Rancher Bernardo Yorba Dies


Bernardo Yorba, descendant of an early California family who owned the only Spanish land grant in Orange County, died Saturday of heart failure.

A big, rugged man who survived 18 months as a prisoner of Germany in World War II, Yorba was immensely proud of his heritage and the influence that his family had in Orange County’s and California’s history.

His great-great-grandfather, Jose Antonio Yorba, was one of 62 Spanish soldiers who accompanied Gaspar de Portola in a 1769 expedition to California. He was rewarded for his loyalty to the king with a 62,000-acre land grant that included much of what is now Santa Ana, Tustin, Orange and Costa Mesa.


“He had the genealogical background that gave him an extreme measure of prestige, but he never pushed it,” Orange County historian Jim Sleeper said. “His family’s influence in Orange County cannot be overestimated. Yet he was a man without any pretensions whatsoever. He was as kindhearted a soul as I’ve ever known.”

In recent years, Yorba, 77, was known as a rancher and land developer. He lived on property in Santa Ana Canyon that was part of the original land grant. His widow, Margaret Yorba, recalled that 50 years ago the property was a working ranch “filled with big, empty rolling hills that provided us with a wonderful life for our children.”

Margaret Yorba said her husband died peacefully in his Anaheim Hills home while watching television. The couple had been married for 55 years and met when both were students at Fullerton High School.

“Ours was a marriage that wasn’t suppose to last,” she said. “Our families were opposed to it, partly on religious grounds. I was Protestant at the time, and Bernardo was Catholic.”

In March 1943, Margaret Yorba took her first train ride to Roswell, N.M., to attend her then-boyfriend’s graduation from flight school and promotion to second lieutenant. Neither one told of their secret plans to wed. The couple were married at the Roswell Air Force Base chapel.

Seven months later, Yorba was shot down over Germany while piloting a B-17 on a bombing mission over the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt. He was liberated just before the war’s end.


After the war, Yorba returned to California and attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he earned a degree in business. Margaret Yorba said that he gave up plans to go to law school so he could return home and run the family ranch.

Throughout his life, Yorba was fascinated by the history of the state’s great ranchos during the Spanish-Mexican era and collected memorabilia from what he called “that golden age of California.”

Friends and family members said he was an expert horseman and member of various groups that keep California’s rancho history alive, including the Rancheros Visitadores and Charros Los Amigos, which puts on Mexican-style rodeos.

In addition to his wife, Yorba is survived by 10 children: Linda Otzen,, Cantana Sisler, Lisa Thomas, Nichola Gurim, Bernardo III, Antonio, Miguel, Christopher, Jaime and Peter; a brother, Jack; 22 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at San Antonio Catholic Church in Anaheim Hills. The church was built on property donated by the Yorbas.