The land upon which Mission Viejo is developed was part of the 52,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo. The chain of title to the land dates back to July 27, 1769, when a Spaniard named Gaspar de Portola led an expeditionary force from Mexico across the southern border of the ranch and claimed the land for Spain.
Seven years later, the ranch witnessed the first attempt to found Mission San Juan Capistrano. Although lack of water forced the friars to relocate and the whereabouts of this old mission remain a mystery, the name Mission Viejo bears testimony to this structure’s sojourn in San Juan Canyon more than two hundred years ago.
After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, a new flag flew over California and a new spirit filled the air. The missions, which had been established to further the spread of the Christian faith, became secularized, and their vast landholdings were granted as ranches to prominent citizens.
One man who happened to be standing in the right place at the right time was an English trader named John Forster. John or Juan, as the name reads on the old land grant, married the Mexican governor’s sister and acquired the three ranchos historically known as El Trabuco, Mission Viejo, and Los Potreros. But fate frowned on Don Juan Forster. Fencing 205,000 acres drained his capital, droughts destroyed his cattle, and futile efforts to attract settlers dried up his last remaining credit. When Forster died, his estate was in shambles, and his sons were forced to sell.
In 1907, an Irish cattleman named Richard O’Neill acquired an undivided interest in Rancho El Trabuco and Rancho Mission Viejo. When a 1963 study indicated that urbanization was spreading south from the Los Angeles area, his grandchildren, Richard O’Neill and Alice O’Neill Avery, decided to sell 10,000 acres. Donald Bren, Philip J. Reilly, and James Toepfer purchased the property and organized the Mission Viejo Company.
In 1965, a master plan for Mission Viejo was approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors. One year later, Forster’s dream of attracting settlers became a reality as families stood in line to pay $21,000 for homes on his former cattle range. In April 1966, these pioneering residents moved into the new neighborhoods near the intersection of La Paz Road and Chrisanta Drive.