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California became part of Mexico

The 1820s were a decade that saw the emergence of new world powers and new countries. Spain, which once controlled most of the land in the New World, now saw its colonies either absorbed by other nations or declaring their independence. Alta (Upper) California, while a separate province, was under the control of commanders in Spanish-controlled Mexico. In 1821, however, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and fought for it successfully. Early in 1822, word reached California that Spanish control in North America had ended, and an independent Mexican nation was being formed.

The Spanish governor of Alta California, Pablo Vicente de Solá, his officials, and the soldiers at Monterey immediately swore allegiance to the new regime. Electors from the four presidios (forts) met, and they chose Solá as their representative and Luis Argüello as an alternate. However, when an American ship brought word that the new Mexican ruler, Emperor Iturbide, decreed that no Spanish-born person could be governor, Argüello was chosen as governor by one vote. Argüello, a northern Californian, narrowly defeated José de la Guerra, a southern Californian, beginning a rift between the two sections of California which would last for decades. California was relatively lucky in that while Mexico fought bloody battles for independence, their own freedom from Spain came peacefully. Other than changing some titles of officials and raising a new flag, daily life for most Californians went on as usual.

Mission San Francisco Solano, the last mission, was founded

The new Mexican government was not interested in supporting the missions that Spain had established in California. Just one new mission, San Francisco Solano, was established under Mexican rule. This, the most northern of the missions, was the last mission founded in California. Named for St. Francis Solano, a Franciscan missionary who came to the New World and died in Peru in 1610, it was established on July 4, 1823, at Sonoma, northeast of San Francisco. It was founded by Father José Altimira, a Franciscan padre from Mission Dolores. The Mexican government approved of this northern mission, hoping to prevent Russia from claiming the land. Rather than trying to take over, however, the Russians at Fort Ross befriended the new mission. Mission San Francisco Solano (also known as Sonoma Mission) existed for only 11 years before it was closed.

James Ohio Pattie became first American to trap on the Colorado River

As Americans explored westwards, the first fur trappers began to approach Alta (Upper) California by overland routes. Although American ships had been trading in California since the late 1790s, land routes had not been opened. James Ohio Pattie and his father, Sylvester, were trapping beaver, working their way from Missouri to New Mexico across the southwestern U.S. On March 16, 1826, they reached the Mohave Indian villages on the Colorado River, the first Americans to trap along its banks.

In late 1827, after a grueling journey through the desert, the Patties reached Mission Santa Catalina in Baja (Lower) California. Transported under guard to San Diego, they were jailed as spies by the officers at the presidio. Sylvester died in jail. James was later given his freedom and a passport in return for administering smallpox vaccine to some 10,000 Indians and other Californians during an epidemic. When the governor tried to force him to become a Catholic, he fled up the coast to Monterey and then by sea via Mexico to Missouri. At least, this is the story he told in Personal Narrative, published in 1831; some think it was highly fictionalized.

Jedediah Smith led first American overland expedition to California

In 1826 the first American overland expedition arrived in California. Jedediah Strong Smith, a New York-born trapper, led a small group of fur traders southwest from the Great Salt Lake into the unexplored deserts of present-day Nevada and Arizona. He and his men fought through the heat, shortages of food and water, and Indian attacks to reach the edges of California. There, two Indians guided them to Mission San Gabriel, where they arrived on November 27, 1826. The Mexican authorities were suspicious of Smith, first detaining him and then telling him to leave Mexican territory.

Smith, instead, headed north into the San Joaquin Valley. After exploring, he left some of his men and equipment there and went east to the Great Salt Lake, becoming the first non-Indian to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains, through what is now Ebbett’s Pass. Smith soon returned to California, arriving at Mission San Jose in 1827. Again he was detained, and had to argue for his freedom. This time he went north into Oregon Territory, trapping and exploring. Smith was killed May 27, 1831, while traveling through the Southwest. The Smith River and Jedediah Smith State Park, in northwestern California, are named for him.

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