James Waters: Fur Trapper, Trailblazer, County Supervisor

By Mark Gutglueck
One of the most colorful of San Bernardino County’s early historical figures was James Waters, who served as the county administrator, and both Second District and Third District county supervisor in the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s and 1880s.
Born at Brainerd’s Bridge in Rensselaer County, New York on June 20, 1813, James W. Waters left home in 1835, intent on trying his fortune as a hunter, trapper and mountain man. With his trusty rifle in hand, he headed west, falling in with the likes of Kit Carson, the Subletts, Major Fitzpatrick, Bill Williams, John Brown, Sr., the Rubidoux brothers and other mountain men famous in frontier life during young America’s adolescence, when the exploration of the land obtained in the Louisiana Purchase was yet being fully explored and settled.
He became a hunter, trapper and mountain man in his own right and of some renown, and performed deeds of valor, while blazing trails in the unknown West.
He hunted and trapped with the earliest of the western pioneers, plying his trade from the headwaters of the Yellowstone and Columbia Rivers to as far south as Texas and intrepidly through the lands of the Arapahoe, Sioux, Ute, Comanche, Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfoot and Apache, and lived to tell about his many hair-raising and thrilling escapades.
Once, while he and “Old Bill” Williams were hunting near the Ria de Las Animas, they were bushwhacked by a band of Apaches. They were under siege for three days and nights. Waters was badly wounded in the side by a rifle shot. Williams had to cut the bullet out of the other side of his body with his hunting knife. Low on provisions, on the third day Waters and Williams escaped by taking their horses over a ten-foot bluff and galloping forty miles before stopping for the night.
Williams tied Waters, who was under severe distress from his wound, to his saddle. They rode until they reached Bent’s Fort after a five day journey. At Bent’s Fort, Waters was able to recover.
On another occasion, Waters and a party of sixteen other mountain men were attacked by a horde of Utes and Apaches.  Though three of them perished in the battle, the remaining fourteen were able to hold off the their assailants and escape.
When the fur trade began to decline in the 1840s, Waters became a pack train guide, leading other adventurers from St. Louis to Southern California by way of the old Santa Fe Trail and the Cajon Pass.
After the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, Waters set up a horse exchange near the Green River, where, at the end of the exhausting crossing of the Great Plains, he traded fresh mounts for those ridden by Forty-niners or the horses pulling their wagons.
In September 1849 he again came to California via the southern route to avoid the snows of the Sierra Nevadas, a more direct route to the newly discovered gold fields, but by far the most hazardous. He served as a guide for a party of some 140 sojourning from New York to seek their fortunes out west. At Mission San Juan Bautista, near the present city of Salinas, he met with some old companions, John Brown and Alexander Godey, and with them established the St. John’s Hotel and Livery Stables.
By that point, John Brown had converted to Mormonism and he had been ordered by Brigham Young to move to the new San Bernardino Colony in 1853. Waters, who himself converted to become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, elected to join Brown. In 1856, he settled in Yucaipa.  Waters took up with a Hispanic woman, Condlario, shacking up with her to the point where she was considered by many to be his common law wife.  But sometime thereafter, he abandoned Condelario to marry the comely young widow, Louisa Margetson, some 24 years his junior, born on October 5, 1837 in London, England, the daughter of Thomas and Martha Margetson.  John Brown, being a Justice of the Peace, performed the marriage ceremony.
Waters remained in Yucaipa for the rest of his life.
In 1857, after James Buchanan became president, the United States moved to the brink of war against the Mormons in Utah.
Perhaps because  they were recent converts to the church, Waters and the other one-time mountain men fervently resisted Mormon authorities when Brigham Young made the call for all of the faithful to pull up stakes and return to Salt Lake City to defend the Mormon way of life at the end of 1857 and the beginning of 1858.
Waters remained in California, refusing to depart.  With the great exodus back to Utah, many of the public offices in San Bernardino County were thrown vacant. In the county elections of 1858, Waters was elected public administrator.   Five years later, in 1863, he was elected Third District supervisor. In October 1865, he was elected Second District supervisor, serving until November 1869. He was again elected Second District supervisor in November 1874, serving until September 1875 and again was elected in October 1877, serving until January 1880. He was elected chairman of the board of supervisors in 1880.  He was one of three elected Third District supervisors from January 1880 to June 1881, prior to the reorganization and creation of districts Four and Five in 1884.
According to the publication San Bernardino County Supervisors 1855 – 2006, “From the day of his settlement in this county, J.W. Waters was loyal to its best interests and exerted much influence in it affairs by his active energy and public spirit. The monuments he left behind to perpetuate his memory were the large brick building on the north-east corner of Third Street and Arrowhead Avenue, the brick building on Third Street formerly used for the Court House, a fine residence at Second and F Streets and finally, a magnificent Opera House on D Street in the care of his daughter, Mrs. Martha Waters Kiplinger, for many years.”
James Waters died  on September 20, 1889. Surviving him were his daughters Martha Waters Kiplinger, Mrs. Nettie Waters Cole and his two sons, Frederick and James W. Waters.

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