By Donna Friess
As a Mission San Juan Capistrano volunteer docent, I enjoy countless hours walking in the footsteps of the past. Often, when I am in the former priests’ living quarters in the south wing of the Mission, I feel the echoes of the Forster family’s daily lives.
The family occupied the quarters from 1845-1865. My imagination slides to their steadfast matriarch, Maria Ysidora Pico Forster, and her rich legacy.
Pictured on the wall of the museum room, she was known as Ysidora. She was the wife of one of the most prominent land barons of the day, Don Juan Forster (formerly John Forster of Liverpool, England). She was a powerhouse in her own right.
With the recent opening of the beautiful new Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, which boasts the Ysidora Restaurant and Lounge, the details of her life have once again come into focus.
Her San Juan story began in the wake of Spain’s defeat by Mexico in 1821, when the Mexican government dismantled the mission system. The missions were the backbone of law and authority in Alta California.
As the secularization of the mission lands unfolded, the insolvent Mission San Juan Capistrano went up for auction. Ysidora’s brother, Governor Pio Pico, Mexico’s last Alta California Governor, sold the property and approximately 40 acres to John Forster for $710.
Taking possession of the property, the family lived there, leading the townspeople for 20 years until President Lincoln decreed that the California missions be returned to the Catholic Church, at which time they decamped to the sprawling Rancho Santa Marguerita y Flores, which today is Camp Pendleton.
When the Forster family took possession of the mission in 1845, it was in a ruinous state—abandoned, deteriorated with crumbling adobe walls, and weeds overtaking the courtyard. Certainly, John Forster worked to clean it up, but it would still have been less than luxurious.
In addition, criminal types flocked to the tiny San Juan Capistrano pueblo, a convenient rest stop between Los Angeles and San Diego. Crime, vice and law-breaking flourished. Highway robberies, lynching and violence were the rule of the day.
Truly, Ysidora found herself living in the Wild West. Envision her making a home within those bare adobe walls for her very young children. Marcos and Francisco were only 6 and 4 years old, respectively. The middle child, Ana was born in 1843 and died in 1845. What a toll losing Ana must have taken.
In addition, Ysidora was expecting John, who was born in 1845. Soon after came Jorje in 1846, who sadly passed away by his fifth birthday. The childbirths alone would have been a challenge for any mother, but during those times in that place, it would have been most arduous.
Add to that the loss of two of her young children, and one can understand that Ysidora was clearly a woman of great internal strength.
She had been prepared for dealing with danger and adversity early in her life. As a youth while still living at home with her mother, the women of the household escaped an Indian massacre. Her mother, understanding the native language, was warned by her servant of an impending attack and was able to get the women of the household to safety in San Diego.
Ysidora’s husband, John, was named Justice of the Peace for San Juan. He assumed the difficult undertaking of keeping order in the growing town. With Ysidora at his side, the townspeople often looked to them for life solutions.
In his book, Capistrano Nights, Father John O’Sullivan, who would become a future priest at the mission, recalls that the parishioners thought highly of Ysidora, that she offered kindness through her hospitality to travelers, treated others with generosity, providing care and sometimes even marital advice. As a servant of God, she held her beliefs close to her heart and was protective of all who occupied her household.
Through the close family connection with Governor Pio Pico, John Forster was able to acquire more large tracts of land, spreading from what is today El Toro to Oceanside. As his holdings grew, he grandly chose to be called Don Juan in the Spanish tradition. In 1847, the Mexican-American War came to Ysidora’s doorstep at the mission. One can only speculate on how terribly stressful that would have been for the mother of young children who was also the sister of the Alta California governor, as he was being hunted by American soldiers.
In well-documented accounts, Captain John Fremont was determined to capture Governor Pico. His further intention was to “execute” John Forster, a known sympathizer of the Mexican government.
As history tells it, Fremont and his forces were in heavy pursuit of Governor Pico who was, in fact, nearby and hidden by Forster. In his own later writings Forster explained, “Fremont was savage for me until he had an explanation.”
Forster, whose native language was English, successfully mollified Fremont by providing both an explanation and fresh horses. Fremont rode off, continuing his search for Pico while Forster helped his brother-in-law escape to Mexico.
Shortly thereafter, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed with Mexico. Mexico was forced to cede 55 percent of its territories to the United States, including California. In 1850, California became the 31st state.
If one imagines all this from Ysidora’s perspective, trying to calm her young children while an American army was at the door wanting to capture and perhaps kill both her husband and brother, it is breathtaking in its intensity.
The family’s leadership role in San Juan continued until they vacated the mission in 1865. The next 20 years were spent on the sprawling hacienda at Rancho Marguerita y Flores, where they lived a more baronial lifestyle.
Ysidora became even more widely known for her congenial role as a hostess while the couple managed a massive cattle operation. It is said that Don Juan was an epic worker, running 5,000 horses and triple that number of cattle, sending great droves of cattle from San Juan Capistrano to Sacramento and massive runs of horses to Arizona and Utah to be used as cavalry mounts.
Ysidora and Don Juan were among the most powerful citizens of early California. When laws were passed by the new California government requiring thousands of acres of land be fenced, it depleted much of Forster’s capital. At the same time, severe droughts destroyed herds of cattle, and Don Juan’s attempts at attracting colonists failed. The land baron was struggling financially.
In a shocking turn of events in 1881, Ysidora’s beloved son, Francisco “Chico,” was killed in a marriage dispute with actress Hortensia Abarta, when the woman shot him. Understandably, Ysidora was devastated. Before she could recover from that horrendous loss, her husband, Don Juan also died of a cerebral aneurism.
In 1882, the vast holdings had to be sold. In a 2006 video-taped interview with the great-great grandson Tony Forster (former San Juan Capistrano mayor), Tony reported that the sprawling ranch was cashed out for $250,000 in gold.
Upon the sale of the property, Ysidora moved to Los Angeles, where she stayed with friends until she passed away within the year. She was 75 years old. Perhaps she died of a broken heart.
Ysidora lived a long and heroic life, raising her family and helping her husband oversee a cattle business including some 250,000 acres, while caring for her friends and parishioners.
When I stop at her photograph at the Mission, I can almost hear the sounds of her footsteps, as I am carried back to those long-ago days when that courageous and gracious lady helped lay the foundation for the future of Southern California.
Historian and author Dr. Donna Friess and her family are 50-year residents of San Juan Capistrano. Donna is the great-granddaughter of an early Southern California pioneering family. Professor Emeritus, Cypress College. Her book, Capistrano Trails: Ride for the Brand (2018), brings San Juan’s vibrant horse story to life.
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