How San Bernardino County Became the Largest County in the Contiguous United States
SAN BERNARDINO – Spanning more than 20,000 square miles, from the edge of the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles in the west to California’s desert border with Nevada and Arizona in the east, San Bernardino County Bernardino is by far the largest county of the lower 48 states.
Its area exceeds nine states, as well as Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium and dozens of other countries, as proponents of a recent push for county secession often point out. You can see on any map of California’s 58 counties that San Bernardino dwarfs all others.
The reason for its large size? A Mormon colony that took root in Southern California nearly two centuries ago.
In 1851, Brigham Young, head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and governor of Utah Territory—it was not yet a state—sent an emissary to southern California to plant a Mormon settlement he hoped would expand the church’s influence, win converts, and chart a snow-free wagon route to haul goods from the Pacific coast.
According to historian Edward Leo Lyman, 437 Latter-day Saints, traveling in 150 covered wagons, made the perilous 600-mile journey from central Utah to southern California through the rocky Cajon Pass, “without any arguably one of the most arduous pioneer treks in America”. history.” (A towering outcrop of sandstone in the pass named Mormon Rocks pays homage to their journey, although of course native tribes lived near these rocks for hundreds of years before the arrival of Spanish settlers or Anglo-Saxons.)
Upon arriving in California, the Mormon Travelers purchased a 35,000-acre piece of land known as Rancho San Bernardino from the Lugo brothers, who are part of a prominent Los Angeles family, said Nathan Gonzales, who teaches history at the University of Redlands. They began to develop their settlement, building houses, designing a network of streets, and planting fruit trees and vines.
At the time, at the height of the gold rush, San Francisco was the political center of California – which had just joined the union in 1850 – and the southern half of the state was still called “the counties of cows” because of all the undeveloped land, Gonzales told me. The newly formed San Bernardino, about 60 miles east of the city of Los Angeles, fell within the county limits of Los Angeles and within a year became its second largest city.
This gave the Mormon community political power in the area. In 1852, Jefferson Hunt, a well-known Mormon settler, was elected to the California State Assembly – and at the top of his agenda was the creation of San Bernardino County.
Hunt wanted his new territory to be large enough to incorporate not only the growing Mormon settlement, but also all existing and potential future routes from Southern California to Salt Lake City, which was a goal of Young, according to the historian Tom Sutak.
In April 1953, California lawmakers approved Hunt’s proposal to carve out a strip east of Los Angeles County to form San Bernardino County.
The county’s trapezoidal boundaries changed slightly over the following decades, and a slice was removed to create neighboring Riverside County in 1893. But San Bernardino County remained California’s largest county, encompassing much of the Mojave Desert and part of Joshua Tree National Park, with its northeast corner about 50 miles from Las Vegas and its southwest 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
In downtown San Bernardino, at the palm-lined entrance to a towering county courthouse, a green sign points to the site of the Mormon Stockade, the first place Mormon settlers lived when they arrived in California. A 30-minute drive northwest, through a rough landscape that looks like the set of an old western, arid but for a few ranch houses and yuccas, I recently spotted the Mormon Trail Monument, an old wheel wood that points to the nearby mountains, where pioneers entered – and eventually left – the San Bernardino Valley.
As the California colony grew, Young became increasingly concerned that its people were drifting too far away from the church and that some may have become disillusioned with some of its practices, including polygamy. (Hunt, the state deputy known as “Father of San Bernardino County,” had two wives and is said to have had the most children – 21, as well as 154 grandchildren – of any lawmaker in the state. State of California, said Jackie Peterson, a spokesperson for the California State Library.)
In 1857, just six years after the arrival of his followers, Young recalled the settlers from San Bernardino, Utah. His suspicions were at least partially confirmed, according to Lyman, the historian: Of the approximately 3,000 people living in the California colony at the time, only about half returned to Salt Lake. The others stayed in San Bernardino.
what we eat
Crispy gnocchi with Brussels sprouts and brown butter.
where we travel
The tip of the day comes from Patrice Smerdu:
“The town of Carlsbad is well worth a visit. The old town center has great restaurants and shops, and Legoland is nearby. This time of year the Flower Fields are a wonderful place to visit and are open until Mother’s Day with nearly 50 acres of flowers and other activities.
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.
What foods do you consider typically Californian? Sourdough bread? Wine? Oranges? California burrito?
Tell us your favorite Golden State food, drink or snack and include a few sentences about what it means to you. Email us at CAToday@nytimes.com.
We may include your email response in an upcoming newsletter or in print. By sending us a response by e-mail, you acknowledge having read, understood and accepted the Reader Submission Requirements in connection with all content and other information that you send to us (“Your Content”). If you do not agree to these terms, do not submit any content.
And before leaving, some good news
Traveling teacher of the deaf Jay Tracy lives in the Bay Area with his wife and four children — and an extra fridge full of pounds of heirloom cucumber seeds.
This cache of seeds represents the product of a treasure hunt of several years.
In 2009, Tracy, then living in Tucson, Arizona, wanted to identify the types of cucumbers that might perform best in hot, dry environments. Since then, he’s fostered over 50 varieties of cucumbers, many of which look nothing like what you’d see in a grocery store.
He is particularly interested in melon-cucumbers, which are genetically closer to a cantaloupe or honeydew melon than to a cucumber. Their advantage? “They are never bitter,” he said, “and always easy to digest.”
Learn more about The Times.