San Bernardino in 1810

by Richard D. Thompson, August 2007

Interest in San Bernardino's origins is being rekindled as the city's bicentennial year 2010 approaches. The term "rekindled" is apropos, because debate on the actual year of the city's founding has become pretty fiery. The date of the city's founding was established as 1810, based on an account in the writings of one man, Father Juan Caballeria, which is the source of the controversy. We need to go back in time to see what was going on in San Bernardino in 1810 in order to shed some light on the subject.

[Note that on the 1810 map below, only the islands, the Spanish Missions and a few settlements near the California Coast have been identified. The area inland was very sparsely populated except by Indian Villages.]
Inland Portion of the Map of Mexico from 1810
New Map of Mexico and adjacent provinces compiled from original documents by A. Arrowsmith, 1810.
(See an enlarged map)

Local resident Father Juan Caballeria wrote a series of newspaper articles in 1902 in which he stated that the town of San Bernardino, originally the Indian village of Guachama, received its name during an 1810 expedition headed by Padre Francisco Dumetz of the Mission San Gabriel.1 There are those who doubt that such an expedition occurred.

Documentation regarding a Dumetz expedition has not been discovered, other than Caballeria's narrative, but accounts of the history of San Bernardino in 1810 have appeared in major historical works.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, a prominent California historian, identifies the year 1810 as a period of Indian unrest throughout Spanish California, and in this paragraph he describes the call put out to the Spaniard's main Indian fighter, Alferez (Ensign) Gabriel Moraga, for help at Mission San Gabriel:2

The Indians were somewhat more troublesome in 1810 than they had been before, both in the north and south; Alferez Moraga, preeminently the Indian-fighter of the time, was kept very busy in the Spanish acceptation of the term. [There follows a description of the difficulties up north] In November there was trouble at San Gabriel, where an attack was deemed imminent, and Moraga was ordered south.

Illustration of Joaquin Moraga - Son of Gabriel Moraga
Illustration of Joaquin Moraga - Son of Gabriel Moraga from the Sutter's Fort State Historic Park collection
(No illustration of Gabriel Moraga could be located)

In a separate chapter, Bancroft covers the same incident but here he describes the source of the problem in Southern California:3

In the south at San Gabriel the Indians were still uneasy and troublesome. Neophytes [a word that in this case applies to American Indians who had newly converted to Christianity] and gentiles operated to some extent in concert, stealing cattle and even breaking open the mission store-house. Some Indians implicated in past hostilities were still prisoners at the presidios, a fact which caused much bitterness of feeling among the rest; and rumors of impending attack from the Colorado River tribes were current to increase the general alarm. The missionaries were often called upon for additional force, which was sent on several occasions, so that the danger was averted without fighting. On one occasion, however, in November, if we may credit the padres' reports, a body of Yumas, also called Amajavas, with other savages actually approached to the number of eight hundred, with the intention of destroying San Gabriel and San Fernando. The arrival of reinforcements prevented the attack.

A footnote in Bancroft's book describes additional details which show that on November 27th, Moraga went to Mission San Gabriel to investigate the causes of disorders and the rising of a man named Martinez, who with 50 men "held" that place. By December 31st, Moraga had imprisoned 21 Christian Native Americans of San Gabriel and 12 gentiles for complicity in the revolt. Six months later, in June 1811, Moraga had captured all the leaders and proceeded so wisely that 400 gentiles were converted. The hostile Indians were the Amajabas (Mojaves), who had come within two leagues of San Gabriel, but retired on hearing the mission was defended, killing one neophyte on the way.4

San Bernardino historians George and Helen Beattie, in their book Heritage of the Valley, add even more details:5

Mission San Gabriel circa 1810
The Mission San Gabriel circa 1810 dominated the San Gabriel Valley

The cause of this uprising is not known, but apparently the neophytes of San Gabriel were parties to it, if they were not the instigators; and it has importance for us because the campaigning connected with it extended into the San Bernardino region. Fathers Miguel and Zalvidea wrote of a move on San Gabriel, in November, by a united force of Mojaves from the Colorado River, Angayabas from the eastern end of the Mojave River, and Serranos from the San Bernardino Mountains, saying that this was their fourth demonstration and that the neophytes of San Gabriel had been involved and were still defiant...

The service record of a Spanish corporal, Jose Maria Pico, shows that in 1810 he led fourteen expeditions from San Gabriel against insurrectos. Other documents show that military operations extended through the San Bernardino Mountains and to the desert beyond. Many of the revolting Indians were reported in 1813 as being still absent from their villages, some having fled as far as the Mojave settlements on the Colorado.

Before proceeding with our city's 1810 history, it must be pointed out that earlier, in 1806, an expedition was sent out for the purpose of locating suitable sites for inland missions. Fray Jose Maria de Zalvidea led the expedition, which began in Santa Barbara, went north and then east along the north slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, over to the Mojave River, south through Cajon Pass to the area of today's Glen Helen Ranch, where the group turned west toward the Mission San Gabriel.6 So this expedition did not enter the valley, and thus would not have visited the village of Guachama.

A few years pass, and what happens next is unclear as to what brought Guachama to the attention of the Spaniards as a possible mission site. The San Gabriel missionaries had learned of the village, according to Beattie, and thought it a suitable place for a mission. They evidently communicated with Father Estevan Tapis, the president of the California missions, because in 1810 he turned down the idea. The only documentation is his refusal in an informe (report). What prompted the initial communication to Tapis is unknown. Beattie does comment on the reason for the denial:7

A serious obstacle, however, in the way of a mission outpost at this point was the hostility of the Mojave Indians just then; and Fray Estevan Tapis...felt compelled to withhold permission for any mission establishments in the Valley until conditions there were more favorable.

Obviously, if there was a denial, there must have been a proposal. A significant point to consider here is that someone had gone to Guachama and noted the assets of its location in order to recommend it as a mission site in 1810. This is key to connecting to Caballeria's story, yet the documentation is too sketchy to prove anything one way or the other.

In 1984 a research study was published that addressed the question of early Indians in San Bernardino. It was entitled Man and Settlement in the Upper Santa Ana River Drainage: A Cultural Resources Overview, with the historical part of the project written by Michael K. Lerch, an anthropologist specializing in Serrano Indians. Lerch is acknowledged by the tribe as being an expert in their culture.8 He wrote a paragraph that pertains to 1810:

Influence on native culture in the project areas [San Bernardino vicinity] began as early as 1771 with the establishment of San Gabriel Mission, approximately 50 miles to the west. The earliest baptisms recorded at that mission of individuals from villages in the project areas date to 1785. In order to fulfill their objectives of establishing a chain of inland missions, the Spanish mission authorities sent expeditions into the interior, scouting for suitable sites. The first of these to reach the Project Areas was in 1806, and its itinerary was recorded by diarist Father Jose Maria Zalvidea. The second such expedition came in 1810, and resulted in the valley acquiring the name San Bernardino. Apparently the native inhabitants of both the project areas and the surrounding regions were opposed to the Spanish presence in their territory, for later that same year a united force of Mojaves from the Colorado River, Angayabas from the eastern end of the Mojave River, and Serranos from the San Bernardino Mountains attacked San Gabriel with the help of defiant neophytes there, in what was reportedly the fourth such demonstration.

Caballeria stated that the Indian village of Guachama was renamed San Bernardino during the disputed 1810 expedition. Lerch gives us information that locates the village of Wa'atsava't, or Guachama, and describes some of the linguistics of the region:9

The native group which inhabited the San Bernardino Valley was the Wa'achem, a clan which belonged to the wahiyam, or coyote, moiety. Their territory, which consisted of the Santa Ana River and adjacent lands from the East Highlands area as far downstream as Agua Mansa near the county line, was known as Wa'atsava't to the Serrano and as wa'achanga to the Gabrielino. The existence of references in the literature to this area in both languages has raised questions as to whether the Wa'achem were Serrano or Gabrielino. The Spanish called the Wa'achem, "Guachama"...

Four years later, R. Bruce Harley, Archivist of the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, wrote an essay entitled Rev. Juan Caballeria: Historian or Storyteller? Rethinking the 1810 Dumetz Expedition.10 Harley concluded that no evidence existed of a Dumetz expedition, but he did not exclude the possibility of future discoveries concerning the matter:

Thus, the historian-detective is forced to conclude, albeit reluctantly, that not all of the possible clues to the riddle have been found. On the other hand, some apparently spurious clues have hampered a solution. Quite likely the search will be renewed from time to time on the off chance that location of the missing clues will close the gaps in the puzzle which has challenged various historian-detectives for nearly a century.

  1. Articles in San Bernardino Daily Times-Index ran from Jan to Sept, 1902, in 23 installments. Later published in book form as: Caballeria, Father Juan. History of San Bernardino Valley: From the Padres to the Pioneers, Times-Index Press, 1902
  2. Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of California, Volume II, 1801-1824. Wallace Hebberd: Santa Barbara, 1966, pp 91, 92.
  3. Ibid, p 323.
  4. Ibid. Footnote 26 on page 92. I've paraphrased the footnotes in this paragraph.
  5. Beattie, George William, and Helen Pruitt Beattie. Heritage of the Valley: San Bernardino's First Century. San Pasqual Press: Pasadena, 1939, pp 8,9.
  6. Ibid, p 4.
  7. Ibid, p 8.
  8. Altschul, Jeffrey H., Martin R. Rose, and Michael K. Lerch. Man and Settlement in the Upper Santa Ana River Drainage: A Cultural Resources Overview. Report prepared for the Los Angeles District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Statistical Research, Technical Series No. 1, 1984, pp 58-59.
  9. Ibid, p 57.
  10. Harley, R. Bruce. Rev. Juan Caballeria: Historian or Storyteller? Rethinking the 1810 Dumetz Expedition. San Bernardino County Museum Association Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer 1988, pp 30, 31.