Mexico / Baja California  / History
Thursday, March 23, 2017
Cave painting

The history of the peninsula

Before the Europeans arrived, many indigenous tribes lived on the desert peninsula of Baja California.

The most important linguistic groups were the Yuman, Guaycura, Huchiti and Pericú. Most of these tribes are today extinct. Artifacts and records show that these groups were hunters and gatherers. A unique testimony of this lost culture are the cave paintings of Sierra San Francisco, which the UNESCO has declared a World Heritage.

After the central mainland of Mexico had been conquered by the conquistadors, new hearsays were spread of unbelievable riches in the West. In 1535, Hernán Cortés therefore sailed from the western coast of Mexico to what is now known as the bay of La Paz, where he founded the first small colony. Due to insufficient supply, it was abandoned in 1537. After many subsequent expeditions, Sebastián Vizcaíno explored the Pacific coast of Baja in 1602 and drew the first detailed map of the desert peninsula. Most of the names shown in that map are still in use today.

Isidro de Atondo y Antillón founded a colony at the site of today La Paz in 1683. Conflicts with the indigenous population forced him to transfer the colony to San Bruno. But this colony, too, had to be abandoned in 1685 due to almost two years of drought. The founder of the San Bruno colony had been accompanied by Father Eusebio Kino, and it was his insistence that caused the Jesuit order to take the decision for the Christianization of the peninsula 12 years later.

In October 1697, Father Juan María Salvatierra landed on the eastern coast, accompanied by six soldiers and founded the mission of Loreto. This mission was the first Spanish settlement in California and served the Jesuits in the following seven decades as a basis to control Lower California. The undaunted Jesuits founded 23 missions in all, of which 14 were successful. The missionaries taught the Indians religious and agricultural matters. The missions were linked by paths and gathered information on the nature, geography and ethnology of the region.

It was, however, impossible for the priests to stem the “Columbian Exchange”. Thousands of people succumbed to imported diseases and epidemics. To boot, revolts broke out so that the Jesuits‘ position was markedly weakened. In the end, political intrigues in Spain resulted in the banning of the order from California in 1768.
The Franciscans took over the missions in the same year. A short rebellion, however, made it clear to them that they had their task farther to the north of California. So, the Dominicans took over in 1773 and led the missions successfully. The Mexican government ordered all the missions to be secularized and transformed into communities in 1832. Many of the missions exist still today, whereas others are in ruin or under restoration.

Being far from the central government in Mexico City, Baja California rapidly became a forgotten desert peninsula – a refuge for criminals, fortune-hunter, pirates, and smugglers.
In the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848, California was separated into Upper (now the US state of California) and Lower California. The separation was to bring about much tension between the USA and Mexico up to the present. The investment of American companies in mines and land greatly worried the Mexicans. The notorious American filibuster William Walker did nothing to dispel Mexican suspicion, when he surprised Baja and proclaimed himself president of a new US state. Although he was quickly removed from office, new rebels rose again and again to use the desert peninsula for their own goals.

The promulgation of prohibition in the USA led to an enormous boom in the Mexican border towns, in particular Tijuana. Thousands of Americans came to amuse themselves in a more liberal environment. It was not before 1938 that Mexican president Cárdenas took action against the gamblers and outlaws in Baja. Agrarian and educational reforms were finally enforced and implemented. Under president Alemán, in 1952, the northern part of Baja became an official state of Mexico – Baja California (now often called Baja California Norte) with Mexicali as its capital. In 1974, the southern part of the peninsula became the 30th state of Mexico – Baja California Sur with La Paz as its capital. Each state consists of several municipios (districts). In accordance with its cities, the state of Baja California, inhabited by almost three million people, is divided in the municipios of Tijuana, Ensenada, Tecate, and Mexicali. The state of Baja California Sur with nearly 400,000 people consists of the municipios Mulegé, Loreto, Comondú, La Paz, and Los Cabos.

There was much progress in the desert peninsula in the past 35 years. The incredible treasures of the sea and the enormous mineral resources have attracted important industries. The development of agricultural areas strikes the eye in many parts of the peninsula, and government subsidies have allowed many farmers‘ cooperatives to be established. The completion of the MEX-1 highway has eventually made it possible for travelers to drive through the whole of Baja California and to enjoy spectacular views.