Hon. William A. Conn, of San Bernardino, is one of those strong individualities in the pioneer history of California, who by his force of character and intellect stamped his impress upon the early civilization of the Golden State. Though a number of the first years of his residence on the Pacific coast were passed in the northern part of the State, at San Francisco, yet for a third of a century Southern California has had the benefits of his public-spirited patriotism, his business attainments and his generous philanthropy.
Mr. Conn was born in 1814, on the West India Islands, where his father had settled some years previously to engage in shipping and mercantile business, and was a large property owner there. Four years after the birth of the subject of this memoir, he came with his family to the United States and resided several years in the city of Baltimore. Deciding to seek a home in the then new West, he started with his family for Pittsburgh, he and his wife traveling on horseback and the children in a Pennsylvania “schooner” wagon. On reaching the ” Smoke City” the family and their belongings shipped on board a keelboat down the Ohio River for Cincinnati, their final destination being St. Louis. They stopped about a year in the Ohio metropolis, then started for St. Louis, but Mr. Coon was diverted from his purpose by the persuasion of a friend who induced him to settle in the young State of Illinois, in the then promising town of Kaskaskia, which was thought to be a place of great promise, and destined to become the important distributing center of the Southwest. Mr. Conn, who had been a seafaring man and captain of a vessel in earlier life, bought a farm near Chester, Illinois, on which he died in 1826. Two years after his decease the widow removed with her children to Jacksonville, Illinois, and it was there the subject of this memoir began his business career, which continued for many years in Meredosia, Illinois, in St. Louis, and on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, and consisted of general merchandising, packing pork and afterward shipping on the rivers before named.
In 1848 he made a business trip to England and Ireland, and while there read the account of the discovery of gold in California, in a London newspaper. In the latter part of 1850, and the early part of 1851, Mr. Conn made shipments of merchandise and produce to San Francisco, and in the spring of the latter year started for California, via the Isthmus of Panama, landing from the steamer Northerner in San Francisco on May 5, 1851. The first year or two were chiefly spent in disposing of his merchandise in San Francisco, where he remained until 1857, still contemplating returning East across the plains. In the spring of that year he first came to San Bernardino, and early in January 1858, he bought of the Mormon leaders, Amasa Limon, Charles C. Rich and Ebenezer Hanks, the unsold portion of the Rancho San Bernardino, which originally comprised eight leagues. His purchase consisted of something over 8,000 acres, and was made for himself and two partners under the firm title of Conn, Tucker & Allen.
Many of the Mormons had returned to Salt Lake the previous summer in obedience to the command of Brigham Young. San Bernardino has been Mr. Conn’s ostensible residence ever since that time. He sold off these lands from time to time, to actual settlers chiefly, many of the purchasers being poor men with families, some of whom still remain to remember and thank Mr. Conn with feelings of deep gratitude, as their benefactor who made prices and terms so easy as to assist them in securing a home-stead which has yielded them a living, and in not a few cases a competency. These lands were sold according to the Mormon plats and maps, save about 300 acres, which Mr. Conn still owns. His services have been called into requisition by the people in an official capacity, as well as in his private business.
In 1858 he was elected to the General Assembly and served in the sessions of 1858-’59. In 1867 he was elected State Senator, and filled that office till 1871. Senator Conn has, from both circumstances and taste, been associated with the most distinguished people of the Pacific coast, many of whom are his warm personal friends, and greatly enjoy intercourse with the ripe intellect and warm social nature of this typical gentleman.