Early Utahns Had Dreams of California


The Salt Lake Tribune    


Will Bagley, History Matters
Published: 04/29/2001 Edition:   Section: Utah Page: B1

The rise and fall of the Mormon colony at San Bernardino, California, is one of the forgotten epics of Western history. It is an intriguing tale of utopian dreams, frontier conflict and defeated idealism. The story reflects one of the recurring themes of early LDS history, in which local communities went from welcoming Mormon settlers to virtual warfare with their peculiar neighbors.

This year, Bob Lowe and some sixty wagons had planned to make the arduous trek to San Bernardino to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the wagon train that left Great Salt Lake City on March 11, 1851, to found a Mormon town in California. Unfortunately, Rock demon Ozzie Osbourne’s heavy-metal festival appropriated the wagon train’s destination at Sycamore Grove, now Glen Helen Regional Park. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors had approved $9,000 to help the Heritage Trails Association use the park for five days at the end of June, but when rock-star money talks, Western history walks.

Next fall, these valiant re-creators will try again. They will leave Utah Valley and follow the trails of Jedediah Smith and Orrin Porter Rockwell across beautiful mountains and picturesque deserts. The modern-day pioneers will pass through the trail way station Mormon settlers founded at Fort Las Vegas, across the Mojave Desert and over Cajon Pass, the ancient gateway to the fertile valleys of Southern California. History shows you don’t have to be crazy to do this, but it helps.

Mormon Battalion Captain Jefferson Hunt reported to LDS prophet Brigham Young in May 1847 from California: “We have a very good offer to purchase a large valley sufficient to support 50,000 families.” A year later, Captain Daniel Davis (who later lent his name to Davis County) and his wife Susan brought the first wagon up the trail that I-15 follows today. His band of Mexican War veterans told tales of an earthly paradise of rich land and benign weather.

For Young, California posed a major problem: competition. Anyone who thought about it for more than five minutes knew the Golden State was infinitely more attractive than the hardscrabble Kingdom in the Great Basin. “After all our trouble in being driven into the wilderness,” Young complained, all Utah could talk about by 1848 was “California, California, California, California.”

A man on his way to the gold diggings once asked Brigham Young if he knew where hell was. Recalled Young: “I told him I thought that he was on the road to that very place.” If the man got to California and did not find hell, the prophet asked the man to let him know. “As I have not since heard from him,” Young said, “I presume he found it.” Having been there, Apostles Amasa Lyman and Charles C. Rich lobbied to establish a California outpost.

The Mormons sought a snow-free route to Zion for converts from Australia and Polynesia and even hoped a trail to the Pacific would be easier than the arduous trip across the plains for English converts. They dreamed of a “continuous line of stations and places of refreshment” between Salt Lake and the Pacific Coast, which is how we got Las Vegas.

In February 1851, Young authorized Rich and Lyman to take two-dozen volunteers and establish a colony in Southern California. When he went to Payson to bid farewell to the colonists, the prophet found 500 people, 150 wagons and 1,100 animals eager to leave Utah. Young was so mad “at the sight of so many of the Saints running to California” that he refused to address them. Now, of course, the problem is how to keep all those Californians out of Utah.

Utah historian Bagley attended high school in Southern California.