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Santa Cruz was originally settled by Native Americans, primarily the Ohlone tribe, about which relatively little is known. The Native Americans lived in the area peacefully (to the knowledge of researchers) taking advantage of the mild climate and abundant land and sea life along the coast.
In 1790 an order was signed to establish a Spanish mission at Santa Cruz (Holy Cross in English). Missions had already been established at Carmel, San Francisco, Soledad, Santa Clara, and Monterey. The Santa Cruz mission was designed to protect Alta California from the Russians who founded a settlement at Kodiak Island, Alaska and were believed to be on the move southward into California (they eventually made it as far south as the Fort Ross, California). The Russians were in California at the time hunt sea otters for their highly prized pelts.
The Santa Cruz Mission was never very successful and was in constant conflict with the Branciforte pueblo across town. The pueblo was a rough and tumble community that lured Indians and Mexicans from the mission. A pair of earthquakes in 1840 and 1857 ruined the old Spanish Adobe Mission. The new church, built in 1858, was a New England style wooden building and served the Catholic community in Santa Cruz. The new church is what stands today as Holy Cross Church. That ushered in a change in the flavor of Santa Cruz. from that point on the town embraced a more Yankee look and feel, while Monterey to the south continued it's Spanish and Mexican orientation. In the 1860's the commercial center of Santa Cruz moved off of mission hill and down onto the flood plain. The town that sprung up was fueled by commerce in logging, fishing, tanning of hides, gunpowder manufacture, and lime kilns used in making concrete.
The little retirement town chugged along sleepily through the first half of the 20th century and eventually became the location of the Miss California Pagent. In the 1960's Santa Cruz was chosen as a site for a new camups of the University of California. This, more than anything, has had an impact on today's Santa Cruz. The influx of of young people changed Santa Cruz into a town with a progressive and youthful outlook. University students come for an education and then stay on as life long residents, swelling the city's population and adding to the ranks of progressive and liberal leanings.
Like most small cities, Santa Cruz has struggled to keep its downtown businesses alive with competition from shopping malls in the suburbs. In 1989 a strong earthquake destroyed much of the historic downtown in Santa Cruz. At the time, the loss was overwhelming. Over the next 10 years the city rebuilt its downtown infrastructure and brought residential use to the downtown. Today, downtown Santa Cruz is alive and vibrant almost all day and night.