First Grade students at West Orange School, 1930 (courtesy the Orange Public Library and History Center).

First Grade students at West Orange School, 1930 (courtesy the Orange Public Library and History Center).

A Children’s History of Orange County


            History is a story about how we got to today. Some people say that it’s all just names and dates, but the names are all people, and the dates are just there to keep things in order. What’s important, though, are the stories.

            The story of Orange County is about a few little farm towns that grew up to become one of the most famous counties in America. Everyone who has ever lived here is part of that story.

            Most children here learn about local history in the 3rd and 4th grades. I loved 4th grade California history. It’s one of the reasons I became a historian. I would have been excited to have a story like this when I was in elementary school, and so I wrote this one for all of you.

—Phil Brigandi

Native People

            The first people to live in Orange County were Indians. The first Indians came here thousands of years ago. There were Indian villages all over Orange County, especially along the rivers and creeks, in the mountains, and along the coast.

            The Indians were hunters and gathered the plants that grew here. They hunted deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and many other animals, using bows and arrows and clubs. Along the coast, they also fished and gathered shellfish. In the mountains, acorns from the oak trees were the most important food.

            California had a very large Indian population. The people spoke many different languages. The Indians in Orange County spoke two different languages – Gabrielino in the north, and Juaneño in the south. These Indians would trade with each other and sometimes get together to eat and play games; other times they might fight.

            The Indians here made beautiful baskets. They made tools out of stone, and wood, and bone, and shell. They lived in houses made out of tree branches and brush. They lived this way for many years, until other people came to Orange County.

• The Indians lived here for thousands of years before any white people came.

• The Indians ate the plants and animals that lived here.

• The Indians made most everything they needed.


Spanish Missions

            Starting with Christopher Columbus, people from Spain came to the New World hoping to get rich. Mexico became an important part of the Spanish Empire. Many times the Spanish fought with the Indians, but sometimes they sent Catholic missionaries (padres) to teach the Indians. Spain wanted the Indians to be Catholics, to speak Spanish, and to live and work like European people.

            In 1769, the King of Spain sent Catholic missionaries and Spanish soldiers to California to start missions and presidios (forts). In 1771, the missionaries founded Mission San Gabriel north of Orange County. In 1776, they founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, near the southern end of Orange County. The missionaries invited the Indians to come live at the missions. They taught the Indians how to be farmers, and cowboys, how to make things out of wood, and metal, and cloth, and how to build with adobe (mud bricks) and tile. The two missions also had farms and ranches all over Orange County. It took a lot of work to build the missions and feed and clothe the hundreds of Indians who lived there.

            Most of all, the missionaries wanted to teach the Indians about Christianity. The padres believed that was the only way to Heaven. Once they were at the missions, the padres expected the Indians to obey them, and would punish them if they broke the rules. They thought the Indians were like children, but they wanted to teach them to be adults. But the Spanish also brought new diseases with them, and many Indians died from smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis. The padres were very sad they didn’t know enough about medicine to save more of them.

            After more than 50 years, in 1821 Mexico broke away from Spain and became its own country. In the 1830s, Mexico took the missions away from the padres and began to give away the land that had once belonged to the Indians.

• Catholic missionaries came to teach the Indians about Christianity.

• The missionaries also taught the Indians how to farm, raise cattle and horses, and make things.

• The Indians learned many new things, but disease killed many of them, and most lost their lands.


Mexican Ranchos

            After they closed the missions, Mexico wanted more Mexican people to settle in California. To get them to settle here, they began to give away land to people. These ranchos (ranches) were very large. Some of them were more than 48,000 acres (75 square miles). Most of the rancheros (ranchers) raised cattle.

            Spain had let a few men raise cattle, but did not give away land. The first two rancheros in Orange County were Manuel Nieto (1784) north of the Santa Ana River, and Juan Pablo Grijalva (1801) to the south. Later Grijalva’s son-in-law, José Antonio Yorba, and grandson, Juan Pablo Grijalva, took over his ranch. After Mexico began giving away land, almost all of Orange County became part of one big rancho or another. We still use some of their names – Los Alamitos, La Habra, Niguel, Bolsa, Los Coyotes, Santiago, San Joaquin, and Misíon Vieja (Mission Viejo).

            Beef from the cattle fed the local residents. The cattle hides and tallow (fat) were sold to trading ships that came from all over the world. They landed at Dana Point, bringing clothing, furniture, tools, and other things to trade for the hides and tallow. But like the missions, the ranchos had to grow or make most everything they needed, and the used the Indians as their workers. The ranch headquarters were like a little town, with adobe buildings, workshops, barns, and sometimes even a store.

• After the missions, the Mexican government gave people land for large cattle ranches.

• The hides and tallow from the cattle were mostly sold to trading ships.

• The ranchos had to grow or make most everything they needed.


War – Gold – and a New State

            In 1846-48, the United States and Mexico fought a war over who would own Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. In 1848, California became part of the United States.

            That same year, gold was found in Northern California, and thousands of miners from all over the world rushed in hoping to get rich. In Southern California, the rancheros got rich selling cattle to feed the hungry miners. In 1850, California became a state. There was no Orange County then; this area was just the southern end of Los Angeles County.

            The American government forced the rancheros to prove they really owned their land, and started charging them property taxes. It was very expensive for the rancheros. Then in 1863-64 almost no rain fell, and thousands of cattle died from lack of water. Many of the rancheros went broke, and lost their land. Some of the ranchos were cut up and sold to farmers. Some of the ranchos stayed together, and the new owners started raising sheep instead of cattle. The most famous was James Irvine, who bought two whole ranchos and part of a third. For the next century, he and his family owned the biggest ranch in Orange County.

• The United States and Mexico fought a war, and California was claimed by the United States.

• The Gold Rush helped the Mexican rancheros get rich selling beef.

• But a drought destroyed much of the old cattle industry.


Town Founding

            When most of the old Mexican ranchos were sold off, some of the new owners decided to start towns. The first was Anaheim in 1857. Between 1869 and 1871, Santa Ana, Westminster, Tustin, and Orange were founded. Other towns started to grow on their own in the 1870s, like Garden Grove, Placentia, Fountain Valley, and Newport Beach.

            All of these towns needed the same thing – land, water, transportation, and a way for people to make a living. The land came from the old ranchos. Water came from wells, or irrigation ditches that brought water down from the rivers and creeks (sometimes for many miles). Transportation in those days was by wagons and stagecoaches, or ships landing at Newport Beach or Anaheim Landing (today’s Seal Beach).

            Before long, these new towns had stores, and schools, and churches. Later came newspapers, libraries, sidewalks, streetlights, clubs, and parks. Some of the towns stayed small, but some grew big enough to become cities, with their own elected government. Anaheim was the first in 1870, followed by Santa Ana (1886) and Orange (1888).

            Farming became the most important part of the local economy. A family might own five, or ten, or twenty acres of land. The early settlers tried all kinds of different crops to see what would grow best here. The best early crops were grapes (for wine and raisins), corn, wheat, pumpkins, apricots, walnuts, and oranges.

• When the old Mexican ranchos were sold some of the new owners decided to start towns.

• Towns need land, and water, and transportation.

• In Orange County, most of the early settlers were farmers.



            From about 1870 to 1950, farming was the most important business in Orange County. Most everyone worked on farms, and the stores counted on the farmworkers as customers.

            The early farmers tried all sorts of different crops to find out what grew best here. Some were kind of silly – like pineapples and bananas. Some were only grown here for a little while, like celery and apricots. And some died of disease, like grapes, and apples. Other crops did very well, like oranges, sugar beets, walnuts, and later, strawberries and avocados.

            People worked on their family farms (even children), and farmers also hired immigrant workers from China, Japan, Mexico, and other countries. Some of these workers decided to stay, and brought their families to live in Orange County.

            The farmers also needed water. It was very expensive to dig ditches and tunnels to bring water down from the rivers and creeks (sometimes for many miles), so the local farmers would come together and form water companies to share the expense. Where it was too expensive to bring in water, the ranchers raised cattle and sheep. Some of the cows were sold as beef; others were milked for milk, butter, and ice cream.

            But the farmers and the ranchers both had to be able to get their food to the stores. And it had to get there fresh. Wagons and ships were very slow, and there was no way to keep the food cold in the early days. What the farmers and ranchers really needed was a railroad.

• Farmers had to learn what crops grew the best here.

• Oranges were not the only crop grown in Orange County.

• Farmers needed water and a way to get their crops to the stores to be successful.



            The railroads were very important in making farming a success in Orange County. The first railroad here came to Anaheim in 1875, and by 1888 there was a railroad all the way across Orange County, from Buena Park to San Juan Capistrano. By 1920, almost every town in Orange County was on the railroad lines.

            To keep fresh food cold, the railroad cars were packed with ice. Later, refrigerated cars were invented. Now Orange County farmers could sell their crops all over the United States.

            The railroads also made it easier for new settlers to move to Orange County. With the arrival of the railroad, old towns grew and new towns were started. Most of them were right along the railroad tracks. In the 1880s, Buena Park, Fullerton, Irvine (now Old Irvine), and El Toro were all built beside the railroad tracks.

            Not every new town survived, though. Towns like Carlton, St. James, Fairview, and San Juan-by-the-Sea were all started in the 1880s but soon died. Today they are parts of Yorba Linda, Orange, Costa Mesa, and Dana Point.

            Soon enough new settlers had come here that Orange County was ready to get started.

• Railroads helped the farmers move their crops.

• Railroads brought many more people to live here.

• The growth brought by the railroads made Orange County possible.


A New County

            The people living here in the southern end of Los Angeles County had been hoping to get their own county for many years. Some people wanted to call it Anaheim County, or Santa Ana County, but the name they finally picked was Orange County.

            Lots of people will tell you that Orange County was named for all the orange groves here, but that’s not true. When the name was first suggested, there were hardly any orange trees growing here. The big crops were grains and grapes. But nobody wanted to live in “Grape County.” Orange County sounded like a nice, warm, pretty place, where people would want to live.

            To become a county, the settlers had to ask the state government in Sacramento. They asked many times over the years. Finally, in 1889, the state said they could have their own county, but only if enough of the voters agreed. In the end, the people voted five-to-one (80%) for the new county. The only really fight was between Anaheim and Santa Ana; both cities wanted to be the county seat (where the government offices are located). Santa Ana won, and is still our county seat. The old county courthouse there (built in 1901) is now a historic landmark.

            Having their own county meant the people living here could elect their own supervisors to run the county government, along with a sheriff, judges and other government officials. The voters of Orange County could now decide what they thought was best for the county.

• It took twenty years to create Orange County.

• Orange County was named for the climate, not all the orange trees.

• Being our own county gives the voters control over our local government.



            Over the years, Orange County really lived up to its name. By the 1940s, Orange County had more orange trees than any other county in America – nearly five million trees. There were also more than forty packing houses where the oranges were washed and sorted and packed and shipped to market. Some of the old orange packing houses still stand in Fullerton, Yorba Linda, Anaheim, and Orange.

            Most of the orange groves were owned by families. But most of the packing houses were owned by the growers, who joined together to sell their crop. By working together, they could keep costs down, organize shipping on the railroads, and advertise their crop. In the early 1900s, most Americans didn’t eat oranges or drink orange juice very often. So the growers had to convince people to buy oranges. Eventually, most of the growers in Southern California joined together to advertise their fruit as a good-tasting, healthy snack. Their most famous slogan was Sunkist (sun-kissed).

            In the early days, most of the farm workers picking and packing oranges were Chinese, but after 1910, more and more Mexican workers came north from Mexico. Soon they were forming their own communities – barrios y colonias – among the orange groves.

            But not every part of Orange County was good for growing oranges. In places like Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Westminster, Los Alamitos, and Huntington Beach, farmers grew vegetables, berries, beans, and sugar beets. There were once five “sugar factories” in Orange County that turned the beets into sugar, and for many years beans were the biggest crop on the Irvine Ranch.

• Oranges were the most important crop in Orange County for many years.

• The orange growers worked together to sell their fruit.

• Other crops were grown here, too, including sugar beets and lima beans.


Red Cars and Automobiles

            In the early 1900s, two new ways to get around changed how people lived in Orange County. The Pacific Electric company’s “Big Red” trolley cars carried people all over Southern California (like today’s Metrolink trains), and automobiles replaced the horse and buggy.

            Like the railroads, wherever the “Red Car” tracks went, new towns were started. In Orange County, one line came down the coast to Newport Beach, and Seal Beach and Huntington Beach were born. Another line came through the middle of Orange County down to Santa Ana, so Cypress was started, and Garden Grove grew. The third line ran through Northern Orange County, through La Habra and Brea to the new town of Yorba Linda.

            As more and more people started driving automobiles (and trucks and buses) the county and the state started building more roads, and the towns along the way began to grow.

            The “Red Cars” ran on electricity, but the automobiles needed gasoline. That was a good thing for Orange County, since there was lots of oil here to make the gasoline. The first oil wells here were in the hills above Brea. Later, people found oil in Placentia, Huntington Beach, and other places along the coast. By 1920, Orange County was pumping lots of oil.

            The automobile made it easier for people to take vacations. More and more people started visiting Orange County’s beaches, and those towns grew. Soon there were tourist attractions that people could visit. Knott’s Berry Farm started as a berry farm, then a restaurant, and in 1941 they added a ghost town. Disneyland opened in 1955. By then, almost every family had an automobile.

• The trolley car tracks connected Orange County to the rest of Southern California.

• Many new towns were started along the tracks.

• The automobile helped people get around easier, and more tourists started coming to Orange County.


The Great Depression and World War II

            In the 1930s, the United States had an economic depression. There was very little money, and many poor people. In Orange County, many of the banks closed, and people lost the money they had saved. The farmers couldn’t find anyone to buy their crops. They lost money, too. There were many homeless people.

            At first, people tried to help each other. They would give food, and clothes, and money to the poor people. Later the government did more to help people. But for more than ten years, things were bad in Orange County.

            In 1941 the United States started fighting in World War II. Almost everyone helped in some way, not just the soldiers. The farmers grew more food. People worked in factories to make things for the soldiers. And everybody who could would give money to help pay for all the things the soldiers needed.

            In Orange County, the government built military bases where the soldiers lived and trained to fight in the war. In Seal Beach, they loaded weapons on ships. In Costa Mesa and El Toro, they taught pilots how to fly. In Tustin, they built giant wooden hangars for blimps that watched the coastline. People were afraid that Japanese soldiers might attack California. The government even sent all the Japanese people who lived here away, and locked them up in camps. But many of the Japanese-Americans still did their part to help win the war, fighting as soldiers, and working as farmers.

• All of the United States had a depression in the 1930s, but it wasn’t as bad in Orange County.

• During World War II, everyone helped to support the soldiers.

• There were many soldiers in Orange County during the war.


Growth and Freeways

            When World War II ended in 1945, most of the soldiers in Orange County went home. But soon they started coming back to live here. They thought Orange County would be a nice place to raise a family. From 1950 to 1970, Orange County grew faster than it ever had before. People built house, after house, after house, and every month hundreds of people moved here.

            Now instead of just roads, the government built freeways. During the 1950s, freeways were built all across Orange County.

            But before they could build all these houses, and roads, and freeways, the farms and orange groves had to be torn out. By 1980, almost no one grew oranges in Orange County anymore.

            Now instead of working on farms, many people worked in factories, or had “service” jobs, where they did things, or sold things for other people. More and more people here worked in stores, or restaurants, or schools, or hospitals. Even the people who worked at Disneyland were in a “service” job.

            By 1963, there were more than one million people living in Orange County. Yet Orange County kept right on growing, and today there are more than three million people living here.           

• After World War II, many people started moving to Orange County.

• Many, many new houses were built.

• People found jobs in factories, stores, schools, and restaurants.


Planned Communities

            Most of the growth in Orange County in the 1950s was in the northern part of Orange County. Cities like Garden Grove, and Anaheim, and Buena Park grew very fast.

            In the 1960s, Southern Orange County began to grow. The new freeways made it easier for people to get there, and water was brought in from far away.

            Now big land companies started new towns, like Irvine, Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, and Laguna Niguel. These were “planned communities,” where the companies would plan out everything the town needed. Not just houses, but streets, and schools, and shopping centers, and streetlights, and sidewalks, and sewers, and parks, and libraries, and most everything else. They wanted their towns to be nice places to live.

            Other people said Orange County was getting too big; that we didn’t need any more houses or towns. The county government made the big land companies give land for more parks and open space. Today, thousands and thousands of acres of land have been saved where there will never be houses.

• South Orange County did not begin to grow until they had enough water.

• Big companies started the new towns.

• Freeways helped bring people to the new towns.


Modern Orange County

            But Orange County is still growing. In fact, people from all over the world are moving to Orange County; people from Vietnam, from Korea, from Mexico, from China, from the Middle East – from every part of the world. Some of them live together in their own neighborhoods, like Little Saigon. There they have their own businesses and restaurants. But you can find people from other countries living in every city in Orange County.

            Most people here now work in “service” jobs. Schools, hospitals, and tourism are some of the biggest employers. Many big companies also have their offices here. Some companies own factories, others work with computers, or in banking.

            Orange County is no longer just a few little farm towns. It is famous around the world. There are major universities, theatres, museums, and churches. Other places try to copy our “planned communities” in South Orange County. Other places are watching to see what we do about traffic, and housing, and water, and growth.

            Growth will be a big part of our future. More and more people will keep moving here. But if they can learn to care about Orange County, we can all have a better place to live.

• People from all over the world now live in Orange County.

• Many people work in “service” jobs.

• Orange County is only going to get bigger.


Suggested Readings

The best one-volume history of Orange County is still Leo J. Friis, Orange County Through Four Centuries (1965). Another helpful overview is Phil Brigandi et al., A Hundred Years of Yesterdays, A Centennial History of the People of Orange County and their Communities (2004). (“et al.” means there was more than one author.)

There are also some histories written especially for young readers, including:

Stan Oftelie, Nothing Rhymes with Orange (2011)

Thomas A. Barr et al., The Story of Costa Mesa, History in Your Home Town (1982)

Virginia L. Carpenter, A Child’s History of Placentia (1984)

Esther R. Cramer, A Bell in the Barranca, A Story about La Habra Valley at the Turn of the Century (1996)

Ruth C. Evans, A Brief History of the Orange Unified School District Communities (1986)

James V. Granitto et al., The Yorba Legacy, A Short History of Yorba Linda (2008)

Margit Kendrick, A History of Early Los Alamitos (1994)

Chris Lowe et al., Elephant Rides for Free, A Children’s History of Placentia (2004)

Joe Osterman, The Old El Toro Reader: A Guide to the Past (1992)

Inez S. Pierson, Tilda from Tustin, A Schoolgirl’s Diary, 1892 (1966)

Christiane Salts, Cordelia Knott, Pioneering Business Woman (2009)

Dora May Sim, Ostrich Eggs for Breakfast, A History of Fullerton for Boys and Girls (1972)

If you’d like to go see more of old Orange County, I wrote a guidebook for the Orange County Historical Commission in 2014 called Visiting Orange County’s Past. It lists historic sites and plaques in every city in Orange County.

Some of these books are out of print, but you can ask to see one at your local library. They will have other books on your town as well.