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By Nicholas R. Cataldo (2005)

A Tejon Serrano photographed by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1924. (Library of Congress)

The white man referred to them as savages. As lords of the San Bernardino Valley for the past century and a half, they looked upon the "primitive people" with great pity and sorrow. These attitudes could be interpreted as mean and cruel. Indeed, there were those who followed that barbaric adage, "The only good Indian was a dead Indian". However, as in the case of Father Garces, who spoke fondly of these natives, it could simply have been ignorance of their customs. Just who were these first people in the San Bernardino Valley?

According to tribe historian Ernest Siva, these people called themselves Yuhaviatam, which means "people of the pines". But when Spanish explorers and missionaries found the native people living on the southern and northern slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains, they gave them the name Serrano, meaning the mountain people. The name still is used today in identifying the tribe. The Serrano's lived near lakes, streams, springs and other water sources throughout much of the San Bernardino Valley. Their territory also extended from the Cajon Pass eastward to Twenty-nine Palms and on the High Desert along the Mojave River.

A typical Serrano Kiich.
Photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1924 or before. (Library of Congress)

The Serrano's villages were alongside streams, around springs and lakes, or at the mouths of canyons. Their circular shaped homes, called Kiich, measured 12' to 14' across and resembled upside down baskets. They were made of stick frames covered in brush. Settlements were spread out, sometimes sprawling over several square miles. Food and water, clothing and shelter appear to have been the primary reasons for village locations. Because they were hunters and gatherers, the Serrano's migrated with the seasons. Winter would find them in their lowland villages, living off the food they had gathered the previous summer. As the weather warmed and mountain plants bloomed, they would go up to the high country.

Some of the important Serrano village sites in the foothills and high in the mountains include Guapiabit, in Summit Valley near the west fork of the Mojave River, Amuscopiabit, at the junction of Cajon and Crowder Creeks in Cajon Pass, Apinjabit, near Arrowhead Springs, Apuimabit, along City Creek near Highland, Yucaipa, slightly east of present-day Yucaipa, and Cochavipabit, just east of present-day Big Bear Lake.


Map of the original Serrano land. Click to enlarge map.

In his book, History of the San Bernardino Valley From Padres to Pioneers: 1810-1851, Father Juan Caballeria described the Serrano's as being undersized, flat faced, broad nosed, with high cheekbones, wide mouths and coarse hair. From bones recovered from the cremated remains excavated at Deep Creek, it has been deduced that these Serrano's were indeed small, probably not exceeding five feet.

When Father Francisco Garces came through the valley on his way to Mission San Gabriel in March of 1776, he reported that the natives were very friendly and hospitable. He was shocked how they lived in what he considered miserable conditions and no doubt wondered how the Serrano's kept from freezing to death in the winter. The padre noted that the Serrano women's skirts were made from the inner bark of cottonwood trees, while the men wore deerskin loincloths---sometimes. One could imagine what Garces' reaction would have been if he had made his trip through the valley in the warm summer and saw the Serrano children running around stark naked!

Louisa Pino Making a Basket. In this c. 1900 photo Louisa Pino is really showing her expertise at basket making - a trademark skill that the Serranos exhibited for centuries. (Courtesy of Pauline Murillo)

The raging conflict between the white man and the Indian in San Bernardino County, although intense since their first encounter, really started heating up during the 1860's. The Indians watched first with resentment, then smoldering rage as the newcomers slaughtered their animals, stole the land and ravaged its natural resources without regard for the future. Tribes like the Serrano and the neighboring Cahuilla realized that it was in their best interests to put up with these intruders than fight a losing battle. Meanwhile, the Southern Paiutes and Chemehuevis out in the Mojave Desert felt likewise.

Trouble brewed when occasional horse and cattle rustling occurred in the valley and mountains. And David Noble Smith was wounded while working at the upper toll house on John Brown's Turnpike in the Cajon Pass in 1862. That same year witnessed a horrific small pox epidemic which took a tremendous toll on the 3,500 to 7,000 Serrano's living in San Bernardino County. In 1866, three cowboys were killed by Indians at Dunlap's Ranch in Summit Valley. The following year, buildings were burned and looted at what is now Lake Arrowhead.

As a result, the white males in the San Bernardino Valley formed a militia to eliminate the Indians from the mountains. Most likely, the raiders were either Paiute or Chemehuevi and not Serrano. But the White man didn't care. In a 32 day campaign, most of the Indians in the mountain areas were killed or driven from their ancient homeland. Several of the surviving Serrano's led by Chief Antonio Sever began working for ranchers in the San Bernardino Valley while the majority followed leader Santos Manuel into the foothills north of today's Patton State Hospital. The San Manuel Reservation became officially established by Presidential Order in 1891.

Santos and Dolores Manuel. This is a rare photo of Santos and Dolores Manuel (second and third from left). Their daughter, Jesusa Manuel, is weaving a "singular" basket. After a series of conflicts between same desert American Indian Tribes and settlers, there was a month long campaign in 1867 to wipe out all natives from the valley, including the peaceful and innocent Serranos. Thanks to the leadership of Santos Manuel, the few surviving Serranos took to the foothills northeast of San Bernardino. Since a presidential order in 1891, that settlement has become known as San Manuel Reservation. When Santos Manuel died in 1919, he was 105 years old. (Courtesy of Pauline Murillo)

Additional Resources:


Living in Two Worlds by Pauline Murillo: This book is an autobiography of a Native American woman in California. Pauline Murillo is a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the great-granddaughter of Santos Manuel.

2. The People of San Manuel by Clifford E. Trafzer: This is the first analysis of the sovereign peoples of the San Manuel. Clifford E. Trafzer is Professor of History and Director of American Indian Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
3. For a short history of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians see:
4. "Indians and Unbuilt Missions", extracted from George William Beattie's California's Unbuilt Missions, is at:
Indians and Unbuilt Missions
5. "A History of American Indians in California" by the National Parks Service is at: