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John Graham became first American to reach California

The 1790s were a decade in which Alta (Upper)California grew to be more and more important. Other nations besides Spain grew increasingly interested in California. Among these nations was the newly-formed United States of America, which had just won its independence from Great Britain. Americans were heading west across the continent, as well as traveling the Pacific by ship. On September 13, 1791, the first American to reach Alta California arrived in Monterey. A man by the name of John Graham (also recorded as John Green) became the first U. S. citizen to set foot in California. He was employed as a gunner on the Spanish vessel Atrevida which carried Alejandro Malaspina’s scientific expedition, organized by the government of Spain. Graham was ill with dropsy when he landed. He died a few hours later and was buried near Monterey.

Missions Santa Cruz, Soledad, San José, San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, San Fernando Rey, and San Luis Rey were founded

Throughout the 1790s, Father Fermín de Lasuén continued the work of Father Junípero Serra by establishing seven more missions along the California coast. Mission Santa Cruz was founded on September 25, 1791. The mission went well until trouble arose with the nearby pueblo (town) of Branciforte, and during the threat of a pirate attack the mission was damaged. Nevertheless, the mission-pueblo that still bears the name Santa Cruz thrived through the century. The next mission was Nuestra Señora de Soledad, established late in 1791. As with many missions, it was in an area ripe for agriculture, in this case the Salinas Valley. 

Four missions were dedicated in 1797. Mission San José, set about 15 miles northeast of the modern city of San José, was used as a base for fighting hostile Indians. Mission San Juan Bautista was founded at a site west of present-day Hollister. Mission San Miguel Arcangel was placed about midway between Missions San Antonio and San Luis Obispo. Mission San Fernando Rey de España was established just west of the modern San Fernando, between Missions Buenaventura and San Gabriel. In 1798, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was dedicated. The largest mission, with a church built to hold 1,000 worshippers, it was halfway between Missions San Juan Capistrano and San Diego.

British Captain George Vancouver sailed into San Francisco Bay

In the 1790s a number of foreign countries became interested in the Spanish holdings in Alta California. In 1792, British Captain George Vancouver sailed along the Californian coast with orders to survey the Spanish-controlled land, and to claim any regions not already belonging to Spain. This was just one part of his assigned around-the-world voyage, though he returned to California twice more (1793, 1794).

Despite somewhat strained relations at that time between England and Spain, Vancouver was welcomed by Spanish officials in California. He entered San Francisco Bay in the warship Discovery on November 15, 1792. His party visited Mission Santa Clara -- the first foreigners to penetrate into the interior -- and were astounded by the physical beauty of northern California. They exchanged gifts with the padres in San Francisco, and then proceeded to Monterey, where they also received a warm welcome. Vancouver paid close attention to the extent of Spanish defenses and their placement. He concluded that the region could easily be captured by a sea-borne invasion, and reported this news to his superiors. His conclusions about the region were published in his book, A Voyage of Discovery, in 1798.

The Otter became first American ship to anchor in California waters

In 1796, an American vessel anchored in a California port for the first time. The Otter, a ship out of Boston under the command of Ebenezer Dorr, took on wood and water near Monterey. Dorr was a sea captain engaged in trade with China, and he wanted to pick up new provisions before heading out to sea.

Dorr also had a hidden mission: at night, he secretly landed ten men and one woman on the beach, forcing them to shore at gunpoint. They were convicts from an English prison in the South Pacific who had escaped on the Otter. Captain Dorr wanted the stowaways gone, so he decided to dump the problem on the Spanish government. The governor was offended when he realized what had happened, but he put the ex-prisoners to work as carpenters and blacksmiths. They turned out to be such hard workers that he was happy to keep them there. Dorr’s voyage is described in the book Mémoires du Capitaine Péron, printed in 1824.

The arrival of the Otter marked the beginning of a time when American merchant ships would sneak into California harbors to trade with the people, even though Spain said that this was illegal. Californians needed all kinds of goods such as clothing, cutlery, and farming tools, and had hides and tallow to offer in return. American smuggling became widespread.

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