Exploration of the east side of the Sierra Nevada did not begin until the early 1800s. In 1806 Gabriel Moraga, a Mexican-born officer in the Spanish army, made the first documented entry by non-natives into the Sierra. Subsequent explorers, including Jedediah Smith, Joseph Walker, and John Frémont, further explored and mapped passages through the mountains during the 1830-40s, but none of these men ventured to Devils Postpile. Due to the high elevation, harsh conditions, and limited trails, the Middle Fork Valley remained unexplored by Euro-Americans until the late 1800s, when mining changed the interests in this area. Visit our explorers page for more information.
Development and Early Communities
Consequences of the Mining Activity
Nonetheless, the blasting, woodcutting, water diversions, hunting, and farming that mining operations brought to the region had lasting environmental effects. Abandoned diggings, dynamite scars, overgrown roadbeds, ruined cabins, buried tools, blockhouse foundations, and remnant dams can still be found even in the highest basins of the Middle Fork San Joaquin. Even after the mines closed, Mammoth Lakes continued to draw prospectors, timber entrepreneurs, ranchers, and, by the early 1900s, innkeepers, commercial packers, artists, sightseers, and recreational ﬁshermen. Over time, by widening trails, improving roads, and promoting the region's recreational values, these newcomers helped launch the economic transition to tourism that was occurring in many places in the West during that period.
The French Trail
Although some of the Basques owned ranches, most took care of other people's flocks during the summer and fall. When the Civil War increased the demand for wool, sheepherding spread north into the San Joaquin Valley. Soon after, drought and competition for grazing land compelled many herders to venture into the High Sierra.
The first recorded sheepherder in the Middle Fork Valley was in 1879 when a herder with an estimated 2,000 sheep camped near the mouth of Fish Creek. By the 1890s, nearly every canyon, valley, and meadow in the Sierra Nevada had been impacted by domestic sheep.
The real and perceived environmental effects of grazing provided the motivation for early conservation efforts in the Sierra Nevada. Conservationists objected that overgrazing by sheep reduced the native grasses in the High Sierra and that the sheep's hooves trampled vegetation and accelerated erosion by wearing trenches into the soil. In his pleas to protect the Yosemite region as a national park, John Muir referred to sheep as "hoofed locusts." Others complained that the ﬁres set by the sheepherders to clear trails and encourage the regrowth of forage could destroy stands of valuable timber.
Conservationists called for a ban on sheep in California's newly created national parks and forest reserves. In the 1890s, when Yosemite National Park included Devils Postpile, the principal task and most vexing challenge for cavalry troops assigned to it was evicting sheepherders. Although located in a remote corner of the park, Reds Meadow served as an important post from which to prevent sheepherders from entering via Mammoth Pass, one of the only accessible passes along the Central Sierra escarpment. A 1896 map of the park shows Reds Meadow as a patrol post with a series of trails and pack routes radiating out like spokes on a wheel. But the vast area of the park and its rugged topography enabled the sheepherders to evade the patrols. To avoid detection by cavalry patrols or tourists who would report them, the sheepherders removed the bells from their sheep and kept their campfires small.
According to Theodore Solomons, who passed through the area in 1892 as part of his mapping of the Sierra crest, the first known name of the Postpile comes from the sheepherders who frequented this area and referred to it as, "the Devil's Woodpile" due to it similarity to fence wood posts. The sheepherders themselves left few written records aside from carvings on trees of names, dates, and self-portraits. Anthropologists have found these arborglyphs in the Sierra Nevada and throughout the Great Basin, particularly on aspen trees near meadows in which the sheepherders camped. In addition to being an artistic expression, the carvings served to mark out territory or inform other sheepherders when a particular area had last been grazed. Although less prevalent in Devils Postpile than in other areas of the Sierra and Great Basin, a 1993 survey documented 37 marked trees on a terrace above the Middle Fork San Joaquin. The extent of the bark overgrowth and a comparison with nearby grafﬁti from 1931 indicated that the tree carvings predated the creation of the monument.
Last updated: September 22, 2015