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Camp Pendleton Pre-Marine Corps Base History 1769 to 1942

Pre-Marine Corps Base History

by Lauren Kelly-Hill, Camp Pendleton Historical Society

Often we, as Americans, get hung up on the origins of ownership of our land in this great country. “Who was here first?” But in reality, there will always be someone who owned your land before you. And for the parcel of land here in North San Diego County, which is now Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, it is no different. We are just stewards of our little section of America.

Each tribe, familia, family, and unit that has worked on or owned the land now known as Camp Pendleton will always be a part of the story. The identity has changed over the years from names like Alta California to Southern California and more personally from Pio and Andre Pico’s rancho to the home of the Flood, O’Neill and Magee families, to Camp Pendleton today.

To really know this land, you have to see how it grew up, how it was raised. We know that Native Americans inhabited this land long before people like Captain Gaspar de Portolá made his way north from Loreto, Baja California Sur heading towards Monterey Bay in 1769. The date of his arrival on July 20th of that year was also the holy day of St. Margaret. So they christened the land Santa Margarita. This name would be carried through the coming years, no matter who would become its steward.

If ever there was a true melting pot in one person, it would be Pio Pico. He was born in Alta California to parents who came up on the DeAnza expedition and who were from the area of New Spain, which we now know as Mexico. His paternal grandmother was mixed race with African ancestry, while his paternal grandfather was indigenous Mexican- Spaniard descended from a possible duke of Italy. This made Pio Pico and his siblings Spanish, Italian, African and Indian.

Pico was one of the wealthiest men in Alta California, owning ranchos and land from the current Camp Pendleton area up north to Los Angeles, including present day Whittier. He also served as Governor of Alta California twice.

In his quest for land during the Secularization of Alta California, he and his brother Andres were granted 89,742 acres which included Rancho San Onofre y Santa Margarita, south of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Three years later, Pio added Las Flores to his Rancho Santa Margarita holdings keeping the original name given by Captain de Portola to create the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. An ownership validation request was filed with the Public Land Commission in 1852. A patent was issued in 1879.

Pico didn’t want California to become a U.S. territory; rather he favored it becoming a British Protectorate. During the Mexican-American War, he retreated to Baja, California to try and convince the Mexican Congress to defend Alta California. He only returned to Los Angeles after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which automatically granted him U.S. citizenship. As a gambling man, he began to lose his land and assets to swindlers. Pico’s sister, Ysidora, married John Forster, an Englishman. Forster paid off his brother-in-law’s debts and assumed his mortgage, giving Forster the deed to the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in 1864.

Forster and his wife expanded the ranch house during the 18 years that they lived there. He also gave Marcus, his son, permission to build the Las Flores Adobe home for his family. After Forster died in 1882, his heirs decided to sell the rancho, as a series of droughts plagued the land and new laws requiring properties to be fenced proved too costly to maintain. A wealthy San Francisco banker named James Flood

Rancho Santa Margarita, circa 1917; photo courtesy of Camp Pendleton Archives