1815 – 1882
John “Don Juan” Forster was born in 1815 in Liverpool, England to a very unpretentious family. He grew up to become one of the largest landowners in all of California. At the age of 17 John traveled to Mexico and was working for his uncle, James Johnson, in Guaymas, Mexico. He became the captain of one of his uncle’s ships. In 1836 he became a Mexican citizen and was living in Los Angeles where he worked as a shipping agent at San Pedro. Later he was also Captain of the Port of San Pedro. In 1837 John married Dona Ysidora Pico, sister of Pio Pico the Governor of California.
Forster began acquiring land in the 1840s as a result of his connection with Governor Pico who granted him the lands of Rancho Trabuco and Rancho Mission Viejo. He also owned Rancho San Felipe and Rancho de la Nacion in what is now San Diego County. In 1844 Forster and James McKinley purchased the old ruins of Mission of San Juan Capistrano for $710. Here he made his home until 1864 when the Mission was given back to the Catholic Church by President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1846 the United States and Mexico were at war and Governor Pico fled to Mexico, leaving Forster in charge of Pico’s ranch, Santa Margarita y Las Flores, which today is Camp Pendleton. On his return to California, Pico borrowed large sums of money from Forster to cover his gambling debts. By 1864 Forster offered to pay $14,000 and assume all of Pico’s current debts in return for the deed to rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. The Picos, Pio and Andres, agreed and Forster became the largest landowner in California, eventually holding over 200,000 acres.
Forster moved his family to Santa Margarita y Las Flores in 1864. The ranch house had been built sometime before 1827 and was in need of repair and remodeling. At this time it had two bedrooms and a living room. Forster expanded the house to 18 rooms surrounding a flower-filled courtyard. It is still standing today and became the home of the Commanding General at Camp Pendleton until 2007 where it is now being made into a museum.
Don Juan died in 1882 and his family sold the ranch to James Flood. Flood made Richard O’Neill his manager who later became half owner of this ranch. In 1940 the United States Navy needed a west coast training facility and purchased a major portion of the ranch from the O’Neill and Flood families and it became Camp Pendleton.