10 Little-Known Facts of Orange County History

With so many newer tract houses, malls, and freeways, Orange County doesn’t appear at first glance to be a very historical place. But everywhere in the county there are places with stories to tell that most locals don’t even know. The history of interesting people and events in Orange County actually goes all the way back to prehistoric times.

1. Laguna Woman: The Oldest Woman in the West

laguna woman

In 1933, a 17-year-old amateur archaeologist in Laguna Beach chipped a skull out of the ground on St. Ann’s Drive. This female skull was considered to be over 17,000 years old. For decades, Laguna Woman was known as the First Woman in the Western Hemisphere. No similar remains were ever found nearby, so the skull may have washed down from local hills.

Since the Laguna Woman find, older remains have been found in other parts of the Western Hemisphere. But Laguna Woman shows that even the very earliest settlers of this part of the world knew a prime beach town when they saw it.

2. Blunderbuss Canyon, or the Meaning of Trabuco Canyon

Oh, that's what you call a trabuco.
Oh, that’s what you call a trabuco.

In 1769, Gaspar de Portola rode through the hills of Orange County while searching for good places to build missions for Spain.  While traveling through a local canyon, someone in the group lost his blunderbuss – a type of short shotgun. This led to them naming this canyon and the creek with the Spanish name for a blunderbuss, trabuco. The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has a centuries-old gun that may be the actual “trabuco” lost so long ago. Who knows what other treasures they dropped along the way.

Trabuco Canyon can be reached from the 241 Toll Road by taking Santa Margarita Parkway to Trabuco Canyon Road in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.

The Bowers Museum has many other exhibits of early Orange County history, along with the found trabuco.

3. The Orange County 76’ers

George Washington never slept here, but he sure could have! In 1776, local Acjachemen natives found Junipero Serra and his group starting the building of San Juan Capistrano Mission. While Washington and the Founding Fathers were starting their war against England, the changes here were just as revolutionary as Spain claimed Southern California (and everyone already living there) as its own.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is open year-round for tours and visits.

4. Home Sweet Home: The Rios Adobe

rios adobe

When Spanish soldier Feliciano Rios built his home near Mission San Juan Capistrano where he was based, he surely had no idea how long his family would call the place home. He built his adobe home for his Juaneno wife in 1794 and his descendants have lived there ever since. San Juan Capistrano was apparently the first to allow the Native American workers to live outside of the mission. His family has honored their Spanish, Californio, and Juaneno heritage for at least 10 generations. From the front, the place looks as if it hasn’t changed much in all of those years as the family have carefully added on without making changes that would take away from the original spirit of their family home.

The Rios Adobe is on Los Rios Street in San Juan Capistrano, but please remember this is still a private home and view its beauty from the street.

5. Orange County’s Only Real Pirates

Nancy Doyle
San Juan Capistrano Pirate by Nancy Doyle

If you think that drunken pirates looting and burning towns only happened in Orange County amusement parks, then you must not know about Hippolyte Bouchard.

In 1818, Bouchard sailed down the coast of California, trying to claim land for Argentina. By the time they arrived in the area of Dana Point, they were out of supplies, including the pirate staple, rum. People in San Juan Capistrano knew that Bouchard was on his way and hid what valuables they could, especially the artifacts in the chapel of the mission. The soldiers who were based at the mission went to meet the pirates as they arrived and tried to scare them off by saying they had a huge army defending the town. Being pirates, Bouchard and his crew quickly called their bluff and went to town to load up on supplies at the local shops (who needs money when you’re a pirate!). The locals and the soldiers fired a few warning shots and then headed to the hills. Bouchard sent 100 men in to take over the town, but the attack wasn’t as terrible as it could have been.  Mostly the pirates drank all the wine and rum they could find until many of them had to be carried back to the ship. Legend has it that there is still treasure hidden in the nearby hills that the drunken pirates never found.

6. Orange County Wine Country

Wine bottling in Anaheim from Anaheim Public Library
Wine bottling in Anaheim from Anaheim Public Library

Orange County might have been called Grape County if things had gone differently over 150 years ago. In 1857, a group of German immigrants set up a colony they named after the Santa Ana River combined with the German word for home (heim): Anaheim. Their goal was to grow grapes and make wine. For over 25 years, Anaheim was the largest wine producing area in California. At one point there were at least 50 different wineries in the area. It was so successful that they built Anaheim Pier, near present-day Seal Beach, so they could ship the wine to San Francisco.  Disaster struck in the late 1880s when a grape blight killed nearly all of the vines in the area. Fortunately, the area’s climate and fertile soil was still fruitful for many other crops, including our famed citrus which eventually took over most other local crops, including lima beans, strawberries, celery and sugar beets.

7. The Wild West in the OC

Horse thieves, prison escapes, marauding desperados, and deadly shootouts were the talk of Orange County in 1857. Juan Flores was a famous outlaw in the days when stolen horses and stagecoach robberies were the big crimes in Orange County. After escaping from San Quentin Prison, Juan Flores called up his gang and back South.  The gang headed to San Juan Capistrano where they robbed and looted local stores and murdered a local merchant. Sheriff James R. Barton gathered up a posse and caught up with Flores and his gang on a hill that now bears his name in Irvine. The sheriff and his posse were ambushed and Barton his men were killed. General Andres Pico led a huge posse to capture the outlaws and caught up with them in Modjeska Canyon. But Flores managed to escape again and escaped on his horse down the steep face of what is now known as Flores Peak. It took eleven more days to catch him and thousands came from all around to watch his hanging.

Barton Mound is near the 405 between the 133 and Sand Canyon in Irvine. There is no marker there, but it is officially California Historical Landmark #218.

Flores Peak is located in the Santa Ana Mountains above Modjeska Canyon. It is California Historical Landmark #22.

8. Making Aviation History in Newport Beach

Glenn Martin flight newport catalina

Standing on the Balboa Pier today, you probably don’t even notice those airplanes passing overhead as they take off from the airport. But if you were standing there on May 10, 1912, an airplane was a rare and very new novelty.

Glenn L. Martin built his own plane in his shop in Santa Ana and decided to pull off the very first water to water flight.  Realizing that he had the Catalina Channel right in his backyard, Martin also was determined to beat the record set for longest overwater flight that had been set over the English Channel. With a stack of newspapers and mail to deliver (he had to earn money for the trip!), Martin set off from the surf. His assistants pushed him into the waves and he sailed into the air, landing in Avalon’s harbor. By the time he returned to Newport’s sandy beach, he had not only taken off and landed in the water, but covered 68 over-water miles, shattering the previous record of 22 miles across the English Channel set by aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot in 1909. This came less than 10 years since the Wright Brothers had their 30 second first flight on the sandy beach of Kitty Hawk, thousands of miles away. Martin went on to form his own company and produce the famous China Clipper planes. His company is still around and you’ve probably heard of it – Lockheed Martin.

9. A Presidential Past

nixon house

Orange County’s political history is pretty vivid (maybe you’ve heard Reagan’s infamous quote about us?), and includes more than a few major political players.

Richard Milhous Nixon is now more famous for having to leave the presidency, than how he got there or what he did as president. We can’t brag about Watergate, but we can be proud that our 37th president was a self-made Orange County boy. Visiting his birthplace in Yorba Linda is a window into an earlier time in Orange County. He was born in 1913 in this small house that his father built from a catalog kit. This local boy went on to be the first president to make a phone call to the moon when he spoke with Neil Armstrong in 1969 right after that famous first step for mankind. Nixon is also buried at his library, making him the only president who was both born and buried in Orange County and in all of California.

Visit the Richard Nixon Library, Museum, Birthplace, and Grave

10. Why is a Buffalo Standing on a Corner in Newport Beach?

barn newport beach

On the corner of MacArthur Blvd. and Bonita Canyon, there is an immense statue of a buffalo, (or bison to be correct). Not far away, you can drive down Bison Ave. No, these aren’t reminders of a long-lost local species. In the 1950’s this was the site of Buffalo Ranch located in what is now Newport Beach.  Families could drive their cars through hills of grazing buffalo. There was a petting zoo, Indian Village, and even buffalo burgers. But the ranch was only open for a few years as more people wanted to build houses there and more tourists spent their money at a newly opened place called Disneyland. The barn and silo, along with some buffalo remained there until 1994 when the silo was moved to the Centennial Farm at the OC Fair Grounds! The Buffalo statue and plaque are at the corner of MacArthur and Bonita Canyon Drive.

10 little known facts about Orange County history.