In the early decades of the nineteenth century, growing numbers of people came to Alta California. The routes they took and the lives they established changed the history of the region.
Immigration by Sea
After independence from Spain, the Mexican government relaxed trade and immigration rules. In the 1820s and 1830s, small numbers of English-speaking merchants and sailors began to come to Alta California, mostly by ship. Many of them married local Hispanic women and started families. They joined the Catholic Church and their children grew up speaking Spanish.
James Alexander Forbes, who was born in Scotland, came to Santa Clara in 1829. He married María Ana Galindo, the daughter of the mayordomo or foreman of Mission Santa Clara. Together they had 12 children. Because they were bilingual and bicultural, the Forbes children took on important roles in the new State of California.
Jedediah Smith and Fur Trappers
Soon other foreign visitors began to arrive in California by land. The first group of Americans to come to California overland was a party of 17 trappers led by Jedediah Smith. They came through the Mojave Desert in August of 1826 and moved north into the San Joaquin Valley, trapping beaver. Smith and his men later turned east and headed to Utah. They became the first white men to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. After Smith, more trappers began to come east into Alta California.
The Old Spanish Trail
Trade was another reason that drew people to California. A Mexican merchant named Antonio Armijo led 60 men and 100 mules from New Mexico through the Mojave Desert to the San Gabriel mission in 1829. Over the next two decades, many traders relied on this route, which came to be known as “The Old Spanish Trail.”
The 1840s: Families Travel Overland
By the 1840s, groups of families began to arrive in Mexican California from the U.S. The trip could be dangerous, especially for little children. Nevertheless, news of the good weather, fertile soils and hospitality of the people attracted them.
The Bartleson-Bidwell Party (led by John Bidwell from New York) was the first. They left Missouri and crossed the Sierra Nevada in 1841. Two years later, Lansford Hastings, a lawyer from Ohio, brought the first group of Americans from Oregon south into the Sacramento Valley.
In 1844, a group of Irish families, known as the Stevens-Murphy Party came west from Iowa. They opened a new route across the Sierra Nevada, with the aid of Truckee, a Paiute chief. Some of these families settled in the San Francisco Bay region and became large landowners.
Another group of families known as the Donner Party became trapped in the same area during the winter of 1846. Due to the bad weather and lack of supplies, many of them lost their lives. The area would later be named “Donner Pass” in memory of their ordeal.
John C. Frémont
In 1844 and 1845, U.S. Army Captain John C. Frémont led explorations into California. Frémont traveled south from the Oregon Territory until he came to the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. He then crossed the mountains, and became one of the first Americans to visit Lake Tahoe. Frémont then crossed into the Sacramento Valley and headed south and east across the desert.
Capt. Frémont’s reports about his travels made U.S. officials very interested in California. When Frémont returned to the territory in 1846, he played a key role in the U.S. takeover of California.