California. Most of Bancroft’s works can be found at libraries or online through Google Books or other sites.
Missions and Missionaries of California by Zephyrin Engelhardt. The Missions and Missionaries of California is a 4-volume work published between 1908 and 1915, and is probably the most comprehensive history of the California missions that anyone has written to date. Although long, the books are written in an engaging and passionate style, which has caused some scholars to question the author’s objectivity. As you can imagine, Engelhardt’s writing at times reflects the common prejudices of his era and can be offensive to modern readers. Nevertheless, The Missions and Missionaries of California is an encyclopedia of historical information for anyone seriously studying the California Missions.
Had I written this list a few years ago I might not have recommended these books to a person starting out — in order to get access to them you would have had to find a library that had copies, or else do like I did and order the set used from Abe Books for $200. Fortunately, with sites like Internet Archive or Google Books you can read these online, or buy inexpensive print-on-demand copies through Amazon.
Northern New Spain: A Research Guide. This book contains a wealth of information for anyone working on Spanish documents from the U.S. Southwest. In it you will find information about the different types of documents produced in Northern New Spain, political organization, weights and measures, and other useful facts. In the section on paleography, you will find helpful explanations of a whole host of the abbreviations commonly found in Spanish documents. Originally created by a team of researchers at the University of Arizona, this text has become a classic reference work for the field.
Franciscan Missionaries in Hispanic California: 1769-1848. This book is an irreplaceable resource for anyone doing serious research on the California mission period or the Franciscans in Spanish and Mexican California. Compiled by historian Maynard J. Geiger, OFM, it draws from a number of published and unpublished sources, especially those at the Santa Bárbara Mission, where Geiger was archivist. Every Franciscan friar to have been stationed in Alta California is listed alphabetically, together with a thorough description of his life. Although out of print, copies are readily available on Amazon.
More than a century old, the CGS supports research into family history in California. Their extensive research library is located in Oakland, California.
A search engine dedicated to grave markers and cemetery listings throughout the world.
Organized by descendants of early Hispanic settlers of Alta California to preserve the Hispanic heritage of Alta California (history, music, culture, infrastructure, etc.) and to help other descendants compile their Hispanic genealogy. Their website offers a whole host of resources for descendants and others looking to do research into early California history and culture.
The national organization devoted to promoting Hispanic genealogical and historical research and education. The Southern California chapter is quite active and engaged in California Hispanic genealogy.
A website with a vast array of links to related to Northern California genealogy.
Tools for Research and Writing
Over the years I have found that having the right tools helps when doing research and writing just as much as it helps when fixing a car or repairing things around the house. Below are some of the tools I use to help organize my own research and writing. As with the resources listed above, there are many others out there, but these are the ones I have found most helpful for my own work.
Evernote. This is the program I use to save any piece of information I want to save, from articles to images. But most of all, I use it for taking notes. It is so searchable that I can easily find notes I took years ago. I have it on my phone and computers, and it syncs across all of them. I use the free version, though there are paid versions with more bells and whistles.
Google Docs. Some people love it and some hate it, but I find it very useful. I mainly use Google docs when I want to create documents or spreadsheets that I am going to share with other people on common projects.
Scrivener. I discovered Scrivener a couple of years ago, and since then it is the main program I use for composing serious writing, from blog posts to research papers. I especially like it because it makes organizing your writing very flexible, allowing you to move and re-arrange sections. It then exports your draft to almost any kind of document you want, from Microsoft Word to Epub documents. While it isn’t free, it is pretty cheap, and you only have to buy it once.
Zotero. Zotero is a free, open source program for organizing all your bibliographic resources. I’ve been using it for over a decade, and it helps me keep track of all the articles and documents I have come across in my research, as well as retrieve them very easily. It exports to all the major style sheets, such as the APA, Chicago Manual of Style and MLA.