By Mark Gutglueck
In its first ten years, from 1853 to 1863, San Bernardino County had ten sheriffs. The sixth of these was Anson Van Leuven.
Anson B. Van Leuven was born on October 16, 1829 at Camden, Canada. He came with his brother to San Bernardino in 1854 from Utah. In coming to California Mr. Van Leuven crossed the plains with an ox team, and a somewhat attenuated heifer, which he purchased, was hauled on a wagon the entire distance from Bitter Springs. This animal played well its part in the family entourage and lived to the age of thirty-four years.
His tenure as San Bernardino county sheriff came relatively early in his life, from the time he was 31 to 33 years old. Van Leuven was the third sheriff to serve during the 1860 calendar year. His time as sheriff corresponded with the run-up to and the first two years of the Civil War, a turbulent time when secessionist sentiment was running high.
San Bernardino and its surrounding areas were valuable to the Union, in some large measure because of the gold fields contained therein. During Van Leuven’s second year in office, expensive gold smelting and stamping machinery was transported down the Atlantic Coast to the Panama Isthmus, across the isthmus by train and by ship to Los Angeles, from whence it was loaded upon wagons and transported out to the San Bernardino Mountain community of Holcomb Valley.
Maintaining the security of Union gold was one of Van Leuven’s priorities that came on top of maintaining the peace in the San Bernardino Mountains. In Holcomb Valley, the gold strikes had attracted a cast of rough characters and ruffians whose character flaws and intensity rendered the boomtown into a dangerous place.
In 1861, Van Leuven led a posse of 17 men into the High Desert seeking to apprehend two fugitive horse thieves, Lot Huntington and William Alma (Al) Williams, who had been stealing livestock and making threats of vengeance against citizens who had resisted the gang of rustlers they rode with. While en route to Huntington and Williams’ desert camp, verbal hostilities broke out among the posse members themselves, culminating in a gunfight. Four posse members were shot, with two sustaining wounds so serious Van Leuven was obliged to call off the manhunt and return to San Bernardino to have the wounded tended to.
Indeed running horse and cattle thieves to ground took up much of Van Leuven’s time as sheriff, as horse thieves and cattle rustlers were extremely active and made use of the numerous hidden rincons, hideouts and escondidos the terrain offered. Many of those thieves preyed upon the San Jose Ranch in what today is Pomona, running the stolen horses and cattle out to the Mojave River. On one such occasion, thieves had made off with a number of horses, and were trailed after by the horses’ owner, who followed them in their progress up the Cajon Pass.
Van Leuven was notified and he took up the pursuit. The sheriff traced the men by the track of the defective hoof of a horse ridden by one of the thieves, which Van Leuven recognized as a peculiar deformity besetting that of a horse stolen from the San Jose Ranch. He succeeded in recovering all of the horses, and capturing four of the six thieves. After their conviction, Van Leuven took charge of them on the trip to state prison. The ranch owner, anticipating an attempt to liberate the prisoners, brought sixteen men to guard them on the trip to Los Angeles. Sheriff Van Leuven declined this offer of assistance and on his own escorted the prisoners to San Pedro on horseback and from there up the coast by steamer.
According to historian John Brown, Jr., writing in 1922, Van Leuven was of such competence, “His vigorous administration rid the district and county of many lawless and desperate characters, for rarely did a guilty man escape him.”
Also during the Civil War, Van Leuven served as a deputy United States Marshall. On January 14, 1863, as one of the most prominent and influential men of his county, Van Leuven married Elizabeth Robinson.
Anson and Elizabeth took up residence on an 80-acre spread purchased by his father, Benjamin Van Leuven, within the Mormon Settlement in San Bernardino in 1854.
That property is today situated on Mountain View Avenue in the Mission District in Loma Linda. His father had done much to improve the property, and it was there that the Van Leuvens became the parents of five children, Myron Franklin, born November 25, 1863; Sarah, born June 8, 1865; Byron, born April 2, 1869; Henry, born April 21, 1871; and Maude, born March 2, 1883.
It was on this property that Anson Van Leuven planted his first orange grove in the year 1862, such that he was responsible for the first trees to bear oranges within the borders of San Bernardino County, this having occurred in 1867. Apples and peaches were also raised on the Van Leuven ranch and were dried, and grapes were processed into wine. These products were sold and shipped out by wagon freight, as was also the grain raised for market.
Mrs. Van Leuven fashioned hand made calico dresses without the use of a sewing machine.
Also in 1863 he was elected to represent San Bernardino County in the California Legislature, and as a member of the Lower House provided a record of service in the General Assembly of 1864. He was a stalwart Republican, loyal to the Union.
According to Brown, Van Leuven was “a man of inviolable integrity, marked loyalty and much progressiveness and public spirit.”
Brown reported that “Long before the close of his life he and his
wife had severed their allegiance to the Church of Latter Day Saints.
Honest and upright in all of the relations of life, Mr. Van Leuven left a benignant and enduring impress upon the community in which he lived and wrought, and he was one of the honored pioneer citizens of San Bernardino County at the time of his death, in 1896.”
By Mark Gutglueck