The History of Places: San Marcos, California

A picture to satisfy the petty people who work for the City of San Marcos and insist on wasting tax payer money to fight educational blogs about the use of public domain pictures. This picture once contained the seal of San Marcos, California (which is technically in the public domain due to California state law). But now it is a sunny picture of the mountains outside Cal State San Marcos.

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Welcome back to another fascinating blog post here at Tenacious Genealogy! Today’s post won’t focus specifically on genealogy, but rather one of the places that we (or our ancestors) may have lived in. In particular, San Marcos, California.

The History of Places – Why It Is Important For Genealogists and Family Historians

A lot of times, when researching my ancestors (or even just browsing on Google Maps, tbh), I have stumbled upon places I had never heard of or didn’t know existed. And then I get curious. The questions start flooding my brain…

  • Why did people settle here in the first place?
  • Why did my ancestors settle here?
  • What was life like for them?
  • What is this place like now?
  • Why was this place named what it was named?
  • What part did my family play in this history of this place (or were they just passing through)?
  • How important was this place to my family members who lived there? 

So on and so forth…

And as lovely as Wikipedia is and as helpful as it can be, sometimes the information can be a little… lackluster. Or not exist at all.

Which is not fun when it’s 3 in the morning and you MUST. KNOW. EVERYTHING. about whatever place you are now obsessed with researching.

That’s where I come in. While I’m not about to say I know everything about the places I talk about, I’d like to think that this is a good starting point for whichever place the post is on. You’ll even find links to other resources about the place that you can browse.

So to start off, I’m going to delve into the history of a little place called San Marcos, California.

San Marcos is nestled between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Cuyamaca Mountains to the east.

I’m going to assume (as dangerous as that might be) that unless you are from San Diego County or the surrounding areas, that you, my dear reader, might not have heard of San Marcos before.

That’s okay. Until I moved to Southern California, neither had I.

San Marcos, California – A History

San Marcos, California is a small (small for California, that is) college town in northern San Diego County. In 2010, its population was just shy of 84,000. This isn’t impressive until you realize that as late as 1970, San Marcos only had about 3,000 – 4,000 residents. That’s fewer people than currently go to the California State University campus in town (CSUSM). So in forty years, San Marcos has grown more than sixteen-fold.

Being as it was rural until fairly recently (and there are still outlying areas that are that way), it goes without saying that San Marcos was originally a farming/ranching area.

The Early History of San Marcos

Legend has it, that San Marcos is named such because Spaniards from the local mission (San Luis Rey) ‘discovered’ it on the feast day of St. Mark (April 25th) in 1797 after chasing natives who stole sheep from them. As such it was officially named ‘Los Vallecitos de San Marcos’ or ‘The Little Valleys of Saint Mark’.

The area became part of one of the many California ranchos in 1840 when it was granted to Jose Alvarado. After his death in 1846, the rancho changes hands several times. (In 1860, a man by the name of Cave Johnson Couts owned the rancho.) During the 1850s, one Major Gustavus Merriam created the first permanent settlement in the area, making the land (what would later become San Marcos) a land of milk wine and honey.

(Fun fact: Merriam went into the honeymaking business, both because it was lucrative and because the local vaqueros were less likely to harass bees that would sting them.)

First Federal Census with California in it. San Diego County was still so sparsely populated at this point that all of San Diego is tabulated on one image set.
California State Census in 1852 – you can look at the records for San Diego County, however, they are not fully indexed in Ancestry yet.
1860 Federal Census – If you want to see who was living in the San Marcos area – click on ‘San Luis Rey’.
The 1860 Federal Census record for Cave Johnson Couts – owner of several ranchos, including the San Marcos Rancho originally given to Jose Alvarado. Pages 3 &4 show Couts, his wife, and 4 of their children.

By the 1880s, more settlers had arrived (mostly German and Dutch) at Merriam’s behest and in 1883, one John H. Barham officially created San Marcos. Interestingly enough, four years later, the whole town was moved when the Santa Fe Railroad laid tracks one mile away from the center of town. However, by the early 20th century, San Marcos was a bonafide SoCal farming town with all the amenities a respectable farmer or rancher could want.

San Marcos in the 20th Century and Now

For the first half of the 20th century, San Marcos stayed a sleepy little SoCal farming town, making its money through dairy products, poultry, honey and other delectable products. It wasn’t until 1956 when water from the Colorado River made its way to San Marcos, that the town started to grow.

In the early 1960s, a little over 2500 people lived in San Marcos, but by the end of the 1970s, that number had grown to just over 17,000. While farming and ranching was the backbone of the community for several generations, by 2010, some of the biggest employers in the area were education related (San Marcos Unified School District and Cal State San Marcos, to name a few), medically related (Kaiser Permanente) or general manufacturing (Hunter Industries).

In the present day, San Marcos has continued to grow. The student population at CSUSM was just over 17,000 in the fall of 2017 and the overall population of San Marcos is estimated to surpass 100,000 by 2020.

Five Fun Facts about San Marcos

  • San Marcos is home to 5 separate colleges and universities. (CSUSM, California College San Diego, University of St. Augustine, Palomar College, and Saint Katherine College)
  • San Marcos’s Nickname is ‘Valley of Discovery’
  • San Marcos is home to Double Peak Park – on a clear day, the view includes Mexico, downtown San Diego, San Clemente and Catalina Islands, as well as Palos Verdes Penninsula and both the Santa Ana and San Bernadino Mountains.
  • While technically Lake San Marcos is not part of San Marcos proper, it is enclosed by the town and was created when a portion of San Marcos Creek was dammed up.
  • San Marcos has a Historical Society and Heritage Park where you can tour old houses built around the time that San Marcos was founded.

Nearby Places of Interest for History Buffs


Places of Interest for Genealogists

  • San Marcos Historical Society – located within Heritage Park, SMHS is open three days a week in the afternoon and has a few collections about the early settlers of the area and their families.
  • North San Diego County Genealogical Society – A much larger genealogical society based in Carlsbad. It has a multitude of collections dealing with the local history and genealogical resources of North San Diego County.

Additional Resources

Here is a list of several books dealing with the history of San Marcos and the surrounding environs that I highly recommend, for anyone interested in learning more.

San Diego County Place Names, A to Z

 Questions? Comments?

Questions? Comments? Have any ideas for other places I should talk about? Let me know in the comments! And if you like what you’ve been seeing here on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get access to freebies such as ’10 Tips for Starting Your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber only’ items!

10 thoughts on “The History of Places: San Marcos, California

  1. Theresa P Robinson says:

    The egg ranch was very large where Cal State San Marcos is now. Some Russian families started it also Hollandia dairy, Dutch started it. No English spoken at first, they all learned very fast.and don’t forget the red barn, I think every child in San Marcos went there for dance, girl and Boy Scouts any time availability there would be a huge barbecue oh and let’s not forget the San Marcos cemetery ok only one more place the church that was originally on peco, now moved near the cemetery one more , San Marcos grocery, the only one on town for several years, I’m sure I can think of more let’s not forget Thibados lake or maybe not mention that. Yes it was a little bitty town but we had more fun than most. I lived there since the early 1950

  2. D. Kennedy says:

    Another resource would be the Rancho Guajome in Oceanside, built by Cave Couts in 1852. Its the largest standing original adobe in the US, I believe, and is open for self-guided tours. Lots of great information about the era. Nice, succinct history, thanks.

    • Laura Nelson says:

      I don’t know of any specific pictures, however, I know that both the San Marcos Historical Society and the Special Collections and Archives at CSUSM have photographs dealing with local history so they might be a couple of places to contact if you’re looking for photos.

    • Laura Nelson says:

      Are you referring to San Marcos, California or San Marcos, Texas? I tried to find any references to slavery in both San Marcos, California and San Marcos, Texas, but most references I saw referred to Texas.

  3. Efrain Colima says:

    San Marcos has ties to rock n roll too. The song “Angel Baby” by Rosie and the Originals was recorded in San Marcos. Ike Turner from The Ike and Tina Revue owned a house in San Marcos as well, which is where he was found dead of an overdose.

  4. James E Johnson says:

    In the late 1950’s to mid 1960’s my step mom and husband started one of the first egg farm’s in San Marcos Ca when her husband died several year’s later she sold it, than later married my Dad who passed away in 1986 she passed away in Nov 2021 at 94 year’s old, i miss then both

  5. Kelly says:

    My first recollection of San Marcos is seeing fields and fields of crops with a two-lane road running between the fields. I was six years old and it was the early 1960s. We lived in vista which had a larger population than San Marcos and we settled in Escondido which was much more established. It had a mall with Walker Scott store. Jc Penny and Sears were on Grand and on 2nd (back then 2nd was another street). We would stop at cal state on our way home from church in esco to buy eggs Hahaha. We would buy 7 flats of eggs for one week. We were five siblings and ate hearty breakfasts.

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