A brief history of the Yorba family

A brief history of the Yorba family

by Mildred Yorba Macarthur

Yorba Linda Public Library, May 1960.


To tell the history of the Yorba family is a major undertaking, so I’ll just try to say a bit about the founders of the family and then turn to the tales that were passed on to me during my childhood, together with a few of my own observations. Much has been written about the Yorbas. Some correct and some not, but all with the kindliest of intent and a minimum of errors, including mine, so let this piece be filed among other fact and fiction.

I am writing this at the request of my good friend March Butz, many years Yorba Linda District Librarian, for whom I have great respect and admiration and in appreciation for all that she has done to uphold the traditions of the past and to mold them in with all of her far-seeing plans for the future. This is my way of saying “thank you,” to her. How many “mananas” have slipped by since she first asked me to write something about the Yorba family for her library history. The time is now, May 27, 1960.

The first to bring the name of Yorba to what is now Orange County, was Jose Antonio Yorba. He was born in 1746 in Spain, and was baptized July 20 of that same year, in the parish church of San Sadurni De Subirata, near Barcelona. He came with the Portola expedition to California, in 1769. He was one of the soldier escorts of the King of Spain who accompanied Father Juniper Serra to California at the time of the founding of the Franciscan Missions.

When Jose Antonio Yorba married Josefa Grijalva at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, May 17, 1782, there were united two families that were to remain forever on the soil of California.

Josefa Grijalva was the daughter of a Spanish soldier, Juan Pablo Grijalva. She was born in Terenate, Sonora, Mexico in 1767. As a child of nine she journeyed with her parents who came to California with the Anza Expedition of 1776, of which her father was one of its leaders.

Jose Antonio Yorba and his wife Josefa were the parents of ten children. One son, Francisco, died prior to 1825. The remaining sons were Jose Antonio 2nd, Tomas, Teodosio, and Bernardo. Their daughters were Francisca, Maria Andrea, Isabel, Presentacion, and Raymunda.

Josefa Grijalva Yorba died January 3, 1830 and was buried at the San Gabriel Mission. Jose Antonio Yorba died January 16, 1825. He was buried at San Juan Capistrano.

In 1810 he and his nephew Juan Pablo Peralta were the grantees of 48,000 acres from the King of Spain, for their services to the crown. Santiago de Santa Ana is the only Spanish land grant in Orange County. Other grants to his sons were made during the Mexican ownership of California. Lomas de Santa Ana went to Teodosio. It consisted of 47,266 acres. Canon de Santa Ana was granted to Bernardo Yorba on August 1, 1834, some 13,328 acres, much of which is now a part of Yorba Linda.

I am the great-grand daughter of Teodosio Yorba. Most of his lands were lost via mortgages and a mis-used power of attorney. William Wolfskill was the first to foreclose, and from him the lands passed to a group of sheep raisers, Flint, Bixby, and Irvine, now the major portion of the Irvine Ranch. Teodosio died a poor man at the home of his daughter in San Gabriel. Now in my possession are copies of some of these old documents showing where he tried valiantly to save some of his lands for his daughter, but the courts were clogged with like claims and there wasn’t the time to hear the grievances of the Spanish and Mexican grantees and their descendants. However, I weep no tears, for his living must have been good at his hacienda overlooking the Santa Ana river at what is now the city of Olive. Some say that he was a plunger in the matter of betting on horse races with his friend Pio Pico. In one race alone, between Jose Sepulveda’s “Black Swan” and Pio Pico’s “Sarco”, Teodosio was said to have lost thousands of dollars and hundred of head of cattle. In these times when I drive south of Santa Ana on MacArthur Boulevard on my way to Corona del Mar and I know that land is now selling for $19,000 per acre down there I can’t help but wish that “Sarco” had run a bit faster in that famous race. However, I prefer to thinking that what really impoverished Teodosio Yorba was the great drought that struck all of Southern California in the early sixties, killing cattle by the thousands and forcing the rancheros into debt with ruinous rates of interest. After all, a man with 47,000 acres and no income tax to pay, should be entitled to bet on a race horse now and then.

More has been written about Bernardo Yorba than any of the other brothers. He was primarily a man of the soil, and every early turned to agriculture and ways and means of irrigating his lands from the waters of the Santa Ana river. He was a family man who seldom left his home. He married three times. His first wife, Maria Alvarado bore him four children. His second wife, Felipa Dominguez was the mother of twelve children. His third wife, Andrea Elisalde, was the mother of four. His two story adobe dwelling remained standing until 1926. It consisted of fifty rooms, not counting the servants quarters.

He employed 4 wool combers, 2 tanners, 1 butter and cheese man who directed the milking of 60 cows, one harness maker, 2 shoemakers, 1 jeweler, 1 plasterer, 1 carpenter, 1 major domo, 2 errand boys, 1 sheep herder, 1 cook, 1 baker, 2 washer women, 1 woman to do the ironing, 4 seamstresses, 1 dressmaker, 2 gardeners, 1 school master and a man to make the wine. There were 100 other employees who worked on the ranch. The Indians lived in a village of their own. To supply the meat for the household, ten steers per month were slaughtered. He loved his home and his children and spent some part of each day with them. All were given early religious training and the family rosary was recited each day. He also gave the land and built a church so that others might come from near and far to worship. Land was set aside for a family burying ground where many friends and servants are also interred. This little cemetery alone remains of all of the splendor of that colorful era. The Yorba family and the County Supervisors could not agree as to the amount of land that was to be given them of the preservation of the Yorba home, so it was razed to keep vandals from further desecrating it in their search for buried treasure. The same thing happened to the old church. The Catholic Church refused an offer which I took to them for the restoration and preservation of this old edifice on Esperanza Road. It was razed when they built the Placentia Church and decided to throw it all into one diocese. They felt that there was no longer any need for this historic church, the only place of worship in Orange County at one time, except for the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The church still owns the land given by the Yorba family. As the Spaniards often said, “Como Dios quiere. Or “God’s will.”

But on to happier thoughts. I like to remember the visits of that beloved old Franciscan friar, Guadalupe Del Rio of Mission San Luis Rey when he came once a month to say mass at the family church. When he stayed at our home it usually fell to my lot to drive him up the canyon to the church. No matter what time I got up he was always ahead of me, walking back and forth in the back yard in his open sandals, thumbing his rosary and murmuring some preliminary prayers. Then, off we went for a faster than necessary ride to see if I could scare him, which I never succeeded in doing. The faster I drove the more he smiled out from under the hood of his coarse brown robe.

My cousin Vincente Yorba was a delightful and picaresque young man, all of his life. It was he who drove Father Guadalupe to the church to say the rosary one evening and after a while they both discovered that the church was empty, except for themselves. The old friar continued with the services, but occasionally turning back to see if any strays had wandered in. Sensing his mounting annoyance, Vincente said, “Vamonos Padre,” which means, “Let’s go, Father.” To his astonishment and delight the Padre said, “Pues, vamonos. Or “All right, let’s go” and they did! The next day he played to a full house, for the word had gotten around of the old friar’s disgust at the family’s religious laxity.

Spanish and Mexican people have a deep understanding with their saints. It never ceased to amaze me when I visited my grandmother (Maria Antonio Rowland de Yorba) at her home at La Puente. I often found her favorite saint’s picture turned face to the wall until a special prayer was fulfilled, which it usually was, so she said. Bernardo Yorba’s rancho was often spoken of as Rancho San Antonio, for the patron saint of the household. This life-sized statue of Saint Anthony is now in a niche of honor at the Bowers Memorial Museum in Santa Ana, where most of the priceless family treasures are now housed so that they can be seen and enjoyed by all. Life was not always so tranquil for this particular saint, for it is said that the young ladies of the Yorba household often threatened Saint Anthony with immersion in a nearby well if their beaus didn’t meet certain deadlines set for them.

Wills that were left by the men of the Yorba family were most interesting and very detailed. All disposed of much land and many possessions in great detail. Reading them gives one a complete picture of the family life in those times, and should be carefully studied by students of history. Aside from all other considerations I have always liked certain phrases that showed their humility.

Tomas Yorba, brother of Bernardo, died in 1845 and left his widow Vincente Sepulveda Yorba with these words, “I commend my soul to God who created it, and my body to the earth from whence it was fashioned, and it is my wish that I be buried in the shroud of our Father St. Francis, the funeral to be according to what my executory consider that I deserve and is befitting. I declare to have given my wife jewels of some value as a wedding present, but I do not remember how many, nor their value, but they must be in her possession, since I gave them to her.”

Then follows an inventory. Headstall, bridles, bits, spurs, silver rosaries, bronze pistols and holders, 1 broken mirror, 1 saber, crystal, china, silver, and iron kettle. Chairs, tables, gilded frames, trunks, men’s and women’s clothing of satin, velvet, and lace, bolts of material, silk garters, and a silk head cap. Hoes, large saw, saddle bags, eight carretas (wooden wheeled carts), and a copper kettle. Large vineyard, valued at 600 pesos. 1 small vineyard, 800 pesos. 722 cows at 5 pesos each. 233 sheep at 75 cents each. Thus ebbed the life of the vast ranchos, with the inventories becoming shorter with each generation and the fierce pride among those that are left to preserve the smallest memento of an era that is now gone forever.

It was with great pleasure that I attended the opening of the Yorba Linda Library dedication and saw all about me the evidence of the efforts that have been expended to remind all those who visit, of this rich past. The fine and well executed mural depicts the story far better than words. The pioneers have been fittingly honored in a most tasteful and utilitarian modern setting.

For those that visit the library I should like to say as did the Yorbas, in the golden era of the ranchos, “Nuestra casa es suya,” which means, “Our home is yours.”