“The O’Neill family’s place in the history of Orange County and the state of California is marked by generations of enlightened community leadership. At Ranch Mission Viejo, the O’Neills keep alive the spirit and traditions of early California farming and cattle ranching. Nancy and I salute the O’Neills and the community in which they live.”
President Ronald Reagan
April 23, 1982 upon the centennial
of Rancho Mission Viejo
1882 – 1910s Make your handshake your bond
The story of Rancho Mission Viejo began in a deal struck with a handshake between fellow Irish immigrants, James Flood and Richard O’Neill, Sr.
Flood, a former carriage-maker turned San Francisco saloon keeper, eventually became known as one of Nevada’s “Silver Kings” when he and partners gained control of the most profitable of the famed Comstock Lode’s silver deposits. O’Neill, a hard-working and well-respected cattleman born in the heart of Ireland’s dairy country, was the owner of a small meat market near the docks of San Francisco. The two men met when O’Neill began providing meat to Flood’s saloon, and a friendship was forged which endured through generations.
In 1882, Flood and O’Neill became equal partners of the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in northern San Diego and its adjoining Rancho Mission Viejo and Rancho Trabuco in southern Orange County. Collectively, the ranchos totaled more than 200,000 acres and were acclaimed by many as “the greatest of all California ranchos.” Flood provided the money to purchase the ranches while O’Neill, offering his skills as a cattleman as his sweat equity, agreed to work out his half as resident manager.
Under O’Neill’s tenure, the cattle herd was upgraded and expanded, the land improved, row crops planted, and the Ranch became home to Orange County’s largest wheat fields. In 1907, just twenty-five years after the original partnership was formed, Flood’s son made good on his handshake promise and conveyed an undivided half interest in the great Ranch property to O’Neill. Just four months later, declining health caused O’Neill to deed his interest to his son, Jerome, who took the reins of the Ranch and led it into a new direction.
1920s-1950s Take care of the land
As hard-driving as his father, Jerome expanded the Ranch’s agricultural operations and its cowherd, increasing it to 25,000 head. In 1923, the sons of Flood and O’Neill consolidated their second generation friendship through the establishment of Santa Margarita Company. Sadly, just three years later, both sons died, just two days apart. Jerome’s beneficiaries included his sister, Mary O’Neill Baumgartner, and her family, as well as Jerome’s younger brother, Richard Jr., and his family.
By 1939, the Santa Margarita Company had dissolved. Richard Jr. retained the Rancho Mission Viejo and Rancho Trabuco parcels in south Orange County while the Floods and the Baumgartners took the San Diego portions. As fate would have it, just three years later, representatives from the U.S. Navy arrived at the family ranch house and took possession of the San Diego portions to establish today’s United States Marine Corps Base Camp Joseph H. Pendleton.
What remained of the historical Ranch totaled 52,000 acres and was under the control of Richard O’Neill, Jr., his wife, Marguerite, and their two children, Alice and Richard Jerome. The family united its holdings under the name Rancho Mission Viejo and began branding cattle with the O’Neill family’s new “Rafter M” brand, which endures today.
In 1943, upon the death of her husband, Richard, and with the ranch lands held in trust, Marguerite O’Neill stepped forward to lead the family. A fifth generation Californian, “Daisy,” as she was called, thwarted several attempts by the bank’s trust officers to liquidate her family’s holdings. With great determination and pride, she kept the land intact and, as much as possible, in her family’s control. To this day, Marguerite O’Neill’s admonition to “take care of the land and the land will take care of you” continues to guide the family.
1960s to Present Plan for the future
By the 1960s, urbanization had found its way to the borders of Rancho Mission Viejo. In response to the demands of Orange County’s rapidly expanding population, the O’Neill family and its partners established Mission Viejo Company and embarked on the family’s first development, the 10,000-acre planned community of Mission Viejo.
Serving as an officer of Mission Viejo Company and overseeing the family’s ranching operations was Marguerite O’Neill’s grandson, Anthony R. “Tony” Moiso, fresh out of Stanford University and the U.S. Army. In 1972, upon the sale of Mission Viejo Company and its remaining undeveloped land, Tony accepted the responsibility of daily managing the remaining 40,000 acres of Rancho Mission Viejo.
Over the next decades, it was Tony Moiso, his mother Alice O’Neill (Moiso) Avery and her brother, Richard J. O’Neill, who shouldered the family’s responsibilities of land stewardship. Choosing not to break-up the Ranch and sell it to the highest bidder, the family successfully retained ownership of the Ranch by ranching, farming, and forging long-term ranch lease agreements. In addition, they helped the region meet and manage its growth through visionary community planning and development, resulting in the creation of the cities and communities of Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Las Flores, and Ladera Ranch.
In 2004, the Rancho Mission Viejo family secured all approvals for a comprehensive, science-based land use management/operation and open space preservation plan for the remaining 23,000 acres of the family ranch. Under this plan for Rancho Mission Viejo, about 25% of the Ranch will be carefully planned over the next few decades into a new community while the remaining 75% will be forever set-aside as The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo. The Reserve encompasses 20,868 acres of the Rancho Mission Viejo and other preserved lands. Ultimately, phased land enrollments into the Reserve will increase its size to nearly 33,000 acres, making it one of California’s largest and most diverse habitat reserves.
On April 4, 2009, Richard J. O’Neill passed away, leaving sole management of the Ranch in the hands of his nephew, Tony Moiso.
Today, the plan for Rancho Mission Viejo is being realized.