San Bernardino's colorful history begins in the early years of the 19th century. Spanish missionaries were the first settlers to the region. They chose the fertile valley at the foot of a majestic mountain range as an outpost for other missionaries who traveled throughout the California territory preaching to the various Indian tribes.
Tradition has it that Father Francisco Dumetz made his last trip from Mission San Gabriel to the San Bernardino Valley and on May 20, 1810 set up an altar in a planned effort to convert the Indians living there. Padre Dumetz named the area "San Bernardino" after Saint Bernardino of Siena, the patron saint of the day on the Catholic Calendar.
In 1819, Mission San Gabriel established Rancho San Bernardino in the area. The main concern of the missionaries was the spiritual welfare of the Indians, but they also took a part in their material well being, showing their peaceful friends how to bring water down from Mill creek and the best ways to plant and irrigate crops. As the mission flourished, so did the Indians.
Old San Bernardino Mission (Branch of San Gabriel) 1820
However, all missions were ordered closed by decree of California's Governor Figeroa in 1834 and the mission period came to an end. But with its demise came the birth of the Great Spanish rancheros. The abandoned mission didn't stay vacant for long and soon became an important post on the trading route known as the Spanish Trail.
Pioneer trailblazers like Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith, among others, spent a good deal of time in the valley during those years. Beautiful haciendas were built to house the Spanish landowners and the ranchos were kept in a constant state of excitement from all the fiestas, rodeos, horse races and celebrations of religious holidays.
The biggest threat to the happy life on the ranchos was the horse and cattle-stealing raids made by tribes of desert Indians. Usually made during the full moon, these attacks could wipe out a rancho's entire herd and many rancheros eventually gave up and moved out of the area. The stealing continued, however, until a company of nearly 500 Mormons arrived in the valley in 1851, making camp at the mouth of a creek which flowed briskly through the valley to the Santa Ana River. Overjoyed with the abundance of water, the dense growth of willows, cottonwoods and sycamores and the mustard and wild oats that grew on the hillsides, the followers named the stream "Lytle Creek" after their leader, Captain Andrew Lytle.
Dedicated to expanding Brigham Young's religious empire, the religious pioneers purchased 35,000 acres of the San Bernardino Rancho in 1851, for $77,500, with a down payment of $7,000. Having heard tales about the Indian attacks, the Mormons quickly built a stockade around the rancho and named it Fort San Bernardino. The families lived inside the stockade for the first few years, growing wheat and other crops outside and building a grain mill inside. But since the Mormons weren't raising cattle or horses, the desert Indians were no longer a threat and soon families were able to move out and build their own homes.
In the fall of 1852, Colonel Henry Washington, a United States deputy surveyor, erected a monument on top of Mount San Bernardino and through it ran the base line from which surveys in the southern part of the state were, and are still made. The community thrived and in 1854 the City of San Bernardino was officially incorporated. Population at the time was 1,200 - 900 of them Mormons. San Bernardino was strictly a temperance town, with no drinking or gambling allowed.
In 1857 Brigham Young recalled his Mormons to Salt Lake City. Some went, taking great financial losses, while others opted to remain and struggled to continue on their own. In the six short years that the Mormons followed their mission at San Bernardino Rancho, they made numerous achievements, establishing schools, stores, a network of roads and a strong government.
Gold was discovered in Holcomb Valley in 1860 and men poured into the mountains through San Bernardino to try their luck at panning. For a time Belleville, in Holcomb Valley, was the largest city in Southern California with 10,000 residents, and it almost became the county seat, losing to San Bernardino by only one vote.
Times were rough and hard, just like the men who came in search of instant wealth, and numerous internal problems plagued the God-fearing settlers. The community survived and both the library and temperance associations were created at this time.
(9th & E Streets, 1891)
As the last years of the 19th century waned, the giant railway companies eventually found their way to San Bernardino, changing it from a sleepy town into an enterprising city. The Santa Fe, the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads all converged on the city, making it the hub of their Southern California operations.
Competition between the railroads set off a rate war, which brought thousands of newcomers to California in the great land boom of the 1880's. When the Santa Fe Railway established a transcontinental link in 1886, the already prosperous valley exploded. Even more settlers flocked from the East and population figures doubled, from 6,150 in 1900 to 12,779 in 1910, the year that the San Bernardino Chamber of Commerce was first organized.
A well-known landmark of the San Bernardino Valley is the arrowhead that sits high on the mountainside. Clearly visible since long before the white man came, the figure has many legends concerning its origin. The Indians, well aware of the medicinal value of the hot springs, often gathered there to bathe in the hot springs. The Mormons called the mark the "Ace of Spades".
Measuring 1,375 feet long and 449 feet wide, the arrowhead is visible from as far away as 30 miles on a clear day. Although it was commonly believed at one time that the Indians had made the arrowhead to mark the location of the hot springs, geologists now say that it is a natural phenomenon, a natural uplifting of the soil.
As the years went by, San Bernardino floundered and flourished with growing pains, just as all communities do. The good times went hand-in-hand with the bad times. Today, of course, San Bernardino has grown into a civilized, urban center - a modern community with a bright future. The enduring spirit and vitality of yesterday's pioneers is still evident and is reflected in the pride of the community.
For an enhanced version of San Bernardino's history, click on Sesquicentennial (1810-1960)