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The San Bernardino Society For California Pioneers - 1888

By Steven Shaw

(Photographs provided by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

The San Bernardino Society for California Pioneers was chartered in 1888 by three men, George W. Suttenfield, Major Benjamin B. Harris, and Sydney P. Waite, who called meetings for every Saturday afternoon in the county's courthouse.

Requirements for membership were stiff. A person had to prove United States citizenship or the capability of becoming naturalized and must have lived in California before December 31, 1850 and in the county on or before the county's incorporation date, April 26, 1853.

Male descendants of persons who had qualified for membership were permitted to join, but women who were related to qualifying members could only be honorary or life members.

According to the earliest records on hand, the society's first president was New York-born George Lord Sr., who, reportedly, had only missed one meeting and that was to attend the funeral of an old friend. Lord was 88 years old when he was elected January 21, 1888. He had come to California in 1849, the year of the gold rush.


(William F. Holcomb, John Brown, Jr., John Brown, Sr., George Miller and B.B. Harris)

Other charter members elected to serve as the society's first officers and who later became society presidents were:

Mountaineer and hunter John Brown Sr., 72, first vice president. He was born Dec. 22, 1817, at Worcester, Mass., crossed the plains with an ox and mule team, and arrived in Sacramento in 1849. He first came to San Bernardino in 1852, and in 1857 purchased a home on the northwest corner of 6th and D Streets.

James W. Waters Sr., 75, second vice president. He was born in New York and later became a hunter and trapper companion of Brown. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1844 and built San Bernardino's Opera House.


(David Seely)

David Seely, 70, third vice president. He was born in Canada and arrived in San Bernardino in 1850, then served on a state-appointed commission with Brown to establish San Bernardino County. He was a member of the Pomeroy wagon train that rescued a wagon train of settlers that became stranded in Death Valley in 1849.


(William F. Holcomb in his younger years)

William F. Holcomb, 59, vice president. He was born in Iowa and arrived in California in 1850. He struck gold and hunted bear in the San Bernardino mountain valley now bearing his name. He also served as county assessor during the 1870's and as county clerk from 1882-1890. He was the great-grandfather of W. R. "Bob" Holcomb, the Mayor of San Bernardino from 1971 to 1985 and again from 1989 to 1993.

Benjamin B. Harris, 63, treasurer. He was born in Virginia and arrived at Mariposa mines in 1849 and San Bernardino in 1870. He served as the city attorney and city clerk for San Bernardino and he was buried in Pioneer Cemetery.

Henry M. Willis, 58, corresponding secretary. He was born in Maryland and came to California via Cape Horn, reaching San Francisco in 1849.

John Brown Jr., 42, secretary.  The son of John Brown, Sr., he left the Rocky Mountains and arrived in Sacramento in 1849. He served as the society's secretary until his death in 1932.


(Virginia Ann and Nicholas Porter Earp, photographed on July 30, 1890 in San Bernardino)

Nicholas Porter Earp, veteran of the Mexican War, justice of peace in Colton and father of the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan) who joined Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.


(Pioneer Group on Parade, July 4, 1899 with John Brown by the horse), 1899 with John Brown by the horse)

By May 10, 1890, the society's 97 members were taking an active role in local events, which in the 1890s included all 4th of July and Admission Day celebrations and the Centennial Anniversary of Washington's inauguration as first president of the United States. It was to participate in one of the city's major historical events - the Festival of the Arrowhead - that led the Pioneer Society to build a log cabin kitchen next to the Isaac R. Brunn residence on the south side of Fourth Street between D and E Streets.

Needing more space, the old-timers moved their temporary quarters in 1911 to the old Lugo Park, changing its name to Pioneer Park. For 62 years, the Pioneers met regularly at the log cabin, adding to its size to accommodate the meetings, socials and memorabilia collected over the years.


(Log Cabin in Pioneer Park, formerly called Lugo Park) Park) Park), formerly called Park)

When the cabin burned in 1973, most of the relics and documents they had amassed were destroyed. The Pioneer Society rebuilt its meeting hall, but it never could replace, nor duplicate, the treasures in pictures, powder guns, yokes and other bits of memorabilia belonging to the city's settlers.

With dwindling membership, the few remaining members of the Pioneer Society decided in 1977 to accept the San Bernardino Historical Society's offer to merge. They became the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society, and together undertook the task of restoring the Otis House (now called the Heritage House), which was donated along with the property by Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan Association.

The Pioneer Park meeting place was sold to St. Bernardine's Catholic Church for a parish hall. Using the profits of that sale, a new meeting place was built and named Christian R. Harris Memorial Hall in honor of the last president of the San Bernardino Society for California Pioneers.