San Bernardino

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San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California Community

The fascinating story behind Mormonism’s strangest pioneer community: a place where abolitionists, inter-racial polygamists, gamblers, immigrants, and mountain men lived under the guidance of an ex-apostle with a penchant for seances.

April, 1996

SKU: 1-56085-067-1 Category: Tags: , Author: Edward Leo LymanProduct ID: 1480


In the mid-1800s San Bernardino emerged as one of the largest settlements in southern California. It surpassed Pueblo de los Angeles and San Diego in grain and lumber yields and boasted a burgeoning cattle industry and promising wine vineyards. But as a Mormon commune–the farthest outpost in Brigham Young’s Rocky Mountain empire–the colony was threatened, and finally abandoned, in 1857 during the Utah war with the United States.

From the beginning, Young had misgivings about the colony. Particularly perplexing was the mix of atypical Latter-day Saints who gravitated there. Among these were ex-slave holders; inter-racial polygamists; horse-race gamblers; distillery proprietors; former mountain men, prospectors, and mercenaries; disgruntled Polynesian immigrants; and finally Apostle Amasa M. Lyman, the colony’s leader, who became involved in spiritualist seances.

Despite Young’s suspicions, when he issued the call to relocate to Utah, two-thirds of the city’s 3,000 residents dutifully obeyed, leaving behind their cumulative fortunes and a city stripped of its regional economic standing. Recounting this remarkable story, Edward Leo Lyman skillfully interweaves the most intriguing details about the setting and chain of events, emphasizing both the significance and irony of this diverse legacy.

Edward Leo Lyman is a professor of history at Victor Valley College in southern California. He is the author of Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood and San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California Community, as well as a short guidebook to Mormon Historical Sites in the San Bernardino Area. He has been published in Arizona and the West, Brigham Young University Studies, California History, Millard County, Utah: A Centennial History, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Idaho Yesterdays, Southern California Quarterly, and the Utah Historical Quarterly.

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3 reviews for San Bernardino

  1. Mark Muckenfuss, San Bernardino Sun

    Historian and author Edward Leo Lyman says San Bernardino, not Los Angeles, could have become the dominant city in Southern California, if fate hadn’t intervened.

    Edward Leo Lyman, PhD., says San Bernardino really had potential as a city, but its growth was choked off almost before it started.

    Blame it on the Mormons, he says.

    That’s right.

    According to Lyman, author of a new book, San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California Community, the same church leaders who sent their faithful across the scorching Southwestern deserts to found a new colony in the San Bernardino Valley were responsible for quashing its early robust growth.

    Six years after the first Mormons arrived in the valley and built a fort to protect their settlement, Brigham Young put out a call that sent 2.000 of the 3,000 Mormons here packing back to Salt Lake City.

    “My argument is the Mormons would have dominated the Southland,” Lyman says. San Bernardino would have served as a major rail stop for shipping goods to San Pedro, he says. And if the community had continued along this original course, San Bernardino “would have dominated, not L.A.”

    Lyman is the great-great-grandson of Amasa M. Lyman, who co-founded San Bernardino with Charles Colson Rich and served as the city’s first mayor. He says he has been studying San Bernardino history since he came to the area nearly 30 years ago.

    “I moved to Riverside in 1969 and started teaching at North High School and became a local history buff,” he says. “So (the book) is a 25-year project.”

    There is much to be admired about San Bernardino’s founders, Lyman says.

    “They really made major contributions in the area of irrigation and water law,” he says. “Other people had irrigated, but not with machinery, and they may have invented the first corrugation machine. They brought better strains of livestock, both beef and dairy. They built the first roads here, including Foothill Boulevard. They had six saw mills in the local mountains.”

    Lumber production was so prolific, he says, that in Los Angeles “boards were called Mormon bank notes. The Mormons also provided a great deal of dairy and livestock to L.A.”

    “They discovered gold in the San Bernardino Mountains six years before Billy Holcomb did, but they kept it quiet,” Lyman says. He adds that Holcomb discovered his first gold “the year he married a Mormon girl.”

    A willingness to cooperate was a big part of the Mormons’ early success, he says.

    “I don’t think many people would believe how selfless, how willing to work together and how willing to share, the founders were,” he says. “It is a community in the true sense of the word. It’s not a socialist community at the beginning, but there was amazing cooperation. Then it falls apart.”

    The crumbling of the original foundation boiled down to two things.

    First, Brigham Young distrusted the faith of those living in the Western outpost, and with good cause, Lyman says. Lyman’s great-great-grandfather became disenchanted with the church’s leader and his authoritarian tendencies. Amasa Lyman eventually was excommunicated from the church.

    In addition, the Mormons were beset with persecution from elements outside of their religion which reached a critical point after the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The massacre, in which American Indians and Mormons took part in an attack on a wagon train moving through Utah, left more than 100 people dead.

    President James Buchanan sent U.S. troops west to show Young and his followers who was in charge and it put down the uprising. And Young sent out a call for the Mormon faithful to return to Salt Lake City. Two-thirds of San Bernardino’s Mormons answered the call.

    “They’re proving their faithfulness,” Lyman says. “They’re willing to trade six years of work for a team of oxen and a wagon to get out of here and never complain about it.”

    As it turns out, Lyman says, the confrontation between the Mormons and the U.S. government was smoothed over quickly, making the call for San bernardino’s faithful unnecessary. But, he says, Young never told them the news. Amasa Lyman, away at the time, found out, but not in time to stop San Bernardino’s Mormon leaders from selling their land.

    “They only owe $18,000 on land that’s worth $100,000,” Lyman says. The local leaders deeded the land over to a man who offered to take on the balance owned. “They just walked away from some of the best farmland in the country. Two days later they got a telegram from Lyman saying, ‘Don’t sell.’ But it was too late.”

    There’s nothing new to the basic story in Lyman’s new book. But he says, there is more detail about daily lives and events than has been available before.

    “I’m not a great writer, but I’m a great researcher,” he says. “I found a lot of information that hadn’t been uncovered before. The Mormon archives is a rich repository.”

    “I have Lyman and Rich’s diaries plus others, including several women. Caroline Barnes Crosby’s diary is invaluable. In the two years she was here, she visited or received visitors almost every single day. Adults visiting, either in the evening or during the day, is a constant occupation.”

    Some, especially Mormon conservatives, might not be wholly pleased with the book, Lyman says.

    “There are people who don’t like anybody questioning Brigham Young’s wisdom. There’ll be people who say, `You’re a Lyman, you’re just defending your people.’ But I don’t think anybody reading the book can make that stick.”

  2. Larry E. Burgess, Southern California Quarterly

    A timely new comprehensive study by historian Leo Lyman, San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California Community, brings forth new details and provides fresh insight into the importance of the Mormon colony at San Bernardino and its context in the settlement of the West and southern California. It will serve as the standard interpretation for many years to come.

    A knowledgeable core of regional historians appreciate the importance of the Mormon Colony in San Bernardino in the 1850s and the Colony’s significance to the history of southern California. The most complete account of this period was written by George and Helen P. Beattie in 1938 in their book Heritage of the Valley, now long out-of-print and a collector’s item.

    With access to the Mormon Church archives and as a descendant of Amasa M. Lyman, one of the Colony’s founders, Leo Lyman offers a complete portrait of the San Bernardino settlement’s success and the reasons for its abandonment. In four hundred pages, Lyman’s evidence illumines the economic imperatives tied to the theological and missionary concerns which led Apostles Lyman and Charles C. Rich to venture forth with a large group of colonists from Salt Lake City in March of 1851. Brigham Young’s role, which at first encouraged the proposed Colony as part of a larger goal to have a chain of settlements from Salt Lake City to the Pacific, turned to doubt and reproach at the expedition’s start. Young, as the power of approval, is also seen as the spoiler and this is a theme which runs as a connecting skein throughout the narrative.

    Moreover, further complications arise because of Amasa Lyman’s friendship and confidence enjoyed with Mormonism’s prophet, Joseph Smith. When Young assumed authority as the head of the church, it seems to have provided a tension between the two men and thus transferred tension to the San Bernardino Colony. The complex issues presented in Leo Lyman’s account lay in the evolving theological and cultural traditions of the Mormon Church of the time and the larger political relationships between the United States government, the demographics of southern California and the economic and social patterns of the San Bernardino Valley.

    Mountain men—such as John Brown, Rube Herring, and James Waters who came into contact with the Mormons leaving Missouri for Utah—at first embraced the Mormons and some even ostensibly converted. However, by the time they appeared as part of the Mormon Colony, they developed a political and legal hostility exacerbated by land ownership disputes. These so-called “Anti’s” provided energy for the opposition group populated with Mormons who had been defellowshipped or who had left the Church. Adding to the tension was growing resentment and suspicion on Young’s part that material success in San Bernardino came at the cost of spiritual dedication. While President Young was fully willing to use the San Bernardino Colony as a lucrative cash cow for enhancing his work at Salt Lake, he was troubled with reports about Lyman’s theological views and increasingly demonstrated a jealous attitude over the success of the Colony.

    Lyman suggests that the “Mormon victory in adapting to the life in the semi-arid West is one of the Latter-day Saints’ contributions to the history of the United States.” Success also came because of mutual cooperation and willingness to follow “sometimes authoritarian ecclesiastical leaders,” he writes. The example of success and industriousness among the Mormons and the respect the Colony enjoyed in southern California provides support for this conclusion.

    By 1858, Young ordered a recall of the Mormon faithful to Utah, and the San Bernardino Colony saw 60% of its population following the injunction. In their tracks, Lyman and Rich left the newly created County of San Bernardino and City of San Bernardino, a thriving agricultural empire—embracing flour, wine production, and vegetables, lumbering (Los Angeles was largely built by timber from the San Bernardino Mountains), and roads for the transportation of goods to many points in southern California.

    Discussions of cultural ethnocentrism prevalent at the time, relations with the Californios, the Cahuilla Indians and their Chief Juan Antonio, early African American and Jewish settlers as Mormon colonists, are all afforded their role in the diverse Colony’s history. All this made possible because of Lyman’s permission to use for the first time archival material in the Church archives.

    In calling San Bernardino’s Mormon Colony “a community in the truest sense of the word, one of the outstanding examples of selflessness and commitment to others ever demonstrated in American History,” Lyman makes a broad reach and might well have added that such comes in contrast, and almost in spite of, the less than helpful stance toward the San Bernardino community from Young’s office in Salt Lake City. There is no doubt that outside of Salt Lake City, San Bernardino was the most successful of the Mormon colonies in the West and would have continued to be so had not Young recalled the faithful. The role and nature of a theocracy in nineteenth-century America is presented by Lyman and is contrasted with the inevitable pitfalls when people challenge such authority and frequently pay the price of one’s membership in the faith. Lyman’s account earns a place on the shelf of works which continue to clarify the evolving understanding of the region called “southern California.”

  3. Maria S. Ellsworth, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

    This award-winning book by Professor Leo Lyman of Victor Valley College is the product of many years or research and writing. He takes the reader through diaries, letters, records kept by church clerks, newspaper accounts from California and Utah in describing all that happened in the San Bernardino Valley before and after the San Bernardino colony was established by Brigham Young in the fall of 1851 and was then recalled by him in 1857.

    This impressive book, with maps and photographs, and dramatic narrative, will interest all who enjoy detailed history of the period when colonizing the Mormon territory took place.

    Lyman describes the history of the region before the American Period: the native people, the Spanish Fathers who converted them to Christianity, the Spanish ranchers, the early trappers and explorers, followed by westering Americans. Into this mix was added the very different group of Latter-day Saints coming from Utah. The mix was made more complex by the inclusion of members from the South, with their slaves, and the returned Pacific Island missionaries, with their Polynesian converts. Add more: the less faithful Saints who did not care for the cold of Utah or the restrictions placed upon them there. The stage is set for the grand drama that is played out.

    The LDS church held a central position in the colony with apostles Charles C. Rich and Amasa M. Lyman resident emissaries of President Brigham Young. Under them the colony was founded and managed. The author sees clearly the devastating effect on the colony of Brigham Young’s initial support turned awry and eventual opposition. Divisions plagued the colony.

    Chapter six is a favorite exposition of the social history of the people sacrificing and helping all to enjoy the blessings of the gospel plan. The chapter shows how the people lived, worshipped, and played together. This was not Utah, but California, where others could acquire free land and run for public office without approval of the local high council. Mormon political practice took a different position with regard to democracy. Church unity in politics was hard to establish and retain.

    By the time of the “Mormon War,” the stage had been set for the removal of the “true saints” from the place that President Young had come to detest. Chapter eight, “Exodus and After,” gives the story of what happened as the settlers had to give up on payment for the remainder of the purchase and get only what they could to cross the desert and return to live in near poverty in the communities of southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. It is a tragic story of loss of property and homes, of families split up, of travel most difficult. Then the travellers learn the war was over while they were still on the march, and that with a little help from Brigham young the colony could have survived and become prosperous enough so that those who wanted to leave could do so without so much pain and sacrifice.

    The extensive bibliography attests to the fact that the text is well founded on appropriate sources. The history of Mormon San Bernardino has been written!

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