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The first explorers of California were the Indians who came to this part of North America thousands of years ago. They had neither maps nor paths to follow. They used their knowledge of nature and their skill in understanding the world around them to guide them to the best places to build their settlements and to the richest sources of food.

These Indians, the Native Californians, made trails. Some were short, used for gathering food, for hunting, or for visiting neighboring villages. Other trails were long. Historians believe that the California Indians traded with others in what is now Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico.

When Europeans started exploring by land in the west, they found Indians who could show them the way. The trails they “opened” were not new trails, but paths known to Indians for generations. Indians served as guides for most of the early explorations. When Europeans tried to find their way in California without Indian guides, they were apt to get lost.

All of the features of California that were “discovered” by Europeans had been discovered long before by the Indians. They knew the coastline and its bays. They knew the rivers and the fish that swam there. They knew the mountains, the redwood and sequoia trees, the waterfalls of Yosemite, and the best passes through the mountains. They shared all this willingly with the earlier European explorers, in the days before those others tried to claim the Native Californians’ land.

The Native Californians have not received the credit due them because they did not create written records of their explorations and discoveries. It was easy for the early European explorers to say they had “discovered” a river or a mountain or a valley, because they had seen no record of it before. We now acknowledge that the Indians were the first to discover, the first to see, the first to cross the rivers, valleys, and mountains of California.

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