By Jan Siegel
This is the start of a three-part series on the life and times of Judge Richard Egan, whose death was 100 years ago in 1923. Egan’s life in San Juan Capistrano touched so much of our history that one column would not do him justice.
Richard Egan arrived in San Juan Capistrano in 1868. He was born in Ireland in 1842. Orphaned at age 10, he was brought by relatives to the United States to be educated. When the Civil War divided the country, he served as a blockade runner in the Confederate Army. To avoid capture, he was able to get on a ship bound for Europe.
He eventually returned to Ireland, but wanted to return to the United States. He had met a fellow Confederate in Paris, and they both wanted to find a place where the war between the North and South could be forgotten. In 1866, they sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco. They were looking for a place to settle.
They wound up in the most Mexican of Southern California towns, where English was practically an unknown language, but shortly after arriving, his friend decided that San Juan Capistrano was too remote.
The post office had recently opened. Egan recalled, “The padre and I were the only ones here who could talk English.”
Egan was well-read and spoke five languages: French, Italian, Polish, Spanish, and English.
There is also another anniversary this year that involves Egan.
The year 1923 marks the 100th anniversary of the Ramona Pageant held in Hemet, California. The play is based on the Helen Hunt Jackson book Ramona. In 1883, Jackson had been commissioned by the United States Department of Interior to prepare a report on the area’s Native Americans who had lived on Mission grounds.
According to historian Ellen Lee, “Upon reaching San Juan Capistrano, she was denied access to the Mission archives by a priest who said her credentials had no jurisdiction over San Juan Capistrano.”
Undaunted, Jackson next went to see the local alcalde to explain her problem. The alcalde went with her back to the Mission, and he explained to the priest that her cause was just and that she should be allowed to stay at the Mission and do her research. The alcalde was Richard Egan.
Helen Hunt Jackson did stay at the Mission doing her research, not only for the government but also for the book she would write the following year, Ramona. The book was the result of the report Jackson submitted to the government, and some of her recommendations were put into a bill which passed the Senate but died in the House.
That is when she decided that a novel might be a better way of explaining the plight of Native Americans. She wanted to move people’s hearts in a manner that worked for her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jackson stated that “every incident in Ramona is true.” She just used literary license in telling the story. The impact of Ramona opened up the county’s attention to the world of California’s Spanish Mission heritage.
Currently, the Historical Society has a small exhibit in the windows of the Silvas Adobe with artifacts from the Pageant and copies of Ramona books with illustrations.
More on Egan’s life in San Juan Capistrano next month.
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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