“True Community: Latter-day Saints in San Bernardino, 1851–1857,” Ensign, Feb. 2003, 36–45
In the fall of 1851, the San Bernardino Valley was transformed from a Mexican rancho into the largest predominantly Anglo-American settlement in the California southland with the arrival of some 400 Latter-day Saints. They possessed a unique commitment to their new community forged by persecution and pioneering challenges.1 Some had traveled across the plains with President Brigham Young. Others had come west around Cape Horn to San Francisco on the ship Brooklyn. Some were Mormon Battalion veterans, who had marched thousands of miles for God and country. The group also included an entire branch of Southern converts, some of whom had given up plantations and come west, bringing with them their African-American servants, including slaves who ultimately received their freedom. This diverse group of colonists, unified by their faith, was well suited to help establish a community where all were welcome and all worked together.
Prior to the arrival of the Saints in San Bernardino, the Mormon Battalion had helped to pave the way for the new colony. On 29 January 1847, the battalion had reached San Diego, completing its grueling desert march. Because the Mexican War had almost ended, battalion members were assigned peacekeeping duties. One company was given orders to build a makeshift fort at the mouth of the Cajon Pass near San Bernardino to guard the Mexican ranchos against attacks from thieves. Here they came in contact with the Lugo family, who owned the neighboring San Bernardino Rancho, where the Saints would eventually settle. Battalion members used furloughs to work on the Chino Rancho owned by Lugo son-in-law Isaac Williams. Williams, learning of the Church’s desire to colonize in the West, offered to sell his rancho to the Church. Captain Jefferson Hunt reported this as early as May 1847 in a letter to President Young, who was already considering a southern California colony. After mustering out of the army in July 1847, several former battalion members stayed behind and contracted with Isaac Williams to build a mill on his Chino Rancho.2
About this time, as Saints began arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, Church leaders saw an immediate need for grain, beef, and other supplies to support the growing population. Former battalion captain Jefferson Hunt urged them to consider making a supply trip to southern California. Leaders approved the idea, and Hunt, with a group of former battalion men, made the trip in 45 days, headquartering at the familiar Chino Rancho. They obtained cuttings, supplies, and 240 head of cattle, returning in February 1848. This was the first known cattle drive through the Cajon Pass of California to what is now Utah.3 Hunt later escorted gold-seeking ’49ers on this all-weather route to California, thus helping to forge a well-worn trail to the coast from the Salt Lake Valley.
In 1849 President Young assigned Elders Amasa M. Lyman and Charles C. Rich of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to travel throughout California to determine what kind of Church presence was feasible there. They concluded that the Chino Rancho, which Isaac Williams had offered to sell to the Church, was an ideal site for the settlement. Elder Rich met with Williams and then enthusiastically reported the agricultural and financial possibilities of the rancho to President Young.4 President Young soon requested that several families, including the Mississippi Company (see sidebar, p. 41), travel with Elders Lyman and Rich to colonize southern California.5
By the spring of 1851, 437 men, women, and children had gathered in Payson, Utah, ready to begin the journey. President Young came to bid farewell to the colonizers, expecting about 200 people, but many others had come who wanted to escape the harsh climate and poor economic conditions. His clerk noted that President Young was “sick at the sight of so many of the saints running off to California.”6 Disappointed, he left without addressing the travelers.
President Young instructed Elders Lyman and Rich that the settlement was to be a way station for missionaries and immigrants traveling to and from the Pacific Islands. He also wanted a “continuous line of stations and places of refreshment” between Salt Lake City and the Pacific coast as soon as possible.7 He counseled that the colony was to be self-reliant, to attempt to manufacture olive oil, to cultivate grapes, and to experiment with growing tea, sugar cane, and cotton.8
Andrew Lytle was elected captain of the wagon train, with Joseph Matthews and David Seeley as subordinate captains—each of these three directing 50 wagons. William Crosby, Sidney Tanner, Jefferson Hunt, Alfred Bybee, Robert Smith, Daniel Clark, Samuel Rolfe, Wellington Seeley, George Garner, and Elders Lyman, Rich, and Parley P. Pratt headed up 10 wagons each.9 They set out on 23 March 1851, a total of 150 wagons, 588 oxen, 336 cows, 21 young stock, 107 horses, and 52 mules.10 Three members of the Twelve, the Mississippi Company, 15 former Mormon Battalion men and their families, pioneers from Nauvoo, and even some seafaring San Francisco Saints were now bound together for a unique experience in fellowship and cooperation that would have a profound impact on the history of the West.
The harsh desert terrain and scarce water and feed made this one of the most difficult trips ever attempted by a wagon train. “It was certainly the hardest time I ever saw,” recorded Elder Parley P. Pratt near today’s Baker, California, “but we cried unto God and in the name of Jesus Christ asked Him to strengthen us and our teams, and He did so in a miraculous manner, and we were saved from the horrors of the desert.”11 Exhausted by the ordeal, men, women, children, and animals struggled along the sandy trail, forced to rest every few minutes. They could travel no faster, even though the life-restoring water of the Mojave River was just 14 miles away.
Despite the difficulty of the desert crossing, the company’s greatest challenge was still before them—the Cajon Pass through the San Bernardino Mountains. Fortunately, freighter William T. Sanford had established a new trail in the West Cajon Canyon. But the slope at the top was still very steep, and they had to lower the wagons down the short ridge with ropes or use snubbing posts to slow the descent. For a distance of 60 feet the entire company, including wagons and animals, slid down to the trail.
A few miles farther down the canyon, they found a perfect camping spot in a nearby grove of sycamores, with plenty of water and forage. Elders Lyman and Rich traveled to the Chino Rancho, where they learned that Williams had changed his mind and would not sell.12 After giving this disheartening news to the colonists, they set out to find another location where the Saints could settle. The group made good use of their three-month encampment. While they waited, they started a school under a large tree, where they also held Sunday meetings. The women hatched hundreds of baby chicks, and several families planted vegetables. They were pleasantly surprised when Spanish señoritas came selling such wares as prickly pear jam, which became a favorite among the pioneers.
Elders Lyman and Rich eventually decided that the best location for the settlement was the abandoned San Bernardino Rancho, which had plentiful water sources and a nearby timber supply. The Lugo family sold the 35,000 acres for $77,500, and on 1 October 1851, the pioneers became the first group of colonists to settle in Los Angeles County after California became a state. A building frenzy began, with 100 structures erected in two months.
Jefferson Hunt’s married daughter, Nancy Daley, later recalled her log cabin built at that time. The roof was thatched with brush and clay, and Nancy covered the dirt floor with mats and dry grass. The determined housewife also spread Chinese matting on top of the mats and grass and covered the rough inside walls and ceiling with cotton cloth brought from “the States.”
Just as the Saints completed these homes, news arrived of an imminent attack by renegade Indians gathering in the mountains from San Gorgonio in the south to Santa Barbara in the north. The pioneers used teams of oxen to drag the new homes into a row. This became the 700-foot-long west wall of a stockade, with 12-foot poles completing the exterior walls.
Preparations were almost complete when Juan Antonio, chief of the Cahuilla Indian tribe who had previously protected ranch property for the Lugo family, arrived in camp with good news. He assured the colonists that “he had all ways been the friend of the whites … and that he stood at all times ready to prove it by his actions.” He and 25 of his warriors captured the leader of the renegades and delivered him to federal authorities, saving the colony from possible tragedy.13 The 400 residents never needed the fort again, but because of their determination to pay off the rancho debt, they remained confined in that eight-acre enclosure for more than two years, pooling their resources and working community fields. The majority of the colonists placed a higher priority on the general good of the community than on private interests.
One outstanding example of this community spirit was the building of a logging road into the San Bernardino Mountains, a road that can still be seen today. Elder Lyman had determined a road was needed to establish a lumber industry for the colony. When he requested manpower, 100 men, including African-American Grief Embers (known for assembling the Saints by blowing the “bishop’s horn”) and a number of Native Americans, volunteered. They worked an estimated 1,000 man-days to complete the engineering feat.
David and Wellington Seeley built sawmills to provide lumber for Los Angeles and nearby areas, where boards were called “Mormon banknotes.”14 Several hundred buildings went up in 1854–56 in Los Angeles alone, nearly all of them constructed with lumber cut and milled by Latter-day Saint colonists. The Saints, though, built their homes of adobe to save the precious lumber to sell.15
The new community was ethnically diverse. In addition to the LDS pioneers of European descent, there were African-Americans, including colony midwives Biddy Mason and Hannah Smith, who was noted for her daring rides on horseback in the middle of the night to “catch babies.” Local Cahuilla and Serrano Indians also frequented the settlement, and some worked in the fields. Former Mexican governor Pio Pico and other rancho families attended colony celebrations. Pico recorded that he considered Elders Lyman and Rich his personal friends.
Several Jewish merchants were also part of the colony. As early as 1852, Marcus Katz had a mercantile inside the fort. Jewish pioneer Jacob Rich traveled with a Latter-day Saint wagon train, bringing the first Torah into the San Bernardino Valley. This Torah rests at Temple Emanu El in San Bernardino still today.16 Polynesians and Australians who had been taught the gospel by LDS missionary Addison Pratt also immigrated to the melting pot of San Bernardino. When the colonists celebrated a successful harvest in 1852, several hundred people gathered for singing, speeches, and dancing. Tables were filled with food, and there were so many present that they had to feast in shifts. Colony clerk Richard Hopkins noted that various races—“white, black, and red”—mingled without distinction.17 The community thus helped fulfill Nephi’s declaration that God “inviteth … all to come unto him … , black and white, bond and free, … and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”18
In 1853 Elders Lyman and Rich engaged H. G. Sherwood to plan San Bernardino as he had Salt Lake City.19 Streets with names like “Nauvoo” and “Kirtland” were wide enough for wagons with teams to turn completely around. A center lot for a temple was also designated, although it was never used for that purpose. The residents of the fort now moved to their own lots and began diverse enterprises. San Bernardino was incorporated in 1854, and Elder Lyman became the first mayor.
The innovative Jefferson Hunt, who contracted to deliver mail between southern California and Utah, improved a wagon road west to Cucamonga, a part of Base Line Road today. Also in 1853, Hunt was elected as a representative to the state legislature and there presented a petition to divide San Bernardino from Los Angeles County. The act passed that year, and Hunt was made the representative of the new county. Hunt also successfully introduced a bill to construct a road from San Pedro Harbor through the Cajon Pass toward Utah. The harbor had become important to the Church as “the permanent depot for the territory of Utah … with emigrants and merchandise.”20
After colony land was divided and sold for private use in 1853, some settlers went outside to homestead unclaimed acreage. When it was discovered they were still on colony land, disputes arose that alienated several families. As tensions increased, hopes for a peaceable community began to dissipate.
In 1857, when a federal army threatened to invade Utah, President Young requested that colonists from outlying areas return to Utah to help deal with the crisis. The San Bernardino clerk recorded that the colonists received word on 30 October to return and that the first wagons left on 3 November. The last entry in the clerk’s journal reads, “December 15 Left San Bernardino for Utah.”21 At least two-thirds of the 3,000 Saints in the San Bernardino colony abandoned, or sold for pennies on the dollar, the property they had acquired through years of sacrifice.
Clearly, these early pioneers made some of the most significant contributions in California history. The men of the Mormon Battalion not only blazed the Mormon-Carson Emigrant Trail in northern California, but also served as catalysts to the colonization of southern California. Subsequently, San Bernardino became the economic center of early California life. Production in colony fields exceeded that of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego fields combined.22 Development of a major irrigation system and related technology garnered more profit for California than the discovery of gold.23 The colony lumber industry fueled the development of the Los Angeles basin. Pioneer wheat fields and gristmills provided fresh flour for all of southern California. Pioneer children helped churn thousands of pounds of butter a year to sell.24
The more significant but less tangible aspect of the economic success of early San Bernardino was the colonists’ belief in the brotherhood of man, which allowed the spirit of true community to thrive. A Jewish historian captured the essence of the Saints’ interaction with the various cultures: “Friendly relations always existed between Mormons and Jews. Wherever Mormon influence prevailed race prejudice was notably absent. The spirit of good will and cooperation between Mormon and Jew left its impress in the development of the city and county.”25
Today, descendants of the early African-American pioneers and Native Americans from the Serrano and Cahuilla tribes also recount stories of good will between their forefathers and the Latter-day Saint pioneers.26 The enduring strength of such family traditions is a testament to the community spirit of the San Bernardino colony. Perhaps Mary Ann Phelps Rich, wife of Elder Charles Rich, best described the sense of community when she wrote that the colony residents “worked almost as one family, they were so united.”27 Historian Edward Leo Lyman, great-great-grandson of Elder Lyman, noted that “few instances in the history of the American West would have better exemplified true community spirit and enterprise than San Bernardino at that time.”28