Jan Siegel By Jan Siegel

The unintended consequences of disasters, whether it is drought, flood, earthquake or pandemic, is not new. Lifestyle changes will certainly take place in our community, as it had in past disasters. All of the disasters mentioned above came together in the early part of the 1860s in San Juan Capistrano.

The start of the decade was typical for California. Light rains led to vast grasslands that were needed for the herds of cattle. That changed in 1861, when the rains came, and came, and came. After a month of torrential rains, when the sun finally did come out, it actually made news in a local Los Angeles paper.  Adobe homes and walls just disappeared along with streets, vineyards, and cattle. Don Juan Forster wrote in a letter, “All the old walls around town, which were not well protected, have gone down to rise no more.” In Southern California, it was reported that several hundred people had drowned. 

But it would get worse. On May 26, an earthquake, which was described as worse than the 1812 quake, “caused people to rush into the street in terror and for many nights thereafter, many would not sleep in their homes,” wrote Judge Benjamin Hayes. 

And it would get worse. In 1862, less than four inches of rain fell, and in 1863, only a little more than five inches of rain fell..

And then came the smallpox. The results of this epidemic are felt in our community today. According to Pam Gibson, in Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano: “Silently, indiscriminately, the germs of black smallpox entered almost every home. Indians were hardest hit. The Mission death register, between the dates of November 16 and December 31, 1862, recorded 129 deaths—all Indians. In 2007, the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians petitioned the Department of Indian Affairs for tribal recognition. Mission records were incomplete, and many records had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco fire, were reasons given for not granting recognition. But the one reason that seemed to carry the most weight was that the high mortality rate during a particularly lethal smallpox epidemic in 1862-1863 was one cause for the rapid decline in the number of Indians and the number of people identified as Indians living in the vicinity of San Juan Capistrano in the second half of the 19th century.” So as of today, the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians do not have government recognition, even though they can trace their ancestors back over 10,000 years. 

In a court case, Don Juan Forster testified, “The climate was bone dry. . . . There was no moisture and our cattle died off in very great numbers. About that winter, almost the whole country from north to south became almost depopulated of cattle from the fact that the country had been entirely overstocked about that time. Before the year 1864 had passed away, there was a perfect devastation.  Such a thing was never before known in California.”

Although the number of cattle was decreasing, sheep were increasing on the California horizon. Wool was needed for the Union army. The ranchero era was gone. After the Civil War, more farmers moved into California. Lifestyles were changing. 

Spend a Moment In Time during this crisis and think about the lifestyle changes that may be coming as a result of this disaster. Our community has survived before. We will again. Stay safe. 

Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. 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.

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