How Did The Mormon Church Establish A Presence in the Inland Empire?

Feb 26, 2019

Credit Shareen Awad

Many people in the Inland Empire know that the Mormon Church has a big presence in the area — with around 75,000 church members. Some might be surprised to learn that Mormon colonists established the city of San Bernardino in the mid 1800s. But why did they trek to the Inland Empire from Utah?

That’s what KVCR listener Lupe Gutierrez was wondering when she asked our community reporting project, The Inland, to investigate. KVCR’s Shareen Awad took a deep dive into early IE history and has this report on why the Mormons first came to the area and their lasting impact.

Back in 2001, Marilyn Mills walked over 800 miles, reenacting the Mormons’ trek from Utah to Southern California. She’s President of the Heritage Trails Association, a historical group in San Bernardino. And she knows a thing or two about the Church’s long road west.

“The US Army asked if the Church would provide 500 men to form a battalion to help join the army of the West and build a wagon road into California,” Mills said.

Many of the men were reluctant to help because they were facing a lot of persecution and the government hadn’t been helping them. But they followed the leadership of their prophet Brigham Young.

So in 1847, the 500 men in the Mormon Battalion started moving west, carving out a wagon road. 

After a grueling 2,000 mile march, the men arrived in San Diego. They soon found themselves a little further north when they were sent to guard the Cajon Pass. They believed the area had a lot of potential and established a colony in San Bernardino, turning a cattle ranch into a city.

The Mormon settlers had a lasting influence on the region, establishing a railroad route through the Cajon Pass and dominating several industries. “Their irrigation and cultivation techniques actually garnered more wealth for California than did the discovery of gold,” Mills said. “They out produced all the fields growing from Santa Barbara to San Diego.”

Judy Cannon, Director of Public Affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Redlands Stake, said the Mormons built roads and opened up a lot of major trade routes in California.

“The building of the Mill Road, the road up to Crestline, was incredibly important. All the lumber to build San Bernardino and to build much of Los Angeles came down that 12 mile road. That was constructed in 1852. In two-and-a-half weeks.”

By 1853, San Bernardino was laid out like a miniature Salt Lake City, with streets wide enough to allow for wagon travel. In fact, E Street used to be called Salt Lake Street. But it wasn’t just the Church building a city. The settlement was home to African American, Jewish people, Spanish, Mexican, and local Serrano and Cahuilla Indians.  

Anthony Madrigal, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Cahuilla Band of Indians, said the arrival of the Mormons continued the pattern of Natives being pushed further off the land.

“The Native people had been affected by the Spanish before the Mormons and the Mexicans, which had resulted in the loss of Native land and the traditional way of life.”

However, Cahuilla Chief Juan Antonio had a close relationship with the Mormon Church community, guarding them at Fort San Bernardino, which was located where the San Bernardino County Courthouse is today.

“Leaders like Juan Antonio just thought to survive, [he had] to provide for his own people as best he could,” Madrigal said. “To work with them because he knew there was no way for Indians to win, to defeat the coming of the non-Indians.”

The Latter-day Saints had built a bustling city in San Bernardino by 1857, but during that year, the prophet Brigham Young sent out a letter, calling them back to Utah because the government was threatening to impose martial law. Many of the pioneers began disposing of their property, selling their belongings for pennies on the dollar, leaving the town they helped to establish.

Despite leaving, Mills said the members of the Church started migrating back around the time of the First World War, making it around 60 years before the Church re-established a presence in the area.

“Most of them are coming again because the jobs are here. Southern California, the railroad, the industries, technology is coming. And I gotta say, there's a fair number of them that are coming because they love the California weather.”

So, they stayed. In 2003, the Redlands California Temple opened because of a great demand for a place of worship in the area. There are around 3,500 members in the city today. Before, the only Mormon temple in Southern California was in Los Angeles, and it had been filling to capacity.

“We had been all driving into Los Angeles and that's quite the drive,” Cannon said.

The Redlands California Temple was actually built on part of the original Lugo Rancho, the land the Mormons purchased from the Spanish when they first arrived in the region.  

From the 1800s until now, the Church of Latter-Day Saints has had a big impact on the Inland Empire. They continue to build community in the region through volunteer projects. 

“Back in 1996, I started California Community Work Day. All over the state we gave 150,000 hours of service that day in remembrance of the pioneers. But that's continued. They do it yearly. And the Redlands stake is so involved. They work at schools, they clean-up projects, and they work in the city,” said Mills. 

Like most history, the legacy of the Mormon’s early presence is complicated. A group fleeing persecution built major trade routes that fueled a booming Southern California, but in the process, also contributed to a long history of colonization on native land. It’s a history that’s defined the foundation of San Bernardino and the surrounding region.

Mills said she will continue reenacting to bring this story to life, acknowledging all the peaks and valleys along the journey.

“We have so many other people that identify themselves as descendants of these pioneers that bring to life the early California history,” Mills explained during an Old West reenactment at the San Bernardino County Museum. “So we tell this story through reenacting.”

For more information about the history of the city of San Bernardino, you can follow this link: http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/default.asp

To learn more about the Cahuilla Band of Indians, you can visit https://www.cahuilla.net/history

To learn more about the Church of Latter-day Saint’s global humanitarian work, you can visit https://www.ldscharities.org/ 

If you have a question about the Inland Empire, ask The Inland! You ask, we put your questions up for a vote, the public decides which topic we should investigate, and then we go out and report back with answers.

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