The City of San Juan Capistrano

Circa 1903

Early residents of San Juan Capistrano were members of the Acjachemen tribe, a peaceful tribe belonging to the Shoshone Indian family. They were hunters and gatherers who had a nomadic form of government with leadership confined to one family. A council of men aided the leader. They worshiped a deity called Chinigchinich with religious ceremonies held in a small temple of reeds in each community. Abundant material has been found within the Capistrano Valley relating to prehistoric Indian life.

Spanish explorers led by Don Gaspar de Portola entered the valley in 1769 on their way to Monterey Bay. By 1775 the Franciscan Padres had received permission to build a mission in the valley. The bells were hung, Mass was celebrated and the work began. Within days the bells were buried, the site was abandoned and the padres and soldiers returned to help quell and Indian rebellion in San Diego.

The next year a new beginning began. Three years later a lack of adequate water for irrigation led to the relocation of the Mission to the site it occupies today. Until 1821 the Mission was prosperous, producing many tons of wheat, barley, corn, beans, and even wine. Thousands of horses, cattle, and sheep roamed the Mission lands.

Circa 1925

Mexican independence in 1821 caused a decline in the Mission and the town's population. The Secularization Act of 1833 led to Mission lands being sold to politically important individuals instead of being given to the Acjachemen Indians, now known as the Juaneno Indians, as was originally intended. In 1845 John Forster purchased the Mission buildings from Pio Pico, last Mexican governor of California and incidentally Forster's brother-in-law.

The United States victory in its war with Mexico in 1848 led to California becoming, first a territory and two years later, the 31st state in the Union. The years following statehood were good years for San Juan Capistrano. Cattle were sent north to the gold fields at great profit. People from many parts of the world settled on the town lots. Farmers grew larger crops and bought more land. The agriculture of the area changed and walnuts, citrus, and barley were planted.

But the prosperity did not last. The mid-1860s brought drought, smallpox, and state property tax. A fencing law required ranchers to completely fence their land. In the case of Don Juan Forster, this meant over 250,000 acres had to be fenced. He had to borrow money to buy the fence posts and wire. Many ranchers couldn't afford all these costs and began to sell their land to farmers. Thus, many of the great ranchos became farms. In 1865 the U.S. Government returned the Mission to the Catholic Church and the Forster family moved to its ranch house on Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.

Circa 1890

Arriving in 1887, the railroad helped the farmers to transport their produce to markets nationwide. Hay, sheep, English walnuts, honey, oranges, corn, dried fruit, cattle and horses made their way to market by way of the railroad which cut the delivery time tremendously.

The early 20th century saw stability in San Juan Capistrano tight knit community relatively untouched by development. The Mission had fallen into disrepair and had no resident priest. In 1910 Father St. John O'Sullivan arrived in town and the Mission's future was changed radically. Suffering from tuberculosis, Father O'Sullivan decided to work to restore what he could of the Mission until his death. Fortunately for San Juan, Father O'Sullivan not only restored much of the Mission, but also his health. Until his death in 1933, he worked with his own hands to create what was needed at the Mission.

Worried about local control slipping from their hands, residents of San Juan Capistrano incorporated and became a city in 1961. Much of the city retains its early Spanish-Mexican flavor and growth is tightly controlled. There is a strong preservationist attitude among the townsfolk to insure the preservation of the few remaining over 200 year-old adobes and other historic structures.

Today San Juan Capistrano is a vibrant, busy city with a population of about 34,000 and with strong ties to the past as well as a vision of the future. Our motto “Preserving the past to enhance the Future” says it all.


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San Juan Capistrano Historical Society
31831 Los Rios Street
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
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