San Juan Capistrano — 2010-2011
Change Language:
Julie Hagy

The history of San Juan Capistrano is written like a screenplay. It involves conquest, treasure, land, natural beauty and love. Th e cast includes natives and foreigners, missionaries and pirates. Today, walking through the streets of downtown San Juan Capistrano, along the railroad track and amongst the cool adobe walls of its shops and businesses, one gets the feeling that history is not far removed from San Juan Capistrano’s future.

Set back from the hustle and bustle of Interstate 5 and the famed Ortega Highway, a thoroughfare built upon an Indian footpath, San Juan Capistrano boasts being Orange County’s oldest settlement and home of the annual Swallow migration. Unlike any other Orange County city in its buildings, history and people, San Juan Capistrano is an escape from the ordinary not only for its residents, but for the thousands of visitors that come annually to visit its Mission, walk its streets, admire its preserved adobe structures and eat in its restaurants. Th ere is no mistaking something is different about this town. People seem to smile more, walk slower here.

San Juan Capistrano city’s motto, “Preserving the Past to Enhance the Future,” hints at its foundation. As the city celebrates the 50th year of incorporation in 2011, it is important to retell that story, to preserve the thousand-years-old heritage of the city’s people and to celebrate the vibrant, thriving community it is today.

From Mission bells to train whistles, community members follow the footsteps of their ancestors to tell the history of San Juan Capistrano, how they built their town thousands of years ago, and how those early efforts continue to shape the city today.


As sunlight streams through a window of his office, Chairman Anthony Rivera of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians of the Acjachemen Tribe sits at a table and recounts some of the memories he has been handed down from his grandfathers. It is a lineage he can trace many generations back, almost to when San Juan Capistrano was a rural shore-based community, inhabited solely by the Acjachemen Tribe of Native Americans.

According to Rivera, to begin at the beginning means a 10,000-year trek back into time, where Orange County was a community of Native Americans. “Before there was a town,” says Rivera, “there was a capitol.” According to the oral accounts handed down by his people, rock art sites and archaeological records, current- day San Juan Capistrano was once the site of the capital of the Acjachemen people. “Th is was once the Capitol Village of the entire nation.” In fact, he says, “Where you see parking lots, houses, shopping centers, we were probably living there too,” he says, referring to currentday San Juan Capistrano.

Records indicate that the Acjachemen territory extended south from Las Pulgas Creek in northern San Diego County into the San Joaquin Hills along Orange County’s central coast, and reaching east, inland from the coast up into the Santa Ana Mountains. Aliso Creek formed the northern boundary. According to Rivera, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the population of the nation ranged from 4,000-5,000 Native Americans. Survival of the communities, scattered around the area and consisting of 20-25 members each, depended on fishing and hunting.

We are considered “ocean people,” Rivera says, his fingers running over the shells that hang on a necklace he wears around his neck.

“All our livelihood was centered around the water.” Early information on the Acjachemen tribe is hard to access, according to Rivera, “because we didn’t write,” he says, “We recoded our stories in rock paintings, songs and oral history.

Those were passed down to these days.” Tribal people comprised the majority of the population until the town incorporated in 1961. At that time, Rivera says the total population hovered around 1,130.

“Our biggest struggle is to maintain the identify of the tribe with the influx of those People. A lot of people think we are all dead. We never moved. We’ve always been here,” Rivera says as he adjusts Oakley sunglasses on his nose, the shell necklace around his neck, one hand in the past, one hand toward the future.

As he says this, Rivera’s eyes drift to the tribe’s crest. It hangs on a large flag hanging in his office. The crest depicts a Native American looking skyward into a starry evening. “We believe that when our ancestors go into the heavens, they appear as stars of night looking down upon us,” said Rivera, who still feels the strong presence of his ancestors with every step he takes through the streets of San Juan Capistrano.


Th e ruins rise out of the center of town, the tops stretching far beyond their adobe wall boarder, giving glimpses of the beauty inside.

Bells ring from inside, their chime fi lling the town. Worshipers fi le inside, Bibles tucked under their arms. Visitors follow in close pursuit, cameras in hand. School groups stop to smell the multi-colored roses, to wander down the pathways and duck inside the various enclaves of what remains of the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Inside, the Mission is filled with expansive courtyards, bubbling water fountains, budding flora, and visitors from all around the world.

As varied as the colors of the roses in the Mission’s garden are the languages being spoke amongst them. “We notice compared to Orange County tourism stats, there are 10-15 percent more international travelers,” says Mission spokeswoman Christina Haakenson. “People come for so many reasons: Religion, spirituality, to go gold panning with kids, to view the Mission as a museum,” said Haakenson.

The San Juan Capistrano Mission was the seventh of 21 California missions, and is billed as the “Jewel of the Missions.” Th is bestowed title is not hard to confirm, as online viewers have continually rated it high and amongst their favorites.

The mission was first established with the arrival of the Spanish, led by Don Gaspar de Portola. Don Gaspar de Portola and his men entered the valley in 1769. Determined that a new mission was needed to ease the journey between San Diego and San Gabriel, plans were made to establish a mission in current-day South Orange County. In 1775, the Franciscan Padres began construction on the mission. Just 8 days after the bells were hung and construction was well under way, their efforts came to an abrupt stop. A clash had broken out in San Diego. San Diego de Alcala was under attack and one of the fathers had been killed in the Spanish/Native American clash. Th e soldiers working on the Orange County mission returned to fight the Indians, taking the padres along with them.

Before leaving, one of the padres, Father Lasuen, took down and buried the San Juan Capistrano Mission bells to keep them safe. He placed a cross marker over the location of the burial.

The following year, returning victorious from the battle in San Diego, Father Junipero Serra returned to Orange County, found the cross, and dug up the bells. Construction on the Mission resumed.

Three years later a lack of adequate water for irrigation led to the relocation of the Mission to San Juan Capistrano, the site it occupies today, strategically placed near the Trabuco and San Juan creeks. In 1777, an adobe church was built. In 1791, a bell tower was completed and the bells, which had been hanging in a tree for 15 years, were finally given a home.

Their sound could be heard throughout the town, announcing birth, death and worship.

Converting the Native American population began immediately. “When a child was baptized, they had to stay at the mission. A lot of families went with their children,” says Rivera.

Historic accounts indicate nearly 5,000 Native Americans were converted at the Mission between 1776 and 1847.

In 1796 work was begun on a large stone church that was to be the most magnifi cent of all the California mission churches. Supervised by a Mexican stonemason, stones were transported by Native Americans from a quarry six miles away. Nine years later, Th e Great Stone church was completed. It stood in the shape of a cross, 180 feet long and 40 feet wide. Th e front entrance included a 120-foot-tall bell tower that could be seen for miles.

Years of prosperity followed the completion of the Mission. The Mission produced many tons of wheat, olive oil, barley, corn, beans and even wine. Thousands of horses, cattle, and sheep roamed the Mission lands. 1811 was the most successful year at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Records indicate the town harvested 500,000 pounds of wheat, 303,000 pounds of corn. They also maintained extensive fields of cattle, sheep and horses. The first wine produced in California is said to have emerged from the Mission’s winery.

For six years the church served as the focal point of the Mission. In December 1812, it came crumbling down, its walls ransacked by an earthquake that killed 40 people. Historians regularly refer to the quake as the San Juan Capistrano earthquake, due to the death toll from the quake at that famous Mission. Using only the sparse damage reports, scientists estimate the earthquake to have been at a magnitude of around six. Th e church was not rebuilt.

Natural disaster was not the only enemy of the early Mission. In 1818, the mission came under attack by the famed pirate, Bouchard, and his men. Bouchard attacked the California coast, supposedly in the name of a South American province that was rebelling against Spain. Historians believe he used the revolution as an excuse to attack the California towns.

Bouchard sent word of his approach to the residents of the Mission, telling them to surrender their possessions. Word was sent back to the ship that he was welcome to dock and come into town, and that in doing so, he could expect a greeting of powder and shell. The bold retort did not stall his ambitions. Over the course of three days, Bouchard and his men ransacked the town.

San Juan Capistrano recuperated from the attack, but it was not to be the last of trying times.


Mexico gained Independence from Spain in 1821. Concurrently, San Juan Capistrano’s population began to decline, as disease thinned out cattle herds and citizens alike. From 1842 to 1845, there was not a priest left at the Mission.

The Secularization Act of 1833 led to Mission lands being sold to politically important individuals instead of reverting to the Acjachemen Indians, now known as the Juaneno Indians, as was originally intended. In 1845 Juan Forster purchased the Mission buildings from Pio Pico.Pio Pico was the last Mexican governor of California, and ironically, Forster’s brother-in-law.

The Forster family lived in the Mission for 20 years, and are credited with renovating many of the Mission’s rooms.

Drought and property taxes ushered in the mid 1860s. In addition, smallpox is said to have nearly eliminated the Native American population.

In addition, a fencing law reshaped the previous canvas of San Juan Capistrano. Th e law mandated land owners completely fence their land. In the case of the Forster Family, this meant more than 250,000 acres had to be fenced.

John Forster borrowed money to buy the fence posts and wire. Many ranchers couldn’t afford The costs and began to sell their land to farmers. Many of the large ranches were parceled off and sold; many small farms began to appear.

In 1865, as one of the last acts before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Patent of Title document, returning Mission San Juan Capistrano to the Catholic Church. Th e Mission went through a period of decline, as it was not kept up. In 1866, Father Jose Mut was sent to the mission. He found ruin. Th e only building still standing was the chapel—maintained as it was being used to store hay for the booming agriculture industry taking place around it.

Following the US victory in and acquisition of California, and the genesis of many small farms, San Juan Capistrano once more became a thriving agricultural community. 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. Th e agriculture of the area changed as walnuts, citrus, and barley were planted.

The railroad arrived in 1887. San Juan Capistrano was directly in the middle of the endpoints— San Diego and Los Angeles. A brick depot was built Th e small structure consisted of a bell tower, telegraph office, waiting room and storage room for freight. Th e station roof tiles are believed to have been salvaged from Mission ruins.

“It evolved from a stage coach stop to a stop where people would break to have a nice meal, travel to nearby hot springs and possibly spend the night before retuning to LA,” said Gary McCarver, a Capistrano playwright and historian. “Th e depot was considered the jewel of railroad depots, as it was built in old Spanish architecture, in addition to having a mission bell and a rose garden. It was a critical part of the town,” says McCarver. Th e train station would also see its share of dignitaries, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as bandits in the years to come.

The railroad aided San Juan Capistrano farmers to transport their produce nationwide.Hay, sheep, English walnuts, honey, oranges, corn, dried fruit, olives, cattle and horses were the town’s exports. Th e railroad cut down delivery time, making it possible for farmers to stay at home and produce larger quantities.


For those who have been waiting for the promised “love” portion of the screenplay, it enters center stage with the character of Father St. John O’Sullivan.

The Mission, still without a resident priest, continued to be in a state of disrepair into the early 20th century. In 1910 Father O’Sullivan arrived. Though suffering from tuberculosis, Father O’Sullivan decided to work on lovingly restoring the Mission until his death.His restoration work restored not only a large portion of the Mission, but also his health.Slowly, and single-handedly, he bean to rebuild. He traded bits of the ruined buildings for New materials, cut roof beams and hired skilled workers to assist in rebuilding the adobe walls. Eventually, in 1918, he was granted permission from the Catholic Church to make the church active again, which it still is. Citizens began to return to the church for Mass, prayers and worship.

San Juan Capistrano incorporated and became a city in 1961. Fifty years later, the land once tread on by missionary and Native American feet is home to almost 34,000 and a resting spot to almost half-a-million visitors a year. Th e city’s motto “Preserving the Past to Enhance the Future” seems to be evidenced on every street corner, in every conversation.

The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians is still active in town, with elders and youth taking part in ritual celebrations and community events. In addition, much of the city retains its early Spanish-Mexican fl air. Growth is tightly controlled, ensuring the preservation of the city’s many historic structures.

Many of the businesses in Capistrano are part of its history, as well. Th e family-owned Ito Nursery opened at the edge of the Historic Los Rios District in 1970 and is still doing business today. While the DeNault Hardware chain, another family-owned business, started in San Clemente in 1956, the second store opened in 1972 in El Adobe Plaza.

“San Juan was the natural choice for our second store being close to San Clemente and having that same hometown feel and demographic,” says Don DeNault. “Bob DeNault (the oldest son) managed the new store while Jim and Ruth stayed at the San Clemente location.” Th e store moved to its current Del Obispo Street location in 1976. Since then the family opened five more stores, between Carlsbad and Mission Viejo.

The focal point of many visitors’ “must-see” list, the San Juan Capistrano Mission’s “Th e Great Stone Church” was placed on the World Monuments Fund’s List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2002. Today, they have begun a 10-year program to stabilize and preserve the Mission into the new century. It is a beautiful reminder of the city’s past, an omnipresent creator of its future.

Perhaps garnering the most fame for San Juan Capistrano is the annual return of the swallows. The small bird flies south to Argentina at the end of every October, returning yearly to San Juan Capistrano on and around March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. Upon their return, the swallows make mud and saliva nests in the cracks, crevices and eves of the San Juan Capistrano Mission’s remaining structures. Also upon their return, the town of San Juan Capistrano breaks into festivity, hosting a world-famous Swallows Day parade. Visitors from all parts of the world, young and old, gather to watch and celebrate the returning swallows.

City leaders would like to see more energy in the downtown, around the Mission and train station, year-round. Already, there’s a weekly farmers’ market and monthly art show, and the city has commissioned a $500,000 plan and study to bring more people downtown, building the future around the past. Th e movie theater reopened in 2010 under the Regency banner after being closed a decade, and city leaders want keep that momentum by adding more restaurants, retail and even housing to the downtown area.

Nearby, the railroad whistle blows. Th e railroad is as vibrant today as it was years ago. On the platform, the joyous thrill of children boarding for an excursion can be heard alongside the clicking business shoes of commuters. “My father commuted to LA for 13 years from San Juan Capistrano. He used the train every day. Now, people can hop on it to go see a game at Angel’s Stadium, go into LA or San Diego, see a show, commute or go for a daytime visit,” McCarver says.

So, whether a resident, or a visitor, step into the railroad car. Walk alongside 200-year old adobe structures. Let your kids dig for the treasure the Pirate Bouchard is legend to have left buried here. Spend an afternoon in the courtyards of the awe-inspiring San Juan Capistrano Mission. Look skyward for the arching flight of the swallow. Th e making of history is San Juan Capistrano is as alive today as it was 50 years ago.