Irvine Ranch Sesquicentennial: A Look Back 150 Years

On December 7th, 1864, James Irvine and his partners purchased the land that would later become the Irvine Ranch. In 2014, 150 years later, Irvine is one of the largest in cities in California with a population of more than 230,000 residents. To mark the sesquicentennial of James Irvine's historic purchase, Destination Irvine will feature articles that depict life on the Irvine Ranch at its beginning. 

Irvine Ranch at 150

Looking for Gold

James Irvine did not set out to be a landowner.

When he landed in San Francisco in August of 1849, he was seeking fortune in the gold mines of California.

The 22 year-old native of Ireland was not a rich man when he arrived. Within a decade, the industrious Irvine had become very wealthy man indeed.

Instead of finding riches in the mines, James Irvine built a successful grocery business, selling supplies to the miners.  He invested the profits into income producing real estate in the boom town of San Francisco. 

Sheep Raising Venture

In 1853, he joined Benjamin Flint and brothers Thomas and Llewellyn Bixby in a sheep raising venture in Monterey County. Wool had become a valuable commodity since the Civil War had interrupted the cotton industry. Before long, the partners were looking for more sheep grazing land further south. 

Irvine Ranch at 150

Decline of the Ranchos 

Conditions in the Santa Ana Valley were ripe for Flint, Bixby and Company.

The Great Drought of 1862-1864 had wiped out the local cattle, leaving rancheros like Don Jose Sepulveda destitute and desperate for cash.

When California became part of the United States, the Californios were forced to pay high legal costs in order to defend their land claims.

As a result, many of the local landowners were forced to sell their properties. Flint, Bixby and their silent partner James Irvine saw an opportunity. 

 Irvine Buys Land 

On December 7, 1864, Sepulveda sold the 48,803 acre Rancho San Joaquin for $18,000 to settle his debts.  James Irvine was the majority owner and bought one-half of the ranch. The Bixby brothers each bought three-twentieths, and Benjamin Flint purchased the remaining four-twentieths. 

Irvine Ranch at 150 

Two years later, the partners purchased 47,226 acres of the Rancho Lomas de Santiago as well as a 3,800 acre portion of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. These purchases, combined with the Ranch San Joaquin, brought the Flint, Bixby and Company land holdings in southern California to 108,000 acres, or 168 square miles that stretched from the Santa Ana mountains to the ocean. 

The partners paid about $41,000 for all the land, or approximately 38 cents per acre. A few adjoining tracts of land were added later, increasing the total to 125,000 acres.

These original land purchases laid the foundation for the Irvine Ranch and for the City of Irvine that would follow. 

Ellen Bell is the author of the book "Irvine: Images of America" and is a member of the Irvine Historical Society. She can be reached at ellenbell@cox.net