Billy Holcomb Adventurer 49er Bear Killer Public Official

While neither a founder nor original inhabitant of San Bernardino County, Billy Holcomb is perhaps the one individual responsible for its having been resurrected as an early population center and destination for the second generation of pioneers after the original American settlers of the region, the Mormons, in significant measure abandoned it.
William Frances Holcomb was born in Tippecanoe County, Indiana on January 27, 1831. At about age 18, he migrated with many other young men in the California Gold Rush for a chance of riches. He suffered adversity, though, and his was not an instantaneous success story. His party had many difficulties. At the Green River crossing on the Sublette Cutoff in present-day Wyoming, he lost his wagon and entire outfit. His oxen drowned. He eventually reached Placerville in Northern California after traveling on foot for over 1,000 miles. He failed in his attempts at mining in the Sierra Nevada gold fields and later in the Kern River fields. He went to Oregon for a while, then went down to Southern California.
Meanwhile, a sizable Mormon Party had been dispatched from Salt Lake City in 1851 and arrived in San Bernardino that same year. This was followed by a wave of Mormon settlers into the area. They made a vast number of improvements to the environs in and around San Bernardino, including building a road up into the San Bernardino Mountains, down which lumber to be used as material for further improvements in San Bernardino was transported. In 1853, when the county was formed, two of the three members of the board of supervisors were Mormons and San Bernardino, though homogenous, was in large part a Mormon enclave. But in the winter of 1857-58, Brigham Young, believing his church was on the brink of war with the United States and the James Buchanan Administration, issued an edict for all Mormons everywhere to return to Utah. Most, though not all of the Mormon settlers simply pulled up stakes in San Bernardino, leaving their property and improvements behind.
In 1859 while in Los Angeles, William Holcomb and a companion, Jack Martin, heard of the Bear Valley diggings near San Bernardino. They set out to make another try at mining. They had to force their horses through deep snow to reach the Bear Valley diggings. Already Bear Valley had been dubbed “Starvation Flatts” by its discouraged group of miners, who were finding little. Soon after Holcomb’s arrival, one of the miners panned some gold from under the pine trees a few hundred feet up the hillside, giving encouragement to the small band of miners working claims in the area.
Like the others, Holcomb suffered from the lack of supplies and minimal gold finds in the rural mountain community. Called “the best sharpshooter west of the Mississippi,” Holcomb was asked by the miners to shoot some of the grizzly bears living in the area for their meat. Holcomb was able to bring back dead bears to feed the starving miners. He was nicknamed “Grizzly Bill” because he was known to have killed many bears. He was said to have finished off all the bears in the Bear Valley.
While tracking the bears, Holcomb kept his eye out for gold, and he took chunks of likely rock. About five miles from Bear Valley, he discovered gold. On May 5, 1860, Holcomb and Ben Ware arrived at the office of the county recorder to record five gold claims located in the Holcomb Valley five miles north of Bear Valley.That spring, the Bear Valley miners chipped in and sent Martin to San Bernardino for flour. The people of San Bernardino were accustomed to believing there was little gold or luck to be had in Bear Valley. But when Martin paid for the flour with gold dust, word spread quickly and several men in San Bernardino followed him back to the Valley that now bears Holcomb’s name.
When he uncovered the placer gold deposits in Holcomb Valley, Holcomb did more than anything else to attract people to San Bernardino County. Within six months after his discovery there were 2,000 men in the valley, which lies in the adjacent mountains, just north of Bear Valley, now one of the great summer and winter resorts of Southern California.
The Holcomb Valley gold rush as those with gold fever rushed to mine the rich sand and shale placers. Miners founded the short-lived boom town of Belleville there. For ten years it was the third or fourth largest town in Southern California. Holcomb Valley turned out to be the source of more gold than any other part of Southern California and was deemed such a valuable asset to the nation that Abraham Lincoln dispatched union soldiers there to make sure it did not fall into the hands of the Confederacy.
Holcomb was elected the first justice of the peace at Belleville, but he soon resigned to devote more time to his mines.
With his financial future appearing secured, Holcomb married Nancy Stewart and built a house in San Bernardino. Nancy Steward had come across the plains with her father from Utah. They had five sons and two daughters. His sons were William Jr, John, Michael, Steven, and Matthew. His daughters were Kathryn Holcomb and Annie “Angel”, who died of Scarlet fever in her infancy.
He returned to San Bernardino during the fall of 1861, where his house was destroyed by the flood of 1862. Holcomb returned to mining in the mountains that summer to make up for his losses. In 1863 he moved for more than a year to the vicinity of Prescott, Arizona, where he mined and hunted.
Unable to part with his adventuresome spirit and his affinity for hunting and mining despite his newfound wealth, Holcomb continued to prospect in numerous places, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Arizona. He was one of the discoverers of the famous Vulture Mine in Arizona, from which more than $8 million were taken. He sold a third interest in this property for $1,000, and afterward, in recalling the experience, he referred with a quiet humor rather than any bitterness to the fact that he was cheated out of half the amount of the sale. His partner at the time was Dick Gird, discoverer of the mines at Tombstone, Arizona.
Upon returning to San Bernardino, Holcomb worked in mountain lumber camps for four years until his election as the county assessor in 1871. He was the first member of the Republican Party to be elected to public office in San Bernardino County. Holcomb held the office of county assessor for three terms.
A a public official, Holcomb was not hampered by traditions or precedents, and he was guided, San Bernardino historians John Brown and James Boyd would write in 1922, “first of all by the necessity of getting the thing done required by his official duty. Among other duties he had to levy and collect the personal tax. He levied a tax on the Santa Fe personal property. When the railroad refused to pay, this man of action secured some logging chains and, accompanied by a number of deputy sheriffs, went to the Santa Fe depot and proceeded to make an attachment. The most available property was a locomotive stand-
ing on the main track in front of the depot. The wheels were secured with the chains and he placed padlocks on them and then left the deputies in charge until the law should be complied with. This summary action naturally caused great excitement among railroad officials, and there was a tremendous buzzing of telegraph wires until the necessary orders could be complied with for paying off the tax. This incident was in a manner
characteristic of the West, and especially of the upright and straightforward character of William F. Holcomb.”
In 1882 Holcomb was elected the county clerk.
Following his services as county assessor and county clerk, Holcomb became a merchant in San Bernardino.
His son William Winfield Holcomb was a San Bernardino native, where he was educated in the public schools. He served as a deputy clerk under his father, later engaged in the lumber business, and following that for many years was a feed and fuel merchant.
He then resumed an official routine as deputy sheriff.
William W. Holcomb married at Santa Maria Miss Isabella Grant, a native of San Bernardino and daughter of John and Margaret (Nish) Grant, farmers and cattle raisers of that section.
Holcomb’s grandson, Grant Holcomb, was born at San Bernardino and was educated in the grammar and high schools of that city, graduating from high school in 1907. While in high school he was a member of the San Bernardino National Guard. He entered Stanford University, from which he received his A. B. degree in 1911, and in
1913 graduated with the degree J. D. He was admitted to the bar the same year, and had a general practice, though specializing in probate work. He was attorney for the San Bernardino Auto Trades Association, and had his offices in the Garner Building at
E and Court streets. Mr. Holcomb was a director of the California State Bank and of the Gill Storage Battery Company. He was a charter member of the Rotary Club and served that club as a director, was a director of the chamber of commerce, and a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Independent
Order of Odd Fellows and Delta Chi college fraternity. He was treasurer of the Baptist Church and went on to serve as the mayor of San Bernardino from 1925 through 1927. Grizzly Bill Holcomb’s great-grandson, Bob Holcomb, was the longest serving mayor of San Bernardino in history, holding the office from 1971 through 1985 and again from 1989 through 1993.
Billy Holcomb died in 1909. He lives on in the memory of many, and one of his legacies is that the Southern California chapter of E Clampus Vitus is named in his honor.
Despite the high esteem he is generally held in, some, particularly naturalists and environmentalists, revile Billy Holcomb as the exterminator of grizzly bears in the San Bernardino Mountains.

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