This article explores how education reformers in California pioneered forms of centralized educational governance between 1850 and 1879. Challenging previous scholarship that has attributed the success of this early educational state to reformer John Swett and New England migrants, this article situates the creation of common schools in California within the larger context of American state-building in the nineteenth-century West. While increased state authority over education was a goal for reformers across the nation, this article contends that California's early innovations in centralization reflected a regionally specific response to the dilemmas of governing a recently acquired territory distant from eastern centers of power. The precarious nature of elite attempts to convert California into an American place, reflected in perceived lawlessness, weak governmental authority, and racial anxiety, inspired forms of educational organization commonly associated with Progressive Era responses to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. The desire to promote nineteenth-century American racial and governmental order in California, this article concludes, powerfully shaped the growth of public education in the state, influencing the organization of schooling in ways that suggest the importance of looking beyond the Northeast to understand the development of public education in the United States.