Visitors to San Juan Capistrano a century ago could be forgiven for thinking they had somehow been transported to Mediterranean Europe: Here was the identical seaside climate, the same fragrant, hilly landscape. That dust spiraling above the center of town was from hundreds of sheep being herded down Camino Capistrano, then a dirt road. And tending the sheep, looking as if they were straight out of the West Pyrenees, were Basques.
A people of obscure origin who inhabit the mountainous border region of western France and Spain, Basques were prominent among the early settlers of San Juan Capistrano, having been lured by opportunities to invest their money and ancient skills in ranching and farming. Today, their descendants are among the oldest residents of the city.
San Juan, as Orange County cities go, has a rich history, and at least one local Basque, Jean Lacouague, fears that his culture’s contributions have been lost in the shuffle of historical attention that tends to revolve around the Mission, the Aghachamem Indians and white land barons.
Since October, Lacouague, 70, has been compiling narrative histories of a dozen or so Basque families who lived and worked in San Juan and the immediate area. He plans to donate the completed project to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society.
“The Basques were a significant bunch of landowners and provided work and contributions to the economy,” said Lacouague, on a break from an equipment repair project on his five-acre farm near San Juan Creek.
“I got to thinking, hell, the Forsters have their history plastered all over town; the Indians have their history recorded, but there’s nothing written about the Basques. Nobody knows a damn thing about it.”
Many of the Basque immigrants, Lacouague says, were sent for in Europe by successful Basques already living here. Lacouague’s father, Pierre, immigrated to San Juan from Ainhoa, France, in 1910, to work as a farmhand. Others came by way of Latin America, Nevada or California’s Central Valley. Many learned English while working as shepherds, citrus farmers and hotel maids.
Basque ranchers and farmers at one time were the largest seasonal employers in San Juan Capistrano, according to historian Pamela Hallan-Gibson. After the Civil War, the sheep industry boomed because of a shortage of wool, and the Orange County climate proved perfect for raising sheep.
“The most prominent Basques were the Oyharzabal family,” Hallan-Gibson said. “They came early, in 1878, were big property owners, and (their descendants) still live in downtown San Juan.”
In the 1890s, Domingo Oyharzabal, from the Basses-Pyrenees, France, owned 4,000 acres and, along with fellow Basques Cornelio Echenique and Jean Daguerre, employed Basque sheepherders on property that is now Leisure World Laguna Hills.
“The major sheep area was where Marco F. Forster Junior High is now,” Hallan-Gibson said. “The business was so big the local guys couldn’t handle it, and Basques from the Temecula and Pala area would come in on a seasonal basis. They would run the sheep right through San Juan Capistrano, down Del Obispo . . . to the sheep shearing grounds beyond Del Avion.”
In 1880, Oyharzabal began to accumulate real estate with another Basque, Juan Salaberri, in and around downtown San Juan Capistrano. They bought the 1840s-era Miguel Garcia and Domingo Yorba adobes, which still stand side by side on Camino Capistrano and are on the National Register of Historic Places. The two-story Garcia adobe served as the French Hotel until 1903 and as a general store until 1918, according to Oyharzabal family documents.
Eugenie Oyharzabal, the widow of Domingo’s nephew Esteban, has lived in the Yorba adobe since arriving as a bride from St. Jean Le Vieux, Spain, in 1924. Eugenie, 103, spends much of her days knitting and reading her French-language prayer book, according to her daughter Carmen, 67. The Oyharzabals, who speak Basque, Spanish, French or English to each other, still own the adobes and collect rent from the merchants in the Garcia adobe.
Although Carmen appreciates the controlled-growth development policies of the city, she fondly recalls the days before the early 1970s when there were just 1,400 families in San Juan Capistrano. “We knew practically everybody then, and now there are 25,000 people,” she said.
“I’ve always lived in this house,” she said. “When I was growing up, we used to sit on the porch and watch the traffic on Camino Capistrano, which was the main route then” between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Changes in the Basque community have been subtle but absolute. There is, of course, far less ranching and farming, and fewer young people are learning to speak the Basque language. For decades, Carmen Oyharzabal and her friends played a Basque card game called mus every Saturday night. But the longstanding games stopped three years ago because her mother no longer cared to be the fourth player, Carmen says, and the younger-generation Basques showed no interest in learning the game.
“The Oyharzabals were the biggest single employer in San Juan at one time,” said Lacouague, who is using the Oyharzabals’ old payroll lists of ranch, hotel and store employees to pin down names and dates for his history project. “They ran a boarding house, had a water district and supplied water to the town initially, (then) hooked up different houses.”
With his wife, Marie, who is also Basque, and two of his children, Lacouague lives on the same property where he was born. Letter carriers have little excuse for misdirected mail: The Lacouagues live on Camino Lacouague.
The Lacouague Ranch is believed by some historians to be the site of both an Aghachamem village and the Franciscan mission before it was moved to its permanent site downtown.
The property is part of an orange and walnut farm bought by Pierre Lacouague from his employer, Cornelio Echenique, who along with Frank and John Forster was one of the largest landowners in the early 1900s. The Echenique home was on land that is now Four Oaks Park.
Like the Oyharzabals, the Lacouagues have left an imprint on the city they’ve called home for most of the 20th Century. A senior citizens’ recreation building in San Juan Capistrano is named for Jean Lacouague, and he served as chief of the city’s volunteer fire department until 1982, when his son, Dan, took over the job for 10 years.
Jean Lacouague’s project will be a “wonderful and significant addition” to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society museum, said director Gwen Vermeulen, adding that the society’s board of directors will decide how to publish and present the work.
Lacouague, who has not set a completion date for his project, has been enlisting the help of friends and acquaintances for his family narratives.
“I’m 70 years old and know a lot firsthand, and there are still a few people my age who are helping me,” he says. “But I’m also talking to grandchildren of Basques, finding out the dates their people came here, the towns they came from, who they worked for. I want to get everything accurate.”