Spanish explorer Don Gasper de Portola first scouted the area where Camp Pendleton is located in 1769. He named the Santa Margarita Valley in honor of St. Margaret of Antioch, after sighting it July 20, St. Margaret’s Day. The Spanish land grants, the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores y San Onofre, came in existence. Custody of these lands was originally held by the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, southeast of Pendleton, and eventually came into the private ownership of Pio Pico and his brother, Andre, in 1841.
Pio Pico was a lavish entertainer and a politician who later became the last governor of Alto California. By contrast, his brother Andre took the business of taming the new land more seriously and protecting it from the aggressive forces, namely the “Americanos.” While Andre was fighting the Americans, Pio was busily engaged in entertaining guests, political maneuvering and gambling. His continual extravagances soon forced him to borrow funds from loan sharks.
A dashing, businesslike Englishman, John Forster, who had recently arrived in the sleepy little town of Los Angeles, entered the picture, wooing and winning the hand of Ysidora Pico, the sister of the rancho brothers. Just as the rancho was about to be foreclosed on, young Forster stepped forward and offered to pick up the tab from Pio. He assumed the title Don Juan Forster and, as such, turned the rancho into a profitable business.
When Forster died in 1882, James Flood of San Francisco purchased the rancho for $450,000. His friend, Richard O’Neill, managed the rancho and after 24 years of service was given half ownership.
O’Neill built a dam to form the lake that now bears his name and introduced irrigation. Under his supervision, the ranch prospered; its beef and crops were known throughout the nation.
The O’Neill and Flood families’ 181,000-acre holding occupied a sizable portion of North San Diego County and extended into Orange County. The government purchased 125,000 acres in San Diego County at the cost of $4,239,062 in 1942.
The Marine Corps’ role in Camp Pendleton history dates from Sept. 25, 1942, when the former rancho was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and named in honor of Maj. Gen. Joseph H. Pendleton.
The Santa Margarita Ranch was then transformed into one of the largest military camps in the United States as a West Coast base for combat training of Marines and preservation of California’s resources.
The Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton logo is featured throughout the base, yet few know that the O and T logo originated as a cattle brand.
Before this vast expanse of hills and valleys became the property of the U.S. government, it was a thriving cattle ranch known as the Santa Margarita y Las Flores, and the cattle roaming the hills sported the O and T brand. When the Marine Corps acquired the property in 1942, it was given permission to use the brand for the Camp Pendleton logo, hence retaining a visible tie to the past. One of the former owners of the rancho, John J. Baumgart Jr., kept the brand and used it on his ranch in San Juan Bautista, California, until his recent death.
For those interested in the various historical sites on Camp Pendleton, call the History and Museums Office at 760-725-5758.