Skip to main content

The Oldest Cities in NorCal
Travel

The Oldest Cities in NorCal

Take a trip through the pages of history and discover the oldest cities in Northern California.

Roubina Al Abashian

Share

5 min read

July 30, 2022

The United States of America was born on July 4, 1977. A good 73 years later, on September 9, 1850, our dear old California joined the ranks of American states as the 31st incorporated state in the nation. With that historic moment began the real birth of California as a set of cities and counties. That is not to say that many of its oldest cities were discovered long before their incorporation into the state and had a history so rich and so defining, that people come in flocks searching for bits and pieces of it, even today.

A couple of years before being an incorporated state, many of California’s oldest cities were booming and making headlines during the Gold Rush, especially those in the northern part of the state. Even before that, history was being written all across Northern California — a history that can be sensed and seen all across the region. In short, the oldest cities in NorCal have witnessed some of the most defining moments in California history. Care to know how far the region’s history goes and how impactful its cities were in the formation of what we now know as California? Continue reading to get a glimpse of the area’s interesting history.

Did you know that the famous San Francisco cable cars were the first national historic landmarks that moved?

San Francisco 

It is hard to believe that what we know today as San Francisco didn’t exist some 300 years ago, despite being one of the oldest cities in California. Of course, the region was always there and was inhabited by at least two Native American tribes, but it wasn’t until 1769 that European explorers, led by Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola first found it. Seven years later, in 1776, Juan Bautiza de Anza moved to the region with a settlement party and established the Presidio of San Francisco, while Father Francisco Palou founded Mission San Francisco de Asis.

The United States of America unsuccessfully tried to buy San Francisco, known as Yerba Buena back then, from the Mexicans in 1835. 11 years later, Captain John B. Montgomery raised the U.S. flag on its soil, and in 1847 the city was renamed, San Francisco. The history of San Francisco continues with the discovery of gold in the region, starting in the year 1949. The Gold Rush attracted almost 80,000 gold hunters to the city, which, in turn, started prospering and never stopped since then. Not even the deadly earthquake and fires of 1906 set the city’s economy back, as its population quickly rebuilt their city. 

The Haight Ashbury district played a major role in the hippie movement of the 60s. Notable singers like Janis Joplin lived here during that era.

Today, you can take a simple walking tour of San Francisco and learn more about the city’s rich history, which had only just begun after it got incorporated in 1850. The city’s neighborhoods tell you stories about the 1969 Summer of Love, the LGBTQ+ movement, and much more. Accordingly, make sure to pay attention to all that this unique city in the Bay Area has to tell you.

Santa Clara is home to the oldest operating institution of higher learning in California, Santa Clara University.

Santa Clara 

For thousands of years, what we now know as Santa Clara, California was home to the indigenous tribe Tamien of the Ohlone nation. The first European to discover the city was Jose Francisco Ortega, who set foot in the city in 1769. Almost eight years later, in 1777, Mission Santa Clara de Asis was founded as one of California’s 21 missions. In 1847, the Battle of Santa Clara took place between the Mexicans and American troops, who were trying to claim the city. The battle ended with the Mexicans retreating from the area.

Before being incorporated as a town in 1852, Santa Clara became home to Santa Clara College in 1851, which was built on the grounds of Mission Santa Clara de Asis.  The college later became Santa Clara University in 1855, becoming the oldest institution of higher education in California. For years, the city thrived on agriculture but shifted slowly throughout the years into becoming one of the tech titans of NorCal.

Despite being a tech hub and home to some of the biggest companies in the world, this quaint city in Northern California still oozes history. Visiting the museums of Santa Clara tells tons about where this unique city began and how it got to be the “Entertainment Center of Silicon Valley”. If you’re a history buff, a quick day trip from San Francisco to Santa Clara is a must.

San Jose officially is the first chartered city in California. That happened in March of 1850.

San Jose 

Another one of the oldest towns in California is San Jose. Before European explorers arrived in the city in the mid-18th century, the area was inhabited by Costanoan Indians. In the year 1777, José Joaquin Moraga founded the city as a Spanish farming community, making it the first known civic settlement in California. Up until the American occupation of California, San Jose provided wheat, vegetables, and cattle to the military garrisons at San Francisco and Monterey.

Even after being chartered in 1850 as the first city in California, and briefly becoming the state’s first capital, San Jose continued to be a bustling trade depot. The completion of the railroad coming from San Francisco in 1864 further improved the city’s economy. Today, San Jose continues to be a major player in the state’s economy, but with a major shift in direction. The city is now the capital of Silicon Valley and boasts hundreds of tech and financial companies. If you’re interested in knowing more about how this gorgeous city went from being a historic settlement to a tech hub today, all you need to do is walk down its streets and visit its museums.

After surviving floods and fires, the Lady Adams Building, built in 1852, proudly stands today as the oldest building in the district.

Sacramento 

Sacramento, one of California’s major cities, has a history as rich as one could expect from the state capital. Maidu people used to live in the region, before Spanish explorer, Pedro Fages visited it in 1770. Fages named the huge river found in the city of Sacramento in honor of religious sacraments. More than half a century later, in 1839, German-born Swiss pioneer John Sutter took a land grant from the Mexican authorities and established the colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland) in the city. In 1840, Sutter started building Sutter’s Fort, a palisaded trading post, which is one of the most visited state historic parks in California. From 1840 onwards, Sutter populated the land with fellow Swiss immigrants and provided shelter to persecuted American pioneers until the Gold Rush in 1849, when the history of Sacramento took a shift.

At a sawmill Sutter was constructing near the American River, his chief carpenter discovered gold, and thousands of people began flooding into the city in hopes of “striking gold”. With a fast-growing population, Sacramento was incorporated in 1850, making it the first incorporated city in California. Soon after, in 1854, the city was chosen to be the state capital of the Golden State.  Not even the floods and fires Sacramento suffered in its early years, stopped it from continually progressing. To know more about the history of Sacramento, all you need to do is visit the Old Sacramento Waterfront and enjoy its many historic attractions. 

California voices

JOIN OUR COMMUNITY OF CONTRIBUTORS

Have a great story to tell? A unique experience to write about? We’d love to hear it.

Learn more



RELATED Articles

Discover More

fueled by the power of California love
We’re committed to helping you discover the places, people and businesses that make our state Golden. Our online publication, updated daily, brings you all the content you need to live your California dreams. And that’s just the beginning…
LEARN MORE ABOUT US
Purpose section
Purpose section