By wagon, horse, handcart and foot, more than 2,600 Southern Californians re-enacted the Mormon Pioneers' 1851 trek through the Cajon Pass into the San Bernardino Valley Sept. 6. The five-mile trek marked the beginning of a three-month civic celebration here.
Joining the trek was Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve, who also addressed more than 6,600 in an outdoor fireside at Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino County the next day on Sunday, Sept. 7. Elder Oaks is a descendant of Justus Wellington Seely, one of the 1851 settlers in the San Bernardino Valley, along with his brother, David, who was called as the stake president, the first in what is now California.Members of the Mormon Battalion, the U.S. Army's peacekeeping force in Southern California, became a prime catalyst that led thousands to settle in Southern California. The return in 1851 of more than 400 Church members sent by Brigham Young to colonize the San Bernardino area had a "profound effect" on the region, said Elder Oaks during the fireside. "Cooperation and sacrifice were central to the LDS community."
Elder Oaks recalled that Church members made significant contributions in designing and building cities, in agriculture, milling, mining and in the lumber industry.
"Their legacy is not only one of religious faith, which some current residents of this area share . . . , but [also] the worthy qualities of cooperation and sacrifice for the public good. . . . We honor the memory of these early pioneers . . . and certify their example to all who desire to strengthen this nation by applying the principles on which it was founded."
Elder Oaks related a brief history of the Mormon exodus to Utah, which led to the later settlement of San Bernardino. "After many hardships, a party of Mormons arrived in the San Bernardino area by way of the Cajon Pass on June 24, 1851," He said. "They were predominantly northerners, but they included a group of Saints from Mississippi accompanied by African-American former slaves. This group, combined with some islanders from the South Pacific and the Native Americans and Spanish Americans already in this area, made the San Bernardino area one of America's first genuine interracial and inter-cultural communities."
In addition to celebrating the contributions of the Mormon Battalion and early Mormon pioneers, the sesquicentennial events honor Jewish merchants, American Serrano and Cahuilla tribes, Mexican Rancho era settlers, and African American pioneers.
Area historian E. Leo Lyman, a consultant to the San Bernardino County Museum, has written that "few instances in the entire history of the American West would have better exemplified true community spirit and enterprise than the San Bernardino colony."
The celebration in San Bernardino is co-sponsored by the Church and county museum as well as historical, genealogical, civic and business groups. The museum is exhibiting pioneer artifacts, journals, photographs, maps and computerized genealogy. The celebration is coordinated with the state-sponsored California Gold Rush to Statehood Sesquicentennial, as well as the Church's Faith in Every Footstep 1847-1997 Sesquicentennial.
Speaking of the exhibit, Elder Oaks said, during a telephone interview: "They brought in some of the most impressive artifacts I've seen, including a wagon that came across the plains, copies of original land grants and a corn planter brought across the plains by the Mississippi Saints."
Also presented during the weekend celebration were two official resolutions honoring Church members' contributions. The California Legislative Assembly resolution recognized the Mormon Battalion stating: "The State of California has been immeasurably enriched since its earliest days by the invaluable contributions of her early settlers and by the historical events involving the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for their loyalty to the United States, for their participation in the early development of the West and California, and for their honorable place in California history."
In addition, a resolution presented by the County of San Bernardino named a mountain within Glen Helen Regional Park as "Mormon Battalion Mountain." The newly named elevation also features a 100-foot wooden Mormon Battalion Monument in the shape of a fort, which was an Eagle Scout project by Jason Mills and Kyle Thomas of the Upland California Stake.
According to Marilyn Mills, a member of the Upland California Stake and event co-chairwoman: "We knew that the San Bernardino area was rich in Mormon history. We decided that we had to do research and study our history. The more we studied, the more we learned that this history was the story of true community. We knew we had to share this with others."
Area Church members identified and located descendants of early settlers and pioneers. More than 800 descendants, including those of the original land owners who sold land to the Mormons, attended a reception and program featuring the music, dance and history of their ancestors. Local Church members collected early settlers' personal histories from the family records in possession of descendants.
"Working with all the different cultures in finding descendants was wonderful," Sister Mills said. "The pioneer heritage belongs to all of us. It becomes your history when you live in California or when you are a Church member."
Elder Oaks expressed appreciation for the efforts of Sister Mills and so many others. "It was to my observation a remarkable community celebration that gave major prominence to the Church's role, but included everyone. There was a good feeling on the part of everyone about the fact their ancestors were being celebrated, too – and deservedly so."
Other celebration events scheduled from September to November include lecture series, adobe home tours, walking tours, concerts, living histories recreating life in 1850s, and Halloween in the pioneer cemetery.