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California’s Pioneer Era 1846-1886


The history of California is as extreme and diverse as its geography and climate. From a state that has the highest mountains in the US outside of Alaska…and the most forbidding deserts in the western hemisphere, comes a history of such dimension and significance to equal that of a sovereign nation.

(Cleland, Robert Glass, PHD., A History Of California: The American Period, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1927)

California’s development has been influenced by explorers, Native Americans, padres, trappers, whalers, miners, pioneers, ranchers, farmers and inventors from all over the world. Its history is significant in its national and international aspects as it transitioned from a Mexican province to an American state.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, noted California historian, carefully researched and recorded the names of every foreigner, nearly 600, who came to California in the early 1800’s. His detailed records showed that by 1840 some 380 remained including John Sutter and other mountain men, many of whom had obtained land grants from the Mexican government. By this time, the handling of all commerce had shifted from the missions to the ranchos.

Beginning in 1846, this all changed again with three significant migrations of pioneers coming to California. They became the catalyst to California’s transformation from a rancho economy to an agricultural economy. Agriculture became the state’s greatest source of wealth, even more than its gold. These pioneers thrust California into the mainstream of US economy and into the national and international spotlight.


Leaving New York Harbor on February 4, 1846, a group of more than 220 sea-faring pioneers set sail on the Ship Brooklyn for San Francisco Bay. Their difficult journey of over 20,000 miles took them around Cape Horn. The ship was a veritable “Noah’s Ark” with farming equipment, seeds, a printing press, an assortment of machinery, tools, and equipment for two saw mills and a grist mill; farm machinery; implements and tools for eight hundred men including plows, shovels, hoes, scythes, and forks; blacksmith and carpenter tools; lathes, sawmill irons, and nails; utensils of glass, brass copper, tin, and crockery; a large quantity of dry goods for resale; several cases of muskets; two milk cows, forty pigs, and several crates of chickens; educational supplies for schools and libraries, including books on grammar, mathematics, geography, history, astronomy, and Hebrew; and a 179 volume set of Harper’s Family Library. In addition, each passenger took personal effects as space permitted.

They were prepared to plant a colony.

They reached the San Francisco Bay on July 31, 1846, just twenty-two days after the American Flag had been raised by Captain John B. Montgomery in the plaza at Yerba Buena, signifying California’s transition had begun.

They immediately began to establish homes, even building the first English-speaking school. They dug wells, cut and hauled lumber, and planted wheat. Some of the men were recruited by Captain Montgomery to help keep the peace.

By the fall of 1846, they began to acquire land and a group established the colony of New Hope where the first wheat was grown in the San Joaquin Valley. Their efforts launched the state’s commercial farming industry.

Sam Brannan, the ecclesiastical leader of the Brooklyn Saints, a printer by trade, set up his printing press. On October 24, 1846, Brannan published his first edition of The California Star. San Francisco’s first newspaper would become the means by which the discovery of gold was announced to the world two years later. Within a few short years, these pioneers would turn the sleepy village of Yerba Buena into the bustling city of San Francisco. These settlers, similar to the Pilgrims on the east coast, had traveled west to escape severe religious persecution and find the freedom to practice their religion. They were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as Latter-day Saints (nicknamed Mormons). They were the largest group of foreigners to come to California at that time and firmly implanted the Yankee way of life. By the end of 1846, the majority of settlers in California were eastern-bred Latter-day Saints.

Bancroft writes, “San Francisco became for a time very largely a Mormon town. All bear witness to the orderly and moral conduct of the saints…they were honest and industrious citizens…” (Bancroft 5:551)


The story of the Mormon Battalion, US Army of the West, has major significance in the history of California’s transition to the Golden State. At Council Bluffs, Iowa, in July of 1846, US Army Captain James Allen, representing President James Polk, recruited into military service, 500 Latter-day Saint men who had been traveling with their families to the Great Salt Lake Valley under the leadership of Brigham Young. A number of wives were recruited also as laundresses.

Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Phillip Cooke, they were given the assignment to reinforce the Army of the West already in stationed in California, and to build a wagon road from Santa Fe to San Diego.

They left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and marched what is believed to be one of the longest infantry marches in history, over 2,000 miles, to San Diego. The results of their service were milestones in US history: 1) The southern road they carved was subsequently used by the Butterfield Stage; 2) the road was chosen to be the route for the Southern Pacific Railroad; 3) the land for the Gadsden Purchase was selected using maps and the route made by the Mormon Battalion, thus opening the great southwest for travel and commerce.

During their time in Southern California as peacekeepers, they rendered much service including building the first brick kiln and firing 40,000 bricks. They built the first brick courthouse in San Diego. The restored building still stands today. They whitewashed homes, lined wells with brick, built a grist mill, built Fort Moore in Los Angeles, and in general befriended the Californios. Each community was saddened when the soldiers departed to their next assignment. They lived and served as they believed, that each man was their brother.

They mustered out on July 16, 1847. Many went to Northern California to work for Sutter. Over 100 men were hired, six of whom helped to build his new saw mill at Coloma. While building the tailrace they were part of the famous Marshall gold discovery. The journal of Battalion veteran Henry Bigler was the only place the date of the find, Monday, January 24, 1848, was recorded for posterity.

Several men of the Battalion made the second and largest gold find which was located in the American River.

In spite of their lucrative gold find, they turned their backs on it for something more precious to them—they left California to rejoin their families, many still on the plains of Iowa. Heading east, they carved the Mormon Emigrant Trail through the Sierra Nevadas that became known as the “Forty Niner Highway” and opened Northern California to the Gold Rush. Over 50,000 wagons and 200,000 people used this trail during this time.

Former Battalion men blazed several California trails including an all-weather route from Utah to Southern California and then north as they led Forty Niners to the gold fields. They later developed these and other routes as freighters.

Their legacy was road building and service. From the Mexican American War, through the discovery of gold to the first pioneers to colonize in Southern California, there were few major events in the history of California from 1847-1851 that did not involved the men of the Mormon Battalion.


On September 9, 1850, California became a state. The ranchos still dominated the economy and land ownership. Previously, men of the Mormon Battalion, while working for Chino Rancho owner, Isaac Williams, during their enlistment, acted as agents for Latter-day Saint leader, Brigham Young, in negotiating to buy the rancho. Young had wanted to establish a California colony as a source of supply for the new Utah settlement and as a way station for emigrants traveling east and west through San Pedro Harbor. In the spring of 1851, 150 wagons of pioneers were finally ready to make the journey and take possession of the rancho.

Fifteen veterans of the Mormon Battalion and their families, led the 437 pioneers including African Americans, from Utah across the deserts and through the Cajon Pass. These pioneers were the first colonists to settle in Southern California after statehood – a milestone in state history.

When they arrived, Williams had changed his mind. After searching for three months, the colonists purchased the Lugo Rancho, which encompassed the entire San Bernardino Valley. They took possession October 1, and within three months built over 100 homes.

They established community fields to help pay off the rancho debt. By working for the good of the whole over individual enterprise, they out-produced Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego fields combined. Their irrigation and cultivation techniques garnered more wealth for California than did the discovery of gold. They built roads into the San Bernardino Mountains and created a booming lumber industry furnishing lumber for all of the Southland. Their industry thrust Southern California into the mainstream of US economy. The San Bernardino Valley became the economic center of the entire Southwest.

Because of the Mormon’s belief in the brotherhood of man, the spirit of true community thrived in Southern California. Jewish merchants were welcomed as they arrived from the east. The local Native Americans of the Cahuilla and Serrano tribes became protectors of the colony and were considered friends. Rancho families and former Mexican government dignitaries still living in the area were invited to colony celebrations and treated as honored guests. Nowhere in Western history was there a colony of such diversity and community spirit. A Jewish historian wrote, “Wherever Mormon influence prevailed, race prejudice was notably absent.” (The Pinkos, 1935)

Several years later, Mormon pioneer Fred T. Perris developed the train route through the Cajon Pass that caused the immigration to Southern California in1886 that equaled the Gold Rush, ending the state’s pioneer era


The Latter-day Saint pioneers who sailed on the Ship Brooklyn, the members of the Mormon Battalion and the Southern California pioneers, helped California transition into the Golden State through agriculture, road building, mining and timber. These pioneers moved California into the mainstream of US economy and into the national and international spotlight.

Marilyn Mills © 2006 3/06
PO Box 1892 Upland, CA 91785