The Cleveland National Forest is Created!

History  | Heritage

[Photo]: El Prado cabinEl Prado Cabin was the first Ranger's cabin on the Cleveland National Forest and was built in 1911. The cabin is still standing today and is located in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, El Prado Campground.

Until the arrival in San Diego of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the lands now within the Cleveland National Forest were known only to the desert and coastal Indian tribes who used them. The Kumeyaay, Luiseños, Cahuilla and Cupeño found a good living on the abundant acorns and game. Many of our trails today follow those routes first used by these early dwellers. 

Cabrillo's arrival in 1542 had little affect on the area. It wasn't until 1769 that the Peninsular Range and its coastal plain attracted much interest. Fearing possible interference by England and possibly Russia, Spain encouraged Junípero Serra to establish his first of 21 California Missions.

The original site of the first mission was located near the present Old Town in San Diego. It was constructed in part by timbers hauled in from what is now Rancho Corte Madera (wood yard), on the Descanso Ranger District. Further north, timbers from Los Piños Potrero (on the Trabuco Ranger District) were hauled down toward the coast to build Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Also in that year, the Portolá expedition, led by Gaspar de Portolá and joined by Juan Crespí, Francisco Gómez, and Pedro Fages, left San Diego traveling to Monterey. They named many of the places along the way and those names remain with us today.

Prior to the establishment of the missions, human impact on the land was relatively insignificant. The explorers Vizcaíno and Cabrillo reported that the native Indians did considerable burning of the brushlands along the coast and in the mountains, but the overall impact was probably not very great. However, with the arrival of a ranching culture, the landscape underwent more dramatic changes; subtle at first, as the native grasslands were slowly replaced by European and Asian weeds and other introduced plants. Some botanists argue that this invasion of exotic plants had more affect on the area than any other single factor.

During the 1700's the land had been parceled out in large land grants. One of these, the Rancho San José del Valle grant, was given in 1844 to one of the earliest settlers, a fur trader named J. T. Warner. About the same time, Juan Forster received the land grants of Los Piños Potrero, El Cariso Potrero, and Potrero de la Cienega. 

Widespread overgrazing throughout the area, brush and trees cut for fence posts, and fires set to produce forage expanded the impact well beyond that of the Indians in the previous centuries.

In 1869, gold was discovered near Julian attracting hordes of miners from the Mother Lode and swelling the town to a population greater than that of San Diego. Also, during this period, zinc, lead, and silver mines were booming in the western canyons of the Santa Anas (hence, Silverado Canyon). Nearby, in Trabuco Canyon, stands the remains of the large (and unproductive) tin mine, once owned (about 1900) by Gail Borden of the Eagle Milk Co. He had hoped to use its yield to produce cans for his milk.

The influx of miners left its mark on the land. Trees were cut for mine timbers, heat and cooking fuel. Great expanses of brush were burned so miners could penetrate new areas to search for minerals. 

As the mines petered out, so did many of the early ranches which had been overgrazed and had lost their chief labor force as the Indian population died off due to hardship and disease. 

The principal end results was steadily growing threats to the watersheds, which by now were of critical importance to southern California communities.

Early reports from the 1870's - 1880's refer to fires that burned uncontrolled for weeks at a time. Lack of protection from fire was causing serious damage to irrigation works, the water supplies of rural areas, the small metropolitan area of San Diego, and other coastal towns of the late 1800's. The need for a forest reserve was evident to the first California Forestry Commission, appointed by Governor Stone in 1886. The commission recorded in its findings the necessity for special protection of the watershed cover to prevent the occurrence of major fires and subsequent erosion which were injuring the climate, agriculture and future prospects of southern California.

The widespread support for better resource management found a few opposing voices. Among these were timber and ranching interests who viewed the movement as leading to greater restriction on their activities. 

Regardless, the Forest Reserve Act was passed in 1891. Although the Act was meant to slow wasteful and illegal timber cutting, the problem was different in southern California. It was to protect their watersheds that Californians immediately began demanding Forest Reserves.

Cleveland National Forest became one of the first in the new system and had its basis in the 50,000 acre Trabuco Cañon Forest Reserve (in the Santa Ana Mountains), created by President Harrison in February 1893. In February 1897 President Cleveland created San Jacinto Forest Reserve, a 700,000 acre area which included the desert lands southeast of Palomar Mountain. In 1899, the Trabuco Reserve was more than doubled, in response to a petition sent to the General Land Office by residents near Trabuco Canyon.

These early Forest Reserves had been administered by the General Land Office (GLO) in the U.S. Department of Interior. However, the GLO lacked any trained foresters to aggressively take charge. As a result in 1905 the reserves were transferred to a new Bureau of Forestry (now the Forest Service) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1907 their designation as Forest Reserves was changed to National Forests. 

In 1907 President Roosevelt made extensive additions to both the Trabuco Canyon and San Jacinto Forest Reserves, to include Palomar and Laguna Mountains and those farther south to the Mexican Border. A year later (1908) President Roosevelt combined the two Reserves to form the new 1,904,826 acre Cleveland National Forest.

During the next seventeen years there were several deletions to the Cleveland. A major one in 1915 when 749,730 acres of non-forest value lands were returned to public entry, and another in 1925 when the San Jacinto unit was transferred to the San Bernardino National Forest. Today the Cleveland National Forest consists of approximately 424,000 acres of forest land.


Photo of two brown colored clay potsHeritage Resources on the Cleveland

Have you ever wondered: Who lived here before me?

Where did those people come from?

How did people live before us?

Your National Forests hold the evidence of more than 10,000 years of human past. Most people don't realize that 99% of the history of the earliest Americans was made during a time when there were no written records.

Since there are no documents or photographs of this time long ago, to learn more about these people we look for the evidence they left behind. Even a few broken pieces of pottery or flakes of stone can provide important information on how people used to live. Archaeology is the science that studies the artifacts that previous residents left behind.

Protect our Past! You can help by not disturbing archaeological sites or artifacts. Artifacts, including arrowheads, pottery sherds, stone flakes and historic bottles are protected by federal law. Penalties for removing artifacts or disturbing sites include fines up to $5,000, prison sentences, forfeiture of property such as automobiles, and civil damage assessments. Leave artifacts as you found them and encourage your family and friends to do the same.

Archaeology of the Cleveland National Forest

The three districts of the Cleveland National Forest may have been inhabited by humans 10,000 years ago.

Paleo Indian Period (from 12,000 years ago to 7,500 years ago). People of this period were probably gatherers and nomads who collected seeds and fruits and followed herds of large game animals like elk. These people, who archaeologists call the San Dieguito Culture, produced well made stone tools, but did not use pottery.

Archaic Period (from 7,500 years ago to 500 BC). During the Archaic Period (also known as the Milling stone Horizon), people were gatherers and hunters and relied on shellfish and other resources from the sea. Manos and metates, used to grind seeds, are common. Stone tools have coarser shapes, but obsidian (a fine-grained volcanic glass) is commonly used.

Late Prehistoric Period (from 500 BC to AD 1769). By the Late Prehistoric Period, people were using a lot of mortars and pestles to grind acorns and other seeds. The population in the area was increasing and there were many villages throughout the area now known as the Cleveland National Forest. Pottery was first used during this period.

Historic Period from AD 1769 to 50 years ago. The lifeways of the Late Prehistoric Period were disrupted by the arrival of the Spanish explorers. The Spanish identified four different cultures in the area of the Cleveland National Forest: Cahuilla, Luiseño/ Juaneño, Cupeño, and Diegueño (also called Kumeyaay or Ipai-Tipai). Many changes occurred during this period and the Spanish brought written documents to the area. Archaeologists study the artifacts of the Historic Period to learn more about the people who weren't mentioned in the written documents.

Places to visit, Things to do

See the Exhibits on archaeology at:

Laguna Mountain Visitor Information Office in the Laugna Mountain area (Descanso Ranger District) and Oak Grove Forest Service Station in Oak Grove (Palomar Ranger District).

Walk the Trails interpreting archaeology and American Indian culture: 
Kwaaymii Trail in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area (Descanso Ranger District).

Participate in volunteer projects by contacting:
Passport in Time Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 31315
Tucson, AZ 85751-1315
(800) 281-9176 telephone & TTY

For Further Information


Indians of the Oaks by Melicent Lee.
The Archaeology of California by Joseph L. Chartkoff and Kerry Kona Chartkoff.
California Archaeology by Michael J. Moratto.