The matriarch of the famed Forster family was both headstrong and virtuous
By Jan Siegel
May is the month reserved for thinking about our mothers and other important women in our lives. While a lot is written about the Forster family in San Juan Capistrano, there is not very much recorded about the life of Ysidora Forster, the wife of Don Juan Forster.
A Forster family cousin wrote a short biography about Ysidora for a family reunion several years ago. For her time, Ysidora was quite a remarkable woman.
Maria Ysidora Ygnacia Pico was born April 4, 1808 in San Diego. Her brothers were Andres and Pio. She grew up in San Diego and Los Angeles.
In 1828 a group of Kentucky trappers arrived in San Diego. They were known as the Pattie Party. Because there was not a great deal of trust of “Americanos,” the group of eight men was quickly imprisoned.
James Ohio Pattie was the son of the leader of the trappers. Andres Pico visited young Pattie in prison to try to get information about Americans and the intent of other miners or trappers who might come west. When Ysidora heard that the food the prisoners were getting was bad, she started coming to the prison with her brother and brought platters of food. She vowed to James O. Pattie that “neither he nor the others would suffer nothing which her power, means or influence could supply.”
Finally, after months of incarceration Pattie and the others were released. In his later years, Pattie wrote about his imprisonment in his “Personal Narrative.” In the book he referred to the kindness of “Miss Peak.” To his Anglo ear, Pico must have sounded like Peak. But as a result of his writing about the generosity of Ysidora, she became well known throughout America.
As a young woman, Ysidora was sought after by some of the most influential men in Southern California, including Abel Stearns. She also attended many christenings and weddings. She was godmother to dozens of infants. At Christmas Eve, she performed in the Pastorela, a sacred play, which was enacted after fireworks and midnight mass. Ysidora was quite literate and owned several religious books.
One episode in her life was written in the reunion biography: “Ysidora, her widowed mother and sisters lived on the various ranchos belonging to Andres and Pio. They were at Pio’s Rancho Jamul in April 1837. It was here that the Pico women escaped an Indian massacre. One day an Indian woman warned Eustaquia Gutierrezde Pico, Ysidora’s mother, about an imminent attack. Eustaquia understood the Indian tongue fluently and heeded the warning. She sent her daughters quietly to a nearby cornfield, while she alerted the Mayordomo and his family. They disregarded her fears. By cart, the Picos rode to the pueblo of San Diego. The massacre came the next day. Due to Eustaquia’s clever resourcefulness, Ysidora was safe in San Diego and one step closer to her place in California history. Before the year was out, she would marry English born Juan Forster.”
Juan and Ysidora were married at the Mission San Luis Rey. They had six children, three of whom lived to adulthood. For the first few years of their marriage they lived in Los Angeles. The next 20 years were spent in San Juan Capistrano and the last 20 years in Rancho Santa Margarita. The Forsters became well known for their hospitality. Judge Benjamin Hayes, a frequent guest, wrote in his diary that Ysidora was a “gracious hostess.”
Ysidora was deeply religious. She was concerned about the virtue of the women servants on the ranch. At night she locked them in an attic loft to keep them safe from the numerous vaqueros who worked on the ranch. As added insurance, any nighttime visitor would have to pass through her bedroom to reach the loft entrance. When living at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano, the windows were covered with shutters, which locked from the inside.
Francisco Pio Forster, who was known as Chico, was the favorite of the family. In 1881, a disagreement over the subject of matrimony with actress Hortensia Abarta resulted in her shooting and killing him. It was shock to the entire family. Her son’s death devastated Ysidora, and before she was able to recover from the loss, Don Juan, her husband of 45 years died. She moved to Los Angeles and lived with friends until her death just one year later.
Both Don Juan and Ysidora are buried at the Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles in unmarked graves.
Spend a moment in time and reflect upon all of the remarkable women that have touched your life.
Jan Siegel is a 26-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She has served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 11 years and has been a volunteer guide for the Historical Society’s architectural walking tour for 15 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.