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History of San Bernardino

Many influences, many cultures and many decades have gone into the making of San Bernardino—now a modern, city. It has that indescribable air of a city which has known stirring days. San Bernardino’s colorful history begins in the early years of the 19th century. Spanish missionaries were the first settlers to the region. They chose the fertile valley at the foot of a majestic mountain range as an outpost for other missionaries who traveled throughout the California territory preaching to the various Indian tribes.

While Juan Bautista headed the first party of white men to enter San Bernardino County at any point, to Father Francisco Hamenglido Garces belongs the honor of being the first white man to enter the San Bernardino Valley in the vicinity of San Bernardino. Father Garces had accompanied the De Anza expedition in 1774, when it crossed the Colorado River near Yuma and made its way through the mountains south of Mt. San Jacinto, proceeding on to the old site of the San Gabriel Mission.

Probably as a part of the general movement of the missionaries to establish themselves in the interior valleys, Padre Dumetz of the San Gabriel Mission founded a Capilla at the Guachama Rancho, known to us as Old San Bernardino, on May 20, 1810. This being the feast day of St. Bernardine de Sienna, the Capilla was named for the saint. The main concern of the missionaries was the spiritual welfare of the Indians, but they also took a part in their material well being, showing their peaceful friends how to bring water down from Mill creek and the best ways to plant and irrigate crops. As the mission flourished, so did the Indians. However, all missions were ordered closed by decree of California’s Governor Figeroa in 1834 and the mission period came to an end.

But with its demise came the birth of the Great Spanish rancheros. The abandoned mission didn’t stay vacant for long and soon became an important post on the trading route known as the Spanish Trail. Pioneer trailblazers like Kit Carson (1839) and Jedediah Strong (1826), among others, spent a good deal of time in the valley during those years. Beautiful haciendas were built to house the Spanish landowners.

From 1833 to about 1848, the new Mexican caravans plied their trade between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, bringing woolen goods, blankets, serapes, etc., to California and returning with horses and mules from our ranches and silks from the Orient. They varied and shortened the route across the desert followed by Father Garces and Cajon Pass gradually came into use. A grant of the San Bernardino Rancho, consisting of about 40,000 acres, was issued to the three Lugo sons and Diego Sepulveda on June 21, 1842. They were leaders in attempts to protect the ranches of the interior valleys from the raids of the Indians and bandits.

The biggest threat to the happy life on the ranchos was the horse and cattle-stealing raids made by tribes of desert Indians. Walker, a Utah Indian, sent raiding parties over the Indian Trail in the valleys of California so frequently that the route was dubbed “Walker’s Trail”. Usually made during the full moon, these attacks could wipe out a rancho’s entire herd and many rancheros eventually gave up and moved out of the area.

The stealing continued, however, until a company of nearly 500 Mormons arrived in the valley in 1851, making camp at the mouth of a creek which flowed briskly through the valley to the Santa Ana River. Overjoyed with the abundance of water the dense growth of willows, cottonwoods, and sycamores and the mustard and wild oats that grew on the hillsides, the followers named the stream “Lytle Creek” after their leader, Captain Andrew Lytle.

April 12, 1848 a group of soldiers from the Mormon Battalion was returning to Salt Lake via the Cajon Pass and Spanish Trail, taking with them the first wagon to make the trip. The following year Captain Jefferson Hunt, who had served with the Mormon Battalion for one period of enlistment and who was familiar with the route over which the wagon had been taken, left Salt Lake City as a guide for a caravan of 100 wagons. Captain Hunt guided his section of the caravan safely into California although the wagons had to be taken apart and packed through the rougher section of the Cajon Pass.

Captain Hunt was very interested in the idea of establishing a Mormon settlement in Southern California and upon his return to Salt Lake City in 1850 began agitating the question of establishing such a colony. In March 1851 a party of 500 emigrants, with their horses, cattle, etc., left Salt Lake City for the San Bernardino Valley. The present site of San Bernardino was selected as a place of permanent settlement due to the abundance of grass and water for the stock. Negotiations were opened with the Lugos for the purchase of the San Bernardino Rancho. The religious pioneers purchased the 40,000-acre SB Rancho in 1852, for $77,000, with a down payment of $7,000. Having heard tales about the Indian attacks, the Mormons quickly built one of the most elaborate fortification attempts in Southern California on the site of the present Court House—patterned very much after that at Salt Lake city, and named it Fort San Bernardino. The families lived inside the stockade for the first few years, growing wheat and other crops outside and building a grain mill inside. But since the Mormons weren’t raising cattle or horses, the desert Indians were no longer a threat and soon families were able to move out and build their own homes.

In the fall of 1852, Colonel Henry Washington, a United States deputy surveyor, erected a monument on top of Mount San Bernardino and through it ran the base line from which surveys in the southern part of the state were, and are still made. The community thrived and in 1854 the City of San Bernardino was officially incorporated. Population at the time was 1,200 – 900 of them Mormons. San Bernardino was strictly a temperance town, with no drinking or gambling allowed. In 1857 Brigham Young recalled his Mormons to Salt Lake City. Some went, taking great financial losses, while others opted to remain and struggled to continue on their own. In the six short years that the Mormons followed their mission at San Bernardino Rancho, they made numerous achievements, establishing schools, stores, a network of roads and a strong government.

Gold was discovered in Holcomb Valley in 1862 and men poured into the mountains through SB to try their luck at panning. For a time Belleville, in Holcomb Valley, was the largest city in Southern California with 10,000 residents, and it almost became the county seat, losing to San Bernardino by only one vote. Times were rough and hard, just like the men who came in search of instant wealth, and numerous internal problems plagued the God-fearing settlers. The community survived and both the library and temperance associations were created at this time.

As the last years of the 19th century waned, the giant railway companies eventually found their way to SB, changing it from a sleepy town into an enterprising city. The Santa Fe, the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads all converged on the city, making it the hub of their Southern California operations. Competition between the railroads set off a rate war, which brought thousands of newcomers to California in the great land boom of the 1880’s. When the Santa Fe Railway established a transcontinental link in 1886, the already prosperous valley exploded. Even more settlers flocked from the East and population figures doubled, from 6,150 in 1900 to 12,779 in 1910, the year that the San Bernardino Chamber of Commerce was first organized.

A well-known landmark of the San Bernardino Valley is the arrowhead that sits high on the mountainside. Clearly visible since long before the white man came; the figure has many legends concerning its origin. The Indians, well aware of the medicinal value of the Hot Springs, often gathered there to bathe. The Mormons called the mark the "Ace of Spades". Measuring 1,360 feet long and 450 feet wide, the arrowhead is visible from as far away as 30 miles on a clear day. Although it was commonly believed at one time that the Indians had made the arrowhead to mark the location of the hot springs, geologists now say that it is a natural phenomenon, a natural uplifting of the soil.

As the years went by, San Bernardino floundered and flourished with growing pains, just as all communities do. The good times went hand-in-hand with the bad times. Today, of course, San Bernardino has grown into a civilized, urban center – a modern community with a bright future. The enduring spirit and vitality of yesterday’s pioneers is still evident and is reflected in the pride of the community.



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San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce
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