From Cowboys To Marines

Santa MargaritaRanch house and vineyards at Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, 1887. From the book Picturesque San Diego.


“The celebrated Santa Margarita Rancho, of over 150, 000 acres (formerly the estate of the late Don Juan Forster), adjoins the San Luis Rey country on the west and north,” wrote Douglas Gunn in his 1887 book, Picturesque San Diego. “This vast tract is wholly under fence, and is devoted to cattle raising by its present proprietor, Richard O’Neill.”

Gunn described the great rancho as “one of the finest sections in the whole southern country, well watered, with a large proportion of first rate fruit, vine and farming land.”

Formally called Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, it was the largest of the Mexican land grants, and would continue to function as a working ranch for over fifty years after Gunn described it, until the entry of the United States into World War Two would change it forever.

“Acquisition by the navy of 120,000 acres of rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in northern San Diego county was announced yesterday by Rear Adm. Ralston S. Holmes, 11th Naval district commandant,” began an article in the San Diego Union on March 14, 1942, a little over three months after Pearl Harbor. The article went on to say that “the property is to be used for housing and complete training facilities for all units and weapons of a marine infantry division plus an infantry regiment.”

In September, 1942, the Union ran a short article describing the feelings of Juan Cerda, a longtime handy man at Santa Margarita, over the changes taking place on the ranch.

“Juan has called the rancho his home for 31 years,” the article stated, “and now finds it hard to speak of his beloved home without tears filling his eyes.”

“Juan did everything on the rancho,” the article went on to state. “He could cut a cowboy’s hair, help the cook prepare a meal, help the cowboys round up cattle, repair a wagon or a plow, doctor a sick cow—almost anything.”

“It is understood the marines have offered Juan a job, but he is not sure he can bear to remain on the old rancho that is being converted into a government reservation.”

“It just isn’t home,” Cerda told a reporter.

It’s not clear whether Juan Cerda stayed at the place he knew as Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, but thousands of marines and their families have called it home ever since its dedication in September 1942 under a new name: Camp Pendleton.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the books Picturesque San Diego by Douglas Gunn and The History of San Diego County Ranchos by R. W. Brackett, and the history section of the Camp Pendleton website: .

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