California History:  Cities, Neighborhoods, and Islands

What’s on this Web page:  San Jose, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Francisco’s Mission District, San Francisco Chinatown, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island.  An asterisk indicates San Francisco Bay Area destination; CHL means California Historical Landmark.


Jamestown of the West

Though it doesn’t look its age, San Jose is actually California’s oldest city—only 16 months younger than the U.S.  As much as San Jose likes to bill itself as the “capital of Silicon Valley,” we cannot ignore the apt comparison to Jamestown, Va., the first permanent British settlement in 1607 (not Jamestown in Tuolumne County).  Unfortunately, most of the historic sites no longer exist in the state’s third-largest city (after Los Angeles and San Diego).

San Jose, Santa Clara Co.* (City of San Jose) (San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau) (San Jose Downtown Association)

More Than a Surf City

Just south of the Bay Area lies California’s third-oldest city, Santa Cruz.  One of the world’s premier surfing spots is also rich in California history.

Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Co. (City of Santa Cruz) (Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council)

Capital City

Next to Sacramento, the city of Monterey holds the title as the second-longest seat of government in California.  Known primarily as the home of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, this city’s historical significance is often overlooked.  The state’s first registered landmark is here.

Monterey, Monterey Co. (City of Monterey) (Monterey Peninsula On-line Guide) (Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau)


Mission Accomplished

The Bay Area’s oldest neighborhood had been home to San Francisco’s first families and later Irish and Italian immigrants.  Since Spanish missionaries settled first in this area, it is only fitting that the Mission is once again a predominately Latin neighborhood.

The Mission District, San Francisco, San Francisco Co.* (New Mission News)

Extreme Makeover

If people visit San Francisco Chinatown just for the restaurants and gift shops, there’s nothing wrong with that.  But look beneath the surface.  By reinventing itself as an architectural curiosity after the 1906 earthquake, this neighborhood survived by attracting tourists and keeping hostile city officials at bay.  And the idea of a combination community and attraction predates anything Walt Disney (1901-1966) came up with by decades.

Chinatown, San Francisco, San Francisco Co.* (San Francisco Chinatown) (The Library of Congress:  American Memory—click on Immigration, American Expansion, then The Chinese in California) (Chinatown Merchants Association)


Rock Star

Before “The Rock” got a starring role in Hollywood pictures, Alcatraz Island was a notorious prison for more than 50 years and before that a fort.  During the Civil War, an incident on the island might have altered the course of California history, if not U.S. history.  When the federal government declared the island to be excess property in 1963, five Sioux Indians filed a claim for it.  Six years later, American Indian protesters occupied Alcatraz Island for more than a year.  This incident inspired more than 70 Indian occupations of federal facilities.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, San Francisco Co.* | California's Gold [] | Escape to Alcatraz [] (U.S. Department of the Interior:  National Park Service—Alcatraz Island) (Alcatraz Media) (The Blue & Gold Fleet)

Ellis Island of the West

It may surprise some to know that Angel Island once played a role in the Cold War, World War II, and the Civil War.  That’s because this place is best known as an entry port for immigrants between 1910 and 1940.  Angel Island operated more like a prison than New York’s Ellis Island.  Thanks to Hollywood, Alcatraz Island gets many times more visitors each year than Angel Island.

Angel Island State Park, Tiburon, Marin Co.* | California's Gold [] (California Department of Parks & Recreation:  California State Parks) (Angel Island Association) (Angel Island TramTours & Catered Events) (511 Transit)

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