The first people who lived here named the place Homhoabit, “hilly place.” At a confluence of three springs, half a mile or so from the Santa Ana River, generations of Serrano and Tongva peoples called it home. Nearby was Guachama, “a place of plenty to eat,” and Jurumpa, “water place,” and, to the west, Cucamungabit, “sand place.”

A padre, Father Francisco Dumetz, came east from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel on May 20, 1810, looking for a place to raise cattle and crops for the mission, needing a way station for travelers coming from Sonora, Mexico. He stopped at the hilly place, which was safe from river flooding. Arriving on the feast day of Saint Bernardine of Siena, Dumetz “named” the valley for him and set about persuading the Indigenous peoples to work for the mission. His phonetic translation of the hilly place became Jumuba.

Today, Guachama Rancheria is in what is now Loma Linda. Jurumpa lost its m and became Jurupa, a valley, bisected by Jurupa Avenue, only blocks from my house. Cucamungabit is Rancho Cucamonga. But Jumuba—it’s known as Fort Benson, named for one man who in 1856 stole a cannon and put it in front of his house, who lived here for only a year or so. California Historical Marker 617, like so many other historical markers in the world, honors a guy with a gun. What it doesn’t say, the people whose stories it doesn’t honor, is what interests me. Untold narratives are often far richer and more true than official versions of what happened. In all the years I’ve come here to walk among the trees and grasses and seeping springs that are left, I’ve thought only of the women who lived here, who left behind a true legacy: the humans who’ve populated this valley for more than a century.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

The place once known as Jumuba was almost erased in the 1950s and ’60s by freeways with their massive tangle of overpasses. This is where the 10 freeway heads east, along the nation’s southern border, and the 215 heads north into the Cajon Pass, where it turns into the 15 toward Las Vegas and Utah. When I was only six, my mother often packed her five children into her 1966 Ford Country Squire station wagon and took us across this flyover to White Front, built in San Bernardino sometime around 1959, one in a chain of discount stores famous on the West Coast for cheap clothes and Green Stamps. Back then, I felt a shiver, looking from the car window at the towering grain elevators amid the towering white-barked sycamore trees and the green low-lying places that stood out in the burned golden late summer. There was water somewhere. It sounds crazy, but my brother Jeff and I felt like Jumuba was haunted.

When I was married at 18, I heard stories about my husband’s step-grandfather, always called Mr. Carter, who’d been born in Dallas, in 1880, and made his way to San Bernardino. Somehow, the story of Biddy Mason and Hannah Embers came up, probably because their descendants lived in the area, and I began to research the lives of these two remarkable women, who lived in the place called Jumuba from 1851 to 1855, not by choice but because they were brought to California as already-enslaved people and kept here, by force.

fort benson
James Ransome

The place was so lush and flourishing, according to the written records of Jumuba set down by Mormon pioneer David Seeley, that “the cattle as they roamed at large made trails through the young and verdant clover.” According to an account published in 1902 by the Reverend Father Juan Caballeria, several hundred people lived at area rancherias. “Their dwellings were circular in form. They were built from poles stuck in the earth and bending over at the top to form the roof,” he wrote. The houses were covered with brush, tule reeds, and mud, with a hole left at the roof for smoke. The people gathered acorns and chia seeds for grain and hunted small game, fish, ducks, and geese. Caballeria, as a priest, recorded with evident condescension that the Jumuba and Guachama peoples each had distinct dialects and languages, as if that were not true of villages in Spain or Italy, whose men he praised as the first white inhabitants of the land; he said also that the people at Jumuba did not kill larger animals for food, as they believed the souls of ancestors inhabited them.

And the large animals, cattle and horses raised in this place, altered California history. The people at Jumuba and Guachama dug with crude implements miles of zanjas, or ditches, that allowed spring and river water to irrigate the plains for crops of grain, grapes, and olives. The people became so skilled at raising cattle that in 1830, 5,000 of them were slaughtered in the valley, their hides taken to San Gabriel to be sold from the mission. By 1834, the mission claimed 100,000 head of cattle, and that wealth led to the establishment of trade routes to San Diego and overland to Santa Fe and up to San Francisco.

Before that, in November 1826, Jedediah Strong Smith, famous mountain man of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, led 15 men here from the Yellowstone River and sought to stay at Mission San Gabriel. However, the padres considered him with suspicion and sent him to Jumuba, and his party rested there for over a week, feeding their horses, jerking beef with residents of the Jumuba rancheria.

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After secularization, when the Mexican government sold off mission lands, the immense Rancho San Bernardino—which encompassed Jumuba, Guachama, Cucamungabit, and Jurupa—was bought by the Lugo family in 1842. The second of three sons, Jose Maria Lugo, probably born in Los Angeles around 1815, chose land at Jumuba, at the base of the foothills, and built an adobe house. His older brother built his adobe four and a half miles north, in what is now downtown San Bernardino. For years, the Lugos had so many cattle, they didn’t count them. Indigenous vaqueros took care of the stock, and the way of life at Jumuba was a memory.

In 1851, Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon church, sent a group of 437 settlers from Deseret, a section of Mexican territory that included what is now Salt Lake City. This wagon train made an agonizing journey through the deserts and salt flats of southern Utah and Nevada and finally over the Cajon Pass into the promised land. A large party were the Mississippi Saints, who had converted to Mormonism in the 1840s; many brought enslaved people. Among the group: Bridget Smith and Hannah Smith, with their children, who had been sold to Robert Mays Smith and his wife, Rebecca. Born in 1818 and 1826, respectively, Bridget (or Biddy) and Hannah had lived in Mississippi, where Smith had fathered at least four children with the young women, along with six children with his wife. Biddy and Hannah walked most of the way behind the wagon train from Mississippi to Deseret; in 1851, they again walked most of the way when wagons brought Mormons to San Bernardino.

Many accounts have been written about the Mormon pioneers, how they bought Rancho San Bernardino from the Lugo family, how they built a stockaded fort around the original wooden houses and wagons when they heard of an Indian rebellion that never came, how San Bernardino became—for a short time—the largest city in Southern California. Biddy Mason’s history in Los Angeles is becoming well-known. But I listened to the stories of my in-laws and friends, told in driveways and kitchens, about San Bernardino’s Black pioneers, and I began to look for Biddy and Hannah when I was only 18. In the four decades since, when I’ve gone to San Bernardino, I’ve combed through historical documents, and six years ago, I found records of the Jumuba I’d heard about long before from relatives.

Robert Smith didn’t live inside the fort. Though California was a free-soil state, he refused to free Biddy, Hannah (whom he continued to impregnate), and their combined 10 children. He settled at Jumuba, and raised a considerable amount of cattle, and chafed at Mormon law. Biddy and Hannah worked as midwives, so celebrated that they rode horses even at night to Cucamungabit and Jurupa to deliver babies for women of all races and origins.

fort benson marker
Christina Gandolfo

Often, I drive down Cooley Lane to reach Jumuba, because my brother Jeff loved Cooley Ranch, a part of the original Rancho San Bernardino bought by an English pioneer. My brother loved the swarms of bees that twisted like dark scarves from the orange groves near our house and went over the foothills where we grew up, flying toward Jumuba. On our bikes, we followed trails where Biddy and Hannah had ridden their horses, free when they were headed to bring more humans into this world.

When I stand among the massive native sycamores still gathered under the fantastical curves of cement freeway overpass, their huge golden leaves big as ruffled dinner plates, when my boots sink into the springs that still seep from the strips of green grass between the grain elevators and truck lots, I think of all the women who lived here, hearing the clatter of those leaves in the winds that were once named something besides Santa Ana. This water has been rising from the earth here since before humans. I was there, at Jumuba, in March. I walked down Hunts Lane, named for Jefferson Hunt, a captain in that Mormon wagon train, and turned onto Steel Road. I passed the Royal Truck Stop, then Westrux International, a truck dealer with hundreds of vehicles. Between the grove of sycamores and the freeway frontage, a huge trailer loaded with trash turned into Inland Regional Material, and the driver walked along the top of the load, checking it for spillage, waving at me. Trails through the tall grass, the sycamores, and the springs led to a homeless encampment under the dark concrete overpass. An elderly man with a long silver beard sifted through the dirt, looking for something, near a wood headboard and footboard he had placed side by side, as walls for his home.

In December 1855, Robert Smith heard that the elders would reassign his land and that he would be forced to free Biddy, Hannah, and their children—some of whom he had fathered. He kidnapped them. He sent Rebecca and his children by her to Texas, a slave state, via stagecoach and took the other women and children by force or intimidation in wagons, along the Cucamonga Road, through Los Angeles and into the Santa Monica Mountains, where he held them in a canyon, waiting for a ship to arrive and take them all to Texas. It’s been said that there in the canyon, in what is now Malibu, Hannah delivered Henry, another of Robert Smith’s children. Biddy was her midwife. And shortly afterward, a sheriff accompanied by an armed posse of Black vaqueros found them in the canyon. They’d been sent by the Black San Bernardino pioneers who had walked the wagon train to Jumuba with the women but had been freed.

The next month, Judge Benjamin Hayes ordered a trial to decide the case and declared the women and their children to be free. Biddy took the last name Mason, after another Mormon pioneer; she left Jumuba and moved to Los Angeles, where eventually she bought land and lived with her family. Hannah married another freed pioneer: Toby Embers. She and her descendants lived not far from Jumuba and Guachama. Biddy and Hannah populated Southern California with their blood legacy and the countless babies delivered by them, the horseback midwives.

fort benson marker
California Historical Marker 617 commemorates the location of Fort Benson, today the site of a warehouse in San Bernardino County.
Christina Gandolfo

That day in March, I walked past the imposing grain elevators of Ardent Mills, which still makes flour, thinking that Jumuba was a place of abundant food, a way station. I turned up the narrow lane rutted by heavy truck wheels—inexplicably, East Oliver Holmes Road. In front of the large acreage lined with silver trucks, a Fort Benson historical marker stands near the Superior Tank Lines office. I took pictures of the plaque with my phone until a man came outside, mildly suspicious. When I told him I was writing about the marker, he came closer and studied it. He said he’d been working there 11 years and he’d never noticed it, but the company had been concerned about what I was doing because it transports oil and worries about terrorism and thievery.

The plaque was dedicated on February 17, 1935, by the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. After Robert Smith fled California for Texas, and was excommunicated in absentia, one Jerome Benson squatted in the old adobe built by Jose Maria Lugo. When Benson heard the land would be seized by the Mormon church, in late 1856, he and some other men stole a cannon that had been used to celebrate the Fourth of July in San Bernardino and installed it in a mud embankment they called a fortification. Then they waited to be attacked. No one attacked them. Soon after, Benson acquired farmland in Jumuba. The plaque displays a wagon pulled by oxen through pine trees. It reads:

On this spot fort was erected, 1856, during contest over valley lands. Here stood ancient Indian village, Jumuba, headquarters first mission stock farm in valley. Here, 1821, occurred first Christian baptism credited to San Bernardino. Here, 1827, camped Jedediah Strong Smith, first American to enter California overland.•

Susan Straight’s latest novel, Mecca, was a finalist for a 2022 Kirkus Prize.