By Mark Gutglueck
One of the more quarrelsome figures in San Bernardino County history was Captain David Seely, a founder of the county who was also its first treasurer and later a member of and chairman of the board of supervisors..
David Seely was born October 12, 1819 in Whitby Township, Ontario, Canada, one mile from Fort Whitby.
Up to the age of 18, he was raised on a farm, occasionally traveling with his father, who owned three sailing vessels.
In 1837, at the start of the Canadian Patriot War, in which thousands of Canadians sought to gain independence from Great Britain, the Canadian authorities demolished one of the ships he and his father owned to prevent hostile action. Both father and son were suspected of being sympathizers to the rebel cause.
As a consequence, David fled Canada. He next surfaced near Burlington in the territory of Iowa. Shortly thereafter he relocated to Nashville in the Iowa territory, a place that has since been renamed. This was south of Burlington on the Mississippi River. Seely constructed two 100-ton barges to be used in transferring freight from river steamers over the Des Moines Rapids. He worked as a pilot for three years.
In February 1846, Seely married Mary Pettit of Hempstead, Long Island.
In July 1846 he set off for California and wintered at Council Bluffs at a place now called Seely’s Grove. He attached himself to a large party of Mormons, arriving in Salt Lake City in September. He stayed in Salt Lake City for 14 months, departing in November 1849, travelling with Pomercy’s train via the southern route to the gold fields of California. He was thus one of the last arriving true 49ers who migrated to the Golden State before it was a state in an effort to enrich himself by mining for treasure. On the way the party picked up nine survivors, disoriented travelers found bare footed and near starvation in Death Valley.
Seely reached San Bernardino in February 1850, remaining there for two months. He moved on to Los Angeles, where he sold what possessions he had and booked passage on a brig found for San Francisco. Once in the Bay Area, he headed out to Coloma, arriving there on April 6. He hooked up with his brother and brother-in-law in a gold mining operation in which they were, historians tell us “reasonably successful.”
On August 14, 1850 he returned to Salt Lake City by way of Humbolt. He wintered in Salt Lake City and then embarked for Southern California again, this time as the captain of a train of fifty wagons.
Another fifty wagons were under the supervision of Charles Rich, Amasa Lyman and Andrew Lytle, who were all destined to be leading figures in the soon-to-be-founded San Bernardino community. The travelers were being guided by Captain Jefferson Hunt.
On the way across the desert, the wagon trains had to be divided into smaller groups on account of the scarcity of water and forage. Seely’s Party arrived at Sycamore Grove, now known as Glen Helen Ranch, at the base of the Cajon Pass on June 11, 1851. The other parties arrived a few days later and all remained on the banks of the creek that was subsequently named after Captain Lytle. After Lyman and Rich arranged to purchase the San Bernardino Rancho from the Lugo Family, the newly arrived Mormon pioneers departed from Sycamore Grove into San Bernardino Valley in September 1851. They began cultivating farms at once, raising wheat to obtain money to make good on their debt from the Rancho San Bernardino purchase.
Out of necessity, they constructed a fort to protect themselves from the native Paiutes, some of whom were inhospitable and others of whom were outright hostile. This group of settlers displayed a remarkable degree of industriousness, beginning construction of homes and buildings to house tradesmen and other professionals. To obtain lumber for construction, they cut a wagon trail to the top of the mountain, following West Twin Creek, down which could be hauled the lumber for the fort and the homes and other structures of early San Bernardino. Pine trees were dragged behind the wagons to serve as brakes down the steep descent and prevent the heavily loaded wagons from overtaking the oxen pulling them.
Together with his older brother Wellington, David Seely built a sawmill, with a waterwheel as the means of power, and furnished lumber to the new settlement. The place became known as “Seely Flat” and the stream “Seely Creek.”
The California Legislature on April 26, 1853 passed the act creating the county of San Bernardino from a portion of Los Angeles County. In the same act, David Seely, John Brown, Isaac Williams and H.G. Sherwood were designated as a board of commissioners to select precincts, appoint inspectors for elections, gather returns and issue certificates of election. The first election was held in compliance with this act and certificates of election were issued to Captain Jefferson Hunt for the legislature, D.N. Thomas for county judge, Ellis Ames for county attorney, Richard R. Hopkins for county clerk, Robert Clift for Sheriff, David Seely for treasurer, William Stout for county assessor, H.G. Sherwood for surveyor and John Brown and Andrew Lytle for justices of the peace. At the next election David Seely was returned to the office of treasurer, demonstrating the confidence accorded to him among his peers.
In June of 1855, Seely was severely censured and relieved as “stake president” for nearly killing a Jewish merchant with a heavy stick in an argument over conflicts with a Jewish-owned lumber mill just upstream from his mill on Seely Creek. In 1857, Seely answered Mormon Leader Brigham Young’s call to return to Salt Lake City to defend the center of Mormon Civilization from President James Buchanan’s threat of war against the Church, its members and its polygamist ways. Seely took his oldest son with him but left his wife and younger children behind in San Bernardino.
Seely made known his intention of returning to San Bernardino at the earliest opportunity, thereby incurring the wrath of Young and other Mormon leaders. He subsequently became embroiled in a dispute over non-payment for some merchandise he had brought from California for sale. He was accused of charging exorbitant prices and ordere to “clear out.” He returned to San Bernardino and resumed operation of his sawmill. He accumulated a considerable degree of wealth by 1860.
In 1869 he was elected to the first of two two-year terms on the board of supervisors, representing the Second District. In 1871, he was chosen as board chairman. He was a prime mover in the effort to build the San Bernardino Courthouse and Pavilion, as well as the construction of the free public road to the mountains.
He was active in the organization of the San Bernardino Society of California Pioneers.
Captain Seely died in San Bernardino on May 24, 1892, surrounded by his family at his home on 6th and C streets, leaving his widow, Mary Seely, and four daughters, Mrs. Abrilla Satterwhite, Mrs. Emma Baker, Mrs. Maria Isabella Corbett and Mrs. Caroline Barton, wife of John H. Barton; and two sons, David Randolph Seely and Walter Edwin Seely.
By Mark Gutglueck