Out West

From Rancho to Marine Base

Explore the continuing legacy of California’s Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.

The vaquero culture of early California was a direct result of the changes brought about by the 21 missions built along the El Camino Real. The Mexican government in the early 1830s and Mexico created land grants throughout what was then Alta California and secularized the mission lands. One of the region’s great ranchos was the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. You would know it today as Camp Pendleton Marine Base in North San Diego County near Oceanside, California, and its main ranch house has a colorful history.

Explore the continuing legacy of California’s Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which is now Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
Signage for the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton. Courtesy of Pendleton Historical Society
The Las Flores brand is incorporated with the Camp Pendleton base signage. Courtesy of Pendleton Historical Society

The Las Flores adobe ranch house, constructed in the late 1860s for Marcos Forster and his bride, was located on the land Marcos had been given as a wedding gift from his father, John “Don Juan” Forster. John Forster, an Englishman, had integrated into the Californios’ elite and became a wealthy ranchero. He owned 335 square miles of land, including the 125,000-acre Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.

The name “Las Flores” was established in July 1769, when members of the Portolà Expedition descended into a broad coastal plain as they blazed the legendary El Camino Real through the dry hills of Southern California. The men were astonished to find the plain covered with flowering vines and rosebushes. The padres called the region Las Flores (the flowers) and thus gave the area its permanent name. Portolà and his men found the region’s indigenous people living in circular, woven brush dwellings in villages scattered along the coast. These natives, the southernmost lineage of the Shoshoni, inhabited the land from San Onofre to Agua Hedionda, and the Las Flores Adobe lies near one of their villages named Ushmai.

Explore the continuing legacy of California’s Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which is now Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
Las Flores adobe rendering. Courtesy of Pendleton Historical Society

Some 29 years later, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was founded 15 miles to the southeast along the El Camino Real (Oceanside). Its domain embraced 2,000 square miles of surrounding territory, including Las Flores. Near the village of Ushmai, the mission established an estancia known as “Rancho San Pedro” or “Las Flores.” A typical estancia was a working rancho with a chapel served by itinerant priests. By 1827, the Las Flores estancia consisted of a large, U-shaped complex measuring 142 feet by 153 feet, with granaries and a chapel with a 40-foot bell tower, undoubtedly built by native labor. Local natives raised wheat and barley for the mission on the fertile plain and tended cattle. In its heyday, the population of the Las Flores estancia numbered about 1,000. It was here that Juan Alvarado defeated the challenge to his governorship of Alta California in 1838. By circa 1869, the estancia served as stables for the Las Flores changing station of the Los Angeles-San Diego stagecoach line.

When Mexico decided to secularize the California missions in 1833, many local indigenous people remained as a “pueblo libre,” one of California’s four, experimental “free villages,” with the government restoring land ownership to the native inhabitants of Las Flores.

In 1841, Pío and Andrès Pico received the largest land grant in California history —  89,742 acres. Most of the land granted to the Pico brothers had been part of the mission’s Rancho Santa Margarita and was dotted with 2,000 horses, 15,000 sheep and 10,000 cattle. In 1844, the Picos acquired Las Flores and its surrounding Indian land, effectively ending the “pueblo libre” experiment. The Picos noted their acquisition in the expanded name of their rancho, Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. 

Explore the continuing legacy of California’s Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which is now Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
Ranch branding in the circa mid-1920s. Courtesy of Pendleton Historical Society

Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California, and his brother Andrès, general of the Mexican army who signed the peace treaty with the Americans, lived lavish lifestyles and were passionate gamblers. They often mortgaged land at exorbitant interest rates to pay their debts. In 1864, threats of foreclosure resulted in the sale of the entire Rancho Santa Margarita y Los Floresto their brother-in-law, Don Juan Forster. He expanded the Santa Margarita ranch house into a princely, 8,500 square-foot residence befitting the fabled ranchero and his love of weeklong fiestas and dazzling rodeos.

Don Juan Forster died in 1882, leaving the rancho and a $207,000 mortgage — a fortune at the time — to his two sons. An 1872 guest of the Forsters described Marcos as “more Spanish than Anglo Saxon, a fine-looking man, well-built, with eyes of fire and all dash of a Spanish cavalier, but evidently of poor business ability.” Within a year, financial difficulty forced Marcos to sell the rancho for $450,000 to Nevada’s “Silver King,” James Flood. James’ friend, Richard O’Neill, ran the rancho and leased some of its land to tenant farmers, including the next residents of the Las Flores adobe, the Magees.

Henry Magee had come to California with the army. He married Victoria de Pedrorena, a decedent of two of San Diego’s Old Town families, the Estudillos and de Pedrorenas. Two years after Victoria died in 1886, Richard offered the vacant Las Flores adobe to Magee’s motherless children. Las Flores would be the Magee home for the next 79 years.

Explore the continuing legacy of California’s Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which is now Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
Ranch vaquero in the 1920s. Courtesy of Pendleton Historical Society

Magee’s eldest daughter, Jane, never married and proved to be an astute businesswoman as well as a surrogate mother to her brothers and sisters. She expanded the farmland to 3,000 acres. Under her management, Las Flores became the largest lima bean producer in San Diego’s County, providing one-third of the state’s crop. She became respectfully known as Southern California’s “Bean Queen.”

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government acquired the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores for its west coast military training base. When President Roosevelt came to inaugurate the new facility in 1942, he allowed the Magees to continue to live and farm at Las Flores as long as they were of Jane’s generation. Jane retired in 1922 and lived in Las Flores until she died in 1946 at the age of 83.

Jane’s younger brother, Louis, managed Las Flores until he retired in 1962. He predeceased his wife, Ruth, who died in 1968. After Ruth’s death, Las Flores became uninhabited, and the historic adobewas saved from demolition at the last hour and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. The current restoration project began in 2003. 

The inclusion of Las Flores on the National Register recognized not only her enviable role in early Southern California history but also her singular place in early California architecture. Las Flores is a rare, two-story adobe ranch house in its original natural setting. The vast surrounding open space of hills and valleys enhances our understanding of the ranch house as the heart of a working ranch.

The Santa Margarita Ranch House National Historic Site is situated on 21 acres on the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and includes the Ranch House, Bunkhouse Museum and Ranch House Chapel. Courtesy of Pendleton Historical Society

The National Register nomination study noted that Las Flores is also “an unusually full expression of the Hispanic California architectural tradition.” The elegant formal ranchero residence exemplifies the Monterey Style of the developing rancher economy, while the adjoining single-story wing embodies the Hacienda Style.  

Las Flores’ unrivaled design also fully interprets the “indoor-outdoor” living element with its veranda, open foyer, corridor and a central courtyard. This architectural concept profoundly influenced Cliff May, a Magee nephew who lived at Las Flores during the summers of his youth. May became the celebrated designer who originated the California ranch-house style. Crediting Las Flores as his inspiration, Cliff May established her ongoing legacy in the modern ranch house that rapidly spread out of California to other parts of the country as one of the basic styles used in suburban residential design during the last century after WWII.

The rancho culture in California lasted for a relatively short period from the 1830s to just after statehood in 1850. Devastating floods and drought in the early 1860s caused the downfall of the ranchos, and vast plots of land were sold off. But the “Culture of the Horsemen” in California lived on and continues regionally to this day, with the broader popularity of making fine bridle horses in the long shadows of the state’s early vaqueros.

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