The Embattled Wilderness
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Chapter One:
The Incomparable Valley

From above, the view of Yosemite Valley can be very deceptive. Roads, buildings, cars, campgrounds, and parking lots are only partially visible or are entirely lost among the trees. Especially from overlooks such as famed Glacier Point, 3,214 feet higher than the valley floor, the world of Yosemite moves slowly and in miniature. At this elevation, the viewer finds it even harder to imagine that the landscape below has long been the subject of intense and sometimes bitter controversy.

Perhaps the problem of protection has indeed been one of lasting but misleading first impressions. John Muir himself, writing of his first look into the valley from the top of Yosemite Falls, did nothing to prepare his followers for the landscape's imperfections. "The level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden," he wrote, "sunny meadows here and there, and groves of pine and oak; the river of Mercy sweeping in majesty through the midst of them and flashing back the sunbeams." The date of his description was July 15, 1869, and already trails, fences, barns, and houses linked or abutted the meadows and riverbanks below. But although these structures were intrusions on the landscape, Muir said nothing about them years later when he published his journal. Instead he turned immediately to a description of "Tissiack, or Half-Dome, rising at the upper end of the valley to a height of nearly a mile, . . . holding the eye in devout admiration, calling it back again and again from falls or meadows, or even the mountains beyond." Half Dome was all "marvelous cliffs, marvelous in sheer dizzy depth sculpture." Thus even for Muir, a dedicated botanist, the geology of Yosemite Valley was no less overpowering and distracting. "Hereafter," he remarked, he would "try to keep away from such extravagant, nerve-straining places" as his perch on a narrow ledge at the brink of Yosemite Falls. "Yet such a day is well worth venturing for," he concluded. "My first view of the High Sierra, first view looking down into Yosemite, the death song of Yosemite Creek, and its flight over the vast cliff, each one of these is of itself enough for a great life-long landscape fortune." [1]

Much as Yosemite Valley viewed from above appears deceptively spacious, so the observer standing on the valley floor is often overwhelmed by sensations of compactness and immensity. Joseph LeConte, the renowned geologist, alluded to this commonplace perception while leading a party of his students on a Sierra field trip in August 1870. "Started this morning up the valley," the entry in his journal for August 2 began. "As we go, the striking features of Yosemite pass in procession before us. On our left, El Capitan, Three Brothers, Yosemite Falls; on the right, Cathedral Rock, Cathedral Spires, Sentinel Rock." After a brief pause for a group photograph the party resumed its journey. And "again the grand procession commences," LeConte wrote. "On the left, Royal Arches, Washington Column, North Dome; on the right, Sentinel Dome, Glacier Point, Half Dome." After making camp the adventurers went up Tenaya Canyon to Mirror Lake for a swim. "The scenery about this lake is truly magnificent," the geologist remarked. It was here that Yosemite's cliffs appeared to reach "the acme of imposing grandeur." Half Dome seemed to rise "almost from the water, a sheer precipice, near five thousand feet perpendicular." Opposite, North Dome loomed up "to an almost equal height." Overwhelmed, LeConte, like Muir, seemed somewhat out of touch with the valley floor itself. After all, hemmed in by cliffs and mountains as breathtaking as Half Dome, the geologist and his students did not pay as much attention to what lay at their feet. [2]

More recently, the biological tenets of environmentalism have gradually softened and subdued the standard descriptions of Yosemite. In this vein Ansel Adams, another name linked with promoting the grandeur of the valley, recalled of his first visit in 1916 "not only the colossal but the little things; the grasses and ferns, cool atriums of the forest." But even for Adams, writing in the 1980s, the dominant recollection of his first family outing was one of granite cliffs threaded with "many small shining cascades"; Sentinel Falls and Yosemite Falls "booming in early summer flood"; and the mists of Bridalveil Fall glistening in the sunlight. "One wonder after another descended upon us," he wrote. Granted, the vegetation of Yosemite Valley impressed Adams, as it had many others. But there was no hiding the fact that its trees and wildflowers were at best pleasant diversions rather than priorities for his visit. Like so many thousands before him, young Ansel Adams was attracted to Yosemite by its visions of wonderment. The vacation promised him by his parents "MUST be in this incredible place" he had read about. [3] As a leading environmentalist, Adams later learned to pay homage to nature in its totality. His fame nonetheless rested on his preoccupation with the scenery of Yosemite. By the time he had personally admonished his followers not to overlook the gentler beauties of the Sierra Nevada, his own photographs had lured millions of Americans to Yosemite in hopes of duplicating the monumental images that he too still found so compelling.

As the focal point of that perception, Yosemite Valley inevitably became the symbol of the national park idea both at its finest and at its worst. Among national parks renowned for their breathtaking scenery, no other offered such a variety of natural features in such a limited space. That one characteristic of Yosemite Valley was to prove both its greatest asset and its biggest problem. The immensity of Yosemite's formations could deceive even its most knowledgeable defenders, among them Ansel Adams, John Muir, and Joseph LeConte. By the time Americans as a whole came to understand the argument that Yosemite Valley had reached or exceeded its desirable limits of growth, the forces of development had themselves become entrenched as part of the Yosemite experience. Henceforth the removal of roads, houses, hotels, and campgrounds seemed to threaten both tradition and history. Certainly the suggestion that Yosemite Valley be turned "back to nature" bore distinct notes of futility and improbability.

Established in 1864 as the first park of its kind, Yosemite Valley suffered from the problems of its own longevity. The biological needs of the valley were neither understood nor appreciated in 1864. The establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890 added another dimension for complacency by lending credence to the argument that biological and wilderness values could be protected outside the valley. Finally, the reduction of the national park by 542 square miles in 1905, coupled with the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913 to the city of San Francisco for its municipal water supply, strengthened preservationists' resolve to oppose further commercial development within Yosemite Valley itself. Growing debate about its lingering vulnerability to despoliation further swelled, encompassing the national park as a whole and indeed spilling over into discussion about the future of the entire park system. The characteristics of no other park put the question more directly: How do the people of the United States want their national parks to be protected and managed? The national parks, in short, were themselves controversial. Meanwhile, as latent pressures for development in Yosemite Valley would continue to demonstrate, perhaps any attempt to reverse the commercialization of the parks was a goal impossible to reconcile with political and social reality.

If ever a national park was fated by its geology to be the center of endless controversy, Yosemite is that park. Beginning with the uplift of the Sierra Nevada sixty million years ago, Yosemite Valley began its emergence as a progression of natural wonders barely seven miles in length and only one mile wide. In recent geological history, several periods of glaciation followed by constant weathering further scoured and molded Yosemite's spires and granite cliffs. As each glacier retreated, a great lake probably inundated the valley floor and gradually was filled in with river-borne sediments. Finally the Merced River cut its own distinctive channels of change, meandering back and forth across the former lake bed before it rushed headlong through the foothills to the lowlands of the Central Valley. [4] By now the Yosemite of the American imagination—of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, Ansel Adams, and many other artists—was in place. If only the valley's size had been equal to its beauty, undoubtedly its history as a national park would have been much less controversial.

In this respect, the size of the national park in comparison with the valley has always been misleading. Much like passing up the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, a visit to the park without seeing the valley remains almost unthinkable. Granted, many visit the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, thirty-five miles to the south; in summer thousands more cross the Tioga Road for glimpses of the High Sierra, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows; and perhaps as many as one hundred thousand people a year hike or ride horseback through portions of the backcountry. And yet, even among the backpackers, it is the valley from which most begin their experience and to which they inevitably return before going home.

Over the years, the response to greater visitation has been greater development. Concessionaires especially, mindful of Yosemite Valley's disproportionate popularity, have zealously opposed serious limitations on public access or structures. As a result, the public has come to expect roads, hotels, stores, and campgrounds in Yosemite Valley as a matter of course. Unquestionably, more than 125 years of emphasis on visitation has compromised the valley's protection. By the same token, similar problems would probably surface if the United States had to develop the park all over again. After all, in the words of its most noted geologist, Francois Matthes, the heart of Yosemite National Park is still its valley "incomparable." [5]

The Indians called the valley Ah-wah-nee, or "place of a gaping mouth." Invariably, the evidence of their occupation is open to broad interpretation, yet Native Americans probably came to Yosemite Valley well over two thousand years ago. At about the time Columbus made the European "discovery" of North America, Yosemite Valley was occupied by a Miwok speaking people drifting eastward from the San Joaquin Valley under population pressures from stronger neighboring tribes. In the Sierra the Miwoks probably subdued and mingled with existing Yosemite natives. Thus were formed the Ahwahneechees, the people of the valley whose appearance suggested a great "gaping mouth." [6]

Yosemite Valley's native inhabitants had no conception whatsoever of scenic preservation; Yosemite Valley was strictly for the use and survival of the tribe. Survival called for the manipulation of the valley's resources, particularly through the use of fire. Annual fires accomplished a variety of important ends, most noticeably the retention of the valley's open meadows and scattered stands of black oak. From black oak the Ahwahneechees obtained acorns, their single most important source of food. Boiling water poured over acorn meal leached out the tannic acid, providing flour for hot cakes, gruel, and mush. Without periodic fires, dense forest would quickly have reinvaded the meadows and competed with black oak for sunlight and nutrients. Similarly, the lack of trees on the valley floor made hunting and gathering much easier and all the while deprived potential enemies of concealment for furtive movements. [7]

Unfortunately, fire was no deterrent against disease and white encroachment. Around 1800 a disease, probably smallpox, decimated the Ahwahneechees, forcing them to abandon their villages, including those in Yosemite Valley. Survivors of the plague trickled off to join neighboring tribes. Years later, remnants of the Ahwahneechees and other Miwok-speaking peoples returned to Yosemite under Tenaya, whose father, an Ahwahneechee chief, apparently had told his son stories of the "deep, grassy valley." Perhaps two hundred strong, Tenaya's band still found "Ahwahnee" impossible to hold indefinitely. Barely a year after the discovery of gold along the American River in 1848, thousands of fortune seekers swarmed through out the Sierra Nevada foothills. The interests of miners and natives inevitably clashed, and death or dislocation for the Yosemite Indians once more became a frightening possibility. [8]

The process of dispossession began in January 1851 with the formation of the so-called Mariposa Battalion. Its commander, James D. Savage, accused the Yosemite Indians of depradations against his trading outposts along the Merced River, the Fresno River, and Mariposa Creek. If a treaty was not signed, he warned Tenaya the following March, all of the Indians would be killed. With Tenaya reluctantly in the vanguard, Savage led the battalion from its camp near Mariposa up an old Indian trail winding toward Yosemite Valley. Along the way they encountered a group of seventy-two natives; the absence of young men among the refugees undermined Tenaya's efforts to convince the battalion that these women and children were all that remained of his band. Savage sent the chief back to the soldiers' encampment, and with the batallion he pushed on in search of the Ahwahneechee fugitives. [9]

In the late afternoon of March 27, 1851, the men came to a clearing in the trees and for the first time looked down into Yosemite Valley. They were undoubtedly the first organized party of adventurers to do so since the fall of 1833, when Joseph R. Walker, leading a group of mountain men across the High Sierra, had peered down into the valley with members of his detachment from somewhere along the north rim. According to Zenas Leonard, Walker's clerk, the party had "found it utterly impossible for a man to descend, to say nothing of [their] horses," and so had pressed on across the mountains. [10] The Mariposa Battalion, entering from the west at Old Inspiration Point, encountered none of the precipitous terrain that had thwarted the ambitions of Walker's group. On the evening of March 27, Savage and his militia set up camp on the valley floor in Bridalveil Meadows. [11]

That the Indians had already escaped became apparent the next day. Although the battalion scouted far and wide through the valley, even ascending the Merced River above Nevada Fall, the soldiers found only an aged woman, left behind because, as she put it, "I am too old to climb the rocks!" [12] Savage questioned her further, but she refused to tell him where the Indians had gone. In reprisal, the battalion burned everything the natives had been forced to abandon, including their dwellings and large caches of acorns. Without food and shelter the Indians would be forced out of the mountains, or so Savage and his men conveniently assumed. [13]

In fact, Tenaya's band had circled back to the battalion's camp near Mariposa; with Tenaya himself the Indians had slipped out of camp past the militia's sleeping guards. A second expedition, raised in May 1851 under the command of John Boling, finally hunted down the Yosemite Indians and brought them in for punishment. The youngest of Tenaya's three sons had already been killed while trying to escape from his captors. [14] Mournful over his son's death and the loss of his people's freedom, Tenaya soon asked for permission to return to Yosemite Valley. The alternative was permanent assignment to the reservation at Fresno, where he and his band suffered from poor food and government restrictions. The Indian agent granted the chief's request, provided that Tenaya keep his promise to cause no more trouble. [15]

Yet peace in Yosemite Valley proved impossible to secure. In the spring of 1852 the Indians attacked a group of prospectors in the valley; two of the miners were killed and six others barely escaped with their lives. Ostensibly one of the prospectors had incited the natives to attack, hoping in this manner to wrest from his companions sole possession of the claim. In the end only one thing mattered—Indians had killed whites. A detachment of the regular army entered Yosemite Valley and executed five captives allegedly responsible for the miners' deaths, sending Tenaya in flight over the High Sierra to take refuge with the Mono Indians near Mono Lake. There, late in the summer of 1853, Tenaya and several of his band were killed, apparently by the Monos over a gambling dispute. [16] The remainder of the Ahwahneechees scattered east and west of the Sierra, never again to regroup as a distinct and unified people.

Thus did the recorded history of Yosemite open on a discordant note of misery and violence. And yet, through a strange twist of irony, the Ahwahneechees were to leave behind an indelible reminder of their fate. For well over a century, historians assumed the word Yosemite to be a corruption of Uzumati, meaning "grizzly bear" in Miwok and signifying the larger of the tribe's two social subdivisions. This was the original translation of Uzumati offered by Lafayette Bunnell, the noted diarist of the Mariposa Battalion. To the Ahwahneechees, however, the word husso meant grizzly bear. Yosemite is now believed to be a corruption of Yo-che-ma-te, literally meaning "some among them are killers." In any reference to the militia companies of March and May 1851, the meaning would be dramatically obvious. What the soldiers may have mistaken as a comparison of themselves to the revered grizzly bear may in fact have been a warning among members of Tenaya's band to fear for their very lives. [17]

And so the name of Yosemite National Park may subtly yet unmistakably betray the park's origins, a fact that is lost on most of today's visitors. So too, the untrained eye sees little evidence of the modifications that the park, especially the valley, has undergone since the soldiers of the Mariposa Battalion first camped there in 1851. Published in 1880, Lafayette Bunnell's popular account of the expedition was undoubtedly influenced by Yosemite's growing notoriety. Still, his alleged emotions the evening of March 27, 1851, ring true, not only among his contemporaries but also among the thousands of present-day observers seeing Yosemite Valley for the very first time. Above all, it is the geology that still leaves the most lasting impression. "The grandeur of the scene," Bunnell recalled, "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." [18] Only gradually did Americans come to appreciate more fully the Yosemite environment exclusive of its waterfalls, domes, mountains, and cliffs. Similarly, only in retrospect did Americans understand what had been lost as well as gained by the relentless modification of the natural scene. Initially, even Yosemite's most ardent defenders came to the valley innocently, eager only to see and marvel at its wonders. Observation, not preservation, was the oldest pursuit. Too late Americans realized that seeing was not saving and that making observation easier exacted a price. Conflict and compromise, it followed, would always be part of Yosemite's resource history.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap1.htm — 17-Mar-2004