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Amasa Lyman

  • Amasa Lyman (1813–1877)
  • San Bernardino

A native of New Hampshire, Amasa Lyman converted to the then-new faith of Mormonism and went west to California, where he helped found the city of San Bernardino.

Born in Lyman, New Hampshire, in March 1813, Lyman was interested in spiritual concerns at a young age, but he avoided joining any of the established Protestant churches near his home. Instead, he became a member of a new religious sect introduced to him by two traveling preachers.

In April 1832 he was baptized into this new religion, which came to be known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons. Alienated from his family, Lyman left New Hampshire and traveled West.

He rose quickly within the hierarchy of the emerging Mormon church, maintaining close contact with leaders such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. These men wanted Lyman to help expand the church and they sent him to Virginia, Tennessee, and Wisconsin on several missions.

In March 1851 Lyman, along with Charles Rich, set out from Salt Lake City under the orders of Brigham Young to establish a colony in California. It was Young’s vision to construct a westward string of settlements from Utah to the California coast. Lyman’s project was one of the church’s most ambitious plans yet.

Lyman and Rich had great success in establishing the colony in San Bernardino. Nearly 3,000 people strong, the colony brought governing institutions and law to the area, along with mechanized irrigation for the first time. The colonists reportedly even discovered gold in the San Bernardino Mountains but kept it quiet, fearing the disruption of a gold rush. Within a few short years, the colony had become a model of economic success through its productive agricultural and timber operations.

Lyman was elected the first mayor of San Bernardino. Reflecting on the colony years later, Lyman said San Bernardino was “a community in the truest sense of the word, one of the outstanding examples of selflessness and commitment to others ever demonstrated in American history.”

Problems were on the horizon, however. Troubles in Utah between the church and the federal government made Young want to consolidate power. Back in San Bernardino, Lyman, somewhat of a freethinker, began sharing spiritual ideas at odds with Mormon orthodoxy. By 1858, the entire colony had been recalled to Utah. Lyman’s independent streak could not be suppressed, however, and by 1867 he was excommunicated from the church for teaching against its doctrine.

In his book San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California City, historian Edward Leo Lyman, Amasa Lyman’s great-grandson, writes that if the colony had not been recalled to Utah in 1858, it is likely that the Mormons would have dominated the Southland, and that Southern California would have been a second Salt Lake City.