By Mark Gutglueck
As a population center, San Bernardino had its beginning as a Mormon settlement, instigated at the direction of Brigham Young, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and one of the outstanding organizers of the 19th Century. Given the nature of its inception and the intensity with which its pioneers set about in creating it, San Bernardino had all the potential of becoming a major Mormon enclave and would perhaps remain as such today, had it not been for the downside of Young’s dynamism, his autocratic leadership style and confrontational nature.
Thus, the Mormon spirit that that gave birth to San Bernardino – the imperative to expand and preserve the religion the Latter Day Saints practiced – would result in the Mormons ultimately forsaking it just a few short years after they engaged in so much admirably hard work to create it.
Young, who at the age of 22 converted to the Methodist faith in 1823, was drawn to Mormonism after reading the Book of Mormon shortly after its publication in 1830. He officially joined the new church in 1832, became a missionary in Upper Canada and was ordained a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835, shortly thereafter assuming a leadership role within the church that was second only to that of founder Joseph Smith.
The social and religious rejection of the Mormons resulted in them being pushed further westward, where in turn the local communities perpetuated the rejection. In 1844, while in jail awaiting trial for what most historians consider trumped-up treason charges, Joseph Smith was killed by an armed mob. Amid the conflicting claimants to the role of leadership of the church, Young pushed for the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taking control of the church and he was ultimately, through his strength of personality, ordained president of the church in December 1847, three and a half years after Smith’s death. Prior to that, repeated conflict led Young to relocate his group of Latter-day Saints to the Salt Lake Valley, then part of Alta Mexico, sojourning in what was the largest mass migration in American History first to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, in 1846, then to the Salt Lake Valley. By the time Young and the Mormon Pioneers arrived at their ultimate destination on July 24, 1847, it had come under American control as a result of the Mexican American War, although U.S. sovereignty would not be confirmed until 1848.
Because of the timing of the Mormon Exodus coming at the conclusion of the war, the presence of the Mormons in Salt Lake was welcomed by the federal government and President Millard Fillmore’s administration. Through his positive relationship from afar with Fillmore, Young was recognized as the founder of Salt Lake City and an American colonizer. Though Young petitioned the U.S. Congress to create the State of Deseret, that was not granted. Instead, the Compromise of 1850 instead created the Utah Territory and Young was appointed the territory’s first governor and superintendent of American Indian affairs by Fillmore. Young aggressively pushed for further Mormon expansion and directed the establishment of settlements throughout present-day Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, California and parts of southern Colorado and northern Mexico. Under his direction, the Mormons built roads and bridges, forts, irrigation projects; established public welfare; organized a militia; and made a tenuous peace with Native Americans in the areas they inhabited. Nowhere was this effort more energetic than in California and the Mormon settlement in San Bernardino.
Jefferson Hunt, a member of the Mormon Battalion that was involved in the building of roads during the Mexican American War and who had traveled extensively throughout the Southwest, recommended that the church consider creating a major colony in Southern California. This was based in some measure on the potential Hunt saw for the place, which offered a ready supply of lumber from the nearby mountains, verdant soil and adequate water for irrigation and human consumption, as well as an offer by Isaac Williams, an American who had married into the Spanish-California aristocracy, to sell the Rancho Santa Ana de Chino to the Mormon Church on attractive terms.
By 1849, Young, convinced of the wisdom and advantages of having immigrant converts traveling by sea who would land in California settle either in California or travel overland to the Utah Territory, resolved to establish a Mormon colony there. In September 1849 Young instructed Elder Amasa M. Lyman and six foot-four inch tall Charles C. Rich to lead an expedition to establish a Mormon foothold in southern California. When Williams withdrew his offer, a purchase of the Lugo Family Rancho, owned by Williams’ in-laws, was eventually arranged. In March 1851, 437 Latter-day Saints under the leadership of Lyman and Rich left Great Salt Lake City. After traversing the Cajon Pass, the group purchased Rancho San Bernardino from the Lugo family, tendering on September 22, 1851 a down payment of seven thousand dollars, leaving a balance of over seventy thousand yet to be paid. The deed was in the names of Elders Lyman and Rich.
Together with Hunt, they established a colony. In the face of a threat by Indian Chief Antonio Garra to lead a multi-tribe force to drive out all white settlers from the area in November 1851, they built Fort San Bernardino, measuring 300 feet by 720, the largest and most elaborate log fort ever built in California.
Lyman served as the first mayor of San Bernardino. Hunt was elected a member of the California State Assembly, in which body he served from 1853 to 1857 as the representative of what was then Los Angeles County, which at that time included San Bernardino County. Hunt introduced legislation in his first year in office to create San Bernardino County, which passed. Upon the creation of San Bernardino County, he became the county’s first assemblyman. San Bernardino was incorporated as a municipality in 1854.
In the early days, a spirit of unity prevailed. The settlers immediately went to work in a cooperative effort to plow the ground and plant their crops. Lyman and Rich laid out the city in the grid pattern used at Salt Lake City, placing at its center what was designated as a “Temple Block.” Ultimately, however, no temple was ever built there. A road was constructed up into the mountains, where a saw mill to produce lumber was constructed. Thousands of tons of lumber were brought down from the mountains as the city began to take shape, with more families constructing homes and public works projects being undertaken. An adobe producing operation to supplement the lumber was set up.
The fort quickly grew into a burgeoning settlement, reaching a population of 3,000 in 1856. Among those drawn to the community were a handful of outsiders – those who were not Mormons. Most settlers, initially, were Mormons who were loyal to Brigham Young and his leadership. Though at this time non-Mormons in San Bernardino were a vast minority, this lack of homogeneity, taken together with discontent among some members of the church that later manifested, proved one of the bases of the eventual eclipsing of the Mormon influence there.
In Salt Lake City on 28 and 29 August 1852, the first public announcement of the church’s doctrine of polygamy was made. It would come to be practiced by some of the Saints in San Bernardino, both overtly and covertly, as plural marriage was outlawed in California. Among a cross section of the Mormon colonists in San Bernardino were those who rejected the practice themselves. In San Bernardino, cordiality between Mormons and non-Mormons prevailed and there was no major outcry against the practice of polygamy. .
Another social issue of the time was slavery, which proliferated in the Southern States. Most Mormons were Northerners and thus averse to slavery. Brigham Young had a somewhat nuanced view of the subject. Not a supporter of slavery per se, he instituted on a church ban against conferring the priesthood on men of black African descent and also forbade blacks from participating in Mormon temple rites such as the endowment or sealings, teaching that blacks were “the seed of Cain.” California had been allowed into the Union as a free state under the auspices of the Compromise of 1850. A saint who located in San Bernardino, Robert Smith, was among several of the San Bernardino colonists from Mississippi who had brought slaves with them. The holding of these slaves was openly tolerated in San Bernardino, despite California being a free state, because the owners accorded those slaves treatment a contemporary described as “between freedom and paternalism.” When Smith sought to move to the slave state of Texas, where his servants would again be subjected ownership as slaves, Smith was challenged and taken to trial before Judge Benjamin Hayes. During the trial it was noted that four of his servants had been born free in California. The case was adjudicated with all fourteen slaves he owned being declared free.
Apostasy among some of the Mormon settlers and their resistance to at least some of Young’s dictates became a concern as early as 1853, as some in the third, fourth and fifth waves of Mormons who came to San Bernardino were those who wanted to avoid Young and other leaders of the church in Salt Lake City. More and more new arrivals offered only minimal or grudging deference to local ecclesiastical authorities. Lyman lamented the “foes” of the church and its mission “are not shut out by adobe walls.” It was supposed to be understood by the Mormons in San Bernardino that they were to support as their political leaders those handpicked by the church.
In 1855 during the San Bernardino County election, church leaders were given an object lesson in the political independence of at least a minority of the electorate. Although the two official church candidates designated by elders Lyman and Rich – William Crosby and Daniel Stark – won handily, several other Latter-day Saints vied against them. When Crosby and Stark resigned from the board after three and four meetings, the church appointed their replacements. One faithful member of the church, Henry G. Boyle, wrote that during the election “men came out in opposition to Amasa’s nominations, contrary to counsel.” This opposition was indicative of a “mob spirit,” Boyle said. This manifestation of democratic fervor startled the church elders and the faithful, who were committed to abiding by the leadership and guidance of Young and the church hierarchy. The opposition candidates were summarily excommunicated for apostasy. In reaction, they joined with others and organized a “factionist” or “factionalist” or “Independent” party in San Bernardino dedicated to breaking the Mormon theocratic and political hold on the community.
According to Leo Lyman, perhaps the most well-studied of living San Bernardino historians, the faithful members in San Bernardino during those years were in the overwhelming was the majority. Lyman said only about 15 percent of the population, although loud, were dissenting on issues, including political ones.
The factionists grew to include several formerly loyal church members, ones whose departure from the dogma of the church would have only a few years before seemed unthinkable. In the May 1856 election, the opposition party presented a full slate of candidates, and 26 anti-Mormon votes were counted before the balloting was over, not enough to come even remotely close to prevailing in any of the elections but spreading, one contemporary chronologist reported “the spirit of disunion… over our once happy place. It is almost impossible to insure the concert of action upon any object of the public interest. When will this end? The grand object appears to be the aggrandizement of private interests. To be a Latter-day Saint is becoming quite unpopular.” The lament was hyperbolic, but reflected the attitude of the faithful that San Bernardino’s existence as a bastion of Mormonism was slipping away.
Young’s strength of personality and overbearing nature was doubtless a key element of the expansion of the Mormon Church and crucial to the founding of San Bernardino as a city. Nevertheless his drive to control not only all elements of the lives of the church members but dominate the milieu in which he and the church were to coexist with others created a circumstance in which his reach simply exceeded his grasp. Whereas Young, through his emissaries, had gotten along with President Fillmore, going so far as naming the first capitol of the Utah Territory after the 13th President, the manifestations of his personality created conflict with individuals within the federal government with whom he would have done better to have stayed on good terms. As early as 1851 this created a situation that would play a role in the demise of San Bernardino as a Mormon Colony some seven years later, a contretemps that became known as the Runaway Officials of 1851. Young was unable to work cooperatively with a whole host of federal officials, most notably Utah Territorial Secretary Broughton Harris, resulting in Harris and those on his staff departing Utah without replacements being named.
Young’s inability to compromise with reality led, at least in part, to the church’s unnecessary and unreasonable abandonment of San Bernardino. Despite their best efforts to keep the population on the straight and narrow path the church intended for them, Lyman and Rich became the objects of a perception back in Salt Lake City that they were not up to the task. In 1857, Young would write of San Bernardino that “hell reigns there, and that it is just as much as any ‘Mormon’ can do to live there.” Of Lyman, Young said, “it is about time for him and every true Saint to leave that land.” That year Lyman and Rich withdraw from San Bernardino. They subsequently went to Europe as missionaries of the church.
Then, in the winter of 1857, relations between the Mormons and the United States, that is to say between Young and President James Buchanan, had deteriorated to the point that the Army was on the brink of undertaking a concentrated campaign to eradicate the Mormons in Utah altogether.
At that point Young issued a call to all faithful Mormons to return to Salt Lake City. And indeed, loyalist Mormons everywhere, including some 2,000 of the 3,000 in San Bernardino, simply pulled up stakes – abandoning everything, including roads, houses, farms, foundries, shops, public buildings, churches – all that the Mormon population of San Bernardino had so impressively created in seven years, and returned home.
By Mark Gutglueck