Fred Holladay (1987)
(Former president of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)
The yellowing pages of history contain innumerable tales of individual courage. Few, however, are more compelling than the quiet, desperate battles often fought by pioneer mothers to help their families survive.
Some bore a dozen or more children, only to lose many to childhood diseases. Others went hungry to provide loved ones with a few extra scraps of food.
San Bernardino pioneer Jerusha Bemis was one of those brave mothers, rearing a family of 10 children and suffering the death of three---one infant and two older children.
Bemis was capable of making a meal of corn bread and wild greens during hard times, and could load the table with tasty food even when she had little money.
Her life a was filled with love not only for her kin, but also others in need of help or sympathy. If they were hurt or sick, all the more reason to pamper and take care of them.
Born in 1799, she was 25---considered an old maid---when she met and married Alvin Bemis in 1824. She bore him 11 children between 1828 and 1844, having her last child at the age of 43.
Alvin Bemis joined the Mormon church shortly after it was founded by Joseph Smith in upstate New York. In 1838 he moved to Kirtland, Ohio, the small town chosen by Smith as his headquarters.
Bemis arrived there shortly after the local Mormon-owned bank went under, mainly because of a severe financial panic in 1837. Although Smith and many of his followers left Kirtland following the bank failure and headed for another Mormon settlement in Missouri, Bemis stayed.
By the following year, virtual civil war had broken out in Missouri. Mobs terrorized Mormon colonists by burning, raping, pillaging and murdering. Thousands were driven from the state, while Smith and his leaders were imprisoned for six months, charged with treason, before being allowed to flee.
When the Mormons fled to what they thought would be utopia at Nauvoo, Illinois. Bemis decided to follow them.
Jerusha was pregnant with her last child at the time; so the family paused for a few days in Michigan, where baby Jerusha was born. They were continuing on to Gainsville, Iowa when disaster struck. Alvin Bemis suddenly became ill and died. The baby also passed away a few weeks later.
Although it was Alvin's dying wish that they complete their westward journey, Jerusha and her 10 remaining children, distraught and without money, were forced to stop. Luckily, the three oldest boys scared up a few ill-paying jobs to put some food on the table, otherwise the family would have been destitute.
After spending three years living in poverty at Gainsville, they moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, hoping to improve their fortunes.
Then, a stranger suddenly entered their life. He was a handsome young man from Ohio named Joseph Hancock, who had stopped at the river town while on his way to Salt Lake City to visit an uncle.
Joseph met and fell in love with Bemis' eldest daughter, Nancy Agusta, and after a short courtship they were married. With Hancock on board, family fortunes improved dramatically. Before both families left for Utah in 1850, two children were born to the happy couple.
The Bemis and Hancock families remained in Utah until 1854, when they decided to move to San Bernardino. Their wagon train followed the Mormon Trail through Nevada, along the Mojave River to Ayou Pass, then over the Cajon Pass and down its canyon into the San Bernardino valley.
They first camped at Metcalf's Pasture, on the banks of Lytle Creek, west of present-day Mount Vernon Avenue and southwest of the Santa Fe depot. It was a favorite stopping place for many pioneer families at the time.
A short time later they built a home on west Fourth Street, along the east bank of Lytle Creek, and were living there when the great flood of 1862 hit. After several days of heavy rain, water that normally ran down Lytle Creek's west branch broke through the east bank above Ninth Street, pouring down the small stream that flowed past the Bemis house. It washed away a large portion of land as well as part of the house.
The family then built a house on Fifth Street, where Bemis lived the rest of her life.
Shortly after arriving in the valley, Bemis' daughter, Harriet, married Richard Thomas Roberds, forging the final link in the Bemis-Hancock-Roberds family chain, perhaps the largest in San Bernardino.
Such joyous events helped Bemis enjoy a happy, tranquil existence in San Bernardino. But personal tragedies lay ahead.
The first occurred when her son, Nephi, along with two other men, was killed by Indians on March 25,1860. The three bodies were brought to San Bernardino and given the largest funeral seen in the town to date. Nephi left a young wife, Ana McGinnis Bemis, who later gave birth to a stillborn child.
Eight years later, another son, Samuel, was killed by a bear near the Talmadge sawmill in Little Bear valley after returning from hunting deer with his brothers, Charles and Edwin.
Bemis never quite recovered from that final tragedy, for she was more subdued after Samuel's untimely death. Then, on Nov. 6, 1872, she became seriously ill.
For the next six days, Nancy Hancock remained at her bedside, trying in vain to pull her through the illness. On Nov. 12, 1872 the pioneer mother quietly passed away. She was laid to rest in Pioneer Cemetery beside Nephi and Samuel.
According to family historian Al Hancock, the 50th annual gathering of the Bemis-Hancock-Roberds clan will be held at San Bernardino County Museum May 17 at noon. Bemis will be remembered then, along with Hancock, the man who popped up when the Bemis family most needed help.