Trabuco Canyon – A brief history

(Part 1 – First Contact)

By Steve Conkling, Paleontologist and Trabuco Canyon resident.

Downtown Trabuco Canyon, CA

The first humans moved into Orange County some time over 8,000 years ago, perhaps as much as 12,000 or 14,000 years ago. Sites occupied by these first people are common throughout Orange County, and approximately 2,000 have been identified. At the time European explorers came into the area, they identified two groups – a southern group that occupied the area south of Aliso Creek, and a northern group that occupied the rest of the Los Angeles Basin. Each of these groups were “missionized” and ultimately relocated as neophytes of the Catholic Mission system. The southern group, who called themselves Acjachemem, became affiliated with Mission San Juan Capistrano and are called to this day the Juaneño, while the northern group, who called themselves the Tongva, became affiliated with Mission San Gabriel Archangel and are called the Gabrielino. The maze stone, pictured here, was found in 1885 by J. C. Joplin on a ridge between Bell and lower Trabuco Canyon. The maze stone was brought to Bowers Museum in the early thirties,

Maze Rock in Trabuco Canyon


Maze Rock Today at Bower's Museum

Spanish exploration of Mexico, South America, and Alta California occurred from the discovery of the New World in 1492, but it wasn’t until over 250 years later that the first ground exploration of Orange County began. Gaspar De Portolá led an expedition of 64 men along the coast of Alta California, leaving San Diego on July 14, 1769. Sargent Don José de Ortega and seven men acted as lead riders, staying several days ahead of the main group to scout the best passage for the group. Ultimately this route would become known as the “El Camino Real” (King’s Highway) and later as Highway 101.

Route of the Portola Expedition through South Orange County

The Portolá expedition came along the Pacific Coast until they reached San Mateo Creek (at the edge of Orange/San Diego County). From there, the expedition went inland up Christianitos Creek (site of the first Baptism in Alta California), and into Orange County near the current edge of the Talega Development in San Clemente. The Expedition went north to the Arroyo Trabuco (Rancho Santa Margarita) and then northwest along the foothills of the Santa Ana mountains.

The first written description of Orange County is presented in the diary of Friar Juan Crespí. Crespí was born in 1721 in Spain. He came to the new world by sea in 1749, and was stationed in Sierra Gorda, Queretaro. In 1767, he came to the missions of Lower California, and in 1769 he was appointed as the recorder and chaplain of the Portolá expedition. His diary, called “A Description of Distant Roads,” contains his descriptions of that journey. He then was appointed as a missionary at Monterey and later at Carmel. In 1774, Crespí participated in the first Northwest Coast expedition of the Spanish Government, reaching the present-day British Columbia/Alaska boundary. He died on New Year’s Day, 1782.

Father Juan Crespí

From the Diary of Juan Crespí, “A Description of Distant Roads”

July 24, 1769 – “.... On going about another league over good-sized tablelands, we came down to a pleasant stream [Trabuco Creek] and hollow all lined with a great many large sycamores and large live oaks, so that the entire bed of this hollow looking so handsome makes a very agreeable effect, seeming like a fig orchard. On going about three hours, in which we must have made three leagues, we made camp upon a very long tableland of dark friable soil upon the east side of this spot, where there is a little height just on the way down to this hollow, which lies beside it [now called the Plano Trabuco]. A grand spot, here, for a good sized mission. There is a stream in this hollow with the finest and purest running water we have come upon so far; we are in the depth of the dry season, but a good flow of water is running: three or four regaderas worth of water might be gotten from it at a time….
“The scouting soldiers that found this place said that they had made out six islands from a high knoll belonging to the spot. [It appears this high point is the tall hill located behind the Mission Hills Christian School, just south of Rancho Santa Margarita Parkway] On our reaching here Father Fray Francisco Gomez and I, with Lieutenant of Volunteers Don Pedro Fages and a soldier of his, went to this same knoll; we did not see the six they had spoken of, but did see two islands clearly, which they say are San Clemente and Santa Catalina, the latter lying straight across from ourselves where we are and about three leagues away, with the bight of San Pedro at about four or five leagues’ distance from this spot.
“We made camp close to a village of the most tractable and friendly heathens we have seen upon the whole way; as soon as we arrived they all came over entirely weaponless to our camp. Twenty-two heathen men came over with some women and children and have stayed almost the whole day long with us. I have said some things to them about God – “love-God,” amar a Dios – and we have been having them kiss the crucifix and the rosary cross many times, which they have done without reluctance. There are some very pretty, fair-haired little children, whom I have had repeating the Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity. These Indians here, alone, have won my heart completely, and I would have stayed with them gladly….
“They have given them some beads, with which they seem pleased. Some of the seeds which these poor wretches live on have been gotten from them by barter, and a great deal of sage refreshment. They smoke on their baked clay Indian pipes a great deal. They have very good baskets, bowls, and a sort of rushwork-wickerweave baskets made very close-woven of rushes, and very fine. They give it to be understood that up-country are people like ourselves, dressed the same as soldiers, wearing swords and hats and having mules – pointing to the mule train we have with us. What this is, who can tell?”

July 25, 1769 - …”On the tableland, where we made our camp there is a very large live oak, the only one upon that tableland, and all of its soil is cropland, very dark friable soil. A great many coyotes and wolves have been heard on all of these last days’ march, while in the daytime the scouting soldiers have come across as many as ten or twelve wolves together in a pack, seen very close at hand.

July 26, 1769 Saint Anne’s Day. We set out at about three o’clock in the afternoon from here at the Saint Francis Solano [Trabuco] stream and hollow, carrying water in the two barrels and in butts, in order to break the march to the watering place found by the scouts, as they say it is a bit of a distance. On setting out from this spot we left through a small hollow to the northeastward, in which there were a great many grapevines, bitter gourds [Coyote Gourds], and many rose of Castile bushes [Wild Roses], with everything very grass-grown with dry grass and the soil very dark and friable everywhere, without any stones. In this way we traveled about two hours and a half over low-rolling, very grass-grown knolls and tablelands, up hill and down through three or four hollow’s with very good soil and a great deal of sycamore trees. We saw six antelopes [it is still unclear if this really meant deer, there isn’t any record of antelope in this area in 1769], and a great many hares. After these two and half hours, in which we must have made two leagues and a half, we came onto a large plain, with grass everywhere, although burnt off by the heathens. As there were unburnt patches, a halt was made, and we set up our camp upon the side of a high, very low-sloping knoll. We caught sight of a very green patch in the midst of the burn; they examined it and found two little springs that although small-sized yielded sufficient for the people, and even some of the mounts could be watered there. I named them The Two Small Springs of San Pantaleón, and we spent the night close by them. [This is Tomato Springs, located on the 241 at Portola Parkway (Irvine)] Opposite them there was a small dry lake.

Trabuco Arroyo got its name through an accident. At the time of the Portola expedition, or perhaps a year or so later, a soldier lost his army-issue gun, or trabuco, in the arroyo. Though a search was made, the gun was never found, but the stream became known as Trabuco Creek. In the 1970s a badly rusted trabuco was found in the canyon. It is now on display at the Bowers Museum.

A Trabuco

To be continued...