By Mark Gutglueck
The indigenous inhabitants in the Mojave Desert area of what later became part of San Bernardino County, the Mojave and Serrano Indians and their ancestors, according to anthropologists, evolved into 22 clans living along the Colorado River and four clans living along the Mojave River by the time the first European explorers arrived in the 18th century.
A surprisingly complex social arrangement between the clans was established, mandating marriage was to take place only between but not among clans, which had the salutary effect of limiting interbreeding and extending genetic diversity within a population estimated to have never exceeded 14,000.
There is evidence that hostility did exist from time to time between the Mojave and other tribes, for example with the Chemehuevi, although there is indication that at various times there was cooperation between the two peoples and, indeed, in the face of some challenges the Mojave and Chemehuevi were allies. The clans were dispersed to the more habitable, that is to say the least inhospitable, spots in the desert, ones which generally featured a watershed and natural geological formations that afforded some level of natural shelter from the wind. They also constructed homes and sometimes partially subterranean structures composed of wattle, clay, mud, and arrowweed. Each clan reserved unto itself possession of weapons, such as bows and arrows, and traps, as well as tools and pottery and baskets.
A source of food for the Serrano and Mojave Indians consisted of rabbits, which were hunted down by parties of men who drove the game into a pre-positioned mesh net by beating in a coordinated row through areas of the desert bush known to be heavily populated with rabbits.
Among the more habitable spots in the area of the Mojave now known as Victor Valley were Atongai in what is now the eastern end of Hesperia, Guapiabit in what is now South Hesperia, Nakaviat near the upper Mojave Narrows and Arongaibit in present-day Summit Valley, all of which were Serrano outposts.
In 1772, Pedro Fages, a Spanish military commander, set out to chase some deserting soldiers from San Diego. He followed their trail up the San Diego River Valley and, high up in the Descanso Mountains, he found that the AWOL soldiery had continued east into the Borrego Desert. Subsequently, he made is way into what is now San Bernardino, encountering the native inhabitants there.
On January 8, 1774, the Sonoran-born Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza departed from Tubac, south of present day Tucson, Arizona accompanied by three Catholic priests, 20 soldiers, 11 servants, 35 mules, 65 cattle and 140 horses. On this expedition, De Anza traveled along the Rio Altar in Mexico before heading north to eventually cross the Colorado River at its confluence with the Gila River. Establishing good relations with the Yuma Indians, De Anza headed across the California Desert and reached Mission San Gabriel Arcángel near Los Angeles on March 22, 1774. He then followed El Camino Real to Monterey, Alta California’s capital, which he reached by April 19th. He returned to Tubac by late May, 1774. de Anza, who was looking for a trade route between Sonora and Monterey in Alta California, encountered both the Mojave Indians, who inhabited the desert region of what is now San Bernardino County, and the Cahulla, who occupied what is now the lower end of San Bernardino County and Riverside County.
One of the three priest accompanying De Anza was Father Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés, a Franciscan who in 1768 had been assigned to Mission San Xavier del Bac, today Mission San Xavier, located about ten miles south of Tucson Arizona.
The Franciscan commitment to poverty and self-denying labor in the cause of spreading the Gospel of Christ prepared Garces for the arduous life he led as an explorer. His contemporaries, including another priest, Pedro Font, described him as having “little difficulty with Indians.” He made a study of Indian customs and habits that was unsurpassed by his peers, including Father Junipero Serra. There are accounts of his dining with relish on what the Spaniards described as the Indians’ disgusting foods, which Garces defended as good for the stomach and digestion.
According to other trailblazers who had traveled with DeAnza, in Garces God had fashioned a man for but one purpose: to live among the Indians.
In late 1775, Garces left the de Anza expedition and traveled alongside the Colorado River, crossing to the California side at what is present-day Needles, and took on two Mojave Indian guides to make his way across the Mojave Desert westward. It was during this sojourn that Garces became the first white man to pass through the Victor Valley. He came into present day Barstow, Helendale and Hesperia while traveling along the Mojave River early in 1776, then following the Indian trail down the Cajon Pass, reaching Mission San Gabriel on March 26 1776.
It was not until 1806 that non-native exploration of the desert resumed, when Father Jose Maria Zalvidea, departing from El Camino Real, set out eastward across the Mojave, taking an Indian trail which led him to Atongai and then Guapiabit, both in present-day Hesperia.
Throughout the early 1800s, the Indians in Atongai, Guapiabit, Nakaviat and Arongaibit sheltered runaway Indians from the Missions who had fled from the lives of European discipline enforced by the Franciscans.
In 1810 San Bernardino was founded and named by the Franciscan missionary-priest Francisco Dumetz. Dumetz had been invited into the area by some natives, who had begun to live on local rancherias and were interested in European know-how. On May 20, 1810. Dumetz built a rude shelter to serve as a chapel and raised a cross, probably at Bunker Hill, as a beacon to the natives to come to the spot to worship.
Some Guachama, who were described as Gabrielino Indians and “docile,” came into the San Bernardino Valley to live. After the earthquake of 1812, they migrated back toward Los Angeles.
Two adobe warehouses were built on Cottonwood Row in 1819, when the fathers at San Gabriel again looked to the San Bernardino Valley, this time as a suitable place to pasture excess cattle. There they found the Serrano and to a lesser extent the Cahuilla as occupants.
Perhaps as early as 1820 but no later than 1823 construction of a zanja, an aqueduct conveying water from the Santa Ana River, began. Daniel Sexton, an American, was said to be present during the latter stages of the Zanja’s construction. Sexton married an Indian girl who was a niece of Chief Solano of the Serrano. The old chief later lived with Sexton.
Sexton recounted that Solano built the zanja with assistance of his Indians, the men using shoulder blades of cattle for shovels and the women carrying off the dirt in baskets.
In 1826, Jedediah Smith, who traded in pelts, crossed the Colorado River and followed the Mojave River upriver and then climbed over the Cajon Pass and continued west to Mission San Gabriel. Smith was among the last white man to have non-hostile interaction with the Serrano Indians, whom he believed to be “Amachubas,” prior to the Mojave Massacre of 1827. Kit Carson came through the Mojave Desert in 1829. The same year Antonio Armijo, a wool and livestock trader, established a trail that ran almost directly across the Mojave to the Cajon Pass. In the early 1830s, two Americans who had become naturalized Mexican citizens led a party across the Mojave on a trail that would become a major livestock driving route.
Beginning in the 1830 and continuing over the next four decades, diseases that had originated in Europe and elsewhere outside of North America took a tremendous toll on the Indians in the Mojave Desert, nearly wiping out the relatively peaceful Serrano clans. In time, the Serranos who some anthropologists say had survived for nearly a hundred centuries in the Mojave River Valley, were replaced with Mojave Indians, described in contemporary accounts as somewhat more aggressive than the Serranos, and Paiute Indians, who were characterized as far more aggressive.
Don Antonio Maria Lugo, who was born in Spain, came to California as a soldier of Spain and was given a land grant to San Antonio Rancho by the Spanish Viceroy in 1810. Don Antonio had three sons – Jose del Carmen Lugo, Jose Maria Lugo and Vicente Lugo – as well as a nephew, Diego Sepulveda. He purchased for his sons and his nephew the Rancho San Bernardino from the Mexican Government in 1842.
In 1841, more than 20 Americans, including William Workman and John Rowland, came to California over the Spanish Trail as part of the annual Overland Trade Exposition and remained, building homes and establishing permanent residences.
In the early and mid-1840s, horse, mule and cattle thieving had grown so rampant in California that Mexican officials in Los Angeles dispatched inspectors to examine the markings on eastern bound cattle before they ascended the Cajon Pass.
In 1844 General John Charles Fremont passed through the Victor Valley, using the Mojave River as a guide for a portion of his route to Kansas City.
Following the U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845, hostilities broke out between the United States and Mexico, culminating in the Mexican American War, which lasted from April 25, 1846 until February 2, 1848.
During the war, many Americans then in Southern California who were living peaceably under Mexican rule and had assimilated in large measure into the California population and had married into Mexican families, ultimately sided with their native country and fought against the Mexican forces.
In June 1846, the Bear Flag Revolt, led by a group of Americans living in California, began. The rebels defied the continuation of rule by the Mexican government and proclaimed California an independent republic.
The Battle of Chino took place some five months after the Mexican-American War began, on September 26–27, 1846.
Prior to the battle, 24 Americans led by Benjamin D. Wilson took refuge at the adobe house of Rancho Santa Ana del Chino then owned by Isaac Williams. Williams, originally from Pennsylvania, had become a Mexican citizen – a prerequisite for owning land – and married Maria de Jesus Lugo, daughter of Antonio Maria Lugo. The Californios doubted the loyalty of Wilson’s men and set out to arrest them.
Serbulo Varela, Diego Sepulveda and Ramon Carrillo left Los Angeles with about fifty men, while José del Carmen Lugo with another fifteen to twenty men left from San Bernardino to converge upon Rancho del Chino. On the night of September 26, 1846, the adobe ranch house was surrounded by the Californios. At dawn, the following day, gunfire was exchanged resulting in one Californio, Carlos Ballesteros, son of the grantee of Rancho Rosa Castilla, being killed with two wounded and three Americans wounded. When the Californios attempted to set fire to the roof of the house, Wilson surrendered to Varela. This brief engagement became known as the Battle of Chino.
Wilson and his men were taken prisoner and marched to Paredon Blanco in Boyle Heights, the main camp of the Californio forces. The prisoners were nearly executed in retaliation for the death of Carlos Ballesteros. But because many of the Americans were related by marriage to Mexican families, Varela and others intervened. The prisoners were taken to Rancho Los Cerritos, near present-day Long Beach, where they were detained and ultimately released.
The Bear Flag Republic was short-lived because soon after the Bear Flag was raised, the U.S. military began occupying California. In 1848, the U.S. Congress presumed to form a commission to look into the validity of the existing Spanish and Mexican land grants in California, and most of those were recognized and sustained.
Also in 1848, just after the United States took legal possession of California, Mormon soldiers who had garrisoned California during the Mexican War cleared a trail that could accommodate a wagon up the Cajon Pass.
California came into the union in 1850.
Don Antonio Maria Lugo had engaged in the life of a cattle rancher until the coming of the Mormons in 1851. He had purchased Rancho San Bernardino for $800 in hides and tallow. He sold it to the Mormons for $77,000,
In 1851, 437 Mormons traveled from Utah across Nevada and then the California Desert, traveling up the Mojave River and then taking the Cajon Pass down to a settlement in San Bernardino. For most of the 1850s, the transportation of materials, supplies and goods between Mormons in Salt Lake City and the Mormon colonies in San Bernardino and the San Bernardino Mountains constituted the major activity along the Old Spanish Trail, which bisected today’s Victor Valley. In 1855 an outpost called the Mormon Grocery was in existence along the Mojave River near present-day Barstow.
The trail was used by prospectors from the east heading to the goldfields in Newhall but by the mid-1850s some seeking fortunes were panning and sluicing along the Mojave River near the San Bernardino Mountains.
In 1853, San Bernardino County was formed, an offshoot of Los Angeles County.
In May 1855, San Bernardino County was divided into three separate districts, with the county’s desert area designated as the First District. On May 7, 1855 Daniel Stark was named the First District’s supervisor, William C. Crosby the county’s Second District supervisor and Louis Rubidoux the county’s Third District supervisor.
By Mark Gutglueck