The Capital Of California Is Not What You’d Guess

What is the capital of the state of California? A natural guess is the city of Los Angeles, which is the largest city in the state, and the center of much of its commercial and economic activity. However, the capital city of California is actually Sacramento. Sacramento, California has been the capital of the state since 1879. Before this, several other cities served as the capital of California. Let’s examine the history of the city of Sacramento and the state of California at large, to understand how Sacramento became the states capital city.

The History of Sacramento

An etching of Sacramento in 1849. Photo: Public Domain

The city of Sacramento was originally founded/settled by John Sutter, who created Sutter’s Fort. This fort would serve as a gathering point for people in the region, and it served as both a military stockade and trading colony. As more people came to the area, Sutter’s Fort was used to distribute resources such as fruits and vegetables to settlers of the Sacramento region. More settlements began to pop up in the surrounding area, and Sutter himself also created mills in the foothills surrounding Sutter’s Fort. At one of these mills, gold was found in the stream. This event was one of the primary driving forces behind the California 1849 goldrush.

At approximately the same time that gold was discovered at the Sutter mill, John Sutter Junior, Sutter’s son, aimed to incorporate the growing settlements around the Sacramento region into a proper city, and as a result, the city of Sacramento was incorporated in 1849 into the state of California. Sacramento was located only about 90 miles inland from San Francisco, and this relative ease of accessibility combined with the foothills filled with gold meant that Sacramento served as a major center of distribution for resources for those looking to strike it rich with gold. Sacramento became the center of the gold rush in this way. As a result, the first transcontinental railroad was started in Sacramento. Most of the people who came to California to seek their fortune entered the state through Sacramento and the Sacramento railroad arrived throughout the ensuing years.

Chosen As Capital

The place originally chosen as the capital of California was the city of Monterey. However, the California constitutional convention of 1849 changed this. California was admitted into the United States as an official state at this time, and the capital city was relocated to San Jose. Other cities such as Benicia and Vallejo would also briefly serve as the state capital until the decision was made to make Sacramento the capital in 1854, and the city has served as the state’s capital ever since.

California’s State Capitol in Sacramento, California. Photo: By Andre mOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

There were various reasons for making Sacramento the capital of the state. For one, the city was positioned in a fairly accessible region of the state, a flat stretch of the Central Valley. To the east of Sacramento were large mountains, and to the west, a large delta formed by the joining of the American and Sacramento rivers. As the center of gold rush activity, there was a constant influx of new settlers and businesses to the state and making Sacramento the capital of California was a logical decision. Sacramento quickly became the base of operations for much of California’s economic activity. Furthermore, Sacramento’s relatively isolated position inland protected the city somewhat from invasion. Another reason for choosing Sacramento as capital was that the city was positioned on multiple rivers which joined the city to San Francisco and other ports through the area. This enabled the city to serve as a hub for both land and sea trading activity. Finally, Sacramento is the home of many powerful individuals who formed the state of California government such as John Marshall and John Sutter, who used their influence to pitch for Sacramento’s role as a state capital.

Facts About Sacramento

Thanks in part to Sacramento’s strategic location, around the time it was made capital of California, Sacramento quickly grew and saw several major developments. Sacramento functioned at the western end of the pony express, the mail service which was responsible for delivering communications and packages all throughout the Western United States. The first transcontinental railroad also used Sacramento as a major terminus, with the construction of a station there beginning in 1863.

Sacramento also saw several powerful floods. The city was flooded once in 1850 and saw another flood in 1861. The 1861 flood was so bad that the city’s governor at the time, Leland Stanford, attended his inauguration in a rowboat. Over the course of the next decade, San Francisco underwent a project to raise the elevation of its downtown area. This was accomplished by creating reinforced brick walls along the streets downtown, and then filling these areas in with dirt. As a result, what used to be the first floor of many buildings were now basements. The underground portion of Sacramento city has either been destroyed, filled, or paved over by development projects in the years since, but in certain areas the Sacramento underground can still be seen.

San Francisco has a large flood control basin, the Yolo bypass, to the west of the city. Due to the basin’s location, western expansion of the city is limited, and for this reason, San Francisco has mainly expanded northeast and east. Currently, the city covers an area of approximately 259 km² or 100.1 mi.². As of the 2010 census, the city was home to 466,500 people, though a 2017 estimate now puts that number at approximately 502,000 people. Sacramento is California’s sixth largest city and the 35th largest city in the United States overall. The greater Sacramento Metropolitan region has a population of around 2,150,000 people.

The city of Sacramento is still seeing growth, despite the decline of agricultural processing plants and military bases in the area, which once served as major sources of revenue and expansion for the city. Currently, immigration from Latin America and Asia expands the city, in addition to residents moving to Sacramento from the nearby San Francisco Bay area. San Francisco lies only 90 miles to the southwest of Sacramento, and Lake Tahoe is about 100 northwest of the city. This provides citizens of Sacramento with easy access to both interesting sites in the Bay Area and natural beauty within only a couple of hours of drive time.

In terms of demographics, white/Caucasian individuals make up about 45% of the population or about 210,000 people. The African American population in Sacramento numbers around 68,300 people or about 14.6% population. The Asian population in Sacramento is about 85,500 people or about 17.8% of the city’s population, and the Pacific Islander population comes in at about 1.4% of the population with around 6650 people. Individuals of various Native American backgrounds, as well as other ethnic groups and two or more races, make up the remaining approximately 20% of the population. Sacramento is an extremely diverse city, and in 2002 the city was named America’s most diverse city by Time magazine. While demographics have shifted somewhat since then, Sacramento is still extremely diverse.’

Currently, Sacramento’s economy is heavily supported by healthcare organizations such as Sutter Health and UC Davis health. A large tech and transportation industry also is located within the city. Naturally, as the capital of the state of California, the state of California also employs many people within the city.

In terms of cultural landmarks, Sacramento is home to several major performing arts venues such as the Wells Fargo Pavilion and the Memorial Auditorium. Sacramento also has many museums that chronicle not only the history of the city but the history of California at large. The Crocker Art Museum is the oldest art museum open to the public in the Western half of the country. The California state railroad Museum also chronicles the history of the transcontinental railroad seen through Sacramento’s function as a major terminal for the railroad. There are dozens more museums within the city, both free and paid. The Sacramento Zoo is another historical landmark, having been around since 1927.

Sacramento was once home to a large Chinatown, with many of Chinese immigrants living there. While most of Sacramento’s historic Chinatown has been built over, there is a small Chinatown within the city as well as a museum that explores the contributions of Chinese-Americans to the city. Sacramento is known for having one of the highest LGBTQ populations per capita. San Francisco comes in first in California in this respect, but about 10% of Sacramento’s total population identified themselves as part of the LGBTQ community. Many LGBTQ activities are centered around the neighborhood of Lavender Heights.

Finally, Sacramento has many different nicknames. Among others, the city has been called the “City of Trees”, “the River City”, and “the Camellia Capital of the World.”