(NEXSTAR) — California has been a part of the United States since Sept. 8, 1850 — but do you know which of the Golden State’s cities is the oldest?

Well, it depends what we mean by “oldest.” If we’re discussing which physical city site predates the others, the answer is different than if we’re discussing which California city became a city on paper legally.

As Library of Congress explains, California officially became the 31st state in 1850 under the signature of Pres. Millard Fillmore. This means several areas that were already established in some way became “first” cities at the same time.

In truth, the state’s indigenous communities long predate our current city designations. But as the area neared statehood, the following cities emerged as contenders for the title of oldest in what is now known as California.

San Jose

Technically, the pueblo of San Jose was established as the state’s first known civic settlement by Spanish founder José Joaquin Moraga in November 1777, according to Brittanica. Then-called San José (note the accent mark was later dropped), the pueblo operated as a trade and farming hub for nearby military posts.

San Jose was also briefly California’s capital from 1849 to 1852, when it was moved to Vallejo.

These days, the oldest remnant of the city’s Pueblo days can be found at the historic Peralta Adobe, also known as the Pueblo Numero Uno. As the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau explains, the home dates back to 1797 and its state and furnishings are meant to resemble how they may have been back during those days.


This Bay Area city may be the smallest of the cities on this list but its history is just as rich.

Benicia, located in Solano County, was founded in 1849, according to the City of Benicia. While this date eliminates it from contention for the “oldest” city, it’s included nonetheless, since it had already been incorporated at the time California joined the U.S.

Benicia was also California’s third state capital after facilities in Vallejo weren’t ready for legislators. The Benicia Public Library explains California’s government moved into Benicia City Hall in February 1853, where operations stayed for one year.

San Diego

Scholarly books by the American Historical Society dating back to 1922 refer to the city of San Diego as “the birthplace of California” itself.

As Clarence Alan McGrew, author of “City of San Diego and San Diego County: The Birthplace of California” explains, Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo first spotted San Diego’s coast in September 1542 — making Cabrillo and his men the first European settlers to set foot in what would become California.

Of course, by this time, vast communities of indigenous people were already inhabiting what would come to be called the golden state.

In the early 1600s, Mexican explorers followed after news of the desirable land but no official settlement came until much later, in 1769. Brittanica reports that that’s when the first presidio — a military post — was placed there, which operated as a settlement of its own until becoming a pueblo in the 1830s.

Though San Diego became incorporated when California joined the U.S. in 1850, a bankruptcy resulted in the city losing its charter just two years later, according to the San Diego City Clerk’s Office. The city operated under a board of trustees and remained that way until 1889, when a new charter was adopted.

San Francisco

Established as a Spanish mission and presidio in 1776, the eventual home of the Golden Gate Bridge was originally spotted by European explorers seven years earlier, as HISTORY explains.

In the early 1800s, HISTORY reports the Mission San Francisco de Asis “was the center of spiritual and material life” for over 1,000 locals.

Mexico gained control of the area in 1821, though the U.S. acquired San Francisco territory in 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The bustling area continued growing, becoming a hub for the entire state, and was ultimately incorporated in April 1850, during the famed gold rush.


While California’s fourth and current capital was colonized by Mexico under the name Nueva Helvetia, or “New Switzerland,” in 1839, the valley was discovered earlier by settlers, Brittanica explains. A Spanish explorer and writer named Pedro Fages had already previously named the valley’s river after the Christian Holy Sacraments.

The discovery of gold in the area led to massive population growth over the following 10 years, helping the city earn a charter in 1849. As the City of Sacramento reports, this makes Sacramento “the oldest incorporated city in California.”

Interesting tidbit: the Gold Rush is rumored to have begun after talk about gold in the Sacramento area was leaked at a tavern in Benicia, according to the City of Benicia.

Ultimately, California legislative business moved to Sacramento in 1854 and the city was chosen as the permanent state capital in 1879.