The county is one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States in terms of population, but suffers from significant water supply issues and poor air quality.
Spain claimed the area in 1769. Entering from Grapevine Canyon to the south in 1772, Commander Don Pedro Fages became the first European to set foot in the area.
The Battle of San Emigdio took place in Kern County in March 1824. The Chumash Native Americans of Mission Santa Barbara rebelled against the Mexican government and its taking over mission property and ejecting the natives. The battle occurred in the canyon where San Emigdio Creek flows down San Emigdio Mountain and the Blue Ridge, south of Bakersfield near today's Highway 166. Mexican forces from Monterey were commanded by Carlos Carrillo and the conflict was a low-casualty encounter, with only four Native Americans being killed and no Mexicans. The surviving Native Americans were pacified and brought back to Santa Barbara in June 1824 after a pursuit and negotiation in which many were allowed to keep their arms for the return march over the mountains.
The Havilah Court building was restored in the 1970s and now serves as a museum. Photo circa 2007.
In the beginning, what was to become Kern County was dominated by mining in the mountains and in the desert. In 1855 the California legislature attempted to form a county in the area by giving the southeastern territory of Tulare County on the west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Buena Vista County. However, it was never officially organized prior to 1859, when the enabling legislation expired. The south of Tulare County was later organized as Kern County in 1866, with additions from Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. Its first county seat was the mining town of Havilah, in the mountains east of Bakersfield and north of Tehachapi.
Settlers considered the flat land of the valley inhospitable and impassable at the time due to swamps, lakes, tule reeds and diseases such as malaria. This changed when residents started draining land for farming and constructing canals, most dug by hired Chinese laborers. Within 10 years the valley surpassed the mining areas as the economic power of the county, and as a result the county seat was moved from Havilah to Bakersfield in 1874.
On July 21, 1952, an earthquake occurred with the epicenter about 23 miles (37 km) south of Bakersfield. It measured 7.3 on the moment magnitude scale and killed 12 people. In addition to the deaths, it was responsible for hundreds of injuries and more than $60 million in property damage. The main shock was felt over much of California and as far away as Phoenix, Arizona and Reno, Nevada. The earthquake occurred on the White Wolf Fault and was the strongest to occur in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Tehachapi suffered the greatest damage and loss of life from the earthquake, though its effects were widely felt throughout central and southern California. The event had a significant aftershock sequence that persisted into July and August with the strongest coming on August 22, an M5.8 event with a maximum perceived intensity of VIII (Severe) and resulted in two additional deaths and an additional $10 million in property damage. Repercussions of the sequence of earthquakes were still being felt in the heavily damaged downtown area of Bakersfield well into the 1990s as city leaders attempted to improve safety of the surviving non-reinforced masonry buildings.
Following the event, a field survey was conducted along the fault zone with the goal of estimating the peak ground acceleration of the shock based on visually evaluating rock formations and other indicators. Ground disturbances that were created by the earthquakes were also surveyed, both in the valley and in the foothills, with both vertical and horizontal displacements present in the epicenter area. The motion records that were acquired from the event were significant, and a reconnaissance report was recognized for its coverage of the event, and its setting a standard for similar engineering or scientific papers.
Between 1983 and 1986, several ritual sex ring child abuse cases occurred in Kern County, resulting in numerous long prison sentences, all of which were overturned—some of them decades later, because the prosecutors had coerced false testimonies from the purported child victims. The details of these false accusations are covered extensively in the 2008 documentary Witch Hunt, narrated by Sean Penn.
Map of Kern County
According to the United States Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 8,163 square miles (21,140 km2), of which 8,132 square miles (21,060 km2) is land and 31 square miles (80 km2) (0.4%) is water. It is the third-largest county by area in California. Its area is nearly the size of the state of New Hampshire; it extends:
Particulate pollution in Kern County varies with the seasons.
Kern County suffers from severe air pollution. Particulates cause poor visibility, especially in the winter. Western Kern County lies in the San Joaquin Valley and the topography traps pollutants. Although the topography is not as unfavorable in eastern Kern County, eastern Kern County is a non-attainment area for particulates. Air pollution caused by particulates is "in the unhealthy range an average of 40 days a year, according to the American Lung Association's (ALA) 2018 State of the Air Report.
Chaparral comprises a considerable portion of the natural area within Kern County; the species diversity within these chaparral habitats, however, is considerably less than in many other regions of California.Whitethorn is a prominent example of chaparral species on the rocky slopes of the Sierra Nevada as well as the Inner Coastal Ranges.California Buckeye is a notable tree found in both chaparral and forests and whose southern range terminates in Kern County.
The 2010 United States Census reported that Kern County had a population of 839,631. The racial makeup of Kern County was 499,766 (59.5%) White, 48,921 (5.8%) African American, 12,676 (1.5%) Native American, 34,846 (4.2%) Asian, 1,252 (0.1%) Pacific Islander, 204,314 (24.3%) from other races, and 37,856 (4.5%) from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 413,033 persons (49.2%); 43.4% of Kern County residents are of Mexican heritage, 1.0% Salvadoran, 0.5% Colombian, and 0.4% Guatemalan.
According to the 2000 United States Census of 2000, there were 661,645 people, 208,652 households, and 156,489 families residing in the county. The population density was 81 people per square mile (31/km2). There were 231,564 housing units at an average density of 28 per square mile (11/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 61.6% White, 6.0% Black or African American, 3.4% Asian, 1.5% Native American, 0.2% Pacific Islander, 23.2% from other races, and 4.1% from two or more races. 38.4% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. 8.4% were of German, 7.2% American and 5.7% Irish ancestry, according to the census. 66.8% spoke English, 29.1% Spanish and 1.0% Tagalog as their first language.
There were 208,652 households, out of which 42.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 54.6% were married couples living together, 14.5% had a female householder with no husband present, and 25.0% were non-families. 20.3% of all households were made up of individuals, and 7.8% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.03 and the average family size was 3.50.
In the county, the age distribution of the population shows 31.9% under the age of 18, 10.2% from 18 to 24, 29.8% from 25 to 44, 18.7% from 45 to 64, and 9.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 31 years. For every 100 females there were 105.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 105.3 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $35,446, and the median income for a family was $39,403. Males had a median income of $38,097 versus $25,876 for females. The per capita income for the county was $15,760. About 16.8% of families and 20.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 27.8% of those under age 18 and 10.5% of those age 65 or over.
Kern County is a California Constitution defined general law county and is governed by an elected Board of Supervisors. The Board consists of five members, elected by districts, who serve four-year staggered terms. The county government provides countywide services such as elections and voter registration, some law enforcement, jails, vital records, property records, tax collection, public health, and social services. In addition, the County serves as the local government for all unincorporated areas.
The Kern County Sheriff provides court protection, jail administration, and coroner services for the entire county of approximately 900,000 in population. It provides patrol and detective services for the unincorporated areas of the county and by contract to certain municipalities. The main Sheriff's office and station is at Bakersfield. There are 15 sheriff substations for the widespread county.
Municipal police departments in the county are: Bakersfield, population 384,000; Delano, 54,000; Ridgecrest, 29,000; Wasco (sheriff contract city), 28,000; Arvin, 21,000; Shafter, 20,000; McFarland, 15,000; California City, 14,671; Tehachapi, 13,000; Taft, 9,327; Maricopa (sheriff contract city), 1,200.
Kern is a strongly Republican county in Presidential and congressional elections. The last Democratic candidate for President to win a majority in the county was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Kern remains the only county in Southern California that consistently votes Republican in recent elections. Republicans have always won Kern County in landslides. However, the Republican margins have narrowed considerably in recent years, with Donald Trump only carrying the county by 10.2 points over Joe Biden in 2020, the worst performance for a Republican since 1976.
United States presidential election results for Kern County, California
The Kern County Fire Department (KCFD) is an agency that provides fire protection and emergency medical services for the county of Kern, California, USA. Over 625 permanent employees and 100 extra help employees protect an area which spans over 8,000 square miles (21,000 km2). KCFD provides fire protection services for over 500,000 citizens living in the unincorporated areas of Kern County and the cities of Arvin, Delano, Maricopa, McFarland, Ridgecrest, Shafter, Taft, Tehachapi and Wasco. This agency is contracted to provide dispatch services for the California City Fire Department, Kern Ambulance based in Wasco, and Liberty Ambulance of Bakersfield. Over 546 uniformed firefighters are stationed in 46 fire stations throughout the county.
The Kern County Sheriff's Department is the agency responsible for law enforcement within the county of Kern. The department provides law enforcement within the county, maintains the jails used by both the county and municipal cities, and provides search and rescue. The department contains over 1,200 sworn deputies and civilian employees. Its jurisdiction contains all of the unincorporated areas of Kern County, approximately 8,000 square miles (21,000 km2). The department headquarters is located at 1350 Norris Road in Bakersfield. There are 15 additional substations located throughout the county. The metro patrol area is divided into four regions: north, south, east, and west.
In 2009, the district attorney claimed "the highest per capita prison commitment rate of any major California county." Kern County contains multiple state and federal prisons, including two private prisons. As a result, the courts have been known to sentence a higher than average number of defendants to long prison sentences to help the local economy. The county is among the most prolific with the death penalty, assigning death penalty sentences in 26 cases since 1976. In 2015 Kern County policemen from all departments killed more people per capita than any other American county. Because of the very harsh local criminal justice system, Kern County has been dubbed "the most punitive authoritarian jurisdiction on the west coast" and "Oklahoma of the west". In 2015, it was revealed that the Kern County Sheriff's office engaged in a longstanding program of attempted cash payoffs to women who had accused deputies of sexual assault. In the same year, a civil lawsuit filed by a survivor of a sexual assault committed by Kern County Sheriff's deputy Gabriel Lopez was settled for $1 million.
Kern County also holds the distinction of having the most deaths per capita in the US by police shooting per an article published in The Guardian on December 1, 2015. In 2015 to the date of publication of the article, there have been 13 deaths by police shootings in a county of less than 875,000 population, or 0.016 per thousand persons. By comparison, during the same period of time in New York City, a population 10 times the size with a police force more than 20 times the size, there were 9 such deaths.
The following table includes the number of incidents reported and the rate per 1,000 persons for each type of offense.
Major producer of almonds with production greater than 100 million pounds annually.
As of 2015, Kern is California's top oil-producing county, with 78% of the state's 56,653 active oil wells and 71% of oil production. The county produced 144.5 million barrels of oil in 2015, accounting for about 4% of overall U.S. oil production.
Discovery and development
Oil development began with the 1894 discovery of the Midway-Sunset Oil Field, now the third-largest in the United States, in the southwestern portion of Kern County near Maricopa. The 1899 discovery along the Kern River was a breakthrough in oil production. Oil was refined here even before the establishment of the county. The Buena Vista Petroleum Company was organized and incorporated in 1864. Soon thereafter a refinery was built that operated until April 1867 when work ceased because of high freight charges.
The 1910 Lakeview Gusher was the largest recorded oil strike in U.S. history. The well spewed approximately nine million barrels for 18 months before workers finally were able to cap it.
On July 22, 2009, Occidental Petroleum announced it had discovered the equivalent of 150 million to 250 million barrels of oil in Kern County, which the company called the largest oil discovery in California in 35 years. The find added about 10 percent to California's known reserves. Occidental's Ray Irani said it is likely that more oil would be found in the areas outside the initial six wells that tapped the discovery. Occidental has not revealed the exact location of the find, two-thirds of which is natural gas. BNET, an industry web publication, said the find would add to the company's 708 million barrels of proven reserves in California.
The county today contributes more than three-quarters of all the oil produced onshore in California. Some of the large oil fields in Kern County which are still active include: