Jim Sleeper (1927-2012) was one of many Orange County historians encouraged by Terry Stephenson. In the preface to his A Boys’ Book of Bear Stories (1976) he fondly recalled his first meeting with him in the late 1930s:
“By then he had left the newspaper business (I suspect to his regret), and after a twelve-year stint as Santa Ana’s postmaster, finished out his days in county office. Terry and my grandfather, who once farmed Trabuco Mesa and could swap tales with the best of them, were great cronies. For years, Grandfather was County Assessor in the old red sandstone courthouse. In 1935 Terry joined him as County Treasurer. My initial meeting with Terry occurred there late in the ‘thirties when I was a button-assed kid in junior high. Nevertheless, Grandfather perceived in my youthful scribblings and crude maps an interest in mountain lore that deserved an introduction to the ‘County Historian’ (Stephenson) – a title which I can now attest carries a good deal more prestige than profit.
“Stephenson’s qualities were many. If they had to be reduced to one, ‘compassion’ would be the most appropriate. In my case that was fortunate, for I recall with what forebearance (and probably disbelief) he examined my scrawly manuscript, commenting that it was ‘quite good.’ After due consideration he pronounced it ‘really quite good,’ gently adding that while Trabuco and Canyon might sound like ‘Trabooka’ and ‘Canyun,’ perhaps it might be better to render them in the conventional manner. The same went for ‘Mageska.’
“Later, I accompanied the late Lute Lyman to a small gathering of the Orange County Historical Society just before it went into hibernation during World War II. Terry made a point of introducing me around as ‘Jim Sleeper’s grandson – who is a young historian himself.’ To this day I am not sure whether it was my history or my spelling that impressed him more.
“But you can see how far a little encouragement will carry a fellow.”
Terry E. Stephenson - Our First County Historian
Terry Stephenson was not the first person to write about the history of Orange County, but he was our first County Historian; the first local historian widely recognized for both the depth and the breadth of his research. His books remain some of the best ever written about the history of the county.
“Terry was a dynamic, magnetic person, who inspired enthusiasm,” longtime local historian Don Meadows (1897-1994) recalled. “One nice thing about Terry, he knew a lot, but he didn’t throw his weight around and tell everybody how much he knew – unless he started writing. I believe his writing is all right.”
Though born in Texas in 1880, Terry Elmo Stephenson came to California in 1884 and was raised in Orange by his aunt and uncle. He graduated from Santa Ana High School (1898) and then Stanford University (1903) with a degree in history. By then Stephenson had already begun his long career in journalism. He worked for newspapers in San Francisco and Fresno before returning to Orange County in 1906 to become editor of the four-month-old Santa Ana Register. He remained on through various changes in ownership until 1927, when the paper was sold to J. Frank Burke.
Stephenson’s earliest historical articles were written for the Register. Besides occasional feature stories, in 1919 he launched his “Old Hunters series,” which preserves the recollections of many local pioneers. It was followed by his “Off the Beaten Path” series, where Stephenson chronicled his explorations of the county’s backcountry. He had a knack for descriptive writing, and could make the most mundane trip sound interesting and appealing.
When the Orange County Historical Society was founded in 1919, Terry Stephenson was one of its first boosters, and was intimately involved with all its activities until his death; especially the society’s publishing program, which began in the 1930s.
Much to his frustration, the sale of the Register in 1927 included a clause that prevented Stephenson from writing for any competing newspaper for the next ten years. But Stephenson turned that restriction into an opportunity, and began writing books instead. Thomas E. Williams had just launched a major printing program for the students of the Santa Ana High School and Junior College which eventually became known as the Fine Arts Press. Williams and his students did the printing for all of Stephenson’s books.
The first was Caminos Viejos, published in 1930 in two limited editions of 250 and 500 copies. The book traces some of the earliest history of Orange County during Spanish and Mexican times. Stephenson’s chapter on Juan Pablo Grijalva and his descendants, José Antonio Yorba and Juan Pablo Peralta, is still a useful summary of the rancho era in Orange County.
Next came Terry Stephenson’s most-beloved book, Shadows of Old Saddleback, Tales of the Santa Ana Mountains (1931). His love of the mountains is evident on every page as he combines research, interviews with old timers, and his own experiences rambling through the hills into an evocative account of the mountains’ past, places, and pioneers. From his lyric introduction, Stephenson proceeds canyon by canyon from Santiago, to Silverado, to Black Star, to Trabuco and more, closing with chapters on mountain lions and “The Vanquished Grizzly.”
Originally issued in an edition of 500 signed and numbered copies, in 1948 Williams issued a second edition of Shadows, with a new foreword by Phil Townsend Hanna, the longtime editor of Westways magazine. “Terry Stephenson wrote widely about the history of Orange County,” he noted, “but none of his works displays his knowledge of, or affection for, his beloved homeland better than this.” In 1974 William E.H. Rasmussen issued another reprint. “In spite of … tremendous growth the canyons surrounding Old Saddleback remain more or less as they were forty years ago,” he wrote in his foreword. “…Standing within the shadows of Old Saddleback and looking up at the mountain one can feel an aura, a kind of magnetism. Terry Stephenson must have felt this aura in order to write this wonderful narrative.”
Stephenson’s next book, Forster vs. Pico (1936) began as a series of articles for the Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly on the historic court case over the ownership of the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores (today’s Camp Pendleton) between Juan Forster and Pío Pico. Based largely on the transcript of the trial, Stephenson discusses not only the legal aspects of the case but many details of 19th century Southern California cattle ranching.
In what would be his final book, Don Bernardo Yorba (1941), Stephenson presents the biography of Orange County’s best-known ranchero, once again combining documentary research with interviews with old timers and Yorba family descendants.
Besides his books, over the years Stephenson wrote a wealth of articles for newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. He also often gave talks on the history of Orange County and was apparently an engaging speaker. Professionally, he served as Santa Ana Postmaster from 1923 to 1935, when he was appointed County Treasurer. He was elected in his own right in 1938, and ran unopposed for reelection in 1942 – a testament to his standing in the county.
In May 1943, while on a train trip across the country, Terry Stephenson died of a heart attack at age 62. His old paper eulogized him as “perhaps the best known and best loved citizen of Orange county” (Santa Ana Register, May 8, 1943).
Following Stephenson’s death (though there were certainly other factors), the Orange County Historical Society went dormant for nearly 20 years, and it would be years before another book was published on the history of Orange County. Through his own work, and his influence on others, Terry Stephenson’s legacy survives to this day.