The Spirit of True Community – The Story of the Southern California Pioneers
by Marilyn Mills
When Spanish explorers first came to the fertile San Bernardino Valley in the 1700’s, they discovered peaceful populations from the Serrano and Cahuilla tribes living there. Spanish exploration of Southern California continued and by 1819 an outpost of the San Gabriel Mission was built. The padres commissioned the first irrigation ditch engineered and built by the local tribesmen which became a lasting contribution to valley farming. The adobe structure built by the padres remains today. It is called the Asistencia and is located on Barton Road in Redlands.
When Mexico won independence from Spain, the missions were abandoned by the padres and California ranchers were able to obtain land grants from the new government for vast amounts of land. Los Angeles area rancher, Antonio Maria Lugo was awarded the 35,000 acre Rancho San Bernardino and also secured the Rancho del Chino for his daughter and son-in-law, former mountain man, Isaac Williams. The Upper California was loosely governed by Mexico and the rancho owners became the center of commerce and activity throughout California.
In 1846, when war with Mexico was declared, the US government initiated its plan of Manifest Destiny which would secure the Upper California for the United States which included all of California as we know it today. It sent an army to secure Southern California. To reinforce this army, President Polk recruited a battalion of 500 men who had been traveling west with their families under the leadership of Brigham Young.
Young was the prophet and president of a relatively new Church established in 1833 by the Prophet Joseph Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nick-named Mormons. Due to religious intolerance, Joseph Smith was murdered and the Mormons were driven from their homes by force. Young was sustained as the Church’s new leader and began to move his members to a place outside the US borders.
While camped at Council Bluffs, Iowa, in July of 1846, US Army Captain James Allen, representing President James Polk, recruited into the Army, 500 of the men traveling with President Young. 35 women with their 45 children decided to accompany their husbands for the march to San Diego. Twenty of the women enlisted as laundresses, four of whom made it all the way to California.
On January 29, 1847, after completing what most likely was the longest infantry march in history, the Battalion reached San Diego after carving what would become the road for the Butterfield Stage line opening California to commerce and travel. Because the Mexican-American War was at an end, Battalion members were assigned peacekeeping duties throughout Southern California.
Company B remained in San Diego for the remainder of their enlistment. Four companies were sent to Los Angeles to build Fort Moore. A detachment from Company C was dispatched to guard the Cajon Pass just north of the San Bernardino Valley to protect the nearby Lugo Rancho. There, they made friends with the Lugo Family. On furloughs, Captain Jefferson Hunt and others of the Battalion, worked on the Chino Rancho for Isaac Williams. After mustering out of the Army, some of the veterans contracted to build a grist mill for Williams.
Their service and friendship to the Lugo family, helped to pave the way for a new colony of pioneers that would eventually purchase and settle on the Lugo Rancho in 1851. Hunt had discussed with Williams the desire of Brigham Young to colonize in the West. Williams made an offer to sell his rancho to The Church. Captain Hunt reported this offer in May 1847 in a letter to President Young.
After mustering out of the Army, many of the Battalion men went north to work for John Sutter, six of whom built the saw mill for Sutter and James Marshall and participated in Marshall’s discovery of gold there. They soon left the gold for something more precious to them—they set out to rejoin their families which they left back on the prairie. As they left, they carved the first wagon road over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, now known as the Mormon Emigrant Trail.
Not long after his arrival in Utah, Jefferson Hunt learned that Mormon Church leaders had an immediate need for grain, beef, and other supplies to support the growing population in the Salt Lake Valley. Hunt considered making a trip to Southern California where these supplies could be obtained. . The Church leaders approved of his idea, and Hunt, with a group of former Battalion men, made the trip in 45 days, headquartering at the familiar Chino Rancho. They obtained from Williams, seeds, cuttings, supplies and 240 head of cattle, returning to Utah in February 1848. This was the first known cattle drive through the Cajon Pass of California to what is now the State of Utah. Hunt later led gold-seeking ‘49ers on this new all-weather route between Utah and Southern California, thus helping to forge a well-worn trail to the coast.
Brigham Young saw Southern California as a source of supply for Utah. He also wanted to establish a mail route as well as a way-station between Utah and San Pedro Harbor as a rest stop for missionaries and immigrants. Young accepted Williams’ offer to sell the Chino Rancho. Some twenty families were asked by President Young to move from Utah to settle on to the Rancho. Some of these pioneer families came originally from Mississippi with their former slaves and had already made the trek across the plains to Utah in Young’s vanguard company. Now they would form a new wagon train to colonize the San Bernardino Valley. Also with these colonizers were fifteen former Battalion men and their families including trail-blazer, Jefferson Hunt. The wagon trek and colonization was to be under the under the direction of two Mormon church leaders, Elder Amasa Lyman and Elder Charles C. Rich, representing President Young. A third church leader, Elder Parley P. Pratt and a group of out-bound missionaries also joined the company.
President Young instructed Lyman and Rich that the settlement was to be self-reliant, to attempt to manufacture olive oil, to cultivate grapes, and to experiment with growing tea, sugar cane and cotton.
Battalion veteran, 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 Pratt headed up 10 wagons each. They set out on 23 March 1851, a total of 150 wagons with 437 people, 588 oxen, 336 cows, 21 young stock, 107 horses, and 52 mules.
Three Mormon Apostles, the Mississippi Company with former slaves, 15 former Mormon Battalion men and their families, pioneers from Nauvoo, and even some seafaring pioneers who had come to Utah by way of the New York Harbor to San Francisco Harbor 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 the most difficult trek 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. 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. Sometimes they would travel all day and all night.
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 wrapped around a tree trunk (called a snubbing post) 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 further down the canyon, they found a perfect camping spot in a nearby grove of sycamores, with plenty of water and forage. Today it is known as Glen Helen Regional Park. Elders Lyman and Rich traveled on to the Chino Rancho, where they learned that Williams had changed his mind and would not sell. After giving this disheartening news to the colonists, they made efforts to find another location where the pioneers could settle.
The pioneers made good use of their encampment. During their three-month wait, they started a school under a large tree, where they also held Sunday school. The women, who had brought chickens on the trek, hatched hundreds of baby chicks, and several families planted vegetables, including potatoes. They were pleasantly surprised when Spanish señoritas came selling such wares as prickly pear jam, which became a favorite among the pioneers.
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 October 1, 1851, the pioneers moved onto the rancho and became the first group of colonists to settle in Southern California 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. This 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 pioneers 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 log homes into a row to form part of the 700-foot-long west wall of a stockade, with 12-foot poles placed upright completing the exterior walls. This was the largest log fort ever built in California. The fort was 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 over 400 residents never needed the fort again, but because of their determination to pay off the rancho debt of $77,500.00, they remained confined in that eight-acre enclosure for more than two years, pooling their resources and working community fields. These events were the beginning of the colony legacy of cooperation that remains today one of the best examples of true community spirit in the early history of the American West. 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 in the building of a logging road into the San Bernardino Mountains, a road that can still be seen today. Amasa Lyman had determined that 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 pioneers by blowing the “bishop’s horn”) and a number of Native Americans, volunteered. They worked to complete the engineering feat in a mere 10 days.
David and Wellington Seeley built sawmills to provide lumber for Pueblo de Los Angeles and nearby areas. Several hundred buildings went up in 1854–56 in Los Angeles alone, nearly all of them constructed with lumber cut and milled by the San Bernardino colonists. The milled lumber played such an important role in the building development of the Los Angeles basin, that the boards were called “Mormon banknotes” and used at times in place of money. The pioneers, though, built their homes of adobe to save the precious lumber to sell.
Subsequently, San Bernardino, through united efforts, became the agricultural and economic center of Southern California. Mormon agricultural fields out-produced Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara fields combined.
In 1853, fort residents moved on to their own properties and began diverse enterprises. Plans were underway to establish a city. After a government surveyor laid out the baseline and meridian for southern California using the pioneer fort as a reference point, Lyman and Rich engaged H.G. Sherwood, who had laid out Salt Lake City, to use the same pattern for San Bernardino. Wide streets, that can still be seen today, allowed wagon teams to fully turn around. (3rd St. San Bernardino 1860 pic) The innovative Jefferson Hunt used the new base line survey and developed one of two pioneer wagon roads west to Cucamonga, a part of Baseline Road today. The other road was Foothill Boulevard which runs from San Bernardino to Los Angeles which is part of Route 66 today.
Also in 1853, Jefferson Hunt was elected as one of two members to represent Los Angeles County in the State Legislature and there presented a petition to create San Bernardino from Los Angeles County. The act was passed in April and Hunt was elected to represent the new county to the state legislature in Sacramento. During his term he successfully introduced a bill to construct a road from San Pedro Harbor through the Cajon Pass towards Utah. The harbor had become “the permanent depot for the territory of Utah…with emigrants and merchandise.” An area of the harbor was names after the pioneers and called Mormon Island.
In 1854, the first stage line was developed with service between San Bernardino and Los Angeles. On April 13, San Bernardino City was incorporated as the county seat and Amasa Lyman was elected the first mayor.
The more significant, but less tangible aspect of the economic success of early San Bernardino, was the colonists’ belief in the brotherhood of man, erasing ethnic barriers, which allowed the spirit of true community to thrive.
The new community from the beginning was ethnically diverse. In addition to the Mormon pioneers of European descent, there were about two dozen African-American pioneers including colony midwives Biddy Mason and Hannah Smith. Hannah 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. Some sold their wares including leather belts and some were hired to work in the fields. Pioneer Caroline Crosby recorded in her journal that the Native Americans she had hired were some of the best workers she had ever seen. Today, descendants of the early Indians recount family stories of good will between their forefathers and the Mormon pioneers that have been handed down for generations. The enduring strength of such family traditions is a testament to the community spirit of the San Bernardino colony.
Former Mexican governor Pio Pico and other rancho families attended colony celebrations. Pico and other former Mexican government dignitaries were treated as honored guests. Pico recorded in his memoirs 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. Louis Jacobs also started a mercantile and eventually established the first bank. Jewish pioneer Jacob Rich traveled with a Mormon wagon train, bringing the first Torah into the San Bernardino Valley. This Torah rests at Temple Emanu El in San Bernardino still today.
A Jewish historian captured the essence of the pioneers’ interaction with the various cultures: “Every historian testifies to the industry, thrift and high moral character of the early Mormon settlers. It is well known that 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.”
Many Polynesians and Australians who had been converted to the Mormon faith through the missionary work of 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.
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.” Historian Edward Leo Lyman, great-great-grandson of Elder Amasa 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.”
Meanwhile, the Mormon pioneers who remained in Utah were still suffering the effects of religious persecution. Based on unfounded rumors, a federal army under the command of General Albert Sydney Johnston was threatening to invade the Territory of Utah and impose martial law. In late 1857, President Brigham Young sent letters to outlying Mormon colonies requesting that colonists return to Utah to help deal with the crisis. The San Bernardino clerk recorded that the colonists received word on October 30 to return and that the first wagons left on November 3. The last entry in the clerk’s journal reads, “December 15 Left San Bernardino for Utah.” At least two-thirds of the 3,000 Mormon pioneers 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 and US history:
The men of the Mormon Battalion during their 2,000 mile march to the coast, carved the wagon road that would become the route of the Butterfield Stage line and subsequently the route for the Southern Pacific Railroad; the land for the Gadsden Purchase was selected using maps and the route made by the Battalion thus opening the great southwest for travel and commerce; they participated in Marshall’s discovery of gold as they built the sawmill for Sutter; leaving the gold behind to rejoin their families, they carved the wagon road that would become the ‘49er Highway and opened Northern California to the Gold Rush (50,000 wagons and 200,000 people used this trail); Battalion veterans were the catalysts for the colonization of Southern California as they led the first colonists to the Southland after statehood; the veterans also developed an all-weather route between Utah and Southern California and other major roads as well.
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; development of a major irrigation system and related technology by Mormon pioneers garnered more profit for California than did the discovery of gold; 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. Subsequently, the San Bernardino Valley was transformed from a Mexican rancho into the first, and for most of a decade, the largest Anglo-American settlement in Southern California.
During this period of rapid development these trail blazers and pioneers ushered the region into the mainstream of US economic enterprise and citizenship. They helped California transition into the “Golden State” through agriculture, road building, mining and timber and brought it into the national and international spotlight.
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