Mission Lands in Orange County
The typical image of the California missions is of a highly-centralized complex centered around the mission church. In fact, the missions were far-flung operations. The outposts of Mission San Luis Rey were spread out over nearly a thousand square miles. The Mission San Gabriel’s holdings stretched all the way east to the top of the San Gorgonio Pass.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was not so expansive. Their territory ran south to San Mateo, at what is now the very tip of Orange County, and north to the Santa Ana River, and a little beyond. They would have liked to have had the use of more area, but – as the missionaries complained in the 1820s – Mission San Luis Rey had expanded its operations all the way up the coast to San Onofre, and east of the Santa Ana Mountains into the Lake Elsinore and Temescal area beyond.
To the north, San Juan Capistrano’s lands met the area used by Mission San Gabriel, which seems to have treated the Santa Ana River as a natural boundary.
These mission outposts are classified in various ways by the missionaries. Simplest were the ranchos, or sitios (sites). A little more developed – sometimes with their own adobe buildings – were the estancias (stations). Highest on the list were asistencias, often boasting large adobe complexes, and their own chapel. Some – like San Antonio de Pala, or Santa Ysabel in San Diego County – were virtually missions, lacking only a resident priest.
Orange County did not have anything so elaborate. The only certain estancia was on the edge of mesa above the Santa Ana River. The little adobe there was probably just a place for the vaqueros to get out of the weather at night. Rebuilt in the 1960s, it still stands along Adams Street in Costa Mesa.
On the other hand, only ruins still stand of the Trabuco Adobe, in the lower part of O’Neill Regional Park. Orange County historian Jim Sleeper suggested it was built as early as 1806. A third mission adobe seems to have once stood on a little rise above the San Diego Creek Channel, generally speaking in the neighborhood of Harvard and Michelson (only generally, as the development of Irvine has made many changes to the area). Both of these adobes were built very near Indian villages; the village on Trabuco Creek was known as Alume. Another mission adobe may have once stood on San Mateo Point, at the southern tip of Orange County. In any case, there was an old adobe there in the 1880s.
Looking into the records of Mission San Juan Capistrano, we find many familiar place names already in use in the 1820s and ‘30s. The mission had grazing land at Trabuco (along the creek and up onto the mesa where Rancho Santa Margarita now stands), along San Juan Creek (or the Arroyo Misíon Vieja, as they called it), and along Aliso Creek at Niguel (or Niguil, or Yuiguilli – the spelling is quite erratic in that case). The missionaries also gave us El Toro (not surprising for the amount of cattle grazing they did), and the original Laguna, named for the lakes near the top of Laguna Canyon.
Some other names did not survive. The Ciénega is mentioned several times; or to give it its full name, the Ciénega de las Ranas – the Frog Swamp. This moist, marshy area stretched from the mouth of Peters Canyon down towards the Back Bay at Newport.
The Rancho de Agua Caliente is readily identifiable when we remember that the mission also ran cattle in the little meadows of the Santa Ana Mountains, and had to pass San Juan Hot Springs (at the top of what is now Caspers Wilderness Park) as they traveled up and down San Juan Canyon.
San Juan Capistrano also ran cattle and raised crops beyond the Santa Ana River, in the lowlands between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, sharing the area with both the Mission San Gabriel and the Nieto family, who had a grazing concession in the area as early as 1784.
The Mission San Gabriel may not have had any adobe outposts in what is now Orange County, though an 1877 map of the Rancho Las Bolsas shows the “Corral de San Gabriel” near what is now Edinger and Newland.
The Mission San Gabriel also shared the use of the Nieto lands further north in an area they knew generally as Los Coyotes. According to a report from 1815:
“This district is occupied by the cattle and, at certain times, by the sheep, and even by the pigs. Likewise, it is to be observed that by permission of the ranchero, Juan José Nieto, the Mission uses for cattle the localities called Serritos [Cerritos] and Bolsa, belonging to said rancho.”
In theory, the missions held all of this land in trust for their Indian converts. Also in theory, it was supposed to be divided up among them when the Mexican government secularized the missions in the early 1830s.
But in fact, almost all the lands were granted as rancho to the Mexican Californios – often the same men who had been appointed to look after the mission estates during the transition. The Nietos re-asserted their rights to lands west of the Santa Ana River in 1834, when the area was formally granted as five separate ranchos, including Los Coyotes, Los Cerritos, and Las Bolsas. San Juan Capistrano lost their grazing lands one by one in the 1830s and ‘40s until by the time of the American takeover, there was nothing left. Even the mission buildings and the church itself were sold off by Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. But the United States government held the sale illegal, and the main mission compound was returned to the Catholic Church in 1865.