YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Evolution Of Orange County

November 14, 1987

Some 150 years ago, the only traffic congestion in Orange County was at the water hole. In the early 1800s, the county was a collection of vast ranchos, or ranches, where cattle far outnumbered people.

In the heyday of the ranchos, branded longhorn cattle grazed unfenced expanses of land that were granted to adventurers by the King of Spain and the Mexican government beginning in the 1830s. Landowners flourished on 20 loosely-marked cattle ranches.

To set the far-reaching boundaries, grantees, witnesses and a band of spectators gathered with a magistrate in charge to observe the event. Surveyors and assistants spoke an oath of trust before taking up the reata , a rawhide rope measuring about 280 feet and attached at each end with a long pole. The first mounted surveyor planted the pole at the starting point while a second rider rode ahead to the rope's full length, where he planted the opposite pole. Steer heads, a cluster of trees or prickly pear cactus often marked boundaries--sufficient during the rancho period--but chaos in later years when land patents were in dispute.

During the golden era, landowning "dons" such as Franciscan-educated Bernardo Yorba brought more than cattle ranching to the landscape. Yorba's Rancho Canon de Santa Ana, granted in 1834, was a social and business center on the hills above the Santa Ana River. In addition to a landmark 30-room hacienda, he employed washerwomen, winemakers, woolcombers, tanners, a dressmaker, shoemakers, a carpenter, blacksmith, a cook and a baker. Indians who left declining missions worked on the ranchos as poorly paid cowboys, ranch hands and servants. They lived in clusters of huts called indiadas or on nearby rancherias.

Cattle that roamed the hillsides were rounded up at the annual rodeo and fiesta--branded steers were divided by owner--while mavericks and new calves were given to the rancho hosting the event. Beef was not a valued commodity--deer and bear were preferred for eating. Cattle hides and tallow were traded for imported goods. Not until the California Gold Rush did a demand for beef bring the onset of great cattle drives in the 1850s. Rains that began on Dec. 24, 1861, brought four months of showers and a great flood. A severe drought followed. Land grants were parceled for cheap sale and eventually broken down for distribution to heirs. It was during this period of plunging property values and decline that Northern California sheep ranchers bought Southern California rancho land at bargain prices. Rancho San Joaquin, created in 1842 when Rancho Bolsa de San Joaquin and Rancho Cienega de las Ranas were merged, was purchased by Flint, Bixby and Company in 1864 for $18,000. By 1866, Rancho Lomas de Santiago was purchased for a mere $7,000. James Irvine, Sr., in partnership with Flint and Bixby, managed the combined area of the three original ranches. The sheep survived the drought, and Irvine, who bought out the company, became sole landowner of a whopping 93,000 acres. The Irvine Co., still Orange County's largest landowner, owns 68,000 acres at a value--reached in a 1986 agreement between Irvine Co. and the County Assessors office--of $2.5 billion.

While the ranchos are gone, their Spanish names endure today in the community names of Santa Ana, La Habra, Mission Viejo, Los Alamitos, Laguna Niguel and Brea, Trabuco Canyon and Bolsa Chica.

Clipboard researched by Rick VanderKnyff, Dan Crump, Nancy Reed, Henry Rivero, Deborrah Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times OLD RANCHOS

Rancho name Meaning La Habra The valley Santa Gertrudes Saint Gertrude Los Coyotes The coyotes La Puente The bridge San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana Saint John's ra- vine of Saint Anne Rincon de la Brea Corner of the tar Canon de Santa Ana Canyon of Saint Anne Santiago de Santa Ana Saint James of Saint Anne Los Alamitos Little cotton- woods or willows Bolsa Chica Little pockets or bays Las Bolsas The pockets or bays Lomas de Santiago Hills of Saint James San Joaquin Saint Joachim Canada de Los Alisos Canyon of the Alders Trabuco Blunderbuss (short firearm) Niguel Named after an Indian village Boca de la Playa Mouth of the beach Rios Granted to Santiago Rios Mission Vieja or La Paz Old mission; the peace Portrero Los Pinos Pasture land in the pines

Los Angeles Times Articles