Romance of the National Parks



"I will not leave my home, but be with the spirits among the rocks, the water-fall; in the rivers and in the winds; wheresoever you go I will be with you. You will not see me, but you will fear the spirit of the old chief, and grow cold. The great spirits have spoken!"

—Quoted from Chief Ten-ei-ya by
Dr. L. H. Bunnell in "Discovery of the Yosemite," 1880.

WHEN Yosemite Valley became known to the white settlers of California, some twenty years before the famous Washburn expedition advertised Yellowstone to the American public, it was the well-beloved home of a band of Indians closely related to the Monos whose hunting-grounds were on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Curiously inaccessible, in the heart of the high Sierra peaks, snow-bound in the winter months, the valley was unknown to the padres and Spanish dons. A small band of warlike Indians—Yosemites by name—occupied the valley as their stronghold. They built encampments—rancheries, as the Spanish called them—and stored acorns on the floor of the valley. Their trails led to natural caverns and recesses in the granite rocks, to which they could retire in case of attack.

Within Indian memory or tradition no white man had ever entered or seen the valley before 1851, though some of the early American settlers had heard of the "deep valley" of the Yosemites from their Indian friends. Few Indians unrelated to the Yosemites had ever been allowed to penetrate into the valley. In winter the trails over the crests to the land of the Monos were impassable. The lofty granite walls and high peaks and ridges gave the home of the Yosemites a protection which few man-built fortresses could command.

For centuries after the Great Artist, using colossal glaciers for etching tools, had carved the magic picture, the valley may have existed alone, unseen and unknown even to the Indians. In the 1850's, the Yosemites, numbering about two hundred, lived in this enchanted valley. When the American settlers came into the Mariposa country, south of the valley, the Yosemites resented and feared them. The old chief sent out raiding parties to murder and rob the settlers and burn their settlements. It was a military expedition in 1851, to bring the defiant Yosemites into proposed peace pacts with the United States Government—the Great White Father—that introduced the first white men into the enchanted valley.

HALF DOME, AT THE HEAD OF YOSEMITE VALLEY Photograph—Joseph S. Dixon, Courtesy—Portfolio, American Planning and Civic Association

The scant contact with the Sierra Nevada Mountains before 1851 may be told in a few words. California was in communication with the eastern seaboard by boat via Cape Horn before the hardy pioneers crossed the high crests of the stubborn Sierra. To Jedediah Smith, a fur trader, is given the credit for the first transcontinental journey to California. In 1826 he led an exploring party from the Great Salt Lake. In California he was met with the opposition of the Spanish Governor, who saw no good to his domain from the exploiting trade of the American trappers. After long and laborious mountain travel into regions unpenetrated by the Spanish, Smith and his followers worked their way from the region of the Cajon Pass to the San Joaquin Valley. They saw "few beaver and elk, deer and antelope in abundance," and so they started back to the Great Salt Lake across the Sierra Nevada, where the peaks pierce the clouds and the valleys are deep between steep granite walls. They found the route, probably north of Yosemite Valley, beset with hardships and difficulties, but lived to return another day.

A good many fur trappers and traders, in the next few years, traveled into California over the mountains. They brought back fabulous and alluring stories of the pleasant land of sunshine which lay beyond the snow-capped granite guardian walls. One division of Captain Bonneville's exploring party, under Joseph Walker, reached California through the Humboldt Valley, south of Carson Lake. They probably threaded the ridge between the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers into the high Yosemite country, but the Indian guides later reported that they purposely led the explorers by a route which would avoid the valley.

Washington Irving, in 1837, wrote an account of Bonneville's expedition, and Zeno Leonard, who accompanied the Walker party, published in 1839 a narrative of the trip. They must have seen some of the finest views in the high Sierra. According to the Leonard account: "We traveled for miles every day, still on top of the mountains, and our course continually obstructed with snow hills and rocks. Here we began to encounter in our path many small streams which would shoot out from under these high snow-banks, and after running a short distance in deep chasms which they have through the ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below. Some of these precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high." Also Leonard mentioned "some trees of the redwood species, incredibly large—some of which would measure from 16 to 18 fathoms round the trunk at the height of a man's head from the ground."

Other curious travelers penetrated the region. Then came the settlers—that motley procession of the adventurous, the dissatisfied and the optimistic. They came into the promised land on foot, on horseback and later in wagons, following to their sources the rivers from the Gila to the Truckee.

The Spanish did not welcome the Americans. They were contemptuous of American money-grubbing enterprise. And the easy going, luxury-loving Spanish-Californians feared the self-sacrificing, energetic pioneers of the wilderness. Dr. Carl Russell, in his book, "100 Years in Yosemite," quoted the Mexican, Castro, as having stated before the Assembly in Monterey: "Those Americans are so contriving that some day they will build ladders to touch the sky, and once in the heavens they will change the whole face of the Universe and even the color of the stars."

In 1848 the "contriving" Americans had taken over California, for better or for worse, and the process of change soon began, for the discovery of gold a few months after California became a part of the United States brought the "forty-niners," the greatest army of "diggers" ever assembled. If gold could have been secured at the cost of destroying the fair surface of the entire range of colorful mountains, no doubt the Sierra Nevada today would be desecrated by deserts of desolate piles and pits of waste and slag. Fortunately, the scars of picks and shovels in the hands of pigmy prospectors could do little damage to the gigantic Sierra. And the big, machine-worked mines were, in comparison to the size and extent of the mountain range, few and far between. But the height of the gold rush was over before that momentous day on which white men first saw the incomparable Yosemite Valley. The Sierra barrier between the East and the West had been conquered, though the flinty-hearted cliffs and the marauding Indians claimed tolls in death and disaster, and hardship was exacted from all who crossed these mighty mountains.

It was not until 1851, after the Sierra slopes had become infested with prospectors and some sizable mines put into operation, that the Americans actually saw the Yosemite Valley. James Savage, who probably had participated in at least one of Fremont's famous expeditions, had established in 1849-50 a trading post not more than fifteen miles below the Yosemite Valley. He knew and understood the Indians. He was adopted into many of the friendly foothill tribes. It is recorded that the five wives he took from different tribes gave him direct access to Indian gossip. The Indians had confidence in him. The squaws dug gold for him. Indeed the Indians brought gold dust into his trading post in exchange for trinkets of little value in American markets, though it must be remembered that gold had no value in inter-Indian markets. Savage was a born leader, generally esteemed by the settlers and revered by the Indians, though his profits at his trading posts were a bit on the profiteering side, unless the risk of doing business at all be taken into due consideration.

YOSEMITE VALLEY Photograph—Ansel Adams, Courtesy—American Forests

And all during these years of settlement, in a supposedly impregnable stronghold in the high Sierra, was this band of warlike Yosemites who stole horses and stock from the settlers and raided their posts with fire and pillage. Late in 1850, raids on Savage's Fresno and Mariposa stores resulted in the death of those in charge, and aroused an indignant resistance which led to an Indian war. Many of the hitherto friendly Indians were induced to join in the war against "the white gold diggers," to drive the white men from their mountains. The Indians were told by the belligerent chiefs that the white men would run from them, and that those who joined in the war would be the first to secure the property of the gold diggers. Particularly, they coveted horses, live-stock, clothing.

After other raids and cruel murders, a punitive party of settlers marched "among the densely wooded mountains in pursuit of the savages," but the Indians were able to repulse the settlers, and escape. The hastily brought together defense company had few supplies, lacked organization and collective training. Savage had joined the expedition, which, with about 100 men, tried to capture some 500 fighting Indians from the Yosemite, Chow-chilla, Kah-we-ah and other tribes. In a surprise attack by the settlers, an instigating Indian chief was killed, and the Indians retired to the mountains.

The Indian war was on. The famous Mariposa Battalion was organized, under a proclamation by Governor McDougal calling for volunteers to prevent further outrages and to punish the marauders. On January 24, 1851, the volunteers were mustered into the service. They provided their own horses and equipment. The State furnished camp supplies and baggage trains, and the Federal Government paid the expense of maintenance, but the battalion was under the direction of the Indian Commissioners. Savage was chosen leader and commissioned as Major. While the battalion was waiting for the Commissioners to act, the depredations of the Indians continued. Part of the battalion was assigned to the Kings and Kah-we-ah Rivers and part to the San Joaquin and Merced. These volunteer soldiers went out to wage a strange war. Their instructions were to capture the Indians in their strongholds and escort them safely into the Commissioners' camp on the Fresno.

With the northern party rode a young doctor, L. H. Bunnell by name, who had come to California from New York by way of Detroit and western wilds, and who had learned something of Indian languages and psychology. Thirty years after, he wrote an excellent and interesting account of the first brief foray and the later sojourn in the Yosemite Valley in 1851.

Major Savage with his men rode toward the "deep valley" over the Black Ridge to the South Fork of the Merced. They encountered deep, damp snow which impeded their progress. But finally they surprised a Noot-chu village on the banks of the Merced. They persuaded Chief Pon-wat-chee to send his people in to the Commissioners and to aid the soldiers in bringing in the Yosemites.

Ten-ei-ya, the old chief of the Yosemites, was induced to come to the battalion camp. Major Savage, according to Dr. Bunnell, told the chief that "if he would go to the Commissioners and make a treaty of peace with them, as the other Indians were going to do, there would be no more war." But Dr. Bunnell has reported that Ten-ei-ya declared with dignity: "My people do not want anything from the 'Great Father' you tell me about. The Great Spirit is our father, and he has always supplied us with all we need. We do not want anything from white men. Our women are able do our work. Go, then; let us remain in the mountains where were born; where the ashes of our fathers have been given to the winds. . . . My people do not want to go to the plains."

Major Savage gave the old chief an ultimatum. "Your people must go to the Commissioners and make terms with them. If they do not, your young men will again steal our horses, your people will again kill and plunder the whites. It was your people who robbed my stores, burned my houses, and murdered my men. If they do not make a treaty, your whole tribe will be destroyed. Not one of them will be left alive." Sadly Chief Ten-ei-ya promised to send runners to bring his people in. But they did not come, and so it was decided to go to the village of the Yosemites.

Leaving a camp guard, Major Savage and his men, accompanied by Ten-ei-ya, proceeded over the ridge between the South Fork and the main Merced River. After they crossed the divide they encountered deep snow. Before they reached the valley they met seventy-two Yosemites coming in, all, explained Ten-ei-ya, who were willing to go to the plains. In the belief that the others were in hiding, as it was impossible at this time of year even for Indians to cross the high snow-enshrouded pass to reach the friendly Mono Indians on the east side of the mountains, Major Savage decided to go to the Indian village in the "deep valley."

It was as the party traveled that they suddenly came in full view of the valley of the Yosemites. Dr. Bunnell, who had once caught a glimpse of the "stupendous rocky peaks of the Sierra Nevada" while ascending the old Bear Valley trail from Ridley's ferry, on the Merced River, realized that what he had almost thought a dream was indeed a reality. "The face of the immense cliff," as the marching company saw it, "was shadowed by the declining sun." These were the first white men to behold El Capitan from the place we now call Inspiration Point.

Young Dr. Bunnell was greatly moved. "The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley—light as gossamer—and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion." Dr. Bunnell had left the trail and his horse and wallowed alone to a projecting rock to examine the view. But he found scant sympathy from Major Savage or the other intrepid volunteers who were there on business bent—bringing in the Indians who were stealing their property and threatening lives.

That night the party camped on the floor of the valley around blazing fires, a memorable occasion and forerunner of many a later-day campfire. But these were soldiers—pro tem, at least—and there was no Hedges to think of "saving the valley for others." As matter of hard fact, it is probable that most of those hardy pioneers on that March winter night could not conceive that anybody would be in the least bit interested in a place so hard to reach and so gloomy in the early lengthening shadows. Indeed, young Dr. Bunnell remarked that it might appear sentimental, but that "the coarse jokes of the careless, and the indifference of the practical, sensibly jarred my more devout feelings . . . as if a sacred subject had been ruthlessly profaned, or the visible power of Deity disregarded." The campers did take seriously, however, the suggestion made by Dr. Bunnell that the valley should have a name, and they voted to adopt the name "Yosemity," the name of the Indians they had come to capture. Major Savage explained to them that the name "Yo-sem-i-ty" as pronounced by Ten-ei-ya, or "O-soom-i-ty" as pronounced by some other bands, signified a full-grown grizzly bear—given to Ten-ei-ya's band "because of their lawless and predatory character." Dr. Bunnell explained in his book that it was not until 1852 that Lieutenant Moore, of the U. S. Army, in his report first adopted the spelling "Yosemite," without, however, changing the pronunciation.

Ten-ei-ya, who was present at this first campfire of those who came to invade the homes of his people, explained that he was the descendant of an Ah-wah-ne-chee chief, and that the valley was called Ah-wah-nee. But Yosemite it is today and has been ever since that March campfire in 1851. Thus was the Yosemite discovered and named.

Ten-ei-ya gave assurance that no white man had ever before visited the valley. One reason he had consented to go to the Commissioners' camp and make peace was that he hoped to prevent an expedition into the valley and that he and his people might be allowed to return to their homes. He explained that the entrance to the valley had always been carefully guarded. The valley was theirs and they had put a spell on it that, they thought, would hold it sacred for themselves alone. No other Indians, declared Ten-ei-ya, ventured to enter the valley, except by his permission; "all feared the witches" and his displeasure. He had "made war upon the white gold diggers to drive them from the mountains, and prevent their entrance into Ah-wah-nee."

After that first soldiers' campfire, the party next day crossed the Merced by ford, and marched toward El Capitan. They found recently deserted Indian huts near its base. Later, near the Royal Arches, then unnamed, they found an encampment, and another near the base of Half Dome, also deserted. Finally, the search for the Yosemites hidden in the rocky fastnesses was abandoned.

The men were more concerned with their mission than with the aspect of the valley they had discovered. As Dr. Bunnell remarked, anent the solemn grandeur of the valley and the hardships of travel which involved the frequent crossing of torrential streams of cold water: "We were not a party of tourists seeking recreation, nor philosophers investigating the operations of nature. Our business there was to find Indians who were endeavoring to escape our charitable intentions toward them. But very few of the volunteers seemed to have any appreciation of the wonderful proportions of the enclosing granite rocks; their curiosity had been to see the stronghold of the enemy, and the general verdict was that it was gloomy enough."

Dr. Bunnell described to Major Savage the "side trips" he had made around Mirror Lake, and the views from the cliff up North Canyon and the fall of the South Canyon. He remarked: "Yosemite must be beautifully grand a few weeks later when the foliage and flowers are at their prime, and the rush of waters has somewhat subsided. Such cliffs and water-falls I never saw before, and I doubt if they exist in any other place."

But the Major declared: "The annoyances and disappointments of a fruitless search, together with the certainty of a snow storm approaching, makes all this beautiful scenery appear to me gloomy enough. In a word, it is what we supposed it to be before seeing it, a hell of a place."

The benevolence of the battalion was not appreciated by the Yosemites and they escaped before they reached the Commissioners' camp. Major Savage started out at the head of a second "round up" expedition, but was recalled by the Commissioners, and the command proceeded under Captain Boling. Again young Dr. Bunnell accompanied the party, at times serving as interpreter and occasionally as surgeon. The volunteer soldiers went after the Chow-chillas, who had induced the Yosemites to slip away. Their route led them into the Upper San Joaquin. They burned the lodges and acorn stores of a deserted village where the embers of a funeral pyre still glowed. The Indians themselves retired before the raiding party, offering to fight only when they had the advantage. The destruction of their lodges and stores seemed to Captain Boling the only way to force them to come in to the Commissioners. Left alone in the mountains, they were sure to continue to murder the settlers. The men in the battalion, under severe provocation and in face of shouted taunts from little bands of Indians safely sheltered in rocky coves, did quite consistently refrain from shooting Indians on sight. Even when the Indians rolled down huge stones from above in order to annihilate the pursuing men, they contented themselves with trying to preserve their own safety, and followed, so far as they could, the orders of the Commissioners. If it had not been for the responsible leadership in the battalion, the story might have been a far less creditable one.

Following the return of the battalion to the Commissioners' camp, Major Savage met with the Chow-chillas and Kah-we-ahs at a feast provided by him, and treaties of peace were signed. Dr. Bunnell reported that the Chow-chillas, who had often joined with the Yosemites in raiding parties and in the Indian war, became the most tractable of the mountain Indians. This left the Yosemites as the only important mountain tribe still at war with the settlers. Chief Ten-ei-ya had resisted all the bribes and blandishments of the Commissioners. He and his braves wanted the freedom of their mountain home.

A division of the battalion, under Captain Boling, therefore, went after the Yosemites. During this second stay in the valley the soldiers played a catch-as-catch-can game with scattered parties of Indians occupying the high places, always ready and willing to roll stones down on the adventurous who scrambled too far up the rocky trails. Finally, from a perch on a high ledge above Mirror Lake, where his retreat had been cut off from above, the old Chief Ten-ei-ya descended on a trail through an oak-tree-top, and was captured again. When he was brought into camp he found that his favorite son had been killed, in violation of orders, while being held in camp. It was a bitter pill for the old chief to swallow.

For many nights Ten-ei-ya would lift his voice and call, believing that those of his people who were still in the mountains would hear him and come in. But there were no answers to his calls. Once he attempted to escape, and when he was brought before Captain Boling, he expected to be killed. His usual taciturn reserve was broken, and he uttered a pathetic lamentation and a defiant threat, using Indian language interspersed with Spanish words.

"Kill me, Sir Captain! Yes, kill me, as you killed my son; as you would kill my people if they were to come to you! You would kill all my race if you had the power. Yes, Sir American, you can now tell your warriors to kill the old chief; you have made me sorrowful, my life dark; you killed the child of my heart; why not kill the father? But wait a little; when I am dead I will call to my people to come to you, I will call louder than you have had me call; that they shall hear me in their sleep, and come to avenge the death of their chief and his son. Yes, Sir American, my spirit will make trouble for you and your people, as you have caused trouble to me and my people. With the wizards, I will follow the white men and make them fear me. You may kill me, Sir Captain, but you shall not live in peace. I will follow in your footsteps, I will not leave my home, but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, in the rivers and in the winds; wheresoever you go I will be with you. You will not see me, but you will fear the spirit of the old chief, and grow cold. The great spirits have spoken! I am done."

Captain Boling's answer was to see that the old chief was fed. Dr. Bunnell, who had reported that he was moved to sympathy and respect for the lordly Ten-ei-ya while he was speaking, remarked that at his food he was "simply a dirty old Indian."

After a second attempt to escape, the proud old chief was tethered by a rope fastened around his waist. With Ten-ei-ya tied to him, Dr. Bunnell explored the high trails in search of Ten-ei-ya's uncaught people. Finally a detachment, taking Ten-ei-ya with them, left the valley on the north cliff trail above Mirror Lake. After reaching the summit, they followed the ridges just below the snow line, to the shores of a lake, now called Tenaya, where they surprised and captured without resistance the remnant of the Yosemites, thirty-five in number, including Ten-ei-ya's four squaws. The young chief of the village, which had so long evaded the pursuing soldiers, declared that he was "not only willing, but anxious" to go to the Commissioners and join in a treaty of peace, for, said he, "Where can we now go that the Americans will not follow us?" and turning to the Captain, "Where can we make our homes that you will not find us?"

On the trip back to the valley, Dr. Bunnell had ample opportunity to see this marvelous high country not far from the present Tioga Road which leads from the valley through Tuolumne Meadows to Mono Lake. He maintained that the "sublime mountain scenery" exceeded any he had ever seen either in Mexico or in the Rocky Mountains. It was he who suggested that the lake where the last of the Yosemites had been found be called after Ten-ei-ya. And so it is called to this day. When Dr. Bunnell told the old chief of the honor bestowed upon him, Ten-ei-ya protested and said: "It already has a name; we call it Py-we-ack." It was Dr. Bunnell's opinion that "the whole mountain region of the water-sheds of the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers afford the most delightful views to be seen anywhere of mountain cliffs, cascades and water-falls, grand forests and mountain meadows." The old chief, Ten-ei-ya, looking back as they traveled from the lake along the high ridges, must have felt a similar emotion.

Thus were the Yosemites brought to the camp on the Fresno. Thus was the Indian war ended.

Major Savage and his friendly Indians re-established their close relations; but he "never re-visited the valley, and died without having seen the Vernal and Nevada Falls, or any of the views belonging to the region of the Yosemite, except those seen from the valley and from the old Indian trail on our first entrance." In 1852 Major Savage was killed in a controversy with a rival trader in the Kings, and so, no more of him.

Having accomplished their purpose, the members of the Mariposa Battalion were mustered out of the service, to return to their various pioneer occupations.

But old Ten-ei-ya, living in the reservation, suffered from the loss of his dignity and power, claimed that "he could not endure the heat at the agency, and said that he preferred acorns to the rations furnished him by the Government." He was granted leave, and joyfully with his family "took the trail to Yosemite once more." Later he was joined by other nostalgic members of his band.

After the murder of two prospectors who strayed into the valley in 1852, a detachment of regular soldiers, under Lieutenant Moore, captured a party of five of Ten-ei-ya's men who said they had killed the white men to prevent them from coming into their valley. The Indians were shot, but, though Lieutenant Moore crossed the Sierra over the Mono Pass, he failed to find Ten-ei-ya, for the friendly Monos had received and secreted Ten-ei-ya and his followers. It was said that Ten-ei-ya had been born and had lived among the Monos until his ambition made him a leader and founder of the Pai-ute colony in Ah-wah-nee. Dr. Bunnell has recorded that Ten-ei-ya's "history and warlike exploits formed part of the traditionary lore of the Monos," that "they were proud of his successes and boasted of his descent from their tribe, although Ten-ei-ya, himself, claimed that his father was the chief of an independent people, whose ancestors were of a different race. Dr. Bunnell, in analyzing his character, declared: "Ten-ei-ya had business cunning and sagacity in managing deserters from other tribes, who had sought his protection. He maintained a reputation as a chief whose leadership was never disputed by his followers, and he was the envy of the leaders of other tribes. After his subjection by the whites, he was deserted by his followers, and his supremacy was no longer acknowledged by the neighboring tribes, who had feared rather than respected him or the people of his band."

Ten-ei-ya and his refugee band stayed many moons with the Monos, but finally, according to Dr. Bunnell's account, in the summer of 1853 he and his people returned to their beloved Yosemite Valley, with the intention of remaining there unless they were driven out by the whites. The squaws constructed permanent wigwams near the head of the valley, among the rocks, where they could not easily be seen by visitors. But times may have been hard. At any rate, they made a raid on their friendly relatives, the Monos, and brought back some of the Mono ponies. They were followed into the valley by the indignant Monos, and when sleeping after a feast on horse meat, they were surprised, and sadly enough, Ten ei-ya was stoned to death. Some of Ten-ei-ya's older men and women were permitted to escape down the valley, but the young men and women were made captives and held as slaves for their captors.

So Ten-ei-ya died, and the valley home he loved so well, after various vicissitudes, is now the famous Yosemite National Park. But that, as Mr. Kipling so often remarked, is another story—a story which will be told in the following pages.

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Last Updated: 18-Nov-2009