The Irish Alcalde

Ellen K. Lee
Orange Countiana, Volume 1 (1973)

One day about ninety years ago [1883] a “two-horse, double-seat carriage” rolled out of Anaheim bound for San Juan Capistrano and other Southern California mission sites. One of its three passengers was a plump, good-natured woman of fifty-two commissioned by the United States Department of Interior to prepare a report on the condition of the area’s mission Indians.1 She bore impressive credentials including letters of introduction from government officials and from Eastern ecclesiastical authorities. Upon reaching San Juan Capistrano, however, she was denied access to the mission archives by a priest who “said the archbishop of New York had no jurisdiction over San Juan Capistrano…and that the place for women was at home taking care of a family and not meddling with mission records and Indians.”2

The woman next visited the office of the local alcalde, who turned out to be a tall and genial Irishman. She admired his ancient episcopal chair, said to have been made by Indian workmen for Junipero Serra,3 and explained her difficulty. The gallant alcalde accompanied her back to the mission where he explained to the priest in “fluent Spanish” that her cause was a worthy one and further eased her way by a donation of “six bits” for the mission coffers.4 The lady in distress was Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote Ramona the following year. The alcalde was Richard Egan, San Juan Capistrano’s leading citizen for more than fifty years.

The impact of Ramona, published in 1884, was tremendous. It attracted the attention of the world to the romance of California’s Spanish mission heritage. But long before its publication Egan had begun to appreciate and understand the area’s great indebtedness to its Spanish and Mexican pioneers. Attracted to the old mission settlement of San Juan Capistrano in 1868, he represented a link between the gentle traditions of an earlier day and the rush of progress brought by Orange County’s American pioneer period.

As “king of the free and independent principality of San Juan,” he was landowner, farmer, justice of the peace, telegrapher, notary, surveyor, agent for nearby landowners, keeper of rainfall records, and dispenser of charity to the needy. From 1880 until 1884 he was a Los Angeles County Supervisor; in 1880 he helped adjust the new boundary line when Orange County became a separate entity. By common consent Egan was San Juan Capistrano’s alcalde in the Spanish tradition: mayor, judge, and chief dignitary.

Judge Egan heard cases involving “all crimes, except those punishable by hanging or imprisonment in the penitentiary.”5 Some of the matters he decided were beyond his jurisdiction as justice of the peace, but one hundred years ago American laws bewildered the Spanish-speaking residents of San Juan Capistrano. Los Angeles, the county seat, lay sixty miles away via horse-drawn vehicle. It was not unusual for pioneer judges to exercise great powers, but Egan cannot be compared with such legendary judges as Roy Bean who held court in saloons and levied fines at the point of a pistol. Egan, a gentlemanly and conscientious public servant, rejected all fees during his twenty-year career as justice of the peace. His method was “never failing tact and absolute disregard for red tape.”6 In his court there were no juries, no appeals, and—preferably—no lawyers. Once an attorney appealed one of Judge Egan’s decisions and threatened him with a write of mandamus when he failed to send a copy of the proceedings to Los Angeles. The judge, who would have had to copy the proceedings in longhand, is said to have remarked:

“I don’t care whether it’s a man-dam-us or a god-dam-us. No records will be sent to Los Angeles.”7

judge richard egan
Judge Richard Egan
Courtesy the Orange County Archives

Born in Ireland in 1842, Richard Egan had reached America as an orphaned child of ten. He was nineteen when the Civil War broke out and served the Confederacy as a sailor and soldier. He spent the last months of the conflict in Europe and visited his native Ireland, returning to the United States with a Major McCowen who was bitter about his Southern family’s losses during the war. Egan joined McCowen in a search for a place where the feud between North and South could be forgotten completely, “clear away from civilization…among the Indians…some place where life was primitive.”8 They chose the most Mexican of Southern California towns, San Juan Capistrano, “where English was practically an unknown language…people there hardly knew they were in the United States.” In the year 1868 each of them bought 160 acres of government land at $1.25 an acre. The young men planted crops and built an adobe house beside Trabuco Creek. Eventually, McCowen returned to “civilization.” Egan remained in San Juan Capistrano for the rest of his life.9

Spanish-speaking residents of the valley were suspicious of American settlers who bought parcels of former mission domain as government land. But Don Ricardo, the six-foot tall Irishman10 with dark curly hair and steady blue eyes, learned their language and won their respect. They approved of his courtly manners and his Catholic faith. With his command of both Spanish and English, Egan was the logical choice as operator when the telegraph was completed in 1870. Complaining that he “couldn’t learn that stuff in a hundred years,”11 he quickly mastered Morse code and was glad to be in touch with the outside world again. The gregarious telegrapher had been lonely in the isolated adobe town.

Egan helped the people of San Juan Capistrano unravel the knotty problems of American law, property rights, mortgages, and judicial proceedings. Elected to the school board, along with his friend, Jonathan Bacon, he took a census of school-age children and helped supervise the building of a new wooden schoolhouse. He and Bacon bought a splendid world globe for $70 and hired a teacher for $60 a month. When the school bell rang no pupils appeared. Mothers were afraid of the American public school with its “dark influences by which their children might be estranged from them.”12 Egan found a simple solution. He persuaded Padre José Mut, who came from San Luis Rey once or twice a month to say mass, to serve as the school principal!

Like many Irishmen of his era, Egan remained a bachelor all his life. He was said to have treasured the picture of an Irish childhood sweetheart who had married before his return to Ireland at the end of the Civil War. Terry Stephenson writes a story of Richard Egan’s love for Mollie Sheean, a girl who played the organ in the old adobe chapel in which Padre José Mut said mass when he visited the mission. Mollie was seventeen when the Anaheim Gazette listed some of the guests at a grand fiesta at Rancho Boca de la Playa, among them “the redoubtable Mr. Egan and the acknowledged belle of Capistrano, Miss Mollie Sheean.”13

Earlier, however, Mollie had left a suitor named Peter Ronan of Montana. One day in the telegraph office Egan received a wire for Mollie. It was from Ronan, who wanted to visit her in San Juan Capistrano. Egan carried the message to Mollie, whom he found at the mission, practicing the organ. The girl “didn’t know what to do. She hardly knew whether to tell Ronan to come or not. Finally she had Dick Egan wire him to come down.”14 And so Egan tapped out the telegram that spelled the end of his romance. Mollie married Ronan at the old mission and rode off to San Diego on her honeymoon.

By 1870 or 1871 Richard Egan was one of San Juan Capistrano’s two justices of the peace. From that time until 1890 his election to the office was a routine matter. In 1877, for example, he won election over six other candidates although his name did not even appear on the ballot! The Anaheim Gazette reported:

“Dick hasn’t been in San Juan for months, and at present is rusticating in San Francisco. But until he issues an official manifesto to his constituents, requiring them under pains and penalties to refrain from voting for him, they will continue to elect him to the highest office within their gift.”15

Judge Egan’s famous stagecoach ride of that same year has been frequently described. “Judge Dick” was a passenger on the Anaheim-San Diego stage when an outlaw attempted a holdup. The driver refused to stop, and had his hand shattered in the ensuing exchange of gunfire. The judge, inside the vehicle, was tossed wildly from side to side as the frightened horses dashed in a runaway across the rough terrain. Egan opened the door, grabbed the top rail of the stagecoach, and pulled himself into the driver’s seat. After controlling the horses, he stopped the coach and administered first-aid to the injured man. Then he took the reins himself and drove to the next station where he telegraphed the stagecoach company that he was resigning as a driver!16

Most of Egan’s travels across the future Orange County were more leisurely than his exciting stagecoach ride. With an Irishman’s inborn love of the land he spent days on horseback, becoming familiar with the hills, valleys, ravines, creeks, landmarks, and boundary lines. In 1883 he was the local guide for Edward Bosqui of San Francisco who had come to visit land formerly belonging to Juan Forster. Bosqui later wrote:

“Arriving at San Juan Capistrano, I became the guest of Judge Richard Egan, who was one of those self-educated and original characters met with only on the Western frontier. He was an extensive reader and close observer; and being both generous and just, he wielded supreme influence over the thousand and more Indians and Mexicans who remained in the vicinity of the old Mission of San Juan Capistrano.

“Late in the evening Judge Egan became much troubled over the fact that he had misplaced, somewhere in the house, a bag containing eight hundred dollars in gold coin, which had been deposited with him for safe keeping. He soon found it intact on his bureau, covered by loose papers, and assured us that although he never locked the doors of his house, and the Mexicans and Indians were in the habit of passing in and out at all times of the day without the least restraint, he had never lost anything during his long residence in San Juan.

“It was a strange fact that the Indians and Mexicans all but worshipped the Judge. They seemed to have a superstitious notion of his superiority and greatness, and regarded him as their friend and protector. All their quarrels and troubles were promptly brought to him for settlement, and his decisions were regarded as final and were invariably satisfactory. Their confidence in him was unlimited. The manifestation of their childlike belief in the paternal disposition was pathetic, and furnished the proof of the remarkable power he wielded over this community of half-breeds and Indians, and was also the best evidence of the intrinsic worth and nobility of the man’s character.

“Another remarkable fact was that Judge Egan’s personal appearance gave no indication of his ability to influence or control such a community. In repose, his countenance was devoid of animation. He was careless in his dress and personal appearance, and he was the last man an ordinary observer would select as being born to control or command. Yet upon better acquaintance, one felt there was an undercurrent of common sense and sincerity which went far to command one’s confidence and respect.”17

The Polish actress Helena Modjeska and her husband, Karol Chlapowski, had been Egan’s guests a short time before Bosqui’s visit. Judge Egan recalled Modjeska’s “rare accomplishments and charming disposition,”18 while she in turn described San Juan Capistrano in a letter to Helena de Kay Gilder:

“We spent there tend days and they passed like an hour. It is really a strange place, but I must not speak about it because Mr. Egan who seems to be the monarch of San Juan does not like anybody to praise the place, he is so afraid crowds will come and ruin the poetry of the old mission.”19

But fame and the outside world were bound to come to the Southern California missions. Ramona was published in 1884. The Santa Fe Railroad reached Los Angeles a year later. For years, Richard Egan had hoped San Juan Capistrano’s serenity would never be disturbed by a railroad, but recognizing that progress was inevitable he became a director of the Santa Fe and right-of-way agent for its route to San Diego. Modjeska wrote in 1887 from San Juan Capistrano: “We have a railroad, and speculators, real estate agents, tradesmen and hotel keepers and all sorts of unpleasant beings…”20 But all Southern California welcomed the Santa Fe and the termination of the Southern Pacific’s long monopoly. When the rails were completed to San Juan Capistrano in 1888, Egan engaged a private car and gave his many friends a gala trip from inland towns to the beach near San Juan Capistrano.

Richard Egan was nearing fifty when he shared his knowledge of early California and mission history with James Steel, author of Old California Days. Steel wrote of Egan:

“I know a gentleman who…is an Irishman, a soldier, and a bachelor, who was with me once in the yard lying about a little village adobe, as usual a place of flowers. When we were going away, and had reached the rickety little whitewashed gate, a child came and gave us each a little bunch of flowers.

“’Now you see,’ he said, explanatorily, ‘these people love such things. That poor woman would carry water a mile in a olla to make them grow.’ Thereupon he went back and told her how to cure the sickness of her big grapevine, and how pretty the flowers were, and I, a clumsy stranger knew nothing better than to explore the depths for small change for this child, after the usual American fashion.”21

After 1890 Egan ceased to serve as justice of the peace, but he remained “Monarch of the Realm” as his friend Jonathan Bacon became “Chief Justice”22 in his place. After the formation of Orange County, Egan, though not a licensed surveyor, assisted government surveyors in the area for many years. He was regarded as an authority on old Mexican and Spanish land grant boundaries.

Judge Egan always enjoyed entertaining friends in his red brick house, Harmony Hall, built in 1883. He was a great story teller, an expert at mixing punch (Irish style, with whiskey), and a gracious host. He exchanged social visits with friends including Helena Modjeska and her husband, who had built a house in Santiago Canyon. Egan gave Modjeska a huge mounted buffalo head which she hung over her fireplace, insisting affectionately that it looked just like her grizzled friend, Judge Egan.23 The judge, “welcome in any house in Los Angeles,” had social standing as a member of the exclusive California Club and of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club.24

As tourism and interest in the mission town brought larger crowds, Richard Egan and Marco Forster automatically assumed the roles of unofficial hosts. They staged picnics, fiestas, barbecues, and even bull fights in which the challenge to the torero was to wrest away a bag of coins tied between the animal’s sawed-off horns. But when visitors entered the grounds of San Juan Capistrano Mission they saw only a sad relic of its days of glory. Vandalism and neglect had taken their toll. Egan, who had long hoped the crumbling and roofless adobe portions of the mission might be repaired, was appointed in 1892 to the first Southern California committee formed for this purpose. Three years later Charles Fletcher Lummis of Los Angeles established his Landmarks Club for California mission repair. He wrote:

“In ten years from now—unless an intelligence shall awaken at once—there will remain of these noble piles nothing but a few interminable heaps of adobe… That gem of the missions, San Juan Capistrano, is in the most imminent danger; and there the first work will be done.”25

Richard Egan rolled up his sleeves and supervised the mission repair begun in 1896 by a mason, a carpenter, and one other worker. The men repaired damaged rooms, colonnades, and tile roofs. Lummis called Egan “a whole construction force in himself.”26 When the mission kitchen with its picturesque tile chimney had been restored, Landmarks members arrived by train from Los Angeles for a picnic featuring tortillas, tamales, and frijoles. Judge Egan furnished the lunch baskets. With the completion of the additional work financed by the club, San Juan Capistrano Mission was saved until the extensive reconstruction supervised by Father St. John O’Sullivan after his arrival in 1910.27

When World War I drew near, Judge Egan was a white-bearded man in his seventies. Automobiles were replacing horse-drawn wagons and buggies. Narrow, rutted, dirt roads were no longer adequate. As his last public Service, Egan Served on the commission that supervised the first paving of all the important roads in Orange County. His associate, Tom Talbert, said of him: “He was an immensely human character, common as an old shoe, loved, admired, respected by all, a man who labored for all, and was immensely worth knowing.”28

Richard Egan died in 1923, but his ninety-year-old Victorian house still stands in San Juan Capistrano,29 a short distance from the old mission. It is a picturesque reminder of the Irish alcalde, one of Orange County’s most colorful pioneers.


  1. Lawrence Clark Powell, “California Classics Reread: Ramona,” in Westways Magazine (July 1968), 14.
  2. E.M. Herstory (pseudo. Marah Ryan), “The Alcalde of San Juan Capistrano,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1923.
  3. This chair, willed by Richard Egan to Charles Fletcher Lummis, may be seen today at the Southwest Museum.
  4. Herstory, loc. cit.
  5. Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1894.
  6. Herstory, loc. cit.
  7. Speech by Leo J. Friis before the Orange County Historical Society, May 11, 1972.
  8. Terry Stephenson, “Judge Egan Tells of Pioneer Days in Mission Valley,” Santa Ana Register, November 29, 1920.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Egan was a naturalized American citizen.
  11. Stephenson, loc. cit.
  12. Herstory, loc. cit.
  13. Anaheim Gazette, September 1, 1871.
  14. Pioneer Tales [Typescript in Santa Ana Public Library], (Santa Ana, 1936), 69-70. Various spellings of the names of Mollie Sheean and Peter Ronan have been found, i.e. Peter Roman, Mary Sheehan appear in San Juan Capistrano marriage records.
  15. Anaheim Gazette, October 24, 1877.
  16. Ibid. March 9, 1877. See also Terry Stephenson, Caminos Viejos, (Santa Ana, Calif., 1930), 94-96, and Jim Sleeper, Orange County Almanac, [Vol. 1] (Santa Ana, 1971), 13.
  17. Memoirs of Edward Bosqui, (Oakland, 1952), 134-138.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Letter from Helena Modjeska to Helena de Kay Gilder, July 1883.
  20. Letter from Helena Modjeska to Helena de Kay Gilder, July 27, 1887.
  21. James Steele, Old California Days (Chicago, 1893), 112-113.
  22. Anaheim Gazette, December 7, 1893.
  23. Interview with Florence Yoch in 1967.
  24. Tape recording prepared by Lon S. McCoy at Los Angeles on February 12, 1967.
  25. Charles Fletcher Lummis, “In the Lion’s Den,” Land of Sunshine (December 1895).
  26. Ibid., August 1896.
  27. Zephryin Engelhardt, O.F.M., San Juan Capistrano Mission, (Los Angeles, Calif., 1922) 246
  28. Thomas B. Talbert, My Sixty Years in California, (Huntington Beach, 1952), 52.
  29. An account of the restoration of Judge Egan’s house by Mr. and Mrs. Barney Papel, the present owners, was written by Margie Driscoll, “Retired Couple Take House Out of Retirement,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1968.