Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

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Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

Lary M. Dilsaver
University of South Alabama

William Wyckoff
Montana State University

William L. Preston
California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo


Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape 1

Introduction 3

Settlement by the First Peoples, 15,000 Years Ago 4

Cabrillo’s Landfall at San Diego, September 28, 1542 6

The Discovery of Gold at Sutter’s Mill, January 24, 1848 8

Initiation of the U.S. Public: Land Survey, July 17, 1851 11

San Francisco Takes Water from Lobos Creek, September 17, 1888 14

Creation of Suburbs, 1864 15

Yosemite State (and National) Park, June 10, 1864 19

The Coming of the Transcontinental Railroad, May 10, 1869 22

Electrification of Market Street, April 9, 1874 24

Passage of the Wright Irrigation District Act, March 7, 1887 29

San Gabriel Timberland Reserve, December 20, 1892 34

Sale of First Ford Model T, 1908 37

Wartime Buildup Begins, June, 1938 40

National Environmental Policy Act, January 1, 1970 43

Production of the Intel 8080 Microproecssor, December, 1973 49

Conclusion 51


The year 2000 has many meanings for the people of California. Aside from the celebration and cerebration occasioned by the end of the century and the millennium, it is the sesquicentennial; of the state. It is fitting then that among the numerous chronological analyses and rosters of greatness accompanying the passage of the twentieth century, we reflect on California and what kind of place it has become. Although many scholars, pundits, and personalities have included California in their local and regional reviews, there has been little attention to the historical geography of the state’s human legacy. With this article we hope to begin the remediation of that deficiency.

We have chosen to present the fifteen events that have most affected the human landscape of California. The geographic concept “landscape” means the visual “look of the land” as used by the German geographer Otto Schluter and defined for American geographers by Carl Sauer (1925) in his seminal article “The Morphology of the Landscape.” Indeed, Sauer began a tradition of cultural landscape study that shaped much of twentieth century cultural geography in the United States. Lowenthal and Prince (1964) provided the best expression of the approach used in this article with their definition of the landscape as a palimpsest in “The English Landscape.” Humans have inhabited California for at least 150 centuries, possibly more. Each generation has altered the landscape. However, all but the first began from a base of earlier human modification. Some changes came close to sweeping away earlier patterns. Not one completely erased those patterns. The cumulative effect of their activities has altered and humanized the appearance and the substance of the state’s diverse natural environments. These changes can be detected at any scale, from the pedestrian’s viewscape to the California filmed from the space shuttle.

The human impact on the landscape is apparent in both what is present in a scene and what is absent. Cities, roads, farm fields, and channeled streams are deliberate impositions. The legacy of human error and improvidence is also evident. Vegetation change stems from accidental introduction of exotics or indirectly from alteration of the fauna as well as from burning and clearing. Even the persistence of a vegetation community often reflects deliberate decision to preserve selected resources.

Geographers do not often use specific events to explain the landscape and the human agency acting upon it. However, it can be a useful heuristic device. In the centuries of continuous human activity in California, certain processes have had the greatest cumulative impact. We choose to identify the fifteen punctuations of the state’s timeline that began the most influential processes. Where a process such as the use of automobiles began elsewhere, we have generally chosen its arrival in California as our event. These processes, in turn, spawned related but independent processes and exerted both direct and indirect impacts. Thus, the arrival of the automobile directly set off the processes of large-scale road building, oil drilling expansion of tourism, and the remaking of urban places. Indirectly, pollution from cars has impacted natural scenes by harming vegetation from the coastline to the Sierra Nevada and beyond.

One of the difficulties in choosing fifteen events was deciding which stand apart from the ongoing intertwined processes of human occupation. One could argue that the arrival of humans was the main event and the rest followed as a matter of course. In each event we try to show a compelling break from the trend of human activity and elucidate its direct and derivative processes. Thus, the establishment of wilderness areas in the state does not stand apart. It results from the creation of national forests and the policies of land management that evolved to protect and use them. Alternatively, some forms of irrigation preceded the Spanish, but the Wright Irrigation District Act enabled projects on a scale so pervasive that it serves as separate event and process.

Why fifteen events? There is a precedent for the number. Historian Rockwell D. Hunt (1958), in four consecutive numbers of the Southern California Quarterly, published “The Fifteen Decisive Events of California History.” He explained thathe based the number on Sir Edward Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World from Marathon to Waterloo (1851). We concur with Hunt’s statement that:

Certainly there is no magic in the number fifteen-it is simply a convenient number that has because suggested by Creasy; large enough to afford a respectable variety of phases in human events...sufficiently small to avoid the pitfalls of particularism (4).

We hope to satisfy two ends with this essay. First, we reiterate that this not a definitive statement. Instead we hope this is the beginning of a scholarly debate. Most likely, everyone who reads this will disagree with at least one or two of our choices. We encourage all to challenge our analysis and, in so doing further historical geographic inquiry about the Golden State. Second, this article may serve as a ready paradigm for teaching geography at the K through 12 grade levels. The type of diagnostic landscape analysis we employ is eminently useful for getting students to reflect on the reality of geographic themes in the scenes that they view. Each student can choose an area and evaluate how important these events or any others have been in shaping the landscape.

We believe the following fifteen events began processes that have had the greatest impact over the widest area on the visual appearance of California’s landscape. The first two are the arrivals of the first people thousands of years ago and the Spanish nearly five centuries ago. The pervasive influence of the American cultural legacy can be divided into four categories. The imposition of settlement form includes the initiation of the rectangular land survey and the earliest suburbs. Economic development came with the discovery of gold, the diversion of water to cities, the establishment of irrigation districts, and World War II. Looming large throughout the landscape are technological innovations including the railroad, heralded by the arrival of the transcontinental line, electrification, the appearance of mass produced automobiles, and the invention of the Intel 8080 microprocessor leading to the personal computer revolution. Finally, the feverish expansion of development has been blunted or shaped by three signal events in conservation. These are the establishment of Yosemite, grandfather to all national and state parks in California, the creation of forest reserves, today’s national forests, and the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act. We have chosen them based on their impacts throughout the continuum of scale. Some effects are most apparent to the individual on the ground. Others impact the tapestry that is the entire state, accounting for both the range and spatial distribution of human phenomena. We present them in chronological order beginning with the most fundamental event of them all.

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