Descendants of Don Juan Forster gather in San Juan to delve into their roots
By Brian Park
For one of San Juan Capistrano’s most prominent families, a weekend-long reunion provided a unique opportunity to explore their roots and teach younger generations about their heritage.
More than 220 members of the Forster family met in San Juan Capistrano on Friday, June 27 to Sunday, June 28 to catch up, rekindle relationships and learn about their forefathers’ role in shaping the city, as well as much of south Orange County.
The reunion coincided with the 200th anniversary of the birth of family patriarch John “Don Juan” Forster in Liverpool, England. After arriving in Southern California, by way of Mexico, Don Juan married Doña Ysidora Pico, sister of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, in 1837.
With the help of his brother-in-law, Don Juan went on to become, at one point, the largest landowner in the state with over 220,000 acres, including land that would eventually become Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, Camp Pendleton and parts of San Diego County.
In 1844, Don Juan purchased the Mission for $710. He and his family lived there until 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation returning ownership of the Mission to the Roman Catholic Church.
During the reunion, family members were able to visit many of the old sites Don Juan once owned.
On Friday, the family held a reception on the grounds of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. There, the family was able to study a 12-foot-wide family tree and Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates delivered a proclamation recognizing the family’s contributions to the county’s and state’s history.
The next day, the family gathered at the Mission wearing custom designed T-shirts. Following a group photo, the Mission rang its ceremonial bells for the family. Later, Juan Forster, Don Juan’s great grandson, and Christa Forster, great-great-granddaughter, delivered seminars about the family patriarch and matriarch in the room they once lived in—the Sala room.
“A lot of the young people had no idea so it meant a lot to them,” said Pat Forster, great-great grandson of Don Juan. “It starts to mean something.”
The family also got to visit the Forster Mansion on Ortega Highway, which was built by Frank Forster and is currently owned by Maryanne and Phillip Charris. That evening, the family gathered at El Adobe de Capistrano Restaurant for dinner.
On Sunday, the family met at the Old Mission Cemetery, located atop a hill overlooking Ortega Highway, and visited the Forster crypt. The weekend closed with a tour of the ranch house Don Juan lived in at Camp Pendleton, following his ouster from the Mission.
Throughout the weekend, family members wore color-coded nametags to distinguish which branch of the family they were from: blue for Juan Fernando and red for Marco Antonio, both sons of Don Juan.
The family lost touch with Juan Fernando, who reemerged in Los Angeles in 1970, according to Pat. For some family members who were meeting for the first time, they were surprised to learn that many had similar names.
“A lot of Marcos,” said Michael Forster, great-great-great grandson of Don Juan.
The oldest Forster to attend was 96-year-old Melita Forster and the youngest was 3-week-old Graycen Forster. One Forster traveled from as far as South America, after stopping in Seattle, according to Michael.
Tom Forster, Michael’s cousin, is a California native who moved to Oklahoma City to continue his family’s cattle ranching business. The best thing out of the weekend, he said, was teaching younger Forsters about the family’s legacy.
“Something like we just did I think makes the younger generation take more notice of it and hopefully they’ll want to take it up,” Tom said. “I hope they paid attention because it was tremendous.”
Michael said even for those who were well aware of the family history, the weekend provided a time to reflect and appreciate.
“For me, just having that history is something to be proud of. Nobody can take it away. It’s a source of pride,” Michael said. “I think everybody appreciated it, and I think people who were already aware learned a little something.”