Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891) traveled through the Cajon Pass and arrived in San Bernardino as a slave belonging to Robert Smith. Automatically freed in California, she fought for her freedom in the courts when Smith tried to take her and other blacks back to the slavery state of Texas.
By Nicholas R. Cataldo
San Bernardino Sun
The Cajon Pass has played a prominent role in Southern California since prehistoric times. Indians, explorers, trappers, settlers, rail passengers and early motorists have all passed through on their way to or from the desert.
This well-used passageway also brought the first African-American pioneers into San Bernardino County.
In 1826, 27-year-old Jedediah Strong Smith (1799-1831) and his fur trapping party from northern Utah became the first Americans to make an overland journey to California. Anxious to explore the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the party traveled southerly to the Mohave villages and then followed what has become known as the Mohave Trail, a footpath used as a trade route by Indigenous tribes for centuries. Among his expedition of 15 men was Peter Ranne, the first black man to enter San Bernardino County.
During the 1830s and ’40s long pack trains of mules making their way between Santa Fe and Los Angeles clomped through the narrow, twisting east canyon of the Cajon Pass along the Old Spanish Trail. Men brought blankets and manufactured goods from New Mexico in exchange for southern California’s much prized horses and mules. It is highly probable that among these traders were African-Americans, whose presence was not recorded.
In 1851, a wagon train made up of 437 Mormons from Salt Lake destined to develop the future city of San Bernardino came through the Cajon Pass.
This caravan followed the Salt Lake Road (which evolved from the Old Spanish Trail) as far as Baldy Mesa before detouring through West Cajon Canyon after hearing about a longer, but less steep and rocky route developed by a Banning teamster named William T. Sanford a year earlier. Sanford’s route was smoother than the trail through the east canyon. However, it was seven miles longer and so steep of a ridge at one point that wagons had to be lowered with ropes.
Among this group entering the “free” state of California were 26 soon-to-be ex-slaves who helped get the wagons down that ridge — and became the first black pioneers to make their homes in the San Bernardino Valley.
According to Byron R. Skinner, author of Black Origins in the Inland Empire, published by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society in 1983, the names of these individuals that made the trek were:
While the life stories for many of these individuals have seemingly fallen into oblivion because of the lack of documentation, here is testimony to a few who we know of who played major roles in the area’s development.
Lizzy Flake Rowan (1834-1908) traveled with the wagon train to San Bernardino with James and Agnes Flake and after they died, took care of their children for a while in addition to her own.
Lizzy later married another ex-slave, Charles Rowan, and together built a home for their three children and also acquired some land on D Street near downtown San Bernardino, where she worked as a laundress. Charles ran a barbershop inside the Southern Hotel, approximately where the American Sports University stands near the corner of D and Fourth streets.
Their daughter, Alice Rowan Johnson, became the first black student at the Los Angeles Normal School, was one of 16 graduates in 1888 and was possibly the first black teacher of white children in California when she taught in Riverside.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891) traveled through the Cajon Pass and arrived in San Bernardino as a slave belonging to Robert Smith. Automatically freed in California, when Smith tried to take her and other blacks back to the slavery state of Texas, she fought for her freedom in the courts.
On January 19, 1856, Biddy petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of 13 women and children. Los Angeles District Judge Benjamin Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor of Mason and her extended family, citing California’s 1850 constitution that prohibited slavery.
Biddy eventually became a nurse, a California real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She was also founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
Grief (1812 or 1813-1873) and Toby Embers arrived with Bishop Crosby, who also owned Grief’s wife, Harriet. What little is known of Toby Embers concerns his immediate family.
Toby’s wife, Hannah, who had been the “property” of Robert Smith before her freedom, was an expert horse rider who became the unofficial midwife of the new settlement, answering any call to help deliver a newborn baby day or night. Toby’s daughter, Martha, married an ex-slave named Israel Beal, who became an esteemed member of the valley’s early history.
In fact, the Beals became the first black residents in the Redlands area when the community was still known by the name of Lugonia.
Of the two siblings, much more is known about Toby’s younger brother.
As roughly 60 percent of the Mormon community answered Young’s urgent recall with strict orders to sell their homes and property for whatever they could get in late 1857, Grief bought some land at what is now I Street just south of Mill, as well as in the vicinity of the Carousel Mall, thus becoming the first African-American owner of real-estate in the Inland Empire.