How Orange County Seceded from Los Angeles

A map of Southern California counties from 1876, when Los Angeles and Orange counties were one. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.

The Orange Curtain: today the term playfully describes the boundary -- political as well as cultural -- between Orange County and its neighbor to the north, Los Angeles County. But until 1889, the two counties were one, and Los Angeles County stretched far south to present-day San Clemente.

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Orange County can trace its origins back to an 1869 scheme to create an Anaheim County out of the Los Angeles County's rural south. Originating out of the Utopian agricultural colony of Anaheim and spearheaded by the town's mayor, Max Strobel, the proposal would have created a county that included present-day Whittier, Norwalk, and Downey as well as the communities of present-day Orange County. Secessionists argued that the long distances separating Anaheim from the county courthouse and administrative offices in Los Angeles justified the division. Wrote James Guinn, a local historian and longtime supporter of county division:

A trip to the county seat and return required two days...travel over hot and dusty roads in the summer time -- through mud and mire in the winter time. Bridges there were none, and often during the rainy season, the rivers swollen to raging torrents cut off all communication with the metropolis for weeks at a time. A lumbering old stage coach three times a week carried the mail, and at the compensation of ten cents a mile banged and battered the unfortunate passenger onward to his destination at the reckless speed of five miles an hour.

By the time Anaheim's Strobel began lobbying the state legislature in 1870, a series of additions, subtractions, and adjustments had undermined the idea that Los Angeles County's boundaries were in any way fixed. Established as one of California's 27 original counties in 1850, Los Angeles County shifted shapes several times over its first couple decades. At one point, as illustrated in the 1852 map below, Los Angeles County extended all the way to the eastern state line, bordering present-day Nevada and Arizona. And as recently as 1866, the state legislature had excised the county's northern reaches to create Kern County.

In 1852, Los Angeles County extended to California's eastern stateline, where it bordered the New Mexico Territory. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Anaheim mayor Maximilian (Max) Franz Otto Strobel spearheaded the first campaign to create what eventually became Orange County. Courtesy of the Anaheim Public Library.

Still, the proposal to create a new Anaheim County ran into almost immediate opposition from Los Angeles, which jealously guarded its role as the seat of regional power. The plan stalled in the State Senate after passing the Assembly in 1870.

Its failure set the stage for a nearly 20-year struggle -- richly chronicled here by former Orange County Archivist Phil Brigandi -- to create a new county.

Los Angeles continued to obstruct the secessionists' repeated legislative proposals, but more importantly, rivalry between Anaheim and the upstart town of Santa Ana frustrated attempts to build a unified coalition. At the heart of their disagreement was the question of which city would serve as county seat. Wealth and prestige were at stake; a new courthouse would be built in the winning city, which would become "a political Mecca for office-seeking pilgrims," as Guinn wrote. Anaheim last proposed secession in 1880, offering to name the new entity Santa Ana County but place the county seat in Anaheim.

By 1889, Santa Ana was leading the charge for a new county. The latest proposal included the communities of Tustin and Orange but envisioned a northwestern border along Coyote Creek, keeping towns like Whittier and Norwalk within Los Angeles' orbit. Anaheim opposed the proposal, as the town was too close to the revised boundary to be a viable choice for county seat.

The proposed name -- Orange County -- was prophetic, as Valencia orange groves would later blanket vast swaths of Orange County. But at the time, the height of citriculture was still decades away. The name, first proposed in 1872, was merely a marketing ploy.

"Orange County was selected because it sounded nice," Brigandi writes. "Southern California in those days was being promoted as a semi-tropical paradise...and oranges fit that image."

The proposal passed over Anaheim's objections, helped along by outright bribery in the state legislature. ("We bought the county from the state legislature for ten thousand dollars," Santa Ana political operative George Edgar boasted much later.) On March 11, 1889, Governor Robert Waterman signed the bill, and on June 4, voters living within the new county approved the division by a vote of 2,509 to 500. On August 5, 1889, the newly elected board of supervisors met for the first time, and Orange County was born.

Orange County's secession inspired further attempts to draw new county lines on the map of Southern California. Within two years, proposals for three new counties -- Pomona, San Jacinto, and Riverside -- came before the state legislature. The first two foundered but the last succeeded, and in 1893 Riverside County was carved out of San Bernardino and San Diego counties. With the 1907 formation of Imperial County out of San Diego County's eastern half, the present-day roster of Southern California counties was complete.

Santa Ana in 1889, the year it led a successful campaign to create Orange County. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

The plaza in the City of Orange in 1889, the year Orange County split from Los Angeles County. Courtesy of the Orange Public Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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