History of Orange County

A ‘new’ city from historic roots

Rancho Santa Margarita Lake.

Rancho Santa Margarita Lake.

By Jim Tortolano

Some critics of South Orange County communities use this mantra: “Cookie-cutter tracts with no history.” Architectural criticisms aside, although some south county cities seem to have planted last week, they may yet have a long and rich history.

Rancho Santa Margarita is just such a place. Although incorporated in 2000 as the 33rd city in Orange County, it can trace its origins all the way back to 1769, and its first buildings to around 1820. People were living and working in what is now “RSM” decades before Anaheim and Santa Ana were even sticks in the ground.

Recorded history for the area began in 1769 when a Spanish expedition led by Captain Gaspar de Portola passed through the area, pausing to camp near what is now the Tiheras Creek Golf Course. During the bivouac in July, one soldier lost his musket, or trabuco, a flub that has led to the naming of creeks, streets, schools and more. The nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano was established by Spanish settlers in 1776 and after Mexico succeeded in breaking away from Spain, the area was divided into three ranchos: Trabuco, Mission Viejo and Santa Margarita. At least one adobe structure dating from around 1820 survives.

Old adobe structure dating back to 1820s.

Old adobe structure dating back to 1820s.

In 1848, California became part of the United States and in 1882 the O’Neill family entered county history. Jerome O’Neill and James Flood bought the three ranchos, with the area functioning as a huge cattle ranch. In 1940 the families split up the land, with the lower portion (in San Diego County) eventually becoming the site of Camp Pendleton, operated since 1942 as a Marine Corps facility.

The O’Neill family kept the Orange County portion, and donated nearly 400 acres to the county for what would be called O’Neill Park. That park has served as a principal campground for generations of local and visiting families and Scouting groups since.

However, the O’Neills were interested in more than raising cattle and giving away land. They set their sights on building a master-planned community in Mission Viejo in 1963 and then in 1986 on a similar development in RSM.

Although homes had been in Trabuco Canyon for many years, it wasn’t until 1986 that the master-planned Rancho Santa Margarita began construction. In 1999, the communities of RSM, Robinson Ranch, Dove Canyon, Rancho Cielo, Trabuco Highlands and Walden became part of a new city. Originally, it was supposed to be simply Santa Margarita, but it was discovered that another California municipality had that name.

Today, the community is a much-admired “urban village” with 50,000 residents in a city with a large artificial lake, generous parkland and trails, and a golf course. Affluent and modern, it can nevertheless trace its colorful history back to the unfortunate Spanish soldier who forgot where he put his musket.

Sources: Wikipedia, City of Rancho Santa Margarita, RSM Chamber of Commerce.  Photos from Flickr Creative Commons.

2 replies »

  1. I am a hard core opponent to Cookie Cutter Housing Tracks. I love the freedom of style that are in the old parts of Anaheim and Santa Ana, so from that stand point I would not like to live in South Orange County.

    I like the story about how Trabuco got its name. Thanks. I never knew there was a community in OC called Walden.

    Speaking of Missions, I always thought OC should have had another Mission. It seems to far between San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel. I wonder if there had been thoughts about one in between that simply did not get built?

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