There are many amazing and interactive historic sites in Orange County providing great options for learning about the area’s rich history. The first people of Orange County fished from the plentiful oceans, and they hunted and gathered from the land. The Juaneno and Gabrielino Indians are the Native American tribes that inhabited the Orange County area when Spanish, Mexican, and European exploration began in North America. Spanish missionaries first explored Orange County in 1769 and Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776.
Mexican Ranchos moved into the area in the 1800s, and when Mexico broke away from Spain, California became territory of the Mexican government. Cattle ranching was the primary industry of the time. In 1848, Mexico ceded California to the United States and in 1850, California became a state. Ranchos began to suffer from drought, disease, and costs from new American court systems. They were sold to American owners who opted for sheep instead of cattle to make up for the lack of cotton due to the Civil War.
In 1857, Anaheim became the first American town founded in Orange County. Farming became the new industry of the area. Orange County successfully produced grapes, barley, wheat, and corn. New irrigation in the 1870s led to the addition of new crops like apricots and oranges. Agriculture was a booming business, and while other crops disappeared, by the 1930s, one sixth of the nation’s Valencia Oranges came from Orange County. The oil boom began in the early 1900s, and major oil strikes in Placentia and Huntington Beach around 1920 helped add another layer to the history of Orange County.
It’s hard to imagine Orange County with miles of citrus groves and acres of sheep. But a few landmarks remain to tell the stories of Orange County’s past. Here are a few you wont want to miss.
25151 Serrano Road, Lake Forest
Heritage Hill Historical Park is 4.1 acres and includes four fully restored and furnished buildings from the 1800s to the early 1900s. The 1863 Serrano Adobe represents the Mexican Rancho era. The founding of the town of El Toro is represented by the 1890 El Toro Grammar School and the 1891 St. George’s Episcopal Mission. The 1908 Harvey Bennett Ranch House represents the early 20th century citrus farming days here in Orange County. Six free guided tours are available to the public during the week. Heritage Hill offers a variety of educational programs for students. Fourth graders can experience what a typical school day was like at the turn of the century. Third graders can experience a hands-on activity at each historic building. And a Native American tour is available for all elementary aged students to learn about the People of the Land before 1769 when they visit the Indian Village exhibit.
26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is considered the birthplace of Orange County. It is the seventh of 21 missions built in California. The mission was founded by Saint Junipero Serra in 1776 and is known as the “Jewel of the California Missions.” Mission San Juan Capistrano is a popular field trip for Orange County students. The historic landmark has permanent exhibits that display artifacts and information to give visitors a look at the lives of important cultures including Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and European heritage. Visitors will see original buildings, including a chapel where Saint Serra held mass, beautiful gardens, and original bells that once hung in the Great Stone Church. The mission hosts daily tours as well as regular community events like summer concerts and cultural festivals. Kids will enjoy a host of hands-on activities like adobe brick making, crafting arrowhead necklaces, panning for gold, and Native American basket weaving. A visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano is a must for visitors to, and residents of, Orange County and provides a wealth of information about the culture and history of the area.
211 West Santa Ana Boulevard, Santa Ana
Opened in 1901, Old Orange County Courthouse and Museum is the oldest court building in Southern California. The building is still open for select government services, and the courthouse is open to the public for guided and self guided tours. Exhibits include courtroom artifacts from the early to mid-1900s and the history of Orange County. The Courthouse has also been used for the filming of popular films including Legally Blonde and Catch Me If You Can.
6398 East Santa Ana Canyon Road, Anaheim
The last adobe standing on land that was once part of Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. A small museum features information and artifacts about the Spanish explorers and European colonization from 1769 on.
12174 Euclid Street, Garden Grove
The two acre Stanley Ranch Museum is home to several of Garden Grove’s first homes and businesses from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The grounds include the Ware-Stanley House, a school house, Garden Grove’s first post office, the Electric Shoe Shop and Barber Shop, and Garden Grove’s #1 fire engine from 1926. Stanley Ranch also houses Walt Disney’s garage studio, which contains many old prints and artifacts from Walt Disney’s early days. The museum is open by appointment for tours and educational programs.
Heidi Deal is the author of the 6th edition of the Newcomers Handbook for Moving To and Living In Los Angeles (includes Orange County), an expert at exploring all that Orange County has to offer, and a children’s book author specializing in history and improving human rights.