By Mark Gutglueck
Spanish missionaries were the first Europeans to settle the San Bernardino region. They chose the fertile valley at the foot of a majestic San Bernardino Mountains as an outpost for other missionaries who traveled throughout the California territory preaching to the various Indian tribes.
Earlier Spanish explorers knew about the broad and fertile San Bernardino Valley.
They very likely learned of the San Bernardino Valley from Pedro Fages, a military commander who first encountered San Bernardino while he was pursuing some deserting soldiers from San Diego in 1772. He followed their trail up the San Diego River Valley and, high up in the Descanso Mountains, learned the fugitives from military duty had possibly continued east into the Borrego Desert.
Instead of heading into the desert, however
Fages headed north into what was then ominous and forbidding back country.
He is believed to have followed the San Jacinto River entrance way from the Temecula Valley to the Perris Valley. Scholars who have attempted to trace the Fages route from his diary believe Fages came into the San Bernardino Valley by way of Reche Canyon and exited to the Mojave Desert by either Lytle Creek or Cajon Pass, more probably the former.
On January 8, 1774, Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish explorer, set forth from Tubac Presidio, south of present day Tucson, Arizona with 3 padres, 20 soldiers, 11 servants, 35 mules, 65 cattle, and 140 horses and reached Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, on March 22, 1774. On the way he passed through, or very near, what is now San Bernardino.
After Fages and De Anza, the next to sample San Bernardino was Father Francisco Garces, a missionary priest, who had explored the Colorado River Valley from around Yuma.
He crossed the Mojave Desert from the camps of the Mojave Indians some 10 or 12 miles north of the present Needles. Garces was led to San Gabriel by Mojave guides. He utilized the ancient Indian trade trail that followed the Mojave River. He crossed the San Bernardino Mts, from about the present Cedar Springs, up Sawpit Canyon and down the saddle between Devil and Cable Canyons.
Garces first laid eyes upon the San Bernardino Valley in March 1776, some three months prior to the signing of the American Declaration of Independence more than 2,000 mile away in Philadelphia.
Garces made his trip on the back of mule, assisted by Mojave guides and Sebastian, a Christianized Indian from Baja California named Sebastian, in addition to guides furnished by the Mojave. He named the valley San Joseph.
Father Francisco Dumetz, who was a close associate of Father Junipero Serra, also figures prominantly in the early exploration and eventual settling of San Bernardino. He was intimately involved in the Christianization of the native California Indians. Arriving in California from the College of San Fernando in 1770 as one of the first two replacements for the missionary band which had reached Alta California the year before, Father Dumetz served at Mission San Buena Ventura. Subsequently, he took charge of Mission San Fernando, where he spent his most active years. This brought him closer to San Bernardino still. He moved closer yet to San Bernardino when upon his retirement from active ovesight of the San Fernando Mission, he moved to San Gabriel where he assisted in that establishment, the central one for the southern portion of the province.
Sometime after he came to San Gabriel, Father Dumetz sojourned to San Bernardino. The first time he did so is lost to history, because records are so sketchy.
What is known with absolute certainty is that on
May 20, 1810, Father Dumetz was in San Bernardino to set up an altar in a planned effort to convert the Indians living there. Padre Dumetz named the area “San Bernardino” after Saint Bernardino of Siena, the patron saint of the day on the Catholic Calendar. Father Dumetz built a rude shelter, a capilla, to serve as a chapel and raised the cross, probably at what was later known as Bunker Hill, at what is now named De Siena Springs.
After erecting the capilla, Father Dumetz returned to San Garbriel, where he died the following year. Other priests, according to Father Juan Caballeria in his “History of the San Bernardino Valley” published while he was stationed at St. Bernardine’s Church, kept up the mission two years, making journeys to the San Bernardino Valley at intervals.
One visit came in the midst of a violent earthquake in 1812, the same earthquake that razed the massive stone cathedral San Juan Capistrano, killing several worshipers. In San Bernardino the earthquake provoked terror among the Indians. Their medicine men, lashing out at the priests’ introduction of Christianity, declared that the white visitors had made the native gods angry and that the quake was the god’s signal for revenge.
Father Dumetz’ capilla was wrecked by the temblor and some new hot springs opened almost at its door. The hot springs gushed forth black water, typical of the warm underground flow in the Bunker Hill-Urbita district.
In 1819, Mission San Gabriel established Rancho San Bernardino in the area. The missionaries took it upon themselves to look after both the the spiritual welfare and material well-being of the Indians, and instructed them on how to bring water down from Mill Creek for drinking, bathing and the irrigation of crops. This conveyance was known a a zanja. The dates of 1820 and 1823 are both given for the zanja construction.
In 1826, Mexico gained independence from Spain.
All missions were ordered closed by decree of California’s Governor Figeroa in 1834 and the mission period came to an end,bringing with it the era of the great ranchos. Within a few years, American such as Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith made their way to California and through San Bernardino or nearby. These events marked the end of California’s Spanish period, and sowed the seeds of its eventual transference into the possession of the United States.
In composing this column, Mr. Gutglueck relied upon the historical links on the city of San Bernardino’s website as well as the research and writing of L. Burr Belden, the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram’s one-time historical writer.