Pioneer Sydney P. Waite’s obituary described spending most of his adult life in San Bernardino “except for a two year hazardous trip to Tennessee in 1862-63.”
The Nov. 28, 1920, article in the Sun newspaper curiously offered no details about this “hazardous trip.”
But the newspaper was perhaps unwilling to besmirch Waite’s memory by revealing that his absence from San Bernardino was made to join Confederate forces during the Civil War. His war experience was short-lived due to being wounded at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862.
Waite was certainly a man on the move, at least in his youth. Before his Civil War adventure, he already had some prominence locally as he and his Kentucky family were among the first 49ers to reach the Inland Empire by wagon via Cajon Pass.
But it was a decade later that Waite was exposed to more than mineral riches while prospecting in the Big Bear and Holcomb valleys. He met miners there from the South who supported the secession of the Southern states following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Many vowed to leave the West Coast for the war, and Waite was similarly inspired.
The 25-year-old Waite headed east, going first to New Orleans and then joining the Southern forces in Tennessee, according to research by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society from a March 1914 article in Santa Fe Magazine. After he was wounded at Shiloh, Waite worked his way west only to be arrested by Union troops in Arizona and imprisoned for three months in Yuma.
What is intriguing is how the San Bernardino community seemed to accept and forgive Waite and others for fighting with Southern armies. As an example, Benjamin Harris, a lieutenant in the Virginia cavalry, came to San Bernardino in 1870 and was later named city attorney and city clerk. Both Waite and Harris would become prominent members of the community as well as charter members of the San Bernardino Pioneer Society.
Waite was best remembered locally for the December 1849 crossing of Cajon Pass as a 10-year-old after his family joined a party traveling from Utah led by Jefferson Hunt. He recalled how his father was forced to take apart their wagon because it was too wide to get through the Narrows area of the pass.
The family had to “slide the axle trees and heavier portions on sycamore poles down over the precipice and boulders, there being nothing but a horse and mule trail,” recalled the “History of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties,” the 1922 book that included Waite’s recollections.
Waite, together with long-time friend and fellow pioneer traveler Sheldon Stoddard, would later be honored on a 1913 plaque placed in Cajon Pass recalling the first American travelers through the mountains. The San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society rededicated the monument on its 100th anniversary in 2013.
The Waits family first went to Los Angeles where father James became owner of the Los Angeles Star newspaper as well as city postmaster. Meanwhile, Sydney learned the publishing trade from his father and transported mail by horseback to desert locations.
Leaving their home near San Gabriel Mission a few years later, the family later moved to San Bernardino. It was there they purchased at bargain prices property from the city’s Mormon founders ordered by Brigham Young to return to defend Utah from what was feared to be an attack by U.S. military.
Waite’s later life would be filled with a variety of other occupations and adventures:
• Shortly after returning from the Civil War, he operated the San Bernardino Guardian, the city’s second newspaper.
• Fontana News Room, in his obituary, said Waite served for a time as watermaster, an office in which he oversaw the area’s water supplies.
• Waite was elected to two terms as county clerk and also was president of the city’s board of education.
• For more than two decades, Waite collected rainfall records, logging monthly information enabling San Bernardino’s records to go back to the 1870-71 rain season.
Waite, who died in 1920 and is buried in San Bernardino’s Pioneer Cemetery, was also the subject of a couple of colorful articles in Los Angeles newspapers.
The Los Angeles Evening Express described the unusual 1875 arrival of Waite, then San Bernardino’s county clerk, who “astonished the natives” one day in Los Angeles. He got off the train in “the appearance of a veritable Kit Carson, with his buckskin surtout … and coonskin cap.”
The article on Feb. 11 said he “sallied into Los Angeles” so attired simply because of a bet. “The party of the second part may prepare to pay,” predicted the paper following Waite’s mountain man appearance.
Before Waite left for the Civil War, he did uncover what he believed was an outcrop of lead while mining in the Big Bear Valley. He brought the lead to San Bernardino and fabricated it into bullets, some of which he test-fired, reported the Los Angeles Semi-Weekly Southern News of Oct. 2, 1860.
Some of his lead bullets were shown to assayer C.A. Luckhart who inexplicably declared them containing silver worth an unlikely $15,000 a ton. Waite ignored that assay, saying there was simply no silver in his lead bullets.
The newspaper was excited, though. “If this discovery does not turn out to be a humbug,” wrote the paper, it could set off a new mining rush in the local mountains.
It appeared, however, that it was indeed a humbug. But it also meant Waite missed the opportunity to be the first of our Western heroes to fire silver bullets.
My thanks to Gino Di Donato of Rancho Cucamonga for his assistance in this article.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.