History of Orange County, California

 By John-Robin Middlebrook

Orange County Landscape

Orange County Landscape

Orange County, located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area of Southwest California, is a heavily populated county that includes several cities today and has a long and rich history.

Several Native American tribes dwelled in the area, including the Tongva, Juaneño, and Luiseño, before the Spanish colonization began in the late 1700s. The two major groups of American Indians in Orange County were thought to originate from the Shoshonean family. They became known as the Gabrieleños and the Juaneños because of their proximity to the San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano Missions.

March of Gaspar de Portola, by W. Francis

March of Gaspar de Portola, by W. Francis

In the late 1700s, the Spanish set out on a military campaign to colonize the West coast of the New World. The Spanish expeditionary leaders sought to rapidly transform California’s American Indian population into Spanish citizens to strengthen ties to Spain. In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá became the first Spanish military leader from Europe to officially explore and write about the territory of Orange County. He named many of its rivers, mountains, and valleys after the Catholic Saints. The Spanish Empire wanted to colonize quickly on the West coast because their enemy, Britain, was preoccupied on the East coast with the Revolutionary War.

The Spanish promised to give land to the American Indians in exchange for their support of colonization. This was the opposite of the British, who opposed assimilating American Indians into the British colonies. The Spanish also encouraged intermarriage between Spanish soldiers and American Indians. For example, Jose Antonio Yorba, born in Spain in 1746, from whom Yorba Linda in Orange County was eventually named, became a corporal under Gaspar de Portolá during the Spanish expedition of 1769. Yorba married an American Indian by the name of Maria Garcia Feliz at Monterey and had two children.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, California by Carol Highsmith.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, California by Carol Highsmith.

While the Spanish military was busy colonizing California for its resources, the Spanish Christian missionaries migrated to California to convert American Indians to Christianity. Father Serra from the Christian Franciscan order, best known for its vows of poverty, traveled with other Christian missionaries funded by the Spanish Empire and the Jesuits from Baja California to build missions. On November 1, 1776, the Franciscans built the first modern building of Orange County, known as the San Juan Capistrano Mission, which became the seventh mission of 21 in California.

Father Serra soon fled the mission after it was built because of opposition by the American Indians. However, he came back and began to teach the American Indians the Christian religion. Because the language was such a significant barrier between the Spanish and American Indians, the Christian missionaries taught American Indians practical job training skills such as tanning, winemaking, blacksmithing, small business operations, and ranching.

Franciscan Priests

Franciscan Priests

Christian missionary life took place amid a very aggressive military campaign by the Spanish Empire. The Spanish military was trying to colonize large amounts of California to take over the New World eventually.

To date, there seems to be more bad reports depicting how the American Indians were treated within the Christian missions than there are good reports. Still, it is important to note that the most powerful force in the colonization of California was the Spanish military and not the Spanish Christian missions, even though the Christian mission did become the most widely recognized historical icon going back to that time. Some Christian missionaries created very bad laws, including demanding that the American Indians not leave the missions once converted to Christianity. Many runaways were hunted down and forced into slave labor at the mission after conversion. However, most Christian missionaries were frustrated by the idea of American Indian labor used by the military and the settlers. Many American Indians joined the missions willingly.

It has also been discovered that at the highest point of missionary development in California, many American Indians worked only 4-5 hours a day and spent the rest of the time in choir, mass, instruction, and worship. The problem was that the Christian friars at the highest levels viewed the new American Indian converts, or neophytes as they were called, as spiritual children and not as equal and capable leaders. Thus, American Indian social growth was stunted as they were not recognized as equal citizens. However, the California mission period did not last long enough to establish mutual trust between the two cultures.

Los Angeles, California Pueblo by Carl Nebel in about 1840.

Los Angeles, California area Pueblo by Carl Nebel in about 1840.

The missionary period in California lasted less than two generations, conservatively from 1776-1833, but probably not even that long. It is difficult to understand how much influence the Spanish military and war factions had in the mission’s operations. There was also the problem of the disease brought by the Spanish to the American Indians. The majority of American Indians were not killed by violence but rather were decimated by three major epidemics, two of which were breakouts of smallpox and measles, and both had no cure at the time. These periodic outbreaks caused many American Indians to doubt the Christian faith.

Between 1776 and 1821, Spain remained in sole control of Orange County and California, with hardly any land concessions to individual families. One or two exceptions included one military leader, Juan Pablo Grijalva, who received title to some California lands. During this time, small bands of British, Russian, and French traders also came to the region to trade with the missionaries and American Indians.

Mexicans in California

Mexicans in California

In 1810, a significant change occurred when the Mexican and Spanish governments began fighting for land. In 1821 Mexico beat Spain and declared itself an independent nation. The following year, the Mexican flag replaced the Spanish flag in Orange County. Almost immediately afterward, Mexico took away the promise of land from the American Indians and gave land to certain petitioning individuals who could show that they had enough resources to build a dwelling on the land in less than one year and cultivate the land for the Mexican government. American Indians were deeply upset over their lost promise for obtaining land and were no longer happy living in the missions. Since Spanish resources were spread thinly across North and South America during the fighting, supplies going to the missions became scarce. The missions and American Indians were left to fend for themselves. Immediately many missions in California were abandoned, and the churches fell in ruins.

In 1833 the Mexican government secularized all of the California missions and took them away from control by the church. At this time, the mission system of California had ended. The Mexican government tried to revert the land to American Indian control immediately.

Laguna Beach, California

Laguna Beach, California

However, once the land was taken from the church, the Spanish and Mexican governments and local factions fought for ownership of the real estate in Southern California and surrounding regions. The American Indians were outnumbered by ranchers from the United States and Mexico who forced the American Indians into slavery on their growing private ranches. Some American Indians managed to retreat away from the ranch settlements into the mountains. The Mexican government’s control of Orange County following landowners these lands:

  • In 1837 Rancho Cienega de las Ranas was granted to José Sepúlveda.
  • In 1837 San Juan Cajón de Santa Ana was granted to Juan Pacífico Ontiveros.
  • In 1841 Rancho Bolsa Chica was granted to Joaquín Ruiz.
  • In 1842 La Bolsa de San Joaquín was granted to Sepúlveda.
  • In 1842 Rancho Cañada de Los Alisos was granted to José Serrano.
  • In 1842 Rancho Niguel was granted to José Ávila.
  • In 1843 Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena gave the Rios tract to Santiago Rios.
  • In 1845 Rancho Potrero Los Piños was granted to Don Juan Forster, who also bought the San Juan Capistrano Mission for his residence.
  • In 1846 Rancho Boca de la Playa was granted to Emigdio Vejar and Rancho Lomas de Santiago was granted to Teodocio Yorba, both by Mexican Governor Pío Pico.
California Ranch

California Ranch

While Mexico controlled California, large rancher owners oversaw the development of the commercial property, homes, and land in Orange County for their commerce. During that time, United States Americans from the Midwest and the Eastern United States began to colonize the West. There were disturbances between Mexican provincial administrators and the United States citizens. Soon after that, the United States and Mexico were in a war.

The Mexican-American War lasted from 1846 to 1848. The Mexican government fled as U.S. troops advanced, and on February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in which the Mexican government sold 55% of its territory, including Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah for $15 million to compensate for war damages. California became the 31st state of the United States. A year later, in 1849, the California Gold Rush began.

After California became part of the United States, any landowner who did not have paperwork for their ownership lost their land. Most landowners lost their land since Spain and Mexico did not typically provide adequate paperwork to show proper boundaries for the land in California. The U.S. government then took the land and sold it back at very affordable rates to local farmers and pioneers from the Eastern and Midwestern states who came to California.

Irvine Ranch, California

Irvine Ranch, California

In 1862, a horrendous set of natural disasters struck Orange County and changed everything. First, a flood swept through the region and set up the perfect conditions for a massive plague academic which became a smallpox outbreak that killed many Americans. Not long afterward, within the same year, a massive drought dried up all of Orange County’s crops and cattle ranches. The once-wealthy ranchers who received land from the Mexican and Spanish government before the Mexican American War lost all of their cattle and were forced into bankruptcy by high-interest rates set by merciless North American businessmen at a rate of 3% interest due per month on average. Local farmers also went bankrupt and lost their land.

Anaheim, Callifornia, 1887.

Anaheim, California, 1887.

Between 1863 and 1888, Orange County entered a “boomtown” period where settlers, developers, investors, farmers, ranchers, and locals built up the cities and communities that we now have today. James Irvine bought the Irvine Ranch, then about one-fifth of the total amount of real estate in Orange County. Anaheim became the first city in Orange County to incorporate in 1876. Santa Ana was formed out of a mustard field found by William Spurgeon after he bought 74 acres and sold them a piece at a time, beginning a year after he bought the land in 1869. Presbyterian minister Lemuel P. Webber founded Westminster in 1870. Orange was founded by Chapman (Chapman University in Orange was named in his memory) and Glassell. Newport, Fullerton, and Buena Park were established between 1874-1888.

In 1888 the state of California recognized the County of Orange. Orange County came into being because the people of the three incorporated cities of Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Orange, with a total population of 13,000, convinced California legislatures that Los Angeles County was not giving enough resources to aid the people in the south part of Los Angeles County. There were far fewer city infrastructures than were in Los Angeles County cities, including fewer roads and bridges that were needed.

Santa Ana, California, 1887

Santa Ana, California, 1887

With a population three times that of Anaheim, Santa Ana lobbied to have the main county building in their city and be the county seat. Santa Ana tried to create a county line at Coyote Creek, but when the people of Anaheim found out, they pushed for legislators to make the boundary farther out at the San Gabriel River because they did not want Santa Ana to be the county seat. Legislators agreed to set it at the Coyote Creek, which infuriated the people of Anaheim and turned them against having a county separate from Los Angeles. The state agreed to hold elections to decide on whether there would be a new county for the people of Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Orange. $50,000 was given by people from Orange County so they could recognize them. State government officials passed a measure soon after through the house and senate to establish Orange County. Votes cast by Orange County residents were 2,509 votes in favor of having their own county to 500 votes which opposed.

California Sunkist Oranges

California Sunkist Oranges

Next, a second election was held to determine whether Orange or Santa Ana would be the county seat. Santa Ana won 1,729 votes to 775. The majority of Anaheim registrants did not vote since their city was not placed on the ballot. The first baby born in Orange County was recorded in 1889; his name was Francis A. Edwards.

In the late 1800s, after Orange County was established, infrastructure and commerce increased faster. Santa Ana opened the first high school in Orange County in 1891. In 1893, Fullerton became home to the Fruit Exchange, which later turned into Sunkist. In 1894, San Juan Capistrano connected Orange County to Los Angeles by train. The Union Oil Company, now known as Unocal, bought large acreages of land that became the Brea-Olinda Oilfield. The first county jail was built in Santa Ana in 1896 under a jewelry shop the same year that Los Alamitos became known as the sugar beet town, and James McFadden developed Balboa, Lido, and Harbor Islands.

Brea Oilfield, California

Brea Oilfield, California

In 1899 the large Edison Electric Company bought out the Santa Ana Gas and Electric Company. In 1901 Philip Stanton found Pacific City, later known as Huntington Beach. In the same year, ten attorneys came together and formed the Orange County Bar Association. In 1902 Santa Ana Valley became the first hospital of O.C. In 1903 Philip Stanton found Bay City, which is now Seal Beach. The Pacific Electric Railway, known as the Red Car, connected Huntington Beach real estate to Seal Beach real estate in 1904 and reached Newport and Santa Ana in 1905. In 1908 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt renamed the Trabuco Canyon Reserve the Cleveland National Forest after former President Grover Cleveland. In 1911 Stanton incorporated to dodge becoming a place for sewage and then unincorporated in 1924. The first avocado grove was planted in 1913 in Yorba Linda by John T. Wheeden. In 1913 Fullerton Junior College became the first junior college in the county. In 1914 108 miles of road were marked for construction from municipal bond money. Cities and municipalities grew in Orange County from 1917 to 1929.

Walter and Cordelia Knott in front of their a ca. 1920's berry stand at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.

Walter and Cordelia Knott in front of their 1920’s berry stand at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.

The U.S. entered World War I in 1917, and in 1919 there was a victory parade celebrating the end of World War I held at the Orange County Park, which later became Irvine. In 1917 the City of Brea was established. The population of Orange County in 1920, according to the U.S. Census, was 61,375. Walter Knott set up his first farm in 1920, which is now the spot for a famous theme park known as Knott’s Berry Farm. Women were also allowed to sit on the Grand Jury in the same year. In 1921 the Orange County Library, County Health Department, and Eddie Martin Airport had their first opening. In 1922 Duke Kahanamoku brought surfing to Orange County, and KFAW was the first county radio station. Midway City was developed in 1922, halfway between Santa Ana and Long Beach, to house people who worked on the oil fields. Dana Point became a recognized development in 1924, La Habra was incorporated in 1925, and in the same year, San Clemente was recognized but did not incorporate until 1928. San Clemente was referred to as the “Spanish Village of the Sea.” Placentia formed in 1926 along with the Pacific Coast Highway, which opened between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. Tustin and Laguna Beach were incorporated in 1927. Nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange opened St. Josephs Hospital in 1929, and Ortega Highway construction began the same year.

Long Beach, California Earthquake, 1933.

Long Beach, California Earthquake, 1933.

The population of Orange County doubled from 1920 to 1940. In 1920 it was 61,375, and rose to 118,674 in 1930 and 130,760 in 1940. The Doheny Beach State Park was established after the death of Edward Doheny Jr. in 1931, and the first Laguna Beach Arts Festival took place in 1932. In 1933 the Long Beach Earthquake hit and devastated Orange County real estate. Bower’s Museum was opened in Santa Ana in 1936. Great changes took place in Orange County from the time the U.S. entered World War II in 1941 to the end of the 1940s. Two Air bases were built, the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station and the Santa Ana Army Air Base. Colorado River aqueducts provided drinking water to Orange County in 1941. 2,000 Japanese were deported out of Orange County into the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona. In 1943 the El Toro Marine Base opened. The first county public defender’s office arrived in 1944. In 1946 school segregation ceased, and in 1948 Orange Coast College opened.

Orange County, California Postcard

Orange County, California Postcard

In the 1950s and ’60s, many new cities emerged. The Orange County population increased to 216,224 in 1950, according to the U.S. Census. The California missions were given over to the Catholic Church by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s

Interstate 5 began construction in 1950. Southern California Bible College, currently known as Vanguard University, became the first four-year degree school in Orange County in 1950 after moving from Pasadena to Costa Mesa. The Tustin Navy based reopened in 1951 to support U.S. troops in the Korean War. Buena Park and Costa Mesa incorporated in 1953. Garden Grove, Stanton, and Dairy City, later named Cypress, were incorporated in 1956. In 1957, Westminster and Fountain Valley emerged as cities. Orange County State College, later named California State University Fullerton, opened in 1959 when the San Diego 405 Freeway was built.

Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California by Carol Highsmith.

Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California by Carol Highsmith.

In 1960 the Orange County population increased to 703,925. The City of Los Alamitos was established in 1960, San Juan was incorporated the following year, and Villa Park became a city in 1962. The University of California Irvine began in 1964. La Palma originated from a former area known as Dairyland in 1965, and a year later, Mission Viejo was founded. Yorba Linda was incorporated in 1967, and the same year, Fashion Island, South Coast Plaza, the Orange County Airport, named the John Wayne Airport in 1978 after Newport Beach resident John Wayne died, and the 22 Freeway was built.

Municipalities and commerce grew in the 1970s and 1980s in Orange County. In 1970 the Orange County population rose to 1,420,386, according to the U.S. Census. Irvine was incorporated in 1971. In the same year, Rockwell International constructed a one-of-a-kind building called “Ziggurat” in Laguna Niguel, which, in 1974, became the headquarters for numerous federal agencies, including the Federal Records Center. The concept for the Irvine Business Spectrum came about in 1975 and 50,000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Vietnam War were admitted into Orange County. In 1976 the Orange Freeway 57 was finished, and in 1979 the Corona Del Mar Freeway 73 was also completed. In the 1980s, cities grew, and new centers for culture and commerce emerged. In 1980 the population in Orange County reached 1,931,570, according to the U.S. Census.

Crystal Cathedral in garden Grove, California by Carol Highsmith.

Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California by Carol Highsmith.

The largest religious structure in the state, the Crystal Cathedral, opened in 1980, and the first nuclear emergency drill was practiced in 1981. A famous writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, scribed the first of his series Three Californias Trilogy (or the Orange County Trilogy) titled The Wild Shore in 1984, The Gold Coast in 1988, and Pacific Edge in 1990. The books depicted possible futures for Orange County. The Costa Mesa 55 commuter lane opened in 1985. The Performing Arts Center opened in Costa Mesa in 1986. Dana Point and Laguna Niguel were incorporated in 1989.

During the 1990s, Orange County experienced a rise in commercial growth and political corruption. In 1990 the population of Orange County reached 2,410,556. Laguna Hills and Lake Forest were incorporated in 1991. Orange County filed Chapter 9 Bankruptcy after municipalities gambled the county’s money away in the stock market. In 1994 the Richard Nixon Library opened in Yorba Linda in memory of his death. The Irvine Spectrum Center was built in 1995. In the same year, Republican Assemblyman Scott Baugh from Huntington Beach was indicted on four felony and eighteen misdemeanor counts related to campaign contribution misrepresentation. The most famous political party voted on by the people of Orange County was “none of the above.” In 1998, the “Block,” a shopping center, opened in Orange, and a public relations specialist was hired for the first time in history to promote District Attorney Tony Rackauckas of Orange County. In 1999, the El Toro and Marine Corps Air Stations closed, Laguna Woods, incorporated, and Highway 261 was completed.

An upswing followed the New Millennium in Orange County in California real estate and government budget cuts mandated by the State. In 2000, according to the U.S. Census, Orange County’s population rose to 2,846,289. In 2000, the Orange County High School of the Arts was founded in Santa Ana. Rancho Santa Margarita and Aliso Viejo were incorporated the following year. Orange County voters agreed to have El Toro Air Base turned into a park in 2002. In 2003 Governor Gray Davis was recalled, and American action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger took his place. In 2004 and 2005, Orange County residents packed and moved to Riverside and San Bernardino Counties to buy more affordable homes. Now those counties are in a boom and development stage. In 2005, the Visitor’s Bureau of Huntington Beach trademarked the term “Surf City USA.”

Newport Beach, California Waterway by Carol Highsmith.

Newport Beach, California Waterway by Carol Highsmith.

By John-Robin Middlebrook, edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.

Also See:

Santa Monica at the End of Route 66

Los Angeles – City of Angels

California Main Page

California Photo Galleries

About the Author: This history of Orange County, California, was part of an original research project by South California Real Estate Agent John-Robin Middlebrook posted June 11, 2005. Southern California real estate information and experience can be obtained from Realtor John-Robin Middlebrook relating to Los Angeles real estate (Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, Long Beach, Lakewood) and Orange County real estate (Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Huntington Harbor, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Irvine, Newport Beach) to buyers, sellers and industry professionals.

Sources:

Answers.com – History of California
California Indians Memorial
Historic Adobes of Los Angeles County
Orange County Almanac
Timeline of Orange County