EARLY HISTORY OF YOSEMITE VALLEY, THE MASTERPIECE OF NATURE'S HANDIWORK.
[By RALPH S. KUYKENDALL, Native Sons History Fellow, 1918-19.]
Ralph S. Kuykendall, in this excellent article, makes several new contributions to the early history of the Yosemite Valley. He has unearthed a number of official reports and other contemporary documents bearing on the subject which have never before been used by writers.
One of the documents is the first letter ever written in the Yosemite. This and another, from both of which extensive quotations are made in this article, constitute Capt. Bowling's report of the second expedition of 1851. By the use of this new material Mr. Kuykendall has been able definitely to determine for the first time the exact date of the discovery of the Yosemite, and to fix the chronology of the several military expeditions that were made into this region in 1851 and 1852. (Herbert E. Bolton, professor of American History and curator of the Bancroft Library, University of California.)
The beginnings of human life in the Yosemite Valley are shrouded in impenetrable mystery. As we seek to trace back the history of the people who were occupying the region when white men first entered its fastnesses we come almost immediately into the realm of myth and legend, from which it is impossible to extract any element of attested fact. But from the Indian legends, filtered through the imagination of the white folk, we can draw out a fairly consistent story, which, in the absence of authentic history, may serve as an introduction.
From time immemorial there had dwelt in the fair valley of Ahwahnee the powerful tribe of the Ahwahneechees. To this place they believed the Great Spirit had led them from their original home in the far-distant west. In their new, high-walled home the Ahwahneechees were secure from attack, and their warlike prowess made them feared and respected by all the other tribes of the mountains. But at length an evil time came upon them. Wars and a fearful pestilence decimated the tribe. The valley was held to be accursed, and the feeble remnant of its inhabitants fled to their neighbors or to the wild tribes across the mountains. For many years the valley was deserted.
But a certain noble youth of the tribe, who had gone among the Monos, married a maiden of that tribe, and to this pair a son was born, who was named Teneiya. Now Teneiya, when he had grown to man's estate, remembered the home of his fathers. So he gathered together the remnants of the tribe and returned with them to the vale of Ahwahnee; and they prospered and once more became powerful. And one day it happened that a young brave, going to the Lake of the Sleeping Water to spear fish, was met by a monster grizzly bear, and a terrific battle ensued, from which the Indian emerged victorious, though grievously wounded. After this the young chief was called Yosemite, or the large grizzly bear, and finally the name came to be applied to the whole tribe.
Thus far the legend. But with Teneiya we come to an historical personage, the last chief of the Yosemite Indians. He was ruling over the tribe when the white men came to the valley. When asked about the name Yosemite he is reported to have said that when he was a young chief this name had been selected for the tribebecause they occupied the mountains and valleys which were the favorite resort of the grizzly bear, and because his people were expert in killing them. That his tribe had adopted the name because those who had bestowed it were afraid of "the grizzlies" and feared his band.1
Ethnologically the natives of the Yosemite Valley belonged to the Mariposa dialect group of the southern Sierra Miwok Indians, and the ethnologists assure us that the Indian name for the valley was, and still is, Awani (Ahwahnee), which was the name of the principal village in the valley, and by extension, the name of the people also. The ending tci (or chee), signifying location or origin, is sometimes added to Awani (or Ahwahnee) when speaking of the people. The name Yosemite is simply a corruption of the term which the southern Miwoks applied to any species of bear and particularly to the grizzly,2 and was given to the valley, as we shall see, because the white people who first came in contact with its native inhabitants called them Yosemites.
FIRST VISIT OF WHITE MEN.
There is no evidence to show that white men entered Yosemite Valley before the spring of 1851. There is some reason to believe that the Joseph R. Walker expedition of 1833 descended the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the ridge between the Merced and the Tuolumne Rivers and looked down into the Yosemite Valley from its northern wall, but our best authority for that expedition, the contemporary or nearly contemporary narrative of Zenas Leonard, a member of the party, states clearly that they did not succeed in their efforts to go down into a valley which he de cribes in terms that have been taken to apply to the Yosemite. As early as 1806 a Spanish missionary and reconnaissance expedition went half a day's march up the Merced River, and other Spanish expeditions crossed the Merced at later times, but none of these seem to have gone farther up the river than the lowest foothills. A year or two before 1851 James D. Savage, while in pursuit of Indians, reached a point within a few miles of the valley. But the real discovery of this masterpiece of nature's handiwork was made in 1851, as an incidental result of the effort to settle the Indian problems which had arisen in that region.
INDIAN WAR OF 1850-51.
When the white men flocked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in search of gold it was not long before difficulties arose with the Indians. What happened here was the same thing that had happened everywhere on the frontierthe red man had to give way to the white but he did not do so without a struggle. This struggle, it is true, was comparatively short, since the California Indians were not capable of maintaining a long contest. The war in the Mariposa country was only one episode in the red man's fight to keep possession of his ancestral home, but it is the only part of it which we need to consider in this connection.
In the beginning of 1850 James D. Savage had a trading post and mining camp on the Merced River some 20 miles below the Yosemite Valley, which was at that time unknown to the whites. During the spring of that year Indians supposed to belong to the tribe known as the Yosemites made an attack on this post. They were driven off, but Savage thought it best to abandon the place and remove his store to Mariposa Creek. He also established a branch post on the Fresno River and at both places built up a prosperous trade. Savage had several Indian wives and obtained a really remarkable influence over the Indian tribes with which he was connected. But there were malcontents among them and the tribes in the mountains were suspicious and easily incited to acts of hostility.
On the 17th of December, 1850, Savage's Indians deserted the Mariposa camp and on the same or the following day his post on the Fresno was attacked and two of the three men there present killed. Adam Johnston, the Indian agent, describes the scene as it was two days later when he visited it:
Several other similar outrages occurred soon after and signalized the beginning of a general Indian war.
THE MARIPOSA BATTALION.
Under these circumstances the white settlers took prompt action to protect themselves. Under the lead of Sheriff James Burney and James D. Savage, a volunteer company was formed, January 6, 1851, with Burney in command. This force had several indecisive skirmishes with the Indians. Meanwhile the governor had been appealed to and he immediately authorized Sheriff Burney to call out 200 militiamen and organize a battalion for service as the emergency might demand. Under this authorization the Mariposa Battalion (as it was popularly called) was formed, February 10, at Savage's partially ruined store on Mariposa Creek. Savage was elected major, Burney having declined to be a candidate for the position, and three companies were organized under command of Capts. John J. Kuykendall, John Bowling, and William Dill. Headquarters were established on Mariposa Creek and here the battalion was drilled in preparation for the campaign, and occasional scouting forays were made into the enemy's country.
INDIAN COMMISSIONERS TO RESCUE.
At the same time that Gov. McDougal issued his order for the calling out of the militia he appealed for cooperation to the United States Indian commissioners, McKee, Barbour, and Wozencraft, who had just arrived in California with instructions to make treaties with the Indian tribes. It was agreed that the commissioners would go at once to the disaffected region and endeavor to treat with the hostile tribes, and that the volunteer battalion which had been raised should be subject to their directions. If negotiations failed, force would be used to bring the Indians to terms. The commissioners arrived at the Mariposa camp about the 1st of March, and immediately sent out runners inviting the various tribes to come in and have a talk. A meeting was arranged for the 9th of March, and on the 19th a treaty was made with six tribes which were at once removed to a reservation between the Merced and the Tuolumne rivers. The commissioners then went on to talk with the tribes south of the Merced River, and left part of the volunteer battalion to deal with the Indians who had refused to enter into the treaty.1
PURSUIT OF RECALCITRANT INDIANS.
Among the tribes which had agreed to come in to talk with the commissioners was one which the latter called the "Yosemetos"2 and which Adam Johnston, the Indian agent, refers to as the "Yocemete."3 This tribe had failed to appear, and reports brought in by friendly Indians indicated that they had no intention of coming in. One of these friendly Indians is reported to have said:
It was therefore deemed necessary to send a military force after them.
On the evening of March 19, the very day on which the treaty was signed, Maj. Savage set out5 with the companies of Capts. Bowling and Dill, Capt. Kuykendall's company being absent in the region of San Joaquin and Kings Rivers.
On the morning of the 22d a Nuchu rancheria on the South Fork of the Merced River was surprised and captured without a fight. At this point a camp was established and messengers were sent ahead to the Yosemites with a request that they come into camp. Next day the old chief Teneiya came in alone,2 and after an interview with Savage promised that if allowed to return to his people he would bring them in. "He was allowed to go. The next day he came back, and said his people would soon come to our camp."3 The day passed and no Indians appeared. Maj. Savage, growing impatient, set out on the morning of March 25 with a part of his command, taking the old chief along with him as guide. After a little while they met a company of 72 Indians on the trail, and Teneiya said that these were all of his people except some who had gone over the mountains. Savage replied:
DISCOVERY OF YOSEMITE VALLEY.
Teneiya was allowed to go to the camp on the South Fork with his people, but Savage took one of his young braves as a guide and continued his march toward the north.5 Within a short time the company came to old Inspiration Point and the full view of the valley was presented to their gaze. It must be confessed, however, that the scenic wonder of this valley made very slight impression on these rough men of action, and without much ado they hastened down the trail and camped for the night on the south side of the Merced River, a little below El Capitan. The day of the discovery was March 25, 1851.6
As the tired campaigners sat about the camp fire that night the events of the day were passed in review and the question arose of giving a name to the valley which they had found. Dr. L. H. Bunnell, upon whom the scenes and events of this campaign made a deeper impression than upon any of the others, suggested the appropriateness of naming it after the aborigines who dwelt there. The suggestion was agreed to after some good-natured banter, and since the white men called these Indians Yosemites the name Yosemite was given to the valley, rather than the more melodious Indian name Awani (Ahwahnee) which already belonged to it.
The next day was spent in a search of the valley, but no Indians were found save an ancient squaw who was too old and decrepit to make her escape.1 Indian huts, evidently deserted but a few hours before, and large caches of acorns and other provisions were found and destroyed. The valley was thoroughly explored by the volunteers, one party going up Teneiya Creek beyond Mirror Lake and another ascending the Merced to a point above Nevada Fall. The search proving fruitless and the supplies running low it was decided to abandon the chase and return to the camp on the South Fork. From there the Indians who had been gathered together were started toward the commissioners' camp on the Fresno, but before they arrived at their destination the negligence of the guard permitted them to escape and they returned to their mountain fastnesses. They were gone, but assuredly not forgotten.2
In Judge Marvin's account of this expedition occurs what is probably the first printed description of the Yosemite Valley:
About the middle of April Maj. Savage led a fruitless expedition into the mountains in an effort to round up certain reluctant bands of Chowchilla Indians. On the 29th of April the commissioners made a treaty with 16 tribes of Indians between the Chowchilla and Kaweah Rivers and placed them on a reservation. The three commissioners then divided their territory, and each went to a different part of the State to continue their labors, leaving the volunteer battalion to complete the work here by bringing to the reservations the Indians who were still lurking in the mountains.
SECOND EXPEDITION TO YOSEMITE.
On May 4, 1851, Maj. Savage addressed to Capt. John Bowling the following order:
There is an official account of this expedition, written by Capt. Bowling in the form of two letters. The first of these was written May 15, 1851, in the Yosemite Valley, and addressed to Maj. Savage. The second was written May 29 at the camp on the Fresno River, and addressed to Col. G. W. Barbour, one of the Indian commissioners. These reports have not heretofore been known to writers on the history of the Yosemite Valley, and since they give a vivid account of this expedition, I think it worth while to let Capt. Bowling tell the story in his own words.1 Writing from the "Yo-Semety Village, May 15, 1851," he says:
The account is continued in the letter to Col. Barbour:
Altogether Capt. Bowling's command spent about two weeks in the valley on this occasion. The main purpose of the expedition having been accomplished, a return was made to the headquarters on the Fresno and the Indians were placed on the reservation. Teneiya, however, chafed under restraint and appealed repeatedly for permission to return to the mountains. Finally, on his solemn promise to behave, he was allowed to go back to the valley, taking his immediate family with him. In a short time a number of his old followers made their escape from the reservation and were supposed to have joined him. No attempt was made to bring them back and no complaint was heard against the Yosemites during the winter of 1851-52.
EXPEDITION OF 1852.
On the 20th of May, 1852, a party of eight prospectors started from Coarse Gold Gulch on a trip to the upper waters of the Merced River. They had just entered the Yosemite Valley when they were set upon by a band of Indians, and two of them, named Rose and Shurborn, were killed and a third badly wounded. The others got away and after enduring great hardships arrived again at Coarse Gold Gulch on the 2d of June. The same day about 30 or 40 miners set out to punish the treacherous Yosemites. This party found and buried the bodies of the murdered men, but they were compelled to return without punishing the perpetrators of the deed.1
The commander at Fort Miller having been informed of these events, a detachment of Regular soldiers under Lieut. Moore, with scouts and guides, was at once dispatched into the mountains. On arriving in the Yosemite Valley this expedition surprised and captured five Indians. Clothing said to belong to the murdered men being found upon them, they were summarily shot. The remainder of the Yosemites with their old chief Teneiya made their escape and fled over the mountains into the Mono country. Thither the soldiers pursued, but were unable to catch any of them. The party lost a few horses, killed by the Indians, explored the region about Mono Lake, discovered some gold deposits, and then returned to the fort on the San Joaquin by a route that led south of the Yosemite Valley. This expedition was made in June and July, 1852.
DEATH OF TENEIYA.
Teneiya and his fellow tribesmen seem to have remained among the Monos until the summer of 1853, when they returned once more to the Yosemite Valley. They repaid the hospitality of the Monos by stealing a number of their horses. This proceeding stirred the wrath of the Monos, and they determined to wreak summary vengeance upon their erstwhile guests. They put on their war paint and descended suddenly upon the Yosemites while the latter were in the midst of a gluttonous feast. Old Teneiya had his skull crushed by a rock hurled from the hand of a Mono warrior and all except a handful of his followers were slain. The tribe was virtually exterminated, though a few of their descendants still survive. From that day to the present there has been peace in the vale of Ahwahnee.
YOSEMITE IS MADE KNOWN.
In the manner which has been described, the Yosemite Valley was discovered; but the Californians of that early day, and particularly those in the mining region, had very little interest in scenery. The discovery of a rich placer would have attracted some attention, but mere scenery none at all. The wonderful valley remained practically undisturbed for three years longer. Early in the year 1855 one of the very meager descriptions of Yosemite called forth by the events of 1851 and 1852 came by chance to the notice of J. M. Hutchings. Hutchings was at the moment laying plans for the publication of his California Magazine, and for that reason the mention of a waterfall a thousand feet high arrested his attention, and he resolved to investigate the matter.
In June or July, 1855, Hutchings formed a party to visit the valley, consisting of himself, Walter Millard, and Thomas Ayres, an artist. At Mariposa, a fourth member, Alexander Stair, joined the party. Some difficulty was experienced in the matter of a guide, but finally, through the assistance of Capt. Bowling and some other members of the Mariposa Battalion, two Indians were found to perform that essential service, and in due time the party found their way into the valley.
Upon their return to the settlements these men gave an enthusiastic account of their experiences. Hutchings wrote an article which was printed in the Mariposa Gazette of August 16, and parts of which were quoted in the San Francisco (Calif.) Chronicle of August 18. A picture by Ayres was lithographed and published soon after, and before the year was out two other parties made their way into the valley. With the visit of Hutchings, Ayres, Millard, and Stair the tourist travel to Yosemite may fairly be said to have begun.
Last Updated: 09-Dec-2011