Benjamin D. Wilson was born in Tennessee in 1811. He worked as a trapper in New Mexico as a young man, and came to California in 1841. By 1843 Wilson had purchased a large ranch where the City of Riverside is now located, and the following year married Ramona Yorba, a daughter of one of California’s most prominent families.
That same year, Jose Figueroa, the governor of the State, had issued the edict for the secularization of all Indians. Released from the control of the mission fathers, many of the Indians reverted to their primitive ways and some became raiders and cattle rustlers. This situation became a constant problem to the missions and cattle ranchers, and in July of 1845, Don Pio Pico authorized Benjamin Wilson to take a force of eighty well-armed men to pursue the raiders and teach them a lesson.
Don Benito, as he was affectionately called by his men, split his force, sending the main body through Cajon Pass while he rode into the mountains following the “San Bernardino River”. On the evening of the second day, they arrived in a high mountain valley where “the whole lake and swamp seemed alive with bear.” Don Benito Wilson later wrote: “Twenty-two Californians went out in pairs, and each pair lassoed one bear, and brought the result to camp, so that we had at one and the same time eleven bears. That prompted me to give the Lake the name it now bears.”
The natural body of water Wilson saw and named Bear Lake in 1845 is now called Baldwin Lake. Only a stream and marshy meadows existed at the site of Big Bear Lake in those days.
Don Benito and his men returned from their punitive journey by the same route through the mountains, and again they captured eleven more grizzly bears. A great deal of excitement was created when this party arrived at the home rancho with twenty-two huge grizzly skins.