“Don Juan” Forster was born in 1815 in Liverpool, England
to a very unpretentious family. He grew up to become one of the
largest landowners in all of California. At the age of 17 John traveled
to Mexico and was working for his uncle, James Johnson, in Guaymas,
Mexico. He became the captain of one of his uncle's ships. In 1836
he became a Mexican citizen and was living in Los Angeles where
he worked as a shipping agent at San Pedro. Later he was also Captain
of the Port of San Pedro. In 1837 John married Dona Ysidora Pico,
sister of Pio Pico the Governor of California.
Forster began acquiring land in the
1840s as a result of his connection with Governor Pico who granted
him the lands of Rancho Trabuco and Rancho Mission Viejo. He also
owned Rancho San Felipe and Rancho de la Nacion in what is now San
Diego County. In 1844 Forster and James McKinley purchased the old
ruins of Mission of San Juan Capistrano for $710. Here he made his
home until 1864 when the Mission was given back to the Catholic
Church by President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1846 the United States and Mexico
were at war and Governor Pico fled to Mexico, leaving Forster in
charge of Pico's ranch, Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which today
is Camp Pendleton. On his return to California, Pico borrowed large
sums of money from Forster to cover his gambling debts. By 1864
Forster offered to pay $14,000 and assume all of Pico's current
debts in return for the deed to rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.
The Picos, Pio and Andres, agreed and Forster became the largest
landowner in California, eventually holding over 200,000 acres.
Forster moved his family to Santa Margarita
y Las Flores in 1864. The ranch house had been built sometime before
1827 and was in need of repair and remodeling. At this time it had
two bedrooms and a living room. Forster expanded the house to 18
rooms surrounding a flower-filled courtyard. It is still standing
today and became the home of the Commanding General at Camp Pendleton
until 2007 where it is now being made into a museum.
Don Juan died in 1882 and his family
sold the ranch to James Flood. Flood made Richard O'Neill his manager
who later became half owner of this ranch. In 1940 the United States
Navy needed a west coast training facility and purchased a major
portion of the ranch from the O'Neill and Flood families and it
became Camp Pendleton.
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