A Brief History of Orange County

The first people to live in Orange County came here thousands of years ago. They lived by hunting and fishing, and gathering plants and seeds. Later, Shoshonean-speaking people arrived, the ancestors of the tribes we know today as the Juaneño and the Gabrielino.

Though Spain had claimed California for more than 200 years, it was not until 1769 that the first efforts were made to colonize the area. Catholic missionaries and Spanish soldiers were sent north to establish a chain of missions and forts. Don Gaspar de Portolá led the first overland expedition through Orange County in 1769, and two years later Father Junípero Serra founded Mission San Gabriel in what is now Los Angeles County. Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded on November 1, 1776. These two missions laid claim to much of what is now Orange County, grazing cattle, horses, and sheep here until the 1830s.

Under Spanish rule, all lands were considered property of the King. But a few retired soldiers were granted grazing permits. One of the first was Manuel Nieto, who in 1784 was allowed to occupy all the land between the Santa Ana and San Gabriel Rivers. Part of his lands would later be granted to his heirs as five separate ranchos.

Around 1800, Juan Pablo Grijalva began running cattle south and east of the Santa Ana River. In 1810 his son-in-law, José Antonio Yorba, and his grandson, Juan Pablo Peralta, received a formal concession to the land that became known as the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana.

Mexico broke away from Spain in 1821, taking California with them. In 1834, the Mexican government began the secularization of the California missions, restricting the padres to their religious duties, and placing civil administrators in charge of the operation of the missions.

The Mexican government also authorized land grants of up to 44,000 acres to Mexican citizens who would occupy and improve the land. By 1846, almost all of Orange County was part of one rancho or another.

Cattle ranching became the backbone of the local economy. Trading vessels from the United States and other countries sailed up and down the California coast, collecting cattle hides and tallow in return for manufactured goods.

At the end of the Mexican War in 1848, California was ceded to the United States by Mexico. When California became a state in 1850, what is now Orange County became a part of Los Angeles County.

The Gold Rush of 1849 brought tens of thousands of new settlers to California. This gave the rancheros a new market for their cattle, which were sold as beef to feed hard-working miners. The local economy soared. But a series of droughts, floods, and diseases – along with the cost of defending the ownership of their lands in the American courts – eventually drove many of the rancheros to ruin.

Some of the old ranchos were sold to American owners with names like Stearns, Bixby and Irvine.

With cotton production disrupted by the Civil War, sheep ranching began replacing cattle. Other ranchos were broken up and sold off in pieces to settlers and developers.

Anaheim was the first American town founded in Orange County. In 1857, a group of German immigrants living in San Francisco bought a portion of the Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana to start a new community, built on wine making. The area was subdivided, an irrigation ditch dug, and the vineyards planted before the first colonists moved to Anaheim in 1859.

In 1868, vast areas on either side of the Santa Ana River were placed on the market, and the towns of Santa Ana, Tustin, Orange, Westminster, and Garden Grove were soon founded. Farming became the backbone of the local economy. Wine and raisin grapes, wheat, barley, and corn were all successful. In the 1870s, new irrigation systems were built, which allowed more trees crops to be planted, including walnuts, apricots, and oranges.

In 1870, the first commercial vessel entered Newport Bay, which soon became a regular shipping point along the coast. The Southern Pacific built the first local railroad in 1875, extending its tracks south from Los Angeles to Anaheim. The line was extended to Santa Ana two years later.

The Southern Pacific held a monopoly in Southern California until 1885, when the Santa Fe pushed its tracks over the Cajon Pass. Competition brought a burst of advertising and a sharp drop in ticket prices, setting off a great real estate boom throughout the region. Existing communities expanded, and new towns and subdivisions sprang up by the dozens as tourists and settlers poured into Southern California. But in less than two years, the boom had collapsed, and with it, many of the new towns. Carlton, San Juan-by-the-Sea, St. James, and other “paper towns” faded away. Others, like Fullerton, Buena Park, and El Toro survived.

The burst of economic growth and local pride in the late 1880s led to the formation of the County of Orange in 1889. As early as 1870, local residents had tried to break away from Los Angeles and form their own county, but it was not until 1889 that the California Legislature passed a bill to allow a vote on county division.

Originally, the proposed county line was drawn at the San Gabriel River, but the line was moved south to Coyote Creek to help gain support in Sacramento. This angered Anaheim and some of the other northern communities that had hoped to be near the center of the new county. They voted against the measure. But the rest of the area voted overwhelming for division. Santa Ana was selected as the county seat, and the County of Orange was officially formed on August 1, 1889.

Until the 1950s, agriculture remained the most important part of Orange County’s economy. As other crops disappeared, citrus became more and more popular. The grape industry never recovered from a devastating blight in 1886-87. Apricots had all but disappeared by 1920. Growers began planting celery, sugar beets, and lima beans in the 1890s. Cattle still grazed on the vast ranches in the southern end of the county, while dairy farms grew up in the north. But it was citrus that came to dominate the area. By the 1930s, Orange County was producing a sixth of the nation’s Valencia orange crop.

The oil industry also played a key role in the development of Orange County. The first successful wells were drilled locally in the 1890s along the northern edge of the county. Oil fields were soon developed in La Habra, Brea Canyon, and Olinda. Major strikes in Placentia (1919) and Huntington Beach (1920) started an oil boom that swept the county. While agriculture has all but disappeared, many local oil wells are still pumping.

Much of Orange County’s growth in the first half of the 20th Century was fueled by new forms of transportation. Between 1904 and 1910, the Pacific Electric Railway built three branches to serve Orange County with its “big red cars.” The coast line spurred development from Seal Beach to Corona del Mar. The Santa Ana line prompted the founding of Cypress and Stanton. And the La Habra line ran all the way down to the new community of Yorba Linda.

In the 1910s and ‘20s, new highways led the way to new communities. In 1915, California’s first state highway was completed across Orange County, running from La Habra to San Juan Capistrano. Several small communities later developed along Beach and Manchester boulevards, and the completion of the Coast Highway in 1926 brought new growth to places like Laguna Beach and Dana Point.

Freeway construction began in the 1950s with the opening of the Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway, and continued almost unabated into the 1970s. Beginning in the 1990s, toll roads were added in some areas to meet the needs of growing communities.

During World War II, a number of important military bases were established in Orange County, including the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the Seal Beach Naval Weapons station, originally known as the Naval Ammunition and Net Depot Seal Beach, the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, originally known as the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, and the Santa Ana Army Air Base. At the end of the war, many veterans decided to settle in Southern California, and the region began to grow at an unprecedented rate.

By the mid-1950s, Orange County’s farms were being replaced by tract housing. Existing cities began annexing territory in every direction, and new cities incorporated almost every year. Between 1953 and 1962, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, La Palma, Garden Grove, Cypress, Westminster, Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos, San Juan Capistrano, and Villa Park all voted to incorporate. In 1963, the county population topped one million.

Tourism, manufacturing, and the service industry began to dominate the local economy. The opening of Disneyland in 1955 made Orange County an international tourist destination. In the late 1950s, aerospace firms and light industry began expanding here, and the increasing population meant more and more jobs at hospitals, restaurants, and stores.

South Orange County began to grow in the 1960s, with master planned communities such as Irvine, Mission Viejo, and Laguna Niguel. Aliso Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Ladera Ranch, and others followed in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Orange County is home to more than three million residents, with 34 incorporated cities.