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Land of Memories : Glimpses of Old Ranchos Survive

May 03, 1990|DAN LOGAN | Dan Logan is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Before the Gold Rush, California was a backwater. In 1830, only 4,000 to 5,000 people--not including unbaptized Indians--lived in the state. Cattle wandered free across the fenceless countryside, and the Mexican government paid little attention to record keeping and boundaries when it granted large parcels of land to a few lucky men.

The land grants were the basis of modern Orange County history. While our lives may not seem connected to those settlers of 150 or more years ago, we are still tied to the past by words and memories--and by four artifacts that have survived the development of the original ranchos.

Amid modern-day housing tracts, you can find evidence that history is close at hand.


What is now the Rancho San Joaquin golf course on the San Diego Creek in Irvine was, for more than 100 years, a hub of cattle and sheep ranching. The marshy land north of the Newport Back Bay stretched all the way to Red Hill in Tustin; in fact, the land was swampy enough that wagons had to avoid it by swinging further north, according Irvine archeologist Stephen O'Neil.

Rancho San Joaquin had originally been granted to Jose Andres Sepulveda, a dandyish rancher who thrived on horse racing and gambling. At some point Sepulveda, whose hacienda stood near what is now First Street and the Santa Ana River, built the adobe on the creek site as an outpost for his riders.

In 1864, hamstrung by debt, Sepulveda sold the rancho's 50,000 acres to James Irvine Sr. and his partners for $18,000. By 1869, Irvine owned 110,000 acres of land and 40,000 sheep.

In 1868, Irvine built a new headquarters only a few yards from the adobe site. The adobe deteriorated, its shrinking walls eventually becoming covered over.

It wasn't until builders excavated the foundation for the Rancho San Joaquin golf course clubhouse and discovered a wall that anyone realized that part of the adobe still existed. The site has been fenced in, but the remains were covered over to protect them, and nothing is visible within the enclosure.

The headquarters that Irvine built has been turned into the Irvine Historical Museum. It was only quite recently, in 1969, that the Rancho San Joaquin condominiums were begun on the site. A 1964 photo in the museum shows cowhands and cattle clustered near the building, with the sand traps and greens of the new golf course visible in the background.


At busy Esperanza Road and Echo Hill Lane in Yorba Linda, a stone marker barely noticeable from the road reminds passers-by that this was once the site of the Hacienda San Antonio. The hacienda, an impressive two-story, 18-room mansion, was home to the family, guests and workers of Bernardo Yorba.

Bernardo Yorba's story began when his father, Jose Antonio Yorba, who had been a member of the Portola expedition in 1769, was granted the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana in 1810. This was the only Spanish grant in Orange County, according to Orange County historian Don Meadows.

In 1834, Bernardo Yorba was granted the Rancho Canon de Santa Ana, 13,328 acres of land by the Mexican governor. Yorba eventually became so land-rich that he could ride all day on horseback in any direction without leaving his property.

Bernardo Yorba's life was fruitful even beyond the development of his great estate; he had 21 children by three wives. When he died in 1858 he was buried in Los Angeles, but later his body was returned to the family cemetery on the hill above his house.

The estate broke up as the heirs sold their shares. The hacienda was torn down in 1926 and replaced by a barley field.

A few blocks away from the hacienda site, the Yorba Cemetery on Parkwood Court now borders a small county park where children play baseball on the lawn. There's a well-known ghost story associated with the graveyard that has kept local history alive--if somewhat garbled and embellished--in the minds of the neighborhood children.

On December 2, 1910, Alvina de Los Reyes, who was 31, died in a carriage accident as she was returning home from a party. She was supposed to have been wearing a pink formal gown. A ghost known as the Pink Lady is reputed to appear as a pink mist over her grave. Orange County historian Pamela Hallan-Gibson says the tale has it that the Pink Lady appears in June in every even-numbered year.


Trabuco was the term for a Spanish musket, and Rancho Trabuco earned its name when a member of Gaspar de Portola's expeditionary force lost his musket in the area in 1769.

The original Rancho Trabuco grant of about 7,000 acres went to Santiago Arguello in 1841. Two years later the land was purchased by John Forster, and an additional grant to Forster brought the total to 22,000 acres.

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