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California (CA) Fast Facts
Location and Geography: The state of California is one of the largest in the country, taking up nearly two-thirds of the West Coast of the United States. It is perhaps the most diverse state in terms of geography and climate, encompassing many extremes of temperature, biological diversity, and altitude. The highest point in the U.S., Mount Whitney, and the lowest point, Death Valley, are both located in California.
Counties and Regions: California is divided into 58 counties, as well as a number of recognizable regions. Because California is such a long state from north to south, many people will clarify between “Northern California” and “Southern California” (the latter is sometimes truncated as “So-Cal”). The general regions that are often considered to be a part of Northern California are:
- Northern Coast
- Sacramento Valley (part of the Central Valley)
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Central California
- Sierra Nevada (Mountains)
- Upstate California
Whereas these general regions are said to make up Southern California:
- Southern Coast
- San Joaquin Valley (part of the Central Valley)
- Greater Los Angeles Area
- San Diego Metropolitan Area
- Inland Empire
- Imperial Valley
- Owens Valley
- Channel Islands
Population: California is, without a doubt, the most populous state in the nation. Because of its welcoming climate, as well as the old notion that opportunity is always to be found there, California has traditionally been seen as an ultimate destination in American culture. It is currently home to more than 37 million people.
Major Cities: A large number of the nation’s most populated cities are located in California. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Area in Southern California is the most populated area in the U.S. outside of New York City. The San Francisco Bay Area, in Northern California, also ranks in the top ten most populated areas in the country. In addition, the San Diego and Sacramento areas have impressively sized populations of their own.
Story Behind the Name: In the sixteenth century, the California region (as well as many other territories) was known to the Spanish Crown as “Las Californias.” The name likely derived from the Latin words for “hot” and “furnace,” but there are many other theories about the origin of the name. The term “California” was first labeled on the maps of Spanish explorers, who were probably inspired by a romantic tale of a savage land called California that was ruled by Amazon women. Eventually, the name they wrote down became the official one.
History and Colonization: The same traits that make California an attractive place to live today made it popular among the Native Americans, as well. When European explorers first arrived, there were many indigenous civilizations thriving along the coast. Over time, Spanish missionaries and settlers colonized the region, and by 1821 it was considered a part of the new nation of Mexico. What is now the US state of California was then known as Alta California (Upper California), while the southern part of the territory, Baja California (Lower California), remains in Mexico to this day.
Alta California was a desirable piece of land and was vied over by various European powers in the nineteenth century. Colonists and settlers arrived from England, France, Russia, Canada, and the United States, adding to the descendants of Spaniards and Native Americans that already lived there. In 1846, American settlers in Alta California rebelled against Mexico and formed an independent state, the California Republic, that lasted less than a month before surrendering to the U.S. Army that had come to fight the Mexican-American War (unbeknownst to most Californian citizens at the time). When the war concluded in two years, the United States took possession of Alta California as part of the peace treaty and divided it into several smaller territories, the westernmost of which would become the modern state of California.
In the same time period, gold was discovered in the territory and the famous California Gold Rush began, causing the non-native population to swell enormously over the next decade. Having a homestead in California came to symbolize the epitome of the American Dream, and hundreds of thousands of settlers pushed West. This led to major transportation innovations and eventually to the Transcontinental Railroad, which allowed for more immigrants than ever before to enter the state.
California became known for its agricultural produce, but in the twentieth century, other industries began to rise. Infrastructure and industrial projects became ubiquitous, with many famous dams and bridges (such as the Golden Gate Bridge) popping up in California’s central area. The state’s famous highway system was developed, making it more traversable and cementing America’s car-obsessed culture. Later in the century, California became even more desirable for the bright lights of Hollywood and the technological marvels of Silicon Valley. California was also home to one of the most envied public school systems in the world, although this situation has changed in recent decades as the state’s budget has collapsed. Still, whatever the state of its economy, California has retained its place in the American consciousness as a symbol of hope and opportunity.