The Trabuco Adobe
In July 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portolá led the first Spanish overland expedition through what is now Orange County. Camped by the side of a little creek, one of the soldiers lost his gun – a blunderbuss, or in Spanish, un trabuco. Thus a name was born.
Sometime after the founding of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776, the padres sent their Indian vaqueros to herd livestock on Trabuco Mesa. Orange County historian Jim Sleeper suggested that it may have been as early as 1806 that the mission built an adobe there.
Fear drove the padres to this isolated spot in December 1818, taking the gold and silver ornaments from the church with them. Hypólito Bouchard had staged a series of supply raids along the California coast. Sometimes branded a pirate, Bouchard was actually a privateer, sailing under the flag of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata – now a part of Argentina – that had declared its independence from Spain. Government troops were sent to defend the mission, but Bouchard and his men still managed to raid the storehouses, and set fire to some of the buildings. Besides foodstuffs, much wine and brandy disappeared, though there was later an argument between the government and the missionaries over just how much was taken by the insurgents, and how much by the soldiers.
The mission continued to run livestock on the Trabuco until1841. By then, the government had taken control of the missions from the padres, and placed civil administrators in charge. Santiago Argüello served as administrator at San Juan Capistrano from 1838-40, and as often happened, then claimed a portion of the former mission lands for himself. In 1841, the Mexican governor of California gave Argüello the 8,800-acre Rancho Trabuco. Two years later, Argüello sold the rancho to an English immigrant, John (now Juan) Forster. Forster was granted an additional three leagues of land, taking the Rancho Trabuco to a little over 22,200 acres. In time, Forster’s holdings stretched from Oceanside to El Toro.
Both Argüello and Forster later claimed to have built the Trabuco adobe, but more likely they repaired it, for in 1839 it was described as “the ruins of a house and a wooden corral one hundred varas [a bit more than a yard] square.” The 20 x 70 foot adobe was “several times enlarged” according to Jim Sleeper. The western end is said to have been built around 1841. Beginning in the 1860s, sheep were grazed on the Trabuco Mesa, and Basque sheepherders lived in the old adobe.
The padres had spent only three days at the adobe during the Bouchard raid in 1818, yet somehow the story grew that they had not brought back all the gold and silver from the church, which had been buried for safekeeping. (Truth be told, almost all old adobes came to have buried treasure legends attached to them.) Early on, treasure hunters began digging in and around the old adobe. As early as 1877 the Anaheim Gazette reported:
“The story goes that many hundred years ago, during one of the revolutions, the Fathers buried a number of boxes of coin in some spot on this Rancho. The gold was very effectually concealed; in fact, so cleverly was the cachet made that, when those who assisted in burying the treasure died, no clue to the buried wealth could be obtained. This is the story which tradition has handed down, and that there has been not a few who gave full credence to the tale is evidenced by the fact that many spasmodic hunts have been made to find the hidden gold. Up to the present time, however, these searchings have not been rewarded by any discovery of note.
“These repeated failures seem only to have the effect of adding zest to the pursuit. About three weeks ago, a party of Californians went to that part of the Rancho where it is supposed the treasure is buried, and re-commenced the search. The fever proved contagious, and the number was continually augmented until now there are forty men at work digging in the cold, cold ground. They are working with a vim, too, having during the past two weeks made a drift in the ground about 40 feet. They are considerably excited, and a circumstance which lately happened has elated them greatly and given them a confidence which they otherwise would not have. The circumstance referred to is this: It is said that when the Fathers were digging the pits in which to conceal their gold, one of the holes or pits caved in and buried the unfortunate padres. Their companions abandoned them to their fate. And the circumstance which has so highly elated the gold hunters is the discovery, about a week ago, of what is said to be the hair of the long-buried priests. To the diggers this indicates that they are, what the children would call, ‘hot’ in the hunt. We shall try to keep our readers informed of any further developments.”
The treasure hunters’ shovels undermined the old walls, and a fire around 1900 completed the work. The old adobe was abandoned to melt back into the soil.
C. E. Roberts explored the site while making a survey of Orange County adobes for the WPA in 1936. He was pleased to note that the isolated location was still little changed from the mission days.
“The building was made with three large rooms in a row, east to west; with the west room of different and evidently later construction,” he wrote. “The walls of the eastern rooms were 36 inches thick, and there were signs the adobe once had a tile roof.
“It was wider than most ranch adobes,” he added, “this is 21 or more feet wide. [Sheep rancher] Miguel Erreca ... recalls that when he occupied it [1873-84], it had pillars in the middle of each room to support the center roof beam.”
Today, little of the Trabuco adobe survives. The single standing portion would seem to be part of the original western wall (before the 1840s addition). A prominent door opening stood on into the 1970s.
In 1966, El Viaje de Portola (a group of historically minded horsemen) placed a plaque next to the adobe in honor of their namesake’s visit nearly two centuries before. It was about this time that a cover was built over the remains. Even so, the adobe continued to deteriorate. Now the few remains have been boxed in, and unless something more is done, in time they completely disappear.