Local News

Mysterious Marker Reveals History in Brea Canyon

Driving through Brea Canyon, I noticed a cryptic concrete white obelisk off the side of the road. Pulling off onto a sandy shoulder, I stepped out of my car to get a closer look. A small brown plaque on the obelisk read, “Don Gaspar de Portola with 60 men camped here July 31, 1769 on the first exploring march from San Diego to Monterey.” I’ve driven down Brea Canyon Road a couple of times over the past couple of years, especially when I was learning to drive with my grandpa, but I never noticed this historical marker until now.

Back in fourth grade at Golden Hill Elementary, I remember learning that Portola was an explorer who led an expedition of Alta California as part of Spanish efforts to establish missions in the pre-Golden State. However, after seeing the historical marker in Brea Canyon, I was inspired to do more research into California history.

On “A Condensed History” page of the City of Brea’s Centennial website, I learned that the first written record describing land that is now Brea are notes from an early mission expedition of Portola and Father Juan Crespi in July of 1769. “At that time, this was an undisturbed natural place to camp overnight near a small group of [Kizh], which were the largest among the Gabrieleno tribes for about 3,500 years. In subsequent decades, that same Brea Canyon outlet was but a small notch within a broad sweep of territory identified for mission expansion,” according to the website.

In the article “Untold Story: El Camino Real,” from the February 1990 Orange Coast Magazine, “on July 14th, 1769, Portola and 63 others left San Diego. The party included Corporal Jose Antonio Yorba, who later became one of Orange County’s original settlers. Sergeant Jose Ortega rode ahead with a scouting guard to locate the best trails and easiest routes.

They were often forced to cut a wide road out of dense underbrush for the heavily laden caravan that followed. On July 22, the expedition entered modern-day Orange County, making camp in a canyon north of San Onofre. At a nearby village, the fathers baptized two small native Indian children who were very ill. In their honor, the site was named Los Cristianitos (the Little Christians). They rested at the creek for two days, and then moved through the Santiago Hills east of Tustin.

On the 28th of July, they arrived at the east bank of the Santa Ana River. The river was so swift, they had great difficulty crossing. Once on the western bank, the explorers headed northwest, camping at La Brea Canyon in Fullerton near a pool of water.”

According to the diary passages of Father Juan Crespi, a member of the expedition, by the night of July 24th, Portola and his men had reached Aliso Creek near the present site of El Toro. He wrote about climbing a steep hill, then descending into a fertile valley with a small pool upon the banks of which lived many friendly “heathen.” According to an article titled the “March of Portola” written by late historian Don Meadows who traced the path of Father Juan Crespi, the native Indian village Father Crespi was referring to was located in what is now Hillcrest Park.

However, the OC Weekly reported that “in a 1965 article published in the Pacific Coast Archeological Society Quarterly, author Helen C. Smith wrote that there was some dispute about where the actual native Indian village was located, though she agreed the explorers traversed what is now Hillcrest Park. Archeological activity unearthed Indian artifacts on a hilltop near Brea Canyon including fragments from a milling stone and a “mano” – a large rock used for grinding seeds and nuts.

At the bottom of the plaque on the historical marker, I read that it had been placed and dedicated in June of 1932 by “Grace Parlor No. 242 Native Daughters of the Golden West.” The organization focuses on the care and preservation of California history. Sherry Farley, a third generation member of the Native Daughters, told the OC Weekly that “the marker was placed east of the actual campsite due to private property restrictions. It was her understanding Portola chose the spot because of a grove of pepper trees (long removed) which provided shade during the summer heat.”

From “The History of Brea” page of OrangeCounty.net, I learned that Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola reportedly found the native Indians “dirty,” but didn’t realize that they frequently smeared themselves with crude oil as medicine. In fact, while Portola slept at the canyon campsite on his way to Monterey Bay, Brea’s future bubbled beneath him. Brea’s early reliance on the oil industry has waned since the “black gold” rush first began. But back then, the villages of Randolph (Brea’s first name) and Olinda grew as oil riggers and their families came to town.

Brea’s future began in 1894, when landowner Abel Stearns sold 1,200 acres on the western edge of what was then Olinda village to the Union Oil Company. The first well was drilled a year later, and soon, the surrounding hills were thick with wooden oil towers, according to “History of Brea, California: From Early Oil Field Days to 1950” by Purl Hardy.

“Randolph was built to the west of Olinda in 1908 for oil workers and their families. It was reportedly named for Epes Randolph, an engineer for the Pacific Electric Railway, which stopped at the little township on its Los Angeles-Yorba Linda route,” Hardy wrote. In 1911, the town’s name was changed to Brea, Spanish for “tar.” By 1917, there were 732 people in Brea, and the oil town was incorporated as Orange County’s eighth city.

When I drove through Brea Canyon, I noticed how dry everything was, even though it had rained recently. On the stretch of road between Brea and the 57 freeway, there were a lot of oil derricks standing on the surrounding hills. In fact, there was an abandoned oil field directly across from the historical marker. So, the next time you’re driving down Brea Canyon Road, keep an eye out for the white obelisk off the side of the road.

To see what the historical marker and Brea Canyon currently looks like, visit http://www.fullertonobserver.com and click the tab labeled “Local.” Underneath that tab, click on “Emerson Little YouTube Channel,” which will take you directly to my page.

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2 replies »

  1. These historical markers need to be maintained for the future, they can’t be forgotten. Thanks for this great article. I did not know about this. I have seen the marker driving by but never stopped. The early history of this area is fascinating.

  2. Thanks for posting this–unfortunately, the Portola Expedition did not go through Brea Canyon, but, instead, left a campsite likely near Arovista Elementary in Brea near the Fullerton border and went northwest through the Puente Hills either where Harbor Boulevard/Fullerton Road or Hacienda Road/Boulevard are today. Father Juan Crespi, who was on the expedition and kept a detailed diary, made it clear that they went northwest, though Portola’s diary said north. In any case, Brea Canyon is northeast. Anyone interested in this should look at Alan K. Brown’s “A Description of Distant Roads” and the published diaries of Portola and Miguel Constanso done about 1910. The Homestead Museum held a two-day event this past summer for the 250th anniversary of the Portola Expedition. Finally, the late Phil Brigandi, who just passed away this month, and Eric Plunkett put together a great publication this year for the anniversary of the expedition and its travels through Orange County, which is available through Amazon.

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