July 1, 1961
By Edgar W. Hebert
As one motors north from Oceanside, he passes through the area which once was known as Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. Today a solitary railroad sign calls attention to the name. Where once an asistencia of San Luis Rey stood, where history was woven following the secularization period, now only mounds of dirt hint of former days.
Father Juan Mariner, in his diary notation of August 26, 1795, told of his trip through the region. He wrote that there was little running water at the site of Las Flores, only a small spring being located. The rancherias which spoke the language of San Juan Capistrano (Santa Margarita y Las Flores being included in this count) numbered fourteen.1
Just when the fathers from San Luis Rey began to use Las Flores, for farming and for sheep raising, is not known. Nor is there a definite date for the establishment of the asistencia. Because the land was suitable to their needs and converts were to be made, the Franciscans eventually settled there. In April, 1810, Father Antonio Peyri found it necessary to write to Comandante Francisco Ruiz of San Diego. He complained that troops were occupying Santa Margarita y Las Flores rancheria where the mission grazed its sheep, adding that this pasture was needed, and that he could not believe that the soldiers acted upon orders from the governor.2
Thirteen years later, Father Peyri reported that there had been constructed at Rancho de Las Flores, in the form of a patio, houses and buildings, and that all were roofed with tile.3 The citation for this is not clear, but it would seem to indicate that the work was completed in 1823 or shortly before.
Another glimpse into the pastoral life of Las Flores is the permission granted by Governor José Echeandia to Father Peyri, in 1829, to embark 1,500 cattle hides on the English frigate Thomas Nowlan at the anchorage of San Juan Capistrano. These hides came from animals raised at Las Flores.4
The location of Las Flores was defined as three leagues north of San Luis Rey; the rancheria San Pedro was also known as Las Flores. In the patio, irrigated by water taken out of a pool by the sea, corn was raised. On the plain wheat and barley were grown, while about a league from the rancho, at a place called Las Pulgas, was the pasture for cattle.5
Santiago Arguello, comandante of San Diego, early in 1833 made demands on Las Flores for grain. Father Vincente Pascual Oliva wrote to him that there were but 100 fanegas of wheat instead of the 1000 supposed to be there, and therefore he could not send the provisions desired. It is worthy of note that such requisitions were paid for in drafts on Mexico, and nothing was ever realized on them.6
On June 6, 1837, Carlos Antonio Carrillo was appointed provisional governor of California. He took the post of Juan Bautista Alvarado, who had usurped the government. Alvarado would not acknowledge Carrillo as governor and fighting was inevitable.
The “armies” of each side were never much larger than 200 men, Alvarado’s forces being slightly larger than Carrillo’s. The latter retired to Las Flores, using an adobe building as a barracks and a corral as a fort, mounting three cannon. The gunners were protected by piles of hides, pack saddles and whatever else could be found. Juan Bandini and Jose Antonio Carrillo (the governor’s brother) as well as the governor himself, seem to have been present at the “fort”, as were Manuel Requenu, Juan Ibaria and other important men from Los Angeles.
Ignacio Ezquer, who was temporarily in charge of Mission San Juan Capistrano, (the real administrator, Francisco Sepulveda, had gone south to join the southern army) said that one evening a small party under the command of Jose Antonio Carrillo came to the mission and inquired about Castro (Alvarado’s commander) and his men. Carrillo and his group had first planned to stay at the mission, but withdrew to an arroyo to spend the night there. Apparently well supplied with liquid refreshment, they fell asleep but were aroused at midnight by the arrival of Castro’s army.
The newcomers fired a cannon toward the fort. Alvarado had seen horses tied in that direction and felt the foe must be at hand. Salvador Vallejo was sent forward to occupy San Juan Capistrano Mission; he obtained a capitulation, threatening to hang anyone who did not instantly surrender.
At about the same time, Carrillo occupied Las Flores, and on April 21, 1838, the northern army appeared. The “combat” which ensued was of the comic opera type. A cannon was fired several times, but no damage was caused, and finally a flag of truce was sent, although by which side this was done is not clear. Surrender was not mentioned, only an interview, and not one, but several interviews were held. The rival governors and their representatives met at Las Flores, a midpoint between the two “armies,” and on April 23 a treaty was signed. The power of government remained with Alvarado; Carrillo disbanded his troops and was paroled to his wife and, following the negotiations, a barbecue took place. Alvarado boasted in a dispatch to Vallejo and others in the north that he had won a smashing victory over Don Carlos, who had offered nothing of sound value to the people of California.7
When William Hartnell arrived at Las Flores in 1839, he furnished an insight into conditions there. He had been appointed inspector of missions by Alvarado on January 19,1839, and began his investigations at San Diego on May 27. Probably in late May or early June he was at San Luis Rey, and then went to Las Flores.
The Indians asked him to distribute to them the livestock which had previously been cared for by the community, and after listening to the views of the administrator and others, he agreed. The animals were counted, and were valued at $867.00. As 33 married couples and 46 children, ten widowers with 10 children, and six widows were tabulated, Hartnell ordered that each family should receive $20.00, each widow and widower $12.00, and Jose Maria, by the consent of all the Indians, received $7.00. The surplus of $8.00 was divided among the indigent widows. Hartnell then warned the Indians that being “freed” by the government had implied that they should improve their property; instead, he added, it was going to ruin. He concluded that whoever neglected what now was given to him, and did not work, would lose his liberty and be sent back to the mission community.8
The decree of secularization had taken effect at San Luis Rey on August 22, 1835. Pico Pico and Pablo de la Portilla were the two commissioners appointed by Governor Jose Figueroa to take possession. Later Pico Pico served as mayordomo there, being replaced by Jose Estudillo in August, 1840. Finally as governor, Pico sold San Luis Rey on May 18, 1846, to Jose A. Cot and Jose A. Pico.9 In the meantime Pico, with cattle he had appropriated, had bought the land known as Rancho San Onofre y Santa Margarita.10 This was granted by Governor Alvarado on May 10, 1841.11
In February, 1840, Pico Pico reported to Governor Alvarado that he had turned over to the Indian, Jose Manuel, the property at Las Flores.12 By May of the same year Father Francisco Ibarra of San Luis Rey wrote to Father President Narciso Duran that Las Flores had become a seraglio for the Pico clan. Their cattle was there and the fields were sown when they felt like doing so. In essence the asistencia of Las Flores was Pico property.13
When Hartnell, in September of 1840, left San Luis Rey and again visited Las Flores, he found the Indians loud in their denunciation of Pico Pico. According to their testimony he allowed his cattle to wreck their little farms, he occupied the whole territory, and even stopped their water ditch. The Indians asked Hartnell to request the government to order him, Pico, to remove his cattle from the lands which were needed for their existence. They further wanted Pico to vacate any dwellings which he had occupied contrary to their understanding.14
Following the stormy period of American occupation and subsequent questioning of former land claims, Andres and Pio Pico filed a petition with the United States Land Commission on March 2, 1853, for the land and the buildings of Las Flores; their claims were based on conveyance to Pico Pico by the Indians on October 8, 1846.
On April 24, 1855 the board ordered a decree of confirmation in favor of Pio and Andres Pico. Their decision was appealed to the United States District Court, which re-affirmed the Land Commission’s decree. Santa Margarita as well as Las Flores were accepted as belonging to the brothers Pico. On October 24, 1864, the United States District Court upheld the decree of the land Commission. Thus Santa Margarita y Las Flores was legally established as belonging to the Picos. A grant to that effect was signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes on March 28, 1879.15 Meanwhile Andres Pico, because of bad times and mortgages, was forced on May 21, 1862, to give Pio an outright deed to his half of the rancho. The sum involved was a mere $1,000.
Pio seems to have fared no better. The great drought of 1863-4 depopulated the cattle. When Picche and Boyerque, the picturesque French entrepreneurs, demanded that the mortgage held by them should be paid, Pio Pico offered 5,000 head of cattle and a deed to the property, but they refused the offer. Don Juan Forster of Capistrano, his brother-in-law, paid Pio $14,000 February 25, 1864, and took the deed for the rancho. Forster moved from Capistrano to Las Flores in 1864. There he tried to improve his cattle holdings, but his plans were complicated by another move of the Picos.
Pio claimed that he had sold Forster only a half of the rancho, stating that he had never owned it all; Andres was said still to own his original portion. Forster brought suit to quiet title in 1873 in the San Diego District Court, and after a long trial, the court decided in Forster’s favor.
During this same period Don Juan attempted to colonize his new holdings on the huge rancho. With Major Max Stroebel of Anaheim as his agent, he hoped to bring Dutch settlers to the rancho. Stroebel’s death in Europe while on the mission seemed to seal the fate of the plan, but, by early 1879 an enterprise known as Forster City had sprung up. By 1880 it could boast of a postoffice, general store, livery stable, blacksmiths shop, hotel, and lumber yard. In time the project failed. The lumber from the buildings was taken away and the “city” ceased to exist.
On February 2, 1871, Forster mortgaged his rancho to Charles Crocker of San Francisco for $207,000, and when he died in 1882 his son Marcus was forced to sell the land to settle the estate. The new owner was Richard O’Neill, a friend of the Crockers of San Francisco fame; $250,000 for cattle and farm equipment was the price paid for the rancho. O’Neill raised cattle, draft horses, carriage horses and mules, as well as growing alfalfa, oranges, olives and vineyard crops. James Flood of San Francisco bought the property from O’Neill in 1882 for $450,000.
On the death of her husband in 1891, Mrs. Flood deeded her and her late husband’s interests in Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores to her young son James Flood. On November 12, 1906, he made O’Neill a partner with one-half interest in the rancho. After an unsuccessful eye operation O’Neill made over his interest to his son, Jerome O’Neill.
The new owner paid his mother $10,000 and $260 a month for her share. The two sisters and brothers received $10,000 each, and by 1917 the entire debt was paid. In 1923 Flood and O’Neill incorporated their holdings.
Water rights were the subject of litigation in 1926, which was settled out of court, Rancho Santa Margarita receiving 66 2/3 percent of the water in the Santa Margarita River and the contenders, the Vail company and others, 33 1/3 percent.
As airplane travel increased the United States government wanted an emergency landing field on Santa Margarita Rancho, which was on the southern flight pattern from New York to Los Angeles. The owner refused to sell land to the government, but Charles S. Hardy, manager of the ranch, agreed to lease it to the federal government for such a purpose. The lease started on July 1, 1931.
Ten years later the United States Navy bought 9,000 acres of land from the rancho owner for $2,500,000, the area being designated as an ammunition depot. In March, 1941, the Navy wanted to secure 120,000 acres of Santa Margarita land in San Diego County for an aircraft field, protected boat basin, etc., and 123,620 acres were sold for $4,239,062. This transaction took place late in 1942. The whole area became Camp Pendleton, named in honor of General Joseph H. Pendleton, U.S.M.C.16
It is a far cry from an active military base to the origin of this section in Spanish mission days. One cannot help but wish that its history were better known, that some marker might be put there, and that in time a restoration might be begun on the site of the Las Flores foundation. Perhaps the writing of this paper and its publication may spark such efforts.
1. Father Zephyrin Engelhardt, San Luis Rey (Los Angeles, 1922) p. 5
2. Ibid. p. 22
3. Ibid. p. 36
4. Ibid. pps. 49-50
5. Ibid. pps. 51-52
6. Ibid. p. 89
7. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California, Volume 111, (San Francisco, 1885) p. 559
8. Engelhardt, pps. 105-107
9. Sister Mary Agathonia Schubert, San Luis Rey, King of the Mis- sions, a thesis, (1939), pps. 49-53
10. Julia Cesar, Recollections, Touring Topics, November, 1930, pps. 42-43.
11. R. W. Brackett, The History of San Diego County Ranchos, (San Diego, 1939) P. 35.
12. Engelhardt, Ibid. p. 114.
13. Ibid. pps. 113-114.
14. Ibid. pps. 120-121.
15. Ollie Jo Jones, Santa Margarita y Las Flores, a thesis, 1957, pps. 18-19.
16. Ibid. pps. 24-90