By Mark Gutglueck
Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormons, was constantly seeking places where colonies of Mormons might safely establish themselves. To this end, he had instructed Jefferson Hunt, a member of the Mormon Battalion involved in the building of roads during the Mexican American War who had traveled extensively throughout the Southwest, to report to him any sites of advantage he might espy during his travels.
Hunt recommended that the church consider creating a major colony in Southern California. This was based in some measure on the potential Hunt saw for the place, which offered a ready supply of lumber from the nearby mountains, verdant soil and adequate water for irrigation and human consumption, as well as an offer by Isaac Williams, an American who had married into the Spanish-California aristocracy, to sell the Rancho Santa Ana de Chino to the Mormon Church on attractive terms.
By 1849, Young, convinced of the wisdom and advantages of having immigrant converts traveling by sea who would land in California settle either in California or travel overland to the Utah Territory, resolved to establish a Mormon colony in California. In September 1849 Young instructed Elder Amasa M. Lyman and six foot-four inch tall Charles C. Rich to lead an expedition to establish a Mormon foothold in southern California. When Williams withdrew his offer, an alternative purchase of the Lugo Family Rancho, located somewhat further eastward from Chino and owned by Williams’ in-laws, was eventually arranged.
In March 1851, 437 Latter-day Saints under the leadership of Lyman and Rich left Great Salt Lake City. After traversing the Cajon Pass, the group purchased Rancho San Bernardino from the Lugo family, tendering on September 22, 1851 a down payment of seven thousand dollars, leaving a balance of over seventy thousand yet to be paid. The deed was in the names of Elders Lyman and Rich.
Together with Hunt, they established a colony. Upon their arrival in San Bernardino, there was a legitimate fear of an uprising among the Utes, Chemehuevis and other desert Indians. To secure themselves from this threat, the Mormons resolved to build a fort similar to a stockade built in Salt Lake.
To that end, they constructed a “palisade enclosure” on the east side, which contained the main entrance, and the two ends north and south. They used split willow trees and cottonwoods, hewing them to fit flush and sunk them to a depth of nearly three feet in the ground at the base. The wall stood 12 feet high uniformly. The west side of the enclosure was composed of houses which preexisted the construction of the fort. Walls were constructed between those existing houses to provide a fourth exterior barricade. A number of one-story log and adobe houses were constructed inside, along with a school house, wagon shop, headquarters for the colony and a store house. Residents of the fort were obliged to provide a tithe of ten percent of their non-perishable edibles, skins and needed supplies into the community storehouse. The fort had dimensions of 750 feet by 320 feet. It was located at the downtown courthouse located at Arrowhead Avenue and Court Street.
In lieu of wells, efforts to divert a stream of water into the fort were made by means of a ditch from Lytle Creek.
More than 100 families set up residence in the fort, together with a number of unmarried men. David Seely, Andrew Lytle and Jeffeson Hunt headed separate companies of men, numbering 50 each.
Jefferson Hunt was the commanding officer of all three companies. There was never any attack on the fort.
By Mark Gutglueck