By Mark Gutglueck
Jefferson Hunt has a legitimate claim to being the father of San Bernardino County. As an officer in the Mormon Battalion, he traveled to California before it was a state. A few years later he was an original pioneer of the Mormon settlement at San Bernardino. He twice led parties from Salt Lake to California by way of the southern route through the Cajon Pass and was at one time the American most thoroughly acquainted with the area in and around San Bernardino County and its inhabitants.
Hunt was born in Kentucky in 1805. He married Miss Celia Mount, and in 1835, he and his wife were baptized into the Mormon church by Sidney Rigdon. They had moved to Missouri and Jefferson Hunt at once took an active part in the church, becoming an elder and being employed by Joseph Smith, both in the religious and secular affairs of the community. He was a prosperous farmer and businessman during his stay in Missouri, and when the call from Brigham Young came to move westward, he was able to equip his own family comfortably and also to aid many of the less fortunate Mormon brethren in their outfitting.
Hunt was an officer of the Mormon Battalion, in which capacity he had first become familiar with the advantages of Southern California.
The Mormon Battalion was the only religiously based unit in United States military history, and served from July 1846 to July 1847 during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. The battalion was a volunteer unit of at least 534 and perhaps as many as 559 Latter-day Saints men led by Mormon company officers, who included Hunt, and commanded by regular US army officers. During its service, the battalion made a grueling march of nearly 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego.
The battalion’s march and service proved instrumental in helping the United States secure much of the American Southwest, and opened a southern wagon route to California. When the Mormon Battalion was mustered into volunteer service on 16 July 1846 as part of the Army of the West, Hunt and two of his sons, Gilbert and Marshall, were among the first to enlist. The battalion arrived at Fort Leavenworth on 1 August 1846 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Allen. Allen ordered the battalion forward along the Santa Fe Trail, but on 23 August, Allen died. Captain Jefferson Hunt at that point took command of A Company, serving as acting commander until he was relieved by a regular U.S. Army officer dispatched from Council Grove, Kansas in response to a message that Allen had died.
The Mormon Battalion arrived in Santa Fe in October. On 16 December 1846, the battalion engaged with a small detachment of provisional Mexican soldiers in the Battle of Tucson. Thereafter, the Mexicans retreated and Tucson fell to the Americans. The battalion continued westward, crossing into California. On its sojourn to its southwestern terminus in San Diego, the Battalion passed through Temecula, in the aftermath of the Temecula Massacre, a conflict between the Californios and the Luiseño tribe. The Mormons stood guard to prevent further slaughter while the Luiseños gathered their dead and interred them into a communal grave.
The Mormon Battalion arrived in San Diego on 29 January 1847, having covered more than 1,900 miles since departing Iowa. In California the battalion carried out occupation duties for five months, and was ultimately discharged on 16 July 1847 in Los Angeles.
When the company was discharged, Hunt and his sons went north to the gold fields near Colima. They were very successful in their mining operations, and when they went on to Salt lake City, they carried a considerable amount of gold dust with them. Here Captain Hunt found his family, which he had left at Santa Fe in 1846, when the battalion started for California. They had come on to Salt Lake City with the other Mormons and were now in almost destitute circumstances. Very soon after his return, Captain Hunt organized a party to return to California by a new Indian trail which had not been hitherto traveled by white men. This led southward and through the Cajon Pass. He purchased 300 head of cattle from the Lugos at San Bernardino Valley, and bought horses at Puente and supplies in Los Angeles; then returned to Salt Lake by the northern route.
In 1849, Captain Hunt, together with Mormon Missionary Addison Pratt, blazed a route from Salt Lake City southward through present-day Las Vegas and San Bernardino, and then northward to Sacramento. The trail they carved would be followed by many settlers and Forty-niners. For much of its distance, that route is now traced by the I-15 Freeway.
The Hunt and Pratt Party discovered gold and silver in Southern Nevada, sending back to Brigham Young a recommendation that Southern Nevada, including Las Vegas specifically, be colonized. Accompanying the Hunt and Pratt Party were a group of pioneers from the Eastern United States, later identified as the infamous Death Valley Party. Many of them became impatient with the slow progress of the Mormon leadership, as Hunt insisted that they collectively travel only as fast as the slowest wagon. They chose to set out on their own from the larger group. After these malcontents split with Pratt’s and Hunt’s leadership, they tried to cross the Sierras farther north. They encountered great difficulty on their own, eventually arriving at Death Valley, narrowly avoiding death. Those remaining with Hunt made the sojourn safely and without serious incident. Later, some members of the Death Valley party rejected their new leaders and rejoined the Hunt party after one of Hunt’s scouts discovered them nearly starved to death.
In 1851, as he was transiting through Iron County as elections were being held, Hunt was prevailed upon to stay just long enough to be elected to the Utah Territorial Legislature, even though he was not an actual resident of Iron County. He served only a brief time in that capacity. That same year, Hunt was called upon by Brigham Young to help create a Mormon colony in San Bernardino. He served as the principal guide of the Mormon colony and assisted Amasa Lyman and Charles Rich in their prospecting for a permanent place of residence for its members. He took a prominent part in the building of their fort in San Bernardino, and was the leader of their military organization. Under his direction the road through Twin Creek Canyon to the timber district was constructed and he was one of the first to engage in the lumber industry. In 1852 he was chosen as assemblyman for Los Angeles County, which then included the expanse that later became San Bernardino County, and it was he who presented the bill for the formation of San Bernardino County. He represented San Bernardino County in the legislature from the time of its organization until his departure in 1857.
A Democrat, Hunt in 1855 was commissioned as a brigadier general in the state militia by Governor John Bigler.
Soon after coming to San Bernardino, he secured a contract for carrying the mail from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via San Bernardino and he held important mail contracts throughout his stay in the state.
According to San Bernardino County’s foremost historian, Luther Ingersoll, “Captain Hunt was a man of strong character. Deeply pious by nature, he believed with all his heart in the divine revelation of the Mormon doctrines, although he found many of them a sore trial to his faith. Energetic, clear-sighted and indomitable in will, he was especially fitted for the leadership which he always acquired, in whatever position he was placed, Generous to a fault, his home was always open to the less fortunate brethren, and he gave a helping hand to many a needy man, Saint [i.e., Mormon] and Gentile [i.e., non-Mormon] alike, for he was above petty distinctions. He deserves a large place in the memory of the citizens of San Bernadino, for he filled a large place in the early and vital events of the history of the town and of the county.”
After his return with the Mormons to Salt Lake in 1858, Captain Hunt took a mail contract from Salt Lake to Humboldt. He also took up land in Utah and later secured a large ranch in Idaho. In 1860 he founded Hunsville a flourishing agricultural settlement near Ogden, Utah. He died at Oxford, Idaho in the spring of 1866.
Mrs. Hunt survived him and died in 1897 at the home of her daughter Mrs. Sheldon Stoddard, in San Bernardino. Captain Hunt had eleven children, of whom four were yet living in 1904: Mrs. Nancy Daley, widow of Edward Day, and Mrs. Harriet Mayfield, of San Bernardino, as well as his sons and John and Gilbert of Arizona. Three daughters, Mrs. Nancy Daley, Mrs. Harriet Mayfield and Mrs. Sheldon Stoddard lived for most of their lives in San Bernardino. As of 1904, Hunt’s grandchildren numbered 89, and according to Ingersoll, his great grandchildren numbered one hundred forty nine, and his great great grandchildren had reached seventeen as of 1904.
By Mark Gutglueck