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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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The Shadows of Old Saddleback: A Book Review of Sorts, Eighty Years Too Late

You might have guessed that Don Juan Ortega fancies himself a bit of an amateur Orange County history buff, but he also acknowledges that no one can truly claim amateur historian status in Orange County unless they have read a copy of Terry Stephenson’s venerable “The Shadows of Old Saddleback: From the Day of the Dons Down Through the Years When Pioneers Built Their Cabins Among the Oaks and Sycamores.“  Although the book is available in larger Orange County libraries, it’s a difficult out-of-print book to find at booksellers.  Well, yours truly is excited to be the new owner of a pristine 1948 Fine Arts Press edition of:

The author, Terry Stephenson, was himself an Orange County institution — not unlike Saddleback itself.  He was the first chief of the Santa Ana Daily Evening Register, recruited by founders Frank Ormer and Fred Unholz as a partner and the first Editor of the paper.  Stephenson edited the Register until 1927, by which time it had become the dominant Orange County newspaper.  He is also considered one of Orange County’s most prolific historians, and was a frequently speaker at Orange County Historical Society gatherings.  Stephenson was Orange County Treasurer from 1935 until his death in 1943.

Terry Stephenson was an Orange County native who recognized the unique historical heritage of this area, even at the dawn of the 20th Century as modernization and industrialization were beginning to render it forever changed.  Consider the foreword to the 1948 edition of Shadows of Old Saddleback:

The use of “Saddleback” in the title is itself a nod to Orange County lore.  There is actually nothing in the Santa Ana mountain range with the proper name of Saddleback.  The twin peaks that we know as Saddleback are of course Santiago and Modjeska Peaks, rising 5,687 and 5,496 feet above sea level, respectively — the two highest peaks in Orange County.

Shadows of Old Saddleback contains the definitive historical account of a number of people, places and events that shaped early Orange County, including some of its most scandalous episodes.  Consider the infamous murder of local Native Americans by a group of fur trappers at what is now known as Black Star Canyon (the source of at least one local ghost story).  Stephenson tells the story as follows:

The story of the battle, the bloodiest in the history of the Santa Ana Mountains, was told seventy years ago by William Wolfskill to J. E. Pleasants, and was repeated to us by Mr. Pleasants. The Indians were very fond of horseflesh. Ranchos were lacking in means of defense in the days when the missions were breaking up and Indians from the mountains and desert used to have no trouble in stealing herds of horses from the Spaniards. A party of trappers came across from New Mexico in 1831. Their long rifles and evident daring offered to the troubled dons a solution to their horse-stealing difficulties. Americans were not any too welcome in the Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles, and it was with a desire to please the Spaniards [Mexicans] in this foreign land a long way from the United States that the American trappers agreed to run down the Indian horsethieves. The trail of the stolen band of horses was followed across the Santa Ana river, eastward through what is now Villa Park and up the Santiago canyon to the mouth of Canyon de los Indios… Here, the trail turned into mountain fastnesses, into the unknown mountains, covered heavily with brush…The trail took the men up a steep mountainside, and, after two or three hours of climbing there was laid out before them a little valley with grassy slopes and hillsides [today called Hidden Ranch], upon which horses were quietly grazing. Smoke was coming from fires in the age-old campground of the Indians at the lower end of the valley. The Indians were feasting on juicy horseflesh. Perhaps it was the crack of a long rifle, the staggering of a mortally wounded Indian that gave the natives their first warning of the presence of an enemy. Among the oaks and boulders an unequal battle was fought. There were no better marksmen on earth than these trappers…The Indians were armed with a few old Spanish blunderbusses [muskets] and with bows and arrows. The battle was soon over. Leaving their dead behind them, the Indians who escaped the bullets of the trappers scrambled down the side of the gorge and disappeared in the oaks and brush. Of those who had begun the fight, but a few got away. The stolen horses were quickly rounded up. Some of them were animals stolen months before. The herd was driven down the trail to the Santiago and a day or two later, the horses were delivered to their owners. In the battle, not one of the frontiersmen was wounded.

Stephenson also provides the best account of the scandalous murder of James Gregg at Hidden Ranch and the political fallout that resulted from the trials (and you thought celebrity trial watching was a new thing!):

Perhaps no death by violence touched the public career of any man in the county so much as did the killing of James Gregg on June 9 1899, affect the career of its superior court judge, the late J. W. Ballard. The Hidden Ranch at that time was in the hands of Henry Hungerford of Norwalk and George M. Howard of Anaheim. At the ranch with them was Hungerford’s brother, Thomas L. Hungerford. On the evening of June 8, James M. Gregg of Centralia and his brother-in-law, Decatur Harris, and a 13-year-old boy, Clinton Hunt, arrived for the purpose of driving out some stock that Gregg owned. Gregg and Henry Hungerford quarreled. It seems that Howard owed Gregg $10 on a horse trade, and Gregg insisted that Hungerford and Howard accept $7.50 in settlement of their pasturage bill of $17.50.

That night, Gregg, Harris and the boy slept on the ground in front of the house. When Gregg was rolling up his blankets the next morning, Henry Hungerford came out and the dispute resumed. It ended in shooting. The Hungerfords, each armed with a shotgun, and Gregg, with a revolver, fought it out. When the shooting ceased, Gregg was on the ground with charges of birdshot and buckshot through him. The Hungerfords hitched up a horse and drove down Black Star and on into Santa Ana, where they gave themselves up to Sheriff Theo Lacy. In the meantime, Gregg was laid in a spring wagon by Harris and the boy and was being taken to a doctor when, near the Irvine Park in Santiago canyon, the wagon was met by Sheriff Lacy and District Attorney R. Y. Williams. A doctor was found at El Modena and it was at a house in El Modena that Gregg died. The trial before Judge Ballard resulted in the conviction of Henry Hungerford. In those days killings were infrequent and a trial of this kind created an interest that was widespread and intense. Public sentiment was against the defendants. Following conviction, a new trial was sought, and unexpectedly Judge Ballard granted the motion on the ground that not enough evidence had been produced to warrant the verdict. Having presented all the evidence available there was nothing for the district attorney to do but ask for the dismissal of the case. Soon afterward, Judge Ballard came up for re-election, with Z. B. West as his opponent. Judge Ballard’s decision in the Hungerford case was the outstanding issue of the campaign, which was vigorous and which resulted in the defeat of Judge Ballard.

Did you know that our local mountains were thought to be the center of California’s population of grizzly bears?  In fact, it is said that grizzly bear on our state flag is walking on bunchgrass, a grass native to Orange County’s mountains.  Sadly, the history of Orange County’s grizzly bears is a tragic one:

Grizzlies no longer roam California’s mountains.  Shadows of Old Saddleback tells the story of the death of “Little Black Bear” in Trabuco Canyon, believed to be the last grizzly bear in Southern California.  According to Stephenson, Little Black Bear (so-called because the underfed, underweight grizzly more closely resembled her smaller bear cousin) was wanted for destroying bee hives in search of food.  Hunters used a mountain lion trap (now on display at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana) to capture and kill her.  The OC Weekly printed Richard Shrewsbury’s recollection (courtesy of famed Orange County historian Jim Sleeper) of Little Black Bear’s death:

Actually, there was one more grizzly bear in the Santa Ana Mountains, a female misnamed Little Black Bear, who was shot and killed in January 1908 on the San Diego side of the county line in Trabuco Canyon. Little Black Bear was the last wild California grizzly in all of Southern California–and one of the last of her kind anywhere. It’s her hide (skinned, but not stuffed) in the Smithsonian Institute. Little Black Bear also achieved in death the melancholy distinction of being the only Santa Ana grizzly ever photographed. Of the last grizzly killed in Orange County–believed to have been Little Black Bear’s mate–nothing remains: no photographs, no hide, nothing but memories, and very few of those.

Below is a photo of Terry Stephenson (with William McPherson) from 1930, standing under the Hangin’ Tree — a sycamore tree in Precito Canyon (within the Irvine Ranch Conservancy) from which General Andreas Pico is said to have hung two members of the Flores gang in 1857.  The photo comes from The Westerners’ Brand Book #10, and I found it while reading Chris Jepsen’s fantastic OC History Roundup Blog here.

Terry Stephenson at the Hangin’ Tree in Precito Canyon (photo: The Westerners’ Brand Book #10, courtesy of OC History Roundup Blog)

If you haven’t done so, take the opportunity to read Terry Stephenson’s Shadows of Old Saddleback.  Opportunities to read about Orange County’s history don’t end with Stephenson’s classic.  Indeed, there are hundreds of historical resources available online and at local libraries.  Are you interested in further reading about Orange County’s rich historical heritage?  You might be interested in some of the titles recommended by the Orange County Historical Society on their suggested reading list.

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