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California Counties and Historical Facts

California Counties records can vary vastly from county to county both in quality and quantity. Some happen to have been carefully maintained while others have been substantially misused and overlooked. A certain amount of California records have simply disappeared. For genealogists carrying out research in California there’s no effective substitute to have an on-site search of county court house records. For Definitions of all court terms see the Genealogy Encyclopedia.

California Counties – On January 4, 1850, the California constitutional committee recommended the formation of 18 counties. They were Benicia, Butte, Fremont, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Monterey, Mount Diablo, Oro, Redding, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Sutter.

California is divided into 58  counties. Each county serves as the local level of government within its borders. Counties are responsible for all elections, property-tax collection, maintenance of public records such as deeds, and local-level courts within their borders, as well as providing law enforcement (through the county sheriff and sheriff’s deputies) to areas that are not within incorporated cities.

Some counties encompass land settled in the eighteenth century; their records pre-date county formation. Land transactions and vital records recorded in the county are at the county recorder’s office. The county clerk general has probate books and files from the county’s superior court, civil court records, and naturalizations. Divorces may be in either place, depending on how filed. See also a list of links to county and county seat government run websites.

The 27 Original Counties Of California:

A committee of California’s first constitutional convention was convened on January 4, 1850. It was chaired by General Mariano Vallejo. At this committee meeting, it was suggested that California be split into 18 counties. They were:

Benicia, Butte, Fremont, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Monterey, Mt. Diablo, Oro, Redding, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Sutter

The committee later suggested some other changes and, from January 4, 1850 to February 18, 1850, the following 9 counties were added to the list, making a total of 27 counties:

Branciforte, Calaveras, Coloma, Colusi, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Trinity, Yuba

The committee also changed the names of several of the original counties at that time. Those changes were:

Benicia to El Dorado, Fremont to Yola, Mt. Diablo to Contra Costa, San Jose to Santa Clara, Oro to Tuolumne, Redding to Shasta

This meant that, as of February 18, 1850, the 27 counties in California were:

Branciforte, Butte, Calaveras, Colusi, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Los Angeles, Marin, Mariposa, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Shasta, Solano, Sonoma, Sutter, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yola, Yuba

Then, a little later in 1850, some legislature was adopted that caused some of the county names to change yet again. Branciforte became Santa Cruz and Colusi became Colusa. Yola, meanwhile, was changed to Yolo.

California gained its statehood on September 9, 1850, with its 27 counties. However, 32 more counties were created in the state after 1850. Of the original 27, only Marin county stayed exactly as it was, neither losing nor gaining land. Of the 32 created later, only 7 stayed as they were upon their creation. Those 7 are: Alameda, Alpine, Imperial, Madera, Modoc, Orange, Riverside

Many of the county boundaries have also experienced small changes over the years. The original county boundaries tended to follow the geography of the land, often being established along mountain ridges and similar natural features. These days, many of those boundaries have been altered to run along either section lines or township lines.

List of California Extinct Counties

Map of California Counties

California has counties that no longer exist. They were created by the state, provincial, or territorial authorities. A lot of these counties were established and disbanded in the Nineteenth century; county boundaries have adjusted very little since Nineteen hundred in the great most of states. These counties really should be investigated when doing genealogy research. Pay attention where the courthouse records went to if the county was eliminated or combined with some other county.

  • Branciforte County was one of the original 27 counties adopted by statutes of 1850, but soon after that the legislature changed the name to Santa Cruz County.
  • Coloma County was a county proposed by a committee of the California Constitutional Convention. Before the statute was adopted, the legislature changed the name to El Dorado County.
  • Coso County was approved by the State Legislature which designated territory in Mono County and Tulare County to be in the new county with the county seat at Bend City. Coso County, however, was never organized. In 1866 substantially the same territory was created as Inyo County.
  • Fremont County was a county proposed by a committee of the California Constitutional Convention. Before the statute was adopted, the legislature changed the name to Yola County and later changed the name to Yolo County.
  • Klamath County was created on 1851 from the northern half of Trinity County. In 1857 Klamath County lost significant territory to the newly formed Del Norte County. In 1875 Klamath County was abolished and its territory was divided between Humboldt County and Siskiyou County. Territory which at one time was in Klamath County is now in Del Norte County, Humboldt County, Siskiyou County, and Trinity County.
  • Mount Diablo County was a county proposed by a committee of the California Constitutional Convention. Before the statute was adopted, the legislature changed the name to Contra Costa County.
  • Oro County was a county proposed by a committee of the California Constitutional Convention. Before the statute was adopted, the legislature changed the name to Tuolumne County.
  • Pautah County was created on 1852, an act to be effective when the United States Congress ceded to the State of California the territory described, in what is now the State of Nevada. The County seat was to be Carsonville. California never acquired the territory and the act creating the county was repealed in 1859.
  • Redding County was a county proposed by a committee of the California Constitutional Convention. Before the statute was adopted, the legislature changed the name to Shasta County.

List of California Counties with Burned Courthouses

The damage to California courthouses considerably has a bearing on genealogists in just about every way. Not only are these types of historic buildings torn from all of our lifetimes, so are the archives they stored: marriage, wills, probate, land records, among others. Once destroyed they’re destroyed permanently. Despite the fact that they have already been placed on mircofilm, computers and film burn as well. The most tragic aspect of this is the reason why almost all of our courthouses are destroyed as a result of arsonist. Although, not all the records were damaged or lost. Many California counties have experienced a loss of records due to courthouse fires, floods, and theft.

  • Amador Co. Courthouse – Courthouse destroyed by fire in 1862. Some records were destroyed.
  • Del Norte Co. Courthouse– The courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1948. Some early records were destroyed.
  • El Dorado Co. Courthouse – A fire in 1910 & 1920 destroyed most courthouse records. For probate records prior to 1951, write County Nuseum, 100 Placerville
    Drive, Placerville, California 95667; for probate after 1951, write to Judicial Section, 495 Main Street, Placerville,
    California 95667.
  • Inyo Co. Courthouse – was destroyed by an earthquake March 26, 1872. On June 30, 1886 a fire broke out in a vacant building in Independence and destroyed thirty-eight buildings. Although the county records and most of the furniture were saved, the courthouse was one of the buildings destroyed.
  • Lake Co. Courthouse – courthouse in Lakeport burned down in 1867. All earlier records were destroyed.
  • Madera Co. Courthouse – A fire on Christmas Eve 1906 destroyed the upper floors and tower.
  • Nevada Co. Courthouse – The first courthouse was damaged by fire in 1856. Fire again damaged the courthouse in 1863.
  • Sacramento Co. Courthouse– The first courthouse, built in 1851, became the Capitol in 1854 and was destroyed in a fire that same year.
  • San Francisco Co. Courthouse – Courthouse and all records were destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.
  • Santa Clara Co. Courthouse – May 18, 1931, a fire quickly spread through the courthouse, causing extensive damage.
  • Shasta Co. Courthouse – All records were destroyed in the great fire of June 14th, 1853
  • Sierra Co. Courthouse – Fire in 1947 destroyed courthouse. No records were lost
  • Sonoma Co. Courthouse – was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Minor record Loss.
  • Sutter Co. Courthouse – The Courthhouse was destroyed by fire in 1871. A second and larger courthouse, completed in 1873, was also set fire.

List of California Counties

List of Califonia Counties

County Date Formed Parent County County Seat
Alameda 1853 Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties Oakland
Alpine 1864 Amador, El Dorado, Calaveras, Mono and Tuolumne Counties Markleeville
Amador 1854 Calaveras County Jackson
Butte 1850 Original County Oroville
Calaveras 1850 Original County San Andreas
Colusa 1850 Original County Colusa
Contra Costa 1850 Original County Martinez
Del Norte 1857 Klamath County Crescent City
El Dorado 1850 Original County Placerville
Fresno 1856 Mariposa, Merced and Tulare Counties Fresno
Glenn 1891 Colusa County Willows
Humboldt 1853 Trinity County Eureka
Imperial 1907 San Diego County El Centro
Inyo 1866 Mono and Tulare Counties Independence
Kern 1866 Los Angeles and Tulare Counties Bakersfield
Kings 1893 Tulare County Hanford
Lake 1861 Napa County Lakeport
Lassen 1864 Plumas and Shasta Counties, and now defunct Lake County, Nevada Susanville
Los Angeles 1850 Original County Los Angeles
Madera 1893 Mariposa County Madera
Marin 1850 Original County San Rafael
Mariposa 1850 Original County Mariposa
Mendocino 1850 Original County Ukiah
Merced 1855 Mariposa County Merced
Modoc 1855 Siskiyou County Alturas
Mono 1861 Calaveras, Fresno and Mariposa Counties Bridgeport
Monterey 1850 Original County Salinas
Napa 1850 Original County Napa
Nevada 1851 Yuba County Nevada City
Orange 1889 Los Angeles County Santa Ana
Placer 1851 Sutter and Yuba Counties Auburn
Plumas 1854 Butte County Quincy
Riverside 1893 San Bernardino and San Diego Counties Riverside
Sacramento 1850 Original County Sacramento
San Benito 1874 Monterey County Hollister
San Bernardino 1853 Los Angeles County San Bernardino
San Diego 1850 Original County San Diego
San Francisco 1850 Original County San Francisco
San Joaquin 1850 Original County Stockton
San Luis Obispo 1850 Original County San Luis Obispo
San Mateo 1856 San Francisco and Santa Cruz Counties Redwood City
Santa Barbara 1850 Original County Santa Barbara
Santa Clara 1850 Original County San Jose
Santa Cruz 1850 Original County Santa Cruz
Shasta 1850 Original County Redding
Sierra 1852 Yuba County Downieville
Siskiyou 1852 Shasta and Klamath Counties Yreka
Solano 1850 Original County Fairfield
Sonoma 1850 Original County Santa Rosa
Stanislaus 1854 Tuolumne County Modesto
Sutter 1850 Original County Yuba City
Tehama 1856 Butte, Colusa and Shasta Counties Red Bluff
Trinity 1850 Original County Weaverville
Tulare 1852 Mariposa County Visalia
Tuolumne 1850 Original County Sonora
Ventura 1872 Santa Barbara County Ventura
Yolo 1850 Original County Woodland
Yuba 1850 Original County Marysville

State Counties Guides

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