The 5 Capitals of California Throughout History

The 5 Capitals of California Throughout History

Last updated: 09/04/2023

Discover the cities that were once capitals of California throughout the history of this modern American state, full of Spanish and Mexican cultural influences.


The most populous US state is a place steeped in history, with enormous cultural and linguistic diversity. Its history can be divided into a few steps very briefly:

  • from 10,000 years ago to 1542: Period in which the region was dominated by Native American Indians.
  • from 1542 to 1769: Period of European exploration and consequent genocide of Native American tribes.
  • from 1769 to 1821: Spanish colonial period beginning with the Portolá expedition (first entry for exploration of the interior and founding of Alta California) and later establishment of the 21 Spanish missions in Alta California.
  • from 1821 to 1846: Period of the Mexican Republic, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain and established the First Mexican Empire, later the Mexican Republic.
  • 1846: Foundation of the breakaway state of the Republic of California (or Republic of the Bear Flag) as a result of a revolt triggered on June 14 in the city of Sonoma against the Mexican authorities. Although it lasted only 25 days, the Bear Flag with the words “California Republic”, created for the occasion, is the official flag of the state until the present day.
  • from 1846 to 1848: Period of the Mexican-American War, when the United States began to expand its borders, invading Mexican lands.
  • from 1848 to 1850: Period of interim governments appointed by military commanders.
  • from 1850 to today: Period as one of the states of the United States of America, caused by the gold rush (1848-1855), the Gold Rush, which accelerated its consolidation as the 31st American state.

The events described above were essential for the California capital to change its location over time. The first official capital only emerged during the Spanish colonial period, when the colonization of the territory began to be carried out in fact, with many expeditions and the construction of missions with the objective of taking the Catholic religion throughout the state and consolidating the domination of the territories. In 1774, the Expeditions of Juan Bautista de Anza began, which crossed the Sonora desert (currently in the state of Arizona) and went up towards the north, bordering the coast, whenever possible, and founding missions (religious posts established by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order between 1769 and 1833, to expand Christianity among Native Americans).

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Mission Santa Barbara, one of 21 Spanish missions in California

In addition, a series of four Presidios (Royal Forts) were built in Alta California by the Spanish Crown. To support the prisons and missions, half a dozen towns (called pueblos) were established in California. the towns of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Villa de Branciforte (later abandoned before becoming Holy Cross) and the village of San Jose were all established to support missions and prisons in California. These were the only towns (pueblos) in California.


All cities that were once the capital of California are located in the north of the state, and 3 of them are in the San Francisco Bay Area, the region of San Francisco Bay. Check below each of the cities that were once privileged to host the California state government.

1. MONTEREY (1774 – 1849)

Founded in 1770, Monterey functioned as the capital of Alta California during both the Spanish period (1804-1821) and the Mexican period (1822-1846). Located on the California coast, Monterey was home to California's first theater, public building, public library, public school, printing press, and newspaper and was the sole port of entry for all taxable property in California. After Mexico was compelled to cede California to the United States at the end of the war, Monterey hosted California's first constitutional convention in 1849 at Colton Hall, deciding that the capital would be moved to San Jose.

Read more: Monterey Historic Park: Historic District of California's First Capital City
Monterey Historic Park: Historic District of California's First Capital City
Colton Hall, where the California Constitution was written, in Monterey

2. SAN JOSE (1849 – 1851)

The pueblo of San Jose was chosen to be the first capital of California after the territory was conquered by the Americans in the Mexican-American War. Shortly after the election, a provisional state government was formed which established the counties, elected a governor, senators and representatives, and operated for ten months before statehood. Congress passed the California State Act on September 9, 1850, making it the 31st state of the United States. A two-story adobe hotel built around 1830 became the state's first capitol and hosted the first legislative sessions in 1850 and 1851. However, the building that housed the state government had poor lighting, poor ventilation, and low ceilings. very low, so legislators began looking for a new location. This site is now the Circle of Palms Plaza, a ring of palm trees surrounding a California state seal, which contains quotes from the 1849 state constitutional convention in Monterey, where San Jose was chosen as the capital. Currently, with more than 1 million inhabitants, San Jose is the third largest city in California, after Los Angeles and San Diego.

  • Address: 150 South Market Street, San Jose, CA 95113, USA
Read more: San José: The “Capital” of Silicon Valley
The 5 Capitals of California Throughout History
Circle of Palms in San Jose | Photograph: Ikluft – Wikimedia Commons

3. VALLEJO (1852 – 1853)

General Guadalupe Mariano Vallejo offered a building to be the new capitol at no cost, in the city of Vallejo, founded in 1851, and which bears his name. It all started after the American conquest of California, when Vallejo used his significant political influence to become a major force for reconciliation between Californians and Americans. In 1850, Vallejo proposed plans for a new city with a capitol, university, botanical garden, and other features. After a statewide referendum, his proposal was accepted and the city was settled on a hill overlooking the bay overlooking San Francisco. In 1851, Vallejo was declared the official capital of the state, with the government set to convene for the first time the following year. However, the site of the new capital was chaos, without furniture, with works to be done, and construction noise all day long. Thus, the state government was shifted to the nearby city of Benicia.

  • Address: 300 York Street, Vallejo, CA 94590, United States

4. BENICIA (1853 – 1854)

Located east of Vallejo across the Strait of Martinez and along the north bank of the Strait of Carquinez, Benicia, a bustling port town, was founded in 1847 and named after Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo's wife, Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo . The state government functioned in a large red brick building built in 1852 with two floors and two large rooms for the legislative chambers. The interior pillars were made from masts from ships abandoned in San Francisco Bay during the Gold Rush. However, the city was short-lived as the state capital, after the legislature approved moving the capital to Sacramento. The change happened quickly because Benicia was a very small town and there wasn't a structure to house all the people who moved there. Subsequently, its former capitol was restored and forms part of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park (see information leaflet here), being the only remaining building from the state's pre-Sacramento capitols. The original building has been restored with reconstructed period furniture and also houses exhibitions.

  • Address: 115 West G St, Benicia, CA 94510, United States
Read more: Benicia Capitol Park: California's Capitol before Sacramento
Benicia Capitol Park: California's Capitol before Sacramento
Capitol of Benicia

5. SACRAMENTO (1854 – current)

Established in 1839, Sacramento was well known, as about 75 km away, on the Sacramento River, gold was discovered for the first time in California, in 1848, starting the Gold Rush (in the current Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park). For this reason, the city grew a lot in number of inhabitants, attracting miners and people in search of enrichment. Sacramento was offered to host the capital of California making an offer they couldn't refuse: in addition to committing to build a new capitol building, they offered the spacious Sacramento County courthouse, many additional rooms, a fireproof vault and free movement for all. the legislators and belongings, as well as the furniture. The offer was approved and the new capital was transferred to the city in 1854. However, a very short time later, the wooden courthouse in which the legislature met, along with a considerable part of the city, was destroyed in a great fire. Fortunately, it was quickly rebuilt and reopened in 1855. In neoclassical style, the current Sacramento Capitol building began construction in 1860. Legislative sessions in the new building began to take place in 1869, although it was not completed until 1874.

  • old address: 651 I Street, Sacramento, CA 95814, United States (currently Sacramento County Main Jail)
  • Current address: 10th St & L St, Sacramento, CA 95814, United States
Read more: Sacramento: Itinerary and tips in the capital of California
Sacramento: What to do in California's Capital
The beautiful California State Capitol in Sacramento


Due to heavy rains in late 1961, the Sacramento River overflowed, flooding the entire city of Sacramento, which lies on its banks. For this reason, the legislature temporarily moved into an imposing 3-story Palladian-style building that housed the Merchants' Exchange Building in San Francisco. The building was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, later making room for the construction of a new building.

  • Address: 550 Battery Street, San Francisco, CA 94111, United States

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