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When San Bernardino Was a Mormon Colony

Brigham Young's territorial ambitions suffered a blow in 1851, when Congress rejected the State of Deseret's claim to the Southern California coast, creating instead a smaller Territory of Utah.

But Young, who served as both Mormon church president and Utah territorial governor, did not let go of his California dream.

In March 1851, 437 Latter-day Saints set out from Great Salt Lake City to establish a foothold in the San Bernardino Valley. Located relatively close to the port at San Pedro and the gentile settlement of Los Angeles, their colony would gather supplies for the Mormon heartland in Utah. It would also gather souls, welcoming converts from the gold fields up north, the Sandwich Isles, and other lands overseas. The importance of the mission was reflected in the choice of its leaders: Amasa M. Lyman and Charles C. Rich, two of the Mormon church's twelve apostles.

In the days of covered wagons – and the colonists had 150 of them – the journey was fraught and arduous. Waypoints bore ominous names like Bitter Spring and Impassible Pass. But by the end of 1851, the colonists had traversed the Cajon Pass (where the name of the Mormon Rocks still pays tribute to their passage), purchased Rancho San Bernardino from the Lugo family, and erected Fort San Bernardino, a five-acre village crowded within a 12-foot stockade. Outside they dug irrigation canals, planted crops and vineyards, and cleared a lumber road into the nearby mountains.

Soon the colonists left their fort walls to establish the town of San Bernardino. Surveyor H. G. Sherwood, who also designed the street plan for Salt Lake City, platted out 72 square blocks within a rectilinear grid. Street names recognized the Mormons' westward flight from persecution: Independence Street, Nauvoo Street, Salt Lake Street.

Mormon colony of San Bernardino

 

The colony thrived. By 1856 San Bernardino's population of nearly 3,000 rivaled that of Los Angeles. It also generated its own political institutions: a county (split off from Los Angeles County in 1853) and municipality (incorporated in 1854). As in Utah, Mormon ecclesiastical leaders filled civil offices, too. Apostle Lyman, for example, served as San Bernardino's first mayor.

Observers from Los Angeles heaped praise upon the colony and the Mormons' renowned capacity for communal action. "With the will, they have the power to accomplish whatever they wish," wrote the Los Angeles Star's correspondent in October 1853, "for what difficulty is too great to be overcome where a people are all of one mind, and are ready to concentrate all their energies to accomplish whatever appears conducive to their welfare."

Back in Zion, however, Brigham Young greeted San Bernardino's outward signs of success with suspicion, even from the colony's inception. The settlers may have been fulfilling his California dream, but Young watched with dismay as their wagon train -- several times longer than he'd envisioned -- departed the Salt Lake Valley in 1851. The prophet was, his clerk noted, "sick at the sight of so many of the Saints running off to California," far from his political and spiritual authority.

Over the next few years, a proliferation of dissidents and outright apostates confirmed Young's fears about the colony. Worse, legal disputes with non-Mormons squatters threatened to escalate into open violence. "Their community is surrounded with unscrupulous squatters and dissenters, anxious for an excuse to drive them from the country," observed Army captain E. O. C. Ord in 1856. With the wounds of Jackson County, Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois, still fresh, church leaders wound down the San Bernardino colony. In 1856 Young reassigned Lyman and Rich to Europe, and in October 1857, as civil war loomed between the federal government and Utah, he recalled the Saints to Zion. Nearly half disobeyed, but those still faithful sold their land, loaded their belongings into wagons, and began their retreat from California.

1865 photograph of the ruins of Mormon San Bernardino, including the house Amasa Lyman shared with his five wives. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
1865 photograph of the ruins of Mormon San Bernardino, including the house Amasa Lymanshared with his five wives. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

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An 1873 drawing by Edward Vischer of what then remained of Lyman's and Rich's residences. Courtesy of the Mission Era: California Under Spain and Mexico and Reminiscences collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.
An 1873 drawing by Edward Vischer of what then remained of Lyman's and Rich's residences. Courtesy of the Mission Era: California Under Spain and Mexico and Reminiscences collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.
A lithographic view of San Bernardino, circa 1873. The town was slow to recover from the sudden departure of so many of its residents. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
A lithographic view of San Bernardino, circa 1873. The town was slow to recover from thesudden departure of so many of its residents. Courtesy of the USC Libraries -California Historical Society Collection.

 

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