Old Days in San Juan Capistrano

Bessie M.H. Carrillo
Orange County History Series, Volume 1 (1931)

[This paper was originally presented at a meeting of the Orange County Historical Society around 1922.]

I am going to read to this historical society this evening something about San Juan Capistrano as it used to be. This material I have obtained from José Juan Olivares for the San Juan Capistrano High School Library, as he is an important link in California history. José Juan is the oldest of twenty-one children, of whom only four are now living.

José Juan was born in 1835 at Las Paredes which is situated below Anaheim.1 He was confirmed at the San Gabriel Mission. He came to San Juan Capistrano when he was fifteen years old. This was about seventy-two years ago. The mission at San Juan Capistrano was practically the same as it is today. The few houses there were made of adobe – some of them are still standing and are occupied at the present time. The Vanderleck home was once an old adobe which was used for a court, but later was rebuilt for a dwelling.

Indians were there like bees. A great number of them lived in adobe houses which surrounded the Mission. They took much pride in caring for the Mission, and planted fruit trees, vegetables and flowers of all kinds.

The life of the people was centered around the church, all social functions being conducted by the Padres. The seventh of June was one of their holidays which was called “El dia de Corpus,” it being the day that the fiesta “De Ocho Dias” began. It was called “La Fiesta de Ocho Dias” because it lasted eight days. Each ranchero or farmer had a Hermita. In these Hermitas the farmers had on display the first products from their gardens. For a long time after these fiestas people still took the first string beans, squash and other garden products to the priest.

The Padres and six girls about twelve years of age and dressed in white visited the Hermitas. The group of spectators stepped back as the girls and Padres passed by singing. As they marched colored petals of flowers were strewn in their paths. The solemn walls of the Mission and arches decorated with flowers made a beautiful background. Capistrano Mission was one of the largest and most beautiful churches of all California in its time. After the Padres and the girls had visited each Hermita a prize was awarded to the owner of the best booths.

“La Corrida de Toros” or the bull fight was held in the back court where the old chapel used to be, and the spectators were above on the ruined walls of the Mission, which was partially destroyed in 1812 by the great earthquake. If the combatidor’s sweetheart happened to be among the crowd she loaned him her rebozo. This he used to fight the mad beast.

Heaping tables of barbecued meat and all the Spanish dishes imaginable were prepared for the hungry celebrators. What a feast was this! Never will the Californians see the like of it again.

There was no collection of money, everything was free. Rancheros who had cattle brought steers for the barbecue and the Señoras prepared the Spanish dishes. People from San Diego, Santa Ana Canyon, Los Angeles, San Luis Rey and many other towns attended these fiestas. They all knew each other and were like brothers and sisters. The señoritas always came dressed in their mantillas and rebozos.

“Los Pastores” or shepherds, who came to adore the Lord were also represented. The shepherds visited some of the houses and always found a good dinner prepared for them.

In the evening the fandango was held. This all the señoritas and young men attended. There they danced until sunrise. Some of the dances danced were La Jota, El Sombrero, La Contradanza, El Borrego, and many others.

Every year this fiesta was repeated. In later years on the 4th of July, Don Marcos Forster gave a barbecue for everyone in Capistrano. Here they ate, drank and made merry until they were all satisfied.

Some of the Indians were very good musicians and on the day of the barbecue they formed a band with Acu as leader.2 They did not play the jazz such as we hear today but played such pieces as Sobre Las Olas, La Paloma, and Lolita.

When a child was baptized, Don Marcos Forster furnished gun powder for a large cannon, which was used to celebrate the baptismal ceremony. Upon walking out of the mission after the child had been baptized, small coins were scattered on the ground by the patrino, or godfather, and all the children, old women and men would pick them up. This was called “El Bolo.”

People in Capistrano in the early days believed in witchcraft. At one time a man was riding on horseback with a ribbon tied around his hat and as he was galloping along he happened to notice the ribbon flapping in the air and immediately thought it was a ghost chasing him. The faster he rode the faster the ribbon flapped. He did not dare to turn around for fear the ghost would get him so he rode on. When he reached home he was more than surprised to find that it was only the ribbon on his hat.

Another time a man was riding horseback and had a rope tied on the horn of his saddle. It was not tied very well so it partly fell to the ground and tangled the horse’s feet. The man thought it was a ghost trying to tangle his horse’s feet. He tried to make his horse go faster, but seemed to get even more tangled. When he arrived in town he looked like the ghost himself he was so pale, and everyone laughed at him.

Some of the old Mexicans still believe that there are ghosts at the San Juan Capistrano Hot Springs and that the spirit of the Indians who died there sing at night.

People often frightened their small children by telling them ghost stories. They had a mask to represent the devil and the children thought the devil was trying to get them.

At one time there was an old lady whom everyone thought to be a witch. One day a lady was sick and a dog happened to come to her door and tried to get in. People thought that the old witch had turned into a dog and was trying to go in to this lady’s house. A man took a stick and gave the dog a whipping. The next day the old lady who was supposed to have been the witch was sick in bed suffering pains which prevented her from moving. This of course only increased their superstition.

José Juan worked for Don Marcos Forster twenty-five years at Santa Margarita and a Capistrano. He helped drive the cattle to market, for in those days that was the only way they could reach the market. Whenever cattle died of disease he skinned them and these hides were carried by ox carts to the nearest market, and sold for leather.

José Juan says that few cattle died from lack of feed, for those days rain was more abundant than it is today, and floods were more common. But then they did have a dry year it was very severe, for cattle were very numerous and they died by the hundreds.

Then people did not go to the meat market to get meat, because they killed their own beef at home. Slaughtering was done by the old style. The steer or cow was knocked senseless with a large hatchet or ax and a sharp knife was thrust through the heart, killing the animal instantly. After the animal had bled, the skinning was started from the middle of the body while the animal lay on the ground. After the skin had been removed from one side to the backbone the hide was spread out on the ground, so as to keep the meat from becoming soiled, and the steer was rolled over and the hide from the other side was removed. Then the quarters and other parts were removed and by the time it was all taken off, nothing by the fleshless backbone remained, as the rest of the steer had been given away to the neighbors, las tias, los compadres and comadres all having a share of it.

Some times one of the neighbors would take the other man’s steer by mistake and the latter did not say anything to this at the time. But whenever he became hungry for beef he went into his neighbor’s herd and brought forth a nice fat steer and in this manner they got revenge.

san juan capistrano circa 1910
San Juan Capistrano, circa 1910
Courtesy Phil Brigandi

On Sundays the people of San Juan Capistrano went to church. In the afternoon the ladies went riding horseback. Some times José Juan accompanied twenty-five ladies to the San Mateo Canyon, he going along to tend to the horses and their saddles.

One of the other canyons they visited was La Campaña or Bell. This canyon was called La Campaña because of a rock which is located there. Whenever it is struck with a piece of iron it sounds like a bell. Some people believe there is buried treasure there, and they have dug for it several times, but to no avail. At the present time the rock is down on the ground, and it doesn’t ring as well as it did before. Many people have made special trips to see this wonderful rock.

At one time robbers stole gold and decorations from the various Missions of California. Once the padres of San Juan Capistrano were forced to flee from the robbers.

Verdugo Canyon is named after Don Verdugo, a man who lived there. The Trabuco Canyon was named by the Indians, long before the Spanish or Mexicans came here.3 La Cañada de la Paloma empties into the Bell Canyon. Many doves were found there, that is why it is called La Paloma or Dove Canyon.

Another canyon is La Cañada Chiquita. This canyon was once filled with quail, but now there are only a few. For a minute picture yourself traveling through this virgin land as it was undisturbed by the hand of man. People did not have roads to travel but they traveled by direction. They traveled through these canyons on horseback and watched the grazing cattle. Each year about March, the cattle were gathered for a round-up or rodeo. Rancheros from far and near came and each took home his band of cattle after they had been branded. There were no fences. The cattle roamed wherever they wanted. The rancheros knew all of their cattle, but it a young calf that did not have any brand was found among the herd, it belonged to the cow it followed. Sometimes a cow would claim two calves; then they belonged to the owner of the cow. No quarrels ever arose over ownership, consequently they needed no laws.

Capistrano was bothered by Juan Flores a long time ago. I suppose you all have heard of this noted outlaw. The only signals they had to let people know that Flores was on his way to Capistrano was the ringing of the Mission bells.

Flores killed only one man in Capistrano, Don George, A German-Jew, who had a store. Don Polaco, it is said, escaped by hiding under a large basket. At first Flores only stole horses and food, and was friendly to the people of the town who were mostly all Indians, Mexicans and Spaniards.

Flores’ stopping place was at the Plaza where the White Garage is now located. There was an old adobe house in the center where a lady lived, who fed him and his gang. Flores rode a beautiful horse He had a silver covered saddle and silver bridle.

Nearly everyone had his own ox-cart, for those were the days when ox-carts rolled merrily along. When traveling a long distance people had certain places to stop for rest and to feed their animals.

For years and years these people lived in perfect peace without any change, “But lo!” says José Juan, “What brought forth this great change? Los Americanos.” He says, “They are the ones who brought this change. The ox-carts have disappeared and speedy automobiles have taken their places. Fast trains travel through this old San Juan Capistrano.

“And now here I am,” says José Juan, “Living in this old hut fearing every minute of the winter months that the river will carry it away. ‘Oh Lord! Look upon me and protect me, for you are my only protector. Where I was young, people called on me for help. Now many of them are wealthy and no longer call on me for help, but because I am old, ragged and poor, they disrespect me as a beggar, and because I am no longer able to help them, I have lost their friendship.’

“Now my only comfort is my one daughter, Josepha, and as my years will soon be numbered I will be separated from her.”


  1. Historian Don Meadows locates Las Paredes near McFadden Avenue and Bushard Street in Fountain Valley.
  2. José de Garcia Cruz – known as Old Acu – was a well-known character around San Juan Capistrano for many years; he died in 1924.
  3. In fact, Trabuco was named by the first Spanish expedition to pass through this area in 1769. One of the soldiers lost his weapon there, known in Spanish as a trabuco.