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Captain Jack
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of American Indians in California:

Mariposa County

Ahwahnee, located on 10 acres of unsectioned land in Yosemite Valley, is one-half mile west of Yosemite Village. The westbound section of the valley loop off Highway 140 borders it on the north. The site is fairly flat, carpeted with grass and pine needles, and parkland woods border it to the south and east. Vegetation in the area consists of mixed conifers, an abundance of oak trees, and manzanita. A number of coarse granite outcroppings in the area contain cupules or grinding holes, which are circular depressions formed by grinding or pecking with a stone pestle over a long period of time. Also on the site are the razed remnants of 15 cabins, built by the National Park Service in 1930 to house Yosemite Indians who had never vacated the valley.

Indians first entered the Yosemite region more than 4,000 years ago. They were the ancestors of the present-day Mewuk Indians, who established themselves in permanent villages along the Merced River as far east as the Yosemite Valley. They called the valley "Ahwahnee," which means "place of the gaping mouth." These Indians were a small part of the Interior California Mewuks, which included, in ancient times, about 9,000 people who were closely related in language and culture. They lived in the western foothills and lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and their lives revolved around hunting, gathering, and fishing. They traveled to the high country each spring and summer to follow deer herds and to trade with Mono Lake Paiutes from the east side of the Sierra, returning in the fall to their homes in the lower elevations.

"A fatal black sickness" forced the Indians to leave their villages in about 1800. Survivors of the sickness affiliated themselves with neighboring tribes, leaving Yosemite Valley uninhabited for many years. As a child, Chief Tenaya heard stories about the deep, grassy valley that had once been his people's home, and he decided to return there with his band. By 1833, Tenaya was back in the valley living peacefully with his people. In 1850, non-Indian gold seekers began to come into Yosemite, followed by cattle ranchers who moved into the area around Mariposa. The intruders upset the balance of the Indians' subsistence pattern. Tenaya's band came to be known as "Yosemites," a corruption of "Uzumati," which means grizzly bear, probably called such after the bear clan of Tenaya's Ahwahneechees.

In January 1851, the Mariposa Battalion organized in an attempt to subdue Tenaya's people and bring them to reservations in the Fresno area. After a surprise attack and the capture of an Indian rancheria on the South Fork of the Merced River, Chief Tenaya received a messenger who carried a demand that he sign a treaty, quitclaim the Yosemite lands, and leave for the reservation on the Fresno River. Tenaya refused and was told that his entire tribe would be killed. He finally agreed to bring his people into custody, but when the battalion found only 72 Yosemites, most of whom were women and children, they became suspicious and traveled into the valley, a place the army had not yet seen. Once the battalion arrived in the valley, they were awestruck and astonished by its overpowering beauty.

Tenaya was a prisoner in his own land more than once, but he and his followers were never totally subdued, and they never signed a treaty. After an appeal, Tenaya returned to Yosemite and died there, a free man. Tenaya's descendants received allotments for the acreage of the village site, and by 1930, they were living in 15 cabins provided for them by the National Park Service. When the park service decided to expand the Sunnyside Campground, the villagers had to move to other quarters. Today, the Ahwahneechees maintain their traditional ceremonies, dances, and food collecting. Women continue to collect and grind acorns, and to make willow and sedge baskets. Mrs. Julia Parker, a Pomo Indian who married a Yosemite Indian, says that the village is the people's link to the old life.

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Last Modified: Wed, Nov 17 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

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