Official recognition of historical sites began in Los Angeles in 1895 with the formation of the Landmarks Club under the leadership of Charles Lummis. The Landmarks Club was dedicated to the preservation of historical sites throughout California, starting with the Spanish missions. In 1902, the California Historical Landmarks League was incorporated in San Francisco for similar purposes. This group further sought to "place in appropriate places memorial tablets commemorative of historic places and events."
The landmark program became official in 1931, when legislation required the director of the Department of Natural Resources "to register and mark buildings of historical interest or landmarks." The Natural Resources director delegated the California State Chamber of Commerce to administer the program. The chamber formed a committee to evaluate potential sites. The committee included some of the most prestigious historians of the time: Aubrey Drury, Francis Farquhar, Carl I. Wheat, Herbert Bolton, DeWitt V. Hutchings, Senator Leroy A. Wright, and Lawrence Hill.
The first twenty landmarks were officially designated on June 1, 1932. The emphasis was on well-known places and events in California History, especially missions, early settlements, battles, and the gold rush. By the end of the program's first year, a total of 78 historical landmarks had been registered.
Many early markers were placed through the efforts of such groups as the Native Sons of the Golden West, Native Daughters of the Golden West, and Daughters of the American Revolution. These and other historically motivated organizations carried on a marking program until 1948, the centennial year of the gold discovery, when the State Legislature set up the California Centennial Commission.
This early program was ambitious, but not without its quirks. Landmarks were registered without criteria; documentation requirements were minimal, and some properties were registered simply on the basis of hearsay or local legend.
To assure greater integrity and credibility, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee in May 1949. In 1962 the Committee adopted registration criteria. In 1970, the Committee added to the established criteria. Strict adherence to these criteria has lent dignity and integrity to the landmark program.
To be eligible for designation as a Landmark, a resource must meet at least one of the following criteria:
Legislation in 1974 changed the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to the State Historical Resources Commission. The Commission has adopted a policy for marking satellite or thematic landmarks that are related to an existing California Registered Historical Landmark. Satellite landmarks are related sites that have the same number as the first application, but with the addition of a hyphen and the number "1." Thus the 1844 Fremont Expedition in California (San Joaquin County) is No. 995, while the second request (Mono County) is registered as No. 995-1.
A few landmarks are related to one another by a theme (thematic landmark) that identifies their historical, social, or architectural significance, but are not landmark sites integrally identified with, and contiguous with one another. Examples include Native American Ceremonial Roundhouses (No. 1001), Twentieth Century Folk Art Environments (No. 939), Japanese American Temporary Detention Camps (No. 934), and Light Stations of California (No. 951).
Landmarks numbered 770 and above are automatically listed in the California Register of Historical Resources. Landmarks from No. 1 through No. 769 will be reevaluated using current standards at some time in the future.