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Orange County History: Pre-1850

Early History

Orange County was first settled by the Native Indians; there were the Gabrieleños and the Juaneños. The names given to these two groups of Indians comes from the Missions that they were closest to: Mission San Gabriel and Mission San Juan Capistrano. They were peaceful people who had great respect for the land. They rarely fought each other. If they did, however, it was because of family feuds that might occur. These would be carried on through many generations. These Indians also had many sacred grounds, one of which is really close to my house: the Bolsa Chica Mesa. I've heard that the Mesa served as a place where only the high religious leaders were able to go. From the Mesa, the Indians could see a great view of the ocean as well as present day Long Beach and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Regular lay-people could not go to the Mesa, since it was sacred.


Sometime in the 1700's, Gaspar de Portolá was commissioned by the Spanish Crown to explore and map the California Coast and to find viable trade routes. He entered Orange County along with Franciscan Monks who hoped to convert the Native Indians. Their first Baptism, performed by Father Juan Crespi and Father Francisco Gomes, came in the area near present day San Clemente, where they have an annual La Christianita Pageant celebration to commemorate this milestone. Portolá gave many of the names of rivers, mountains, and valleys in honor of Catholic Saints. For example, this party named the Santa Ana River. Its full name is Río de la Santa Ana de los Temblores, because there was an earthquake about the time they reached the river. Also, the foothill regions of South County (around El Toro, etc.) was originally given a Christian name, but it was nicknamed Trabuco because a soldier had lost his Trabuco (blunderbuss in Spanish, I think meaning some sort of gun) there. The road they traveled on later became known as El Camino Real. Today, El Camino Real still exists, and is mostly replaced by Interstate 5 for most of the county. The party continued on to Los Angeles County and later to end up in Monterey (even though they missed it and reached the San Francisco Bay, but they got there eventually).

The Mission Era

Among the people who accompanied Portolá was Father Junipero Serra. He looked for good sites on which he could build missions to work the land and convert the Indians. He did see a good site on the San Juan River, and in 1776, with the founding of the United States, he founded Mission San Juan Capistrano. Father Serra built the mission twice; the first time it was abandoned because of word of an Indian uprising. The fathers buried the church bell and returned to the Presidio in San Diego to take refuge. They came back in 1776 to rebuild the mission. Mission SJC 
(53.3KB); From SJC Chamber of Commerce Father Serra named Mission San Juan Capistrano after an Italian Saint whom he admired greatly. The mission was a great center for activity: there were thousands of Indians working the land. Few Indians converted to Christianity, however, but eventually they did because the Spanish government said that Indians could own land if they converted. However, with the independence of Mexico in the 1820's, John Forster 
(25.5KB); From Pamela Hallan-Gibson that proclamation was also gone. The new Mexican Government was not as supportive of the Missions as the Spanish were, and the Indians were forced to leave the Missions and work the land. Before the Spanish left, however, they divided the land into many subdivisions, known as Ranchos. Most of the Indians were not granted land ownership. The ownership was parceled out by way of Spanish and Mexican Land Grants. Among the landowners at that time were the Yorba family, the Peralta family, as well as John Forster. Forster married the sister of the last Mexican Governor, Pio Pico, and was able to acquire large parcels of land in South County. By the close of the Mexican rule of Alta California, the Missions were in a state of disrepair, abandoned. For a while, John Forster used Mission San Juan Capistrano as his home.
Created by Kenneth Kao.