The Six Most Common Mistakes About the History of Orange County
We all make mistakes. But there are some mistakes about the history of Orange County that get repeated so often they are in danger of becoming myths. Here are a few of my favorites. If there are others you think should be on this list, let me know.
Orange County was named for all those orange groves.
This is still the most common of all Orange County historical errors. The name was actually first proposed in 1872, when there was not a single orange grove in what is now Orange County – just a few scattered trees and seedlings. Even in 1889, when the county was formed, oranges were just one of many crops being developed here. It was not until after 1900 that oranges became the dominant crop in Orange County.
So why Orange County? Simply put, because it sounded nice. Southern California in the 1870s was being promoted as a semi-tropical paradise, and oranges fit that image very well. One of the early county boosters noted, “the name of the new county … emblazoned upon the map of our state, would in my opinion, have more effect in drawing people the tide of emigrants to this section than all the pamphlets, [real estate] agents and other endeavors which have hitherto proved so futile.”
By the same token, the City of Orange, and the forgotten community of Orangethorpe, were probably both named after the proposed county.
There’s a hanging tree along Santiago Canyon Road.
Another old standby. Just north of Modjeska Canyon Road, on the east side of Santiago Canyon Road, an aging sycamore tree is supported by a heavy concrete pillar. Until recent years, a large branch extended out over the pillar. This tree has been pointed out time and again as the tree where two of the Flores bandits were hanged in 1857. It is not. The actual tree is in Precitas Canyon, southwest of Irvine Lake.
Juan Flores and a group of thieves went on a rampage in the little village of San Juan Capistrano early in 1857. When Los Angeles County Sheriff James Barton and a few men rode down to arrest them, they were ambushed and murdered. A mass man hunt followed. Andrés Pico and a group of mounted Californios had captured two of the bandits, when word reached him that Flores had made a daring escape from another posse. In anger, he took his two prisoners up Precitas Canyon, and hanged them.
We know the exact spot because four years later, J.E. Pleasants came to the Santa Ana Mountains to work for William Wolfskill. The bodies of the Flores bandits had been dug up by animals, so Pleasants and some of his vaqueros went up to re-bury them. Pleasants lived until 1934, so he was able to show the spot to historian Terry Stephenson, who wrote about it, and later took other local historians to visit the site.
Eddie Martin’s Airport became the Orange County Airport.
What is now John Wayne Airport was once the Orange County Airport. It opened at its current location in 1941. But Eddie Martin’s Airport was a different location altogether. Martin and his brothers opened their private airport in 1923, on the east side of Newport Boulevard (now the 55 freeway) where South Main Street used to come to a dead-end.
Five years later, in 1928, the county opened their first airport, northeast of the current location, on land purchased from The Irvine Company. This property was later traded for the current site.
Martin’s Airport was on leased land. It was shut down in 1941, when the county extended South Main Street through the site and all the way down to the Coast Highway. Before long, the new road was re-named MacArthur Boulevard.
To pacify the Martin brothers, the county offered them an exclusive contract to operate the new Orange County Airport; which they did – for three months. Then came World War II, and the airport was requisitioned by the Army Air Corps. They improved the airport, and built a number of additional buildings.
After the war, when the airport was returned to county control, the Federal Government insisted that since taxpayer dollars had been spent improving the site, no private company could have an exclusive lease on the property. Thus Martin Aviation became just another tenant at the Orange County Airport, where they remain to this day.
The earliest ranchos were Spanish land grants.
A classic rookie mistake (like showing the early padres in brown robes). The Spanish view was that all the lands they claimed belonged to the King. So what the earliest rancheros received were not land grants, but grazing permits and permission to occupy the land, which still belonged to El Rey.
It was only after Mexico took control of California in the 1820s that laws were passed that allowed land grants to individuals. The old Spanish concessions were generally later confirmed under Mexican law.
And while we’re on the subject of our Hispanic past, the leader of the first Spanish overland expedition through Orange County was Gaspar de Portolá. Note the accent, please. His name was pronounced Por-toe-lah, not Por-tola.
What to call the Santa Ana Winds.
For years, the folks in Santa Ana did their best to stop people from using the term Santa Ana Winds. Santana Winds was a popular variant, along with the Devil Winds, and even Riverside Winds. There were also attempts to make Santana (or Zantana) into an Indian name.
But Santa Ana Winds is the original name. It appears in print as far back as 1871, when the City of Santa Ana was little more than a village. Descriptions of the winds themselves appear in print as far back as the 1840s.
Terry Stephenson wrote the definitive account on the origin of the name in the California Folklore Society Quarterly (February 1943). He was able to talk with pioneers whose memories stretched back into the 1850s. The name, he concluded, comes from the Santa Ana Canyon – where the winds funnel down into the valley – and not from the city.
Walter Knott invented the Boysenberry.
Not surprisingly, it was man named Boysen who first propagated the Boysenberry – Rudolph Boysen, to be exact, the longtime superintendent of parks in the City of Anaheim. While living in the Napa Valley in the early 1920s, Boysen crossed-pollinated blackberries with dewberries and loganberries. The result was a big, sturdy, juicy berry. He brought a few plants with him when he moved to Anaheim in 1925, but later abandoned them. In 1932, Walter Knott was asked to track them down. With Boysen’s permission, he brought a few cuttings back to Knott’s Berry Farm, revived them, and in 1934 introduced it to the world as the Boysenberry.
And finally, a general observation.
In my experience, most of the lost mines, buried treasures, and robber’s caves stories are all bogus. I won’t go as far as to say all of them are – just most of them. And that goes for about half of the “old stage stations” as well.