Brea, California
- Our History -

Brea, California

Amidst the foothills of Puente Hills in the fertile La Habra Valley lies a city rich in history. Brea might be known today for its shopping and entertainment, as well as its countless housing developments, but it was once a city that prided itself on its oil economy. The oil derricks behind Olinda Elementary School and the oil machinery at the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail serve as remnants of Brea's origins in the oil industry. While many Brea residents are familiar with the city's oil-driven history, many are unware of the full story behind the city we know today. From Native American occupation and Spanish settlement to oil pursuits and consumerist ventures, let's explore Brea's history in full.

Native Americans and Early Spanish Settlement

Thousands of years ago, Native Americans once roamed the hills of the La Habra Valley. Known as the Tongva, the "people of the earth," or more commonly the Gabrielino Mission Indian tribe, the resourceful Native Americans used the valley for hunting and gathering food, supplies, and medicine. Brea, which happens to mean "tar" in Spanish, bled tar from its rich hills back then, and the Native Americans often used the abundant tar for medicinal purposes. When Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola spent a night in 1769 in what would become Brea, he documented the Native Americans, who had smeared themselves with oil, and described them as dirty. Portola, ignorant of the tar's purpose to the people, had assumed the worst of the natives. In retrospect, however, historians know that the Tongva were highly advanced and used the natural resources of the California landscape to their advantage. In fact, at the time of Spanish arrival in the 18th century, the Tongva people were one of the most powerful Native American tribes in southern California. Be that as it may, the Spanish began blazing across California, introducing new diseases and disrupting the land along their way, and the population of Native Americans declined rapidly. Although the Native American population was nearly wiped out by the arrival of the Spanish (and later the 49ers of the Gold Rush), the Tongva survives today through descendants that preserve the culture and traditions of the tribe.

Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and Tongva hut

The arrival of the Spanish ushered in a new age of European settlement in California that altered the course of history for what would become Brea. When the Spanish era in California came to fruition, Brea became part of the vast lands belonging to the San Gabrielino Mission established in 1771 by the Franciscan Padres. The lands occupying Brea and its surroundings were then primarily used for cattle ranching. In 1829, a young man named Don Abel Stearns arrived in the Los Angeles area as a merchant. An astute businessman and cattle rancher, Stearns became one of the most influential and wealthy men in southern California. Stearns held several political offices during his lifetime and even represented the district of Los Angeles as a delegate at the 1849 California Constitutional Convention in Monterey. It is in 1863, though, when Stearns played a direct role in Brea's history. In 1863, Stearns acquired thousands of acres of land in southern California that included future Brea territory, which he leased to various sheep herders over several decades. In the decades following, oil wells began popping up in Puente Hills, sparking the Union Oil Company's interest in the Brea area. Brea was, at the time, one of the world's most plentiful deposits of oil, so it was no wonder that the company saw potential in the Brea hills for oil development. So it was in 1894 that Don Abel Stearns sold 1,200 acres of land to the Union Oil Company, setting off an oil boom in the hills where Brea would eventually become a city.

Don Abel Stearns, businessman and cattle rancher


The Oil Boom and the 20th Century

It wasn't long before the Union Oil Company struck it rich with its first oil well, the Olinda Oil Well, which still pumps today. Soon the hills were filled with wooden oil towers and derricks. The success of the company's oil ventures in the hills set off an oil boom that allowed the community to grow in the quiet hills. The promise of wealth from striking it rich on oil attracted people from all over the country, along with businesses and small industries that hoped to profit off of the oil workers and their families. Thus, the little town of Olinda was born in Carbon Canyon. With the oil boom in full swing, the Ontario Investment Company saw an opportunity to build a profitable housing development for the oil community, and in 1908 the company filed a subdivision map for a town called Randolph. The original town was to be named after Epes Randolph, an engineer at the Pacific Electric Railway. In 1911, the town's name was changed to Brea, and in 1917, Brea became incorporated as the the 8th city of Orange County. The population was a mere 732 at the time, but today Brea has over 40,000 residents.



The 20th century brought many new opportunities for the small Brea community. In 1929, the Walter Johnson vs. Babe Ruth baseball game took place in none other than the Brea Bowl. Oil industries continued to dominate the economy in Brea for several decades until the oil boom declined in the 1940s. Brea also became a citrus region, and the Union Oil Company set aside land intended for future drilling as orchards for oranges, lemons, and avocados. The oil boom was over, and retail, business, and entertainment took Brea by storm. The 50s and 60s brought many new industries to Brea as people began to take advantage of the city's location in southern California. In 1956, Carl N. Karcher opened the first two Carl's Jr. restaurants, one of which was in Brea, and the other in Anaheim. In the 70s, the 57 freeway and Brea Mall were built, attracting people from surrounding cities to the community. The 90s brought Downtown Brea, offering various retail and entertainment locations on Birch Street.



Brea Today

Brea blossomed from a small oil town to a business-dominated city in the 20th century. Today, the city covers about 10 square miles and has over 40,000 residents in total. Brea prides itself on its family-oriented environment, with plenty of parks and recreational areas for the whole family to enjoy. The Brea Mall and Downtown Brea continue to attract visitors from surrounding cities, and with more and more housing developments breaking ground in Brea, the city continues to grow rapidly. Brea has changed quite a bit since the days of the oil boom, but it hasn't lost its history. The Olinda Oil Museum and Trail still has many remnants of Brea's oil history, with the original Olinda Oil Well still pumping to this day, and the Brea Museum and Historical Society are dedicated to preserving the city's history.


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