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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

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Camp Pendleton’s History: Friars, Vaqueros & Marines

We found this great video on the history of the land on which Camp Pendleton sits, including the southern half of the historic Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.   (The northern half, of course, consists of Rancho Mission Viejo and the Ranch neighborhoods of Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Las Flores, Ladera Ranch and now Sendero.  The video is entitled “Friars, Vaqueros, & Marines: A History Worth Preserving” and was produced by the Media Arts Center San Diego as part of its San Diego Stories series.  Original video is posted here, and embedded below.

At least three historic sites still exist on Camp Pendleton.  Foremost is the Santa Margarita y Las Flores Ranch House, which was built circa 1827 and was home to the Pico, Forster and O’Neill families at various points in the Ranch’s life.  In addition, 35 Marine Corps general officers have called the Ranch House home (although no more, as the base constructed new general officer quarters).  Also located on the base is the Las Flores adobe and the historic Ranch chapel (which may have been originally built by the friars as a winery).  The chapel was badly damaged by a flood in 1993 but has since been restored.  Below is a photo that yours truly took of the Chapel the last time Don Juan Ortega was invited onto the base.

Original Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores Chapel

You can find out more about historic Camp Pendleton and support restoration and preservation of the historic buildings by visiting the Camp Pendleton Historical Society.  Tours are available.  You may contact the Camp Pendleton Museum Office at 760-725-5758 or send your request via email to   Ranch House tours are given by appointment and are currently available on the 1st Tuesday, 2nd Wednesday, 3rd Thursday, and 4th Saturday of the month.  Las Flores tours are scheduled for the 2nd Friday of the month.

Below the jump is a transcript of the video’s narration.

We know this land today as Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the world’s largest amphibious training base. Every day over 60,000 Marines, sailors, their families, and civilians live and work here. It extends 17 miles along the Pacific Ocean between Oceanside and San Clemente California, covering an area of some 125,000 acres. But, its rich history began long before the Marine Corps’ stewardship.

The Luiseño and Juaneño Indian tribes lived here centuries ago. The first written histories told of Spanish explorers and missionaries. The saga continued with tales of a thriving cattle ranch. In sharp contrast to much of surrounding Southern California, the men and women who lived those stories would recognize extensive tracts of Camp Pendleton today. The Marines created this charming chapel from an adobe structure that dates from the early mission days. We believe the Franciscans built it as a winery.

The rancho era began with Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor, who, with his brother General Andres Pico, received a large parcel when the Mexican government secularized the Spanish missions and divided their lands. They named it Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. The brothers built a small, two bedroom home on a low hill near the former mission winery.

Don Juan Forster, who purchased the ranch in 1864, expanded the Pico’s small home into a handsome residence of 18 rooms surrounding a beautiful interior patio. This bougainvillea dates from that time. The hacienda was the center of ranch life. As we walk from room to room, we can almost hear the echoes of the generations of families that lived in this beautiful house. Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and stands as an exquisite reminder of early California ranch life. Don Juan Forster built this adobe at Las Flores in 1865 as a wedding gift for his son, Marcus. Marcus and his family lived there for the next 17 years.

Richard O’Neill purchased the Santa Margarita y Las Flores in 1882 on behalf of his partner, James Flood. Under this partnership the ranch reached its greatest heights. Thousands of head of cattle and hundreds of horses roamed the ranges. Even so, fewer than 200 people lived there. The O’Neill family lived in the Ranch House, which remained central to ranch life. The Las Flores adobe took a different turn. O’Neill, who managed the ranch, leased it and 2,000 surrounding acres to Jane Magee and her family in appreciation for her assistance in preventing a cattle rustling raid. The Magees raised lima beans on the coastal plateau. Jane became known as the “Bean Queen.”

President Franklin Roosevelt visited Camp Pendleton in 1942 for its official dedication as a Marine Corps base. While there, he made two lasting pronouncements. He instructed the Marines to maintain, in so far as possible, the historic San Margarita y Las Flores Ranch traditions on the new base. The Corps has followed his instructions ever since. One of those traditions has been to keep the Ranch House Central to Base life. Since 1947 it has served as the official residence of 35 general officers and their families.

Recently, with the building of new general officer quarters, it is no longer needed for that purpose. This creates a significant concern for those who treasure Camp Pendleton history because Congress does not provide sufficient funds to support the preservation and maintenance of historic properties.

The President also promised Jane Magee that her family could continue to rent Las Flores as long as her generation survived. After the last Magee died in 1967 the adobe sat vacant and quickly began to deteriorate. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark. With support of the National Park Service and the University of Vermont Graduate School of Engineering, many of the original features have been restored. Much more needs doing.

The Marine Corps presence at Camp Pendleton is yet another chapter in the story of this land. Camp Pendleton trained Marines and sailors served their country during World War II and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. Their accomplishments and sacrifices are woven into the fabric of our nation’s history and should be preserved and celebrated. The history of Camp Pendleton is long and rich. It is a story worth telling and a history worth preserving. If you would like to learn more about the history of Camp Pendleton and how you can help preserve it, please visit the Camp Pendleton Historical Society website at

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