With more people than any other state and an economy that would put it #9 in the world if it were a country, the importance of California is clear to most Americans. It is, however, a complex state with a colorful history and significant current challenges. Join Active Minds as we explore the Golden State together and learn about what makes it unique!

Key Lecture Points

  • California is the 3rd largest state in the union in terms of square mileage, but as an economy, it is far and away the largest state in the US, at $1.8 trillion.  California’s economy is larger than the economies of Brazil, Canada or the Russian Federation.  California is a center of technological innovation for the rest of the country—especially in high tech, biotech and, more recently, clean tech.
  • Historically, California was well settled before the coming of European empires in the 16th century.  Eventually, though, Spain, England and Russia explored its coasts and laid claim to parts of California.  California was first settled by the Spanish who built 21 missions along the El Camino Real in the 18th century.  Mission life in “Alta California” gave way to a brief period of Mexican rule after that country gained independence from Spain in 1821.
  • Backed by the concept of Manifest Destiny, the US began to express itself in California as early as 1826.  Those early settlements set the stage for massive towns and cities in 1848 after the US was victorious in the Mexican-American War and gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill outside present day Sacramento.
  • Since becoming a state in 1850, California has been a hotbed of economic opportunity.  From the Gold Rush days, which made the fortunes of Studebaker and Levi Strauss, to the modern stories of Apple and Facebook, California has attracted risk-takers who have found economic opportunity in the west.
  • California has attracted individuals of many nationalities and races, all seeking opportunity.  As a result, California has been and continues to be the most racially and nationally diverse state in the US.  That said, this diversity has also led to California being a site of racial unrest and conflict.
  • In the present day, California, like the nation as a whole, faces major social and political challenges – including, housing, climate change, wild fires, immigration, and economic growth.

Exploration Questions

  • How was Spanish colonization of California different from the English colonization of the original 13 American colonies? How the same?
  • How did the Gold Rush influence California’s history?

Reflective Questions

  • What images come to your mind when you think of California?
  • What do you think makes California different from other states?
  • Have you ever visited California or lived there? What did you like? Dislike?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Starr, Kevin. California: A History. Modern Library, 2007. 400 pages. Comprehensive survey of California’s history.
    Click here to order
  • Flanigan, James. Smile Southern California, You’re the Center of the Universe: The Economy and People of a Global Region. Stanford General Books. 2009. 216 pages. The author uses interviews and biographies to describe the region’s economy.
    Click here to order
  • Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast. Signet Classics, 2009. 432 pages. Classic story of man against the sea in early California.
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  • Morris, Roy, Jr. Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 304 pages.
    Click here to order