Most historical writings about West Hollywood began in the late 1700s with European colonization when the Portuguese explorer João Rodrigues Cabrilho arrived offshore and claimed the already inhabited region for Spain. Around 5,000 of the indigenous inhabitants from the Tongva Indian tribe canoed out to greet Juan Cabrillo. The Tongva tribe was a nation of hunter-gatherers known for their reverence of dance and courage. By 1771, these native people had been severely ravaged by diseases brought in by the Europeans from across wide oceans. The Spanish mission system changed the tribal name to "Gabrielinos", in reference to the Mission de San Gabriel. Early in 1770 Gaspar de Portola's Mexican expeditionary force stopped just south of the Santa Monica Mountains near what would become West Hollywood to draw pitch (la brea) from tar pits to waterproof their belongings and to say mass. The Gabrielinos are believed to have burned the pitch for fuel.
By 1780, what became the "Sunset Strip" was the major connecting road for El Pueblo de Los Angeles, and all ranches westward to the Pacific Ocean. This land passed through the hands of various owners during the next one hundred years, and it was called names such as "La Brea" and "Plummer" that are listed in historical records. Most of this area was part of the Rancho La Brea, and eventually it came to be owned by the Henry Hancock family.
During the final decade years of the nineteenth century, the first large land development in what would later become West Hollywood—the town of "Sherman"—was established by Moses Sherman and his partners of the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad, an interurban railroad line which later became part of the Pacific Electric Railway system. Sherman became the location of the railroad's main shops, railroad yards, and "car barns". Many working-class employees of the railroad settled in this town. It was during this time that the city began to earn its reputation as a loosely regulated, liquor-friendly (during Prohibition) place for eccentric people wary of government interference. Despite several annexation attempts, the town elected not to become part of the City of Los Angeles. In a controversial decision, in 1925 Sherman adopted "West Hollywood", "...a moniker pioneered earlier in the decade by the West Hollywood Realty Board" as its informal name, though it remained under the governance of Los Angeles County.
For many years, the area that is now the city of West Hollywood was an unincorporated area in the midst of Los Angeles. Because gambling was illegal in the city of Los Angeles, but still legal in Los Angeles County, the 1920s saw the proliferation of many casinos, night clubs, etc., along Sunset Boulevard (which starts in downtown Los Angeles and runs westward). These businesses were immune from the sometimes heavy-handed law-enforcement of the L.A. Police Department.
Some people connected with movie-making were attracted to this less-restricted area of the County, and a number of architecturally distinctive apartment buildings and apartment hotels were built. Many interior designers, decorators and "to the trade" furnishing showrooms located in West Hollywood dating back to the middle of the century.
Eventually, the area and its extravagant nightclubs fell out of favor. However, the Sunset Strip and its restaurants, saloons, and nightclubs continued to be an attraction for out-of-town tourists. During the late 1960s, the Sunset Strip was transformed again during the hippie movement which brought a thriving music publishing industry coupled with "hippie" culture. Some young people from all over the country flocked to West Hollywood.
The most recent migration to West Hollywood came about after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when thousands of Russian Jews immigrated to the city. A majority of the 5,000 to 6,000 Russian Jews settled in two major immigration waves, 1978–79 and 1988–92. Other than New York, West Hollywood's Russian-speaking community is the most concentrated single Russian-speaking region in United States.
In 1984, residents in West Hollywood organized to maintain rent control. When Los Angeles County began planning to discontinue rent controls, West Hollywood was a densely populated area of renters, many of whom would not be able to afford to keep up with the generally rapid raises in rent in the Los Angeles area. A tight coalition of seniors, Jews, gays and renters were greatly assisted by the Community for Economic Survival (CES) and they swiftly voted to incorporate as the "City of West Hollywood". West Hollywood then immediately adopted one of the strongest rent control laws in the nation.