History of Orange County

Orange County is tucked away in the LA metropolitan area in southwest California. Heavily-populated, the county today includes several cities, and comes with a rich and varied history. If you want more resources, you can look at our guide

The first people to take up residence in Orange County arrived thousands of years back. They survived by hunting and fishing, and by gathering up plants and seeds. It wasn’t until later that Shoshonean-speakers arrived in the form of ancestors of the Gabrielino and Juaneño tribes.

Spanish Influence

Spain had laid claim to California for over 200 years before serious efforts were made to colonize the region in 1769. Spanish soldiers were dispatched north along with Catholic missionaries to create a network of forts and missions.

The first overland expedition through OC in 1769 was led by Don Gaspar de Portolá. Mission San Gabriel was established in 1776 by Father Junípero Serra in what is now LA county. These two missions claimed the bulk of what is now Orange County, and they continued to graze livestock all over the area right up to the 1830s.

All land was deemed property of the King under Spanish rule. As an exception to this, some retired soldiers managed to get grazing permits. Manuel Nieto was among the first of these. IN 1784, he was allowed to occupy the land stretching between the San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers. This land was passed down to five of his heirs in the forms of separate parcels of land. 

A Move Away From Spain

Mexico splintered away from Spain in 1821. California was taken at the same time. By 1834, the Mexican government started secularizing California missions and limiting the padres to religious duties. Operation of the missions was handed over to civil administrators.

When the Mexican War ended in 1848, Mexico ceded California to the United States. Orange County became a part of Los Angeles County in 1850 when California became a state.

The 1849 Gold Rush brought thousands of new settlers seeking their fortune in California. As cotton production was thrown into chaos by the Civil War, sheep ranching displaced cattle ranching. Many ranchos were broken up and sold off in parcels, both the settlers and developers.

First US Town in OC

Anaheim, founded in Orange County by German immigrants, was the first American town here.

By 1868, the towns of  Orange, Tustin, Westminster, Garden Grove, and Santa Ana  were founded.

Farming became the new spine of the Orange County economy. Crops included corn, barley, wheat, and grapes. A new irrigation system created in the 1870s led to more trees and crops being planted, including the famous orange trees.

Newport Bay became a major shipping point along the coast in the 1870s.

The first local railroad cropped up in 1875, running from Los Angeles to Anaheim, and later to Santa Ana.

Orange County Formed

The County of Orange was formed in 1889 in the wake of vigorous economic growth and civic pride.

Agriculture remained the most crucial component of the Orange County economy until the 1950s. Citrus started to gain primacy among crops after the grape industry was crippled by a blight from 1886 through 1887. The industry never fully recovered while citrus became increasingly popular. There were still cattle grazing on sprawling ranches in the southern tip of the county, while there were plenty of dairy farms in the north.

By the 1930s, then Orange County was responsible for one-sixth of the nation’s production of Valencia oranges.

The oil industry was also pivotal in OC’s development. In the 1890s, the first fruitful wells were drilled locally on the northern fringes of the county. Subsequent oil fields appeared in Brea Canyon and Olinda.

Economic Growth

New forms of transportation popping up in the first half of the twentieth century triggered further economic growth in the area.

The Pacific Electric Railway rolled out a trio of branches serving Orange County. This coast line caused a great deal of development all the way from Corona del Mar to Seal Beach.

Cypress and Stanton was formed as result of the Santa Ana line.

New highways appearing through the 1910s and the 1920s led to the formation of new communities. By 1915, the first state highway was in place. This ran from La Habra through to San Juan Capistrano

Freeway construction began in earnest over the 1950s as the Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway opened. This continued without pause until the 1970s.

Orange County Post-WW II

As World War II unfolded, military bases started appearing in Orange County. Unsurprisingly, when the war ended, many veterans stayed on and gladly settled in Southern California. Resultantly, the region began growing even quicker.

Orange County’s farms were largely replaced by tract housing by the 1950s. Many new cities were incorporated and by 1963, the county population exceeded one million.

Tourism began to dominate the local economy along with manufacturing and the service industry.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, OC became an international tourist destination.

Today, Orange County is home to over three million residents, and there are 34 incorporated cities.

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