Mark Landis, Correspondent
Posted: 09/07/2009 07:06:58 AM PDT
Beginning in the late 1700s, a succession of legendary explorers and missionaries started to traverse San Bernardino County to map out new overland routes, carry out military missions, and convert the local American Indians to Christianity.
In 1772, Pedro Fages, a Spanish soldier, became the first white explorer to pass through the San Bernardino Valley and cross into the Mojave Desert. For the next 50 years, explorers traveling through the region didn't show an interest in the San Bernardino Valley and their passages through the area was incidental.
The date and leader of the first exploration of the San Bernardino Valley for the purpose of establishing a settlement here has been the subject of controversy for many years. Now, with the upcoming San Bernardino bicentennial celebration, the debate among local historians has been rekindled.
According to a popular history book written by Father Juan Caballeria in 1902, Father Francisco Dumetz, an elderly priest from the San Gabriel Mission, led an expedition in 1810 to the San Bernardino Valley. Caballeria claimed that Dumetz had been sent to search for a good location to establish an inland mission outpost.
According to Caballeria, Dumetz found the area around the Indian village at Guachama to be an ideal location. Guachama was located near the present-day intersection of Hunts Lane and Hospitality Lane in San Bernardino, along the Santa Ana River.
Caballeria cites May 20, 1810, as the date Dumetz set up a crude capilla or chapel at Guachama and bestowed the name San Bernardino upon the site. The name honored St. Bernardino of Sienna, whose Feast Day was on that day. He was an Italian priest, Franciscan missionary and Catholic saint who lived from 1380 to 1444.
In the years following the publication of Caballeria's book, 1810 became the accepted date that the valley was first explored and named. But research by later historians raised questions and doubts.
Prominent San Bernardino Valley historians George and Helen Beattie noted that major American Indian attacks against the San Gabriel Mission in 1810 nearly led to the overthrow of that mission.
Documentation from the 1810 period shows that the Indian unrest halted the establishment of new mission sites beyond the military protection of the San Gabriel Mission.
One possibility is that Dumetz did visit the San Bernardino Valley in search of a good mission site in 1810, but due to the American Indian unrest, nothing was permanently established until several years later. It is well documented that the San Gabriel Mission established "Rancho San Bernardino" in the valley in 1819.
Unless new evidence is discovered, the full story of the valley's first exploration will remain a mystery.
The first American explorer to pass through San Bernardino County was legendary mountain man Jedediah Smith, in November of 1826. The Smith party had traveled south from the Salt Lake Valley and begun crossing the Mojave Desert when they veered west from the Colorado River.
Guided by two Indians who had run away from the San Gabriel Mission, Smith followed the old Mojave Trail that padre Garces used more than 50 years before.
On the last stage of his long overland journey to the Pacific, Smith described the Mojave Desert as a country of "complete barrens." The party traveled from morning until night from water hole to water hole. When Jedediah reached the Mojave River, he called it "The Inconstant River" since it ran both below and above the surface.
Smith followed the Mojave River to its source in the San Bernardino Mountains and then crossed into the San Bernardino Valley on Nov. 26, over the old Mojave Trail, near the Cajon Pass.
Upon reaching the San Bernardino Valley, the exhausted band of explorers turned west and traveled to the San Gabriel Mission where they were welcomed by the padres. Described as being "nearly naked," the tattered Smith party was clothed and treated to a great feast of beef and cornmeal.
Smith and his men were detained by the Spanish authorities who were suspicious of American intrusion into their territory. Smith finally convinced the authorities of his altruistic motives, and the party began moving again on Jan. 18, 1827.
Jedediah Smith made another trip into Southern California in 1827. On this trip, the party was attacked by American Indians along the Colorado River, and more than half of the men were killed.
The seven survivors came back to the San Bernardino Valley to get help for a wounded man and collect supplies. This time, Smith thought better of going to the San Gabriel Mission and departed by the same route across the desert.
Famed explorer John C. Fremont crossed through the Mojave Desert and San Bernardino County on his second great expedition in 1844. The Fremont party included renowned frontiersmen Kit Carson and Alexis Godey.
The weary explorers were on the return trip from their expedition through Washington and Oregon. They had come south through the San Joaquin Valley, crossed the Tehachapi Mountains and were headed east through the Antelope Valley, in search of the Mojave Trail (which was now being called the Spanish Trail, and portions of which later would be called the Mormon Trail).
On April 19, Fremont was greatly relieved to find the trail near present-day Oro Grande, northwest of Victorville. The trail followed the life-giving Mojave River that provided just enough sustenance for the men and animals to cross this particularly harsh section of desert.
Along the way, the Fremont party had a bloody skirmish with local American Indians near Bitter Springs (within the boundaries of present-day Fort Irwin). The American Indians had stolen a herd of horses, and Kit Carson and Alexis Godey led a vicious foray to retrieve the animals.
Fremont left Southern California over the Mojave Trail and returned to Kansas City via Salt Lake Valley and Pueblo Colorado.
Many of the routes used by San Bernardino County's earliest explorers have evolved into major roads and highways and countless names they gave the sites along the way are still in use today. Their trailblazing expeditions eventually opened the way for the great wave of immigrants who settled Southern California.