[See the “Afterward” note for additional information on the Yosemite attach of miners in May 1852.]


You see his name on the way to the South Entrance of the park as Tenaya Lodge; in the back country as Tenaya Lake and in the valley as Tenaya Canyon in which flows Tenaya Creek; the feed of Mirror Lake. We may know Chief Tenaya was the leader of the Native American tribe who inhabited the Valley when the Mariposa Battalion arrived in 1851. If he was responsible for the death and destruction perpetrated on the settlers in the area, why is he commemorated throughout the park? In this post, I will try to show who Tenaya was and what is known of his life and, in a sense, his ironic ending.

It would be easy to use the example of Chief Tenaya as metaphor for the US stampede over Native Americans of the whole country; indeed, for our intolerance or enslavement of all or any of the minorities, before and since. It is ironic that, today, we, as a nation, like to pontificate on man’s inhumanity to man and challenge other nations to conduct themselves in a manner we have failed to adhere to ourselves for close to 400 years. I won’t discuss that, other than to suggest that maybe we are in a position to make such recommendations because we are painfully aware of the consequences if we don’t. Instead, I’ll simply explore what we know of this chief and the significant events later in his life.

Chief Tenaya was the leader of the tribes that lived in Yosemite Valley when “discovered” by the Mariposa Battalion, led by James D. Savage, sent there to “escort” them to reservations. The Yosemite Valley was called Ahwahnee by these tribes that lived there and called themselves “Ahwahnechee.” (the “-chi” or “chee” suffix is understood to mean “People of the…” whatever the prefix is).

The valley had been inhabited (probably off and on) for thousands of years. Tenaya’s father had been its chief when the valley became “corrupted”, probably from over-use or blood-shed. It was said that a “sickness” came over the valley. The chief then led his people east to the Mono Paiute territory in the eastern Sierras. There, he took a Mono as his wife and Tenaya was his son.

When Tenaya came of age, a medicine man came to him and said that the “sickness” had left the valley and Tenaya could take people back to reclaim the valley. It is not clear how long he had settled in the valley before it was infiltrated. Those of the valley were descendants for the Ahwahnechees of this father’s time and joined him as he went to repopulate the valley. Some, however, came from other tribes to avoid “…summary Indian justice….”[i]


Tenaya Lake

The old medicine man, just before his death, told Tenaya, “…that while he retained possession of Ah-wah-ne, his band would increase in numbers and become powerful….” He then warned him, “…against the horsemen of the lowlands…” and declared that, should they enter Ah-wah-ne, “…his tribe would soon be scattered and destroyed, or his people be taken captive, and he himself be the last chief in Ah-wah-ne….”[ii]

Tenaya was the chief of all the tribes of the Ahwahnee Valley and he was feared by them. During the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s and early 1850s, Tenaya’s people were concerned about the miner’s encroachment onto their lands. They felled their trees, hunted their game, depleted and poisoned their streams. By my read of the various histories, the Native Americans, not just around Yosemite (which had yet to be gazed upon by white eyes), but most of California were pretty tame and docile. That isn’t really surprising, since the Americans were not the first infiltrators into their midst. They had been dealing with the Spaniards (from Mexico) for nearly a hundred years already. But Tenaya’s tribe and those of the Chowchilla’s were still pretty hostile and very protective of their territory.

Though the people of the whole valley called themselves the Ahwahnechee, those of Tenaya’s band were called “Yosemite” which meant “They are killers.” This term was pronounced differently by different tribes, but there, apparently, was a real difference to be discerned. Another term meaning “Grizzly Bear” had a similar sound and was used as a “totem” by Tenaya’s band.

At this time, an “ex-miner” and trading post owner, James D. Savage, operated on the Merced River at the conjunction with the South Fork of the Merced (which ran from north of what is now Wawona, down through the north side of the town of Mariposa to the Merced River). Savage had been familiar with Native American tribes up and down the state and worked with them during his role in the Mexican War (1846 to 1847) while fighting with John C Fremont. After the war and before settling in Mariposa, Savage associated with many California Tribes and helped them to defend themselves from warring tribes of the foothills. He was actually made “Chief” in a number of these tribes and had as many as five squaws as his own wives. He was even adept at speaking their languages.

Though there were rumblings about the unrest from the “Yosemities” or “Yosemitoes” from some “secret, hidden valley”, and Savage was concerned, his clientele and even some of his Native American associates felt that if there was a danger, it would not affect the “Blonde Chief”, as Savage was called, or those in his close acquaintance.

But in mid 1850, Tenaya’s people did attack the trading post. The attack was driven off by Savage and his Indian miners. They chased the attackers up the Merced until they got into a canyon (probably not far from where the current boundary to the park lies, just east and up the river from the current location of the Yosemite View Lodge). It was quite clear to Savage, there were too many places for the Yosemities to hide. Fearing he could easily be ambushed, he backed off; feeling it was more prudent to just relocate his trading post. And he did, to the south side of Mariposa on Mariposa Creek. He also opened another place just outside of Coarsegold near the Fresno River.

Late in December, 1850 Tenaya and others, probably, the Chowchillas, attacked both sites, killed almost all of the employees (one did escape, barely). They pillaged blankets and clothing and drove off the livestock.

The Governor of California authorized the formation of the Mariposa Battalion and under the supervision of the US Commissioners on Indian Affairs, were to capture and bring in as many tribes as they could to accept a treaty and be relocated to a reservation on the Fresno River.

The treaty, as far as most of the tribes were concerned was a sweet deal. It provided for gifts, food, clothing and lands secure from further infiltration by the whites. Many tribes accepted the treaty on the spot. In fact, the Nootchu tribe (near Wawona) was startled by the arrival of the Mariposa Battalion on their way to find Tenaya and his valley. They not only surrendered and accepted the treaty without a fight; they even provided guides to assist in locating Tenaya, his valley and other tribes in the area. In addition to the Nootchu, also gathered up were the Pohonochee tribe.[iii]

Chief Tenaya believed that he and his people were safe in his valley and wasn’t about to come out. Runners from the Battalion and from the Nootchu were sent to the valley to persuade Tenaya to accept the treaty. After a day or two, Chief Tenaya showed up, alone, at the Nootchu “ranchiera.” He told Savage that his people had no need of the white man’s reservation on the plains. But Savage then ask why, then, if the Valley provided all their needs, did he find it necessary to “…steal our horses and mules? Why do you rob the miners’ camps? Why do you murder the white man…”[iv] Tenaya admitted that some of his braves had stolen from the miners and that there were wrong to do so. He also said that it was not wrong to steal from enemies, but that his people now know the miners are not their enemies and that they would be glad to live in peace with them. He said that they could not live in the plains because some of the tribes there are “…very bad. They will make war on my people….” He said that in the valley, we could defend ourselves from them.

Savage was unsympathetic. He told Tenaya that he had to make his case to the commissioners. In the meantime, if Tenaya didn’t bring in his tribe, his young men will again steal horses, kill the whites and burn their houses and Tenaya’s whole tribe would be destroyed, “not one of them will be left alive….” Tenaya blamed the Chowchillas for the attacks on Savages’ property, but in defeat or, maybe, as a delaying tactic, Tenaya said if he was allowed to go, he would return with his people. He was let go and Tenaya returned the next day saying his people would be coming in a day or so. The delay was due to the heavy snows and since there was a storm at that moment, his explanation was accepted.

After a few more days, however, Savage didn’t want to wait any longer. With his own guides and Tenaya, himself, leading the way, they started for the valley. Within sight of the valley, the group came across the tribe, about 75 in number, on the road to accept the treaty. Savage was suspicious about the number and had about a third of his force accompany Tenaya and his tribe back to the Nootchu;s camp, while Savage lead the rest of the battalion to see what was in the valley. On March 27, 1851, they road into the valley.

They failed to find any more of the tribe, but did find evidence that there were some that had recently vacated. In the mean time, Tenaya’s group and even Tenaya, himself, seemed to be looking forward to the reservation[v]. After a day or so on the road back to the Nootchu “ranchiera”, the guards felt more and more relaxed because of the positive attitude the captives had about the reservation. So much so, that even Captain Boling, in charge of the group, felt there was no need to post a guard that night.

The next morning, all the captives were gone. The Boling was shocked and horrified about it, but couldn’t help wonder what had really happened. In hindsight, he knew it was foolish, if not down right criminal, to leave the captives unguarded. However, their interest in going to the reservation to start their new life appeared quite genuine. What concerned him was not merely that there was an escape, but that everyone — Yosemities, Nootchu’s, Pohonochees,  Tenaya, EVERYONE, took off. Boling would have expected at least some of the captives to have stayed voluntarily. (Actually, one did remain. He had over indulged on the venison the night before and was not fit to travel[vi]).

But as it was, there wasn’t much that could be done about it because they didn’t have the provisions for a pursuit. Scouts were sent out immediately to find the missing captives, and bring them back in. The rest of the troops returned to Mariposa to stock up. All of the escapees, except Tenaya and some his tribe of Yosemites, were found in the foothills and brought in within a few days. It was discovered that the captives’ interest in the reservation was, indeed, genuine. On the night of the escape, the Chowchillas came into camp and told them that the US Commissioners had lied to them, that there was no reservation; it was only talk to get them to come in and be slaughtered. The scouts, when they found the “hide out” and after reassuring them that the offer was real, were able to bring most all of them in. Tenaya and his tribe remained at large.

By May, 1851, all of the tribes except Tenaya’s had accepted the treaty and were relocated. So another journey into the valley was begun and shortly, five of the tribe were captured. Three were son’s of Tenaya and the other two were young braves, one of whom was Tenaya’s Son-In-Law[vii]. Two of the sons and another brave were held in camp. The third son and the son-in-law were released to tell Tenaya to come in. After an incident where one of the brothers escaped, the remaining captives were held, tied up back-to-back. Guards had arranged this configuration in hopes that they would untie each other and attempt an escape. This was done in order to have an excuse to kill them and win the praise of their superiors. Of course, the two young braves did attempt to escape. As they bolted from the camp, two of the soldiers that planned this, drew their rifles to fire at the braves’ during the escape. One got away and the other, Tenaya’s youngest son, was killed—shot in the back. His body was left where it fell to allow his people to claim it for burial.[viii]

Shortly after, Tenaya was captured in the rocks overlooking the valley between “Indian Canyon” (the crag just east of Yosemite Falls) and what is now called “Tenaya Canyon,” (the canyon below Half Dome in which Mirror Lake is located). The capture was secured primarily with the help of Indian guides. Tenaya, “…strongly censured…” them for their part in his capture. As he was led into camp, his eyes fell on the body of his youngest son. Tenaya was devastated. “…the index to his feelings was exhibited in the glaring expression of deadly hate with which he gazed at Capt. Boling….”[ix] Tenaya remained silent for days after.

Eventually, Tenaya was convinced to call to his people in a loud voice to “…hear the words of Capt. Boling…” (with regard to the reservation). He had said that his tribe was nearby and could hear him from the Valley Floor. Tenaya was asked, and agreed to make the call for a number days, which he did.

Even though heavily guarded, he attempted escape once, but was caught before Tenaya could throw himself in the river to swim to freedom. He was brought before Capt. Boling. Tenaya figured he was going to be shot for his attempt to escape. Tenaya was fearful of being killed, furious that his escape had failed, still grief stricken over the loss of his son and had a deep hatred of Capt. Boling, who he held responsible for the death of his son, Tenaya began to wail in a vociferous out burst dropping all pretense of diplomacy or decorum.

The following quotes are from Dr Lafeyette Bunnell’s book, Discovery of The Yosemite from 1892. It is highly unlikely that the quotes are verbatim, rather, they were so written to underscore the grief that Tenaya displayed. The actual conversation was carried out, partly in sign language but mostly in missionary Spanish, in which both Tenaya (at least occasionally) and Bunnell were fluent. The passage also seems to (possibly for dramatic effect) focus on the spirituality of Tenaya, alluding to his channeling (for the lack of a better phrase) of his medicine man-like prophecies. I can’t help but believe that Bunnell is embellishing a bit.

”…[Tenaya said] 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’

 “He here aroused himself to a sublime frenzy, and completed his rhapsody by saying:

 “ ‘You may kill me, sir, Captain, but you shall not live in peace. I will follow in your foot-steps, I will not leave my home, but be with the spirits among the rocks, the water-falls, 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.’*

 “[*It is claimed by all Indian “Medicine Men” that the presence of a spirit is announced by a cool breeze, and that sometimes they turn cold and shake as with an ague.]

 “ ‘The great spirits have spoken! I am done.’….”[x]

Captain Boling was, indeed, furious at the troops that arranged for the escape and killing of the young brave and had them relieved of duty and, eventually, reassigned. Tenaya was, in spite of his threats, treated with kindness. That evening, he was given “fat pork and beans”, which he seemed to relish.

Shortly after this, Tenaya became more docile and, at least to Bunnell, more conversational. It appears that, for the most part, Tenaya was very charismatic. Bunnell admits that he had a lot of respect for the old chief. It is one of the reasons he chose to name the valley after the name of Tenaya’s tribe. With the help of Miwok interpreter named Sandino, Tenaya told Bunnell that the name of the Valley was Ahwahnee and, in describing it, swept his hand back and forth, indicating the valley. In the process, he grabbed a clump of grass and showed it to Bunnell, which he and Sandino took to mean “Deep Grassy Valley.”[xi] Bunnell also named Lake Tenaya in honor of the chief and to commemorate the tribes last location. He also named the formation in the valley, “The Three Brothers” in respect for Tenaya’s loss.

Trusted, respected or not, Tenaya was lashed about the waist and connected to Doctor Bunnell’s wrist as they rode up the cliffs to search of the remainder of Tenaya’s tribe. There would be no more escapes or escape attempts. The tribe was found (surprised) near what is now called Tenaya Lake. Indeed, Bunnell named it, again, to honor of the old chief and to commemorate that this was the last campsite of his tribe.[xii] Tenaya and his tribe were delivered to the Fresno Reservation where he stayed for a short period of time and, as he expected, was the focus of much ridicule from other tribes after having “fallen” from his lofty perch as a feared warrior.

Tenaya complained, consistently, with the agents for the treatment he and his people were receiving from the other tribes, the heat of the territory and how the foods they were given were unsettling. He promised, if allowed to return to the valley, they would not bother the whites. Probably more to shut up his bickering, the agent agreed. Tenaya was allowed to return to the valley, alone, and by almost all accounts, never broke his word on molesting the whites. When some other “Yosemities” left the reservation shortly there after, they were not pursued. This is probably because with their departure, skirmishes with the other tribes ceased. This all took place within a short period of time (significantly less than a year after Tenaya’s detention there).

In May of 1852 a small party of French miners, Messrs Rose, Shurbon and Tudor, set out from Coarsegold for prospecting and a trip to Yosemite. During their journey, a small band of Yosemite Indians (those recently reunited with Chief Tenaya), stopped the men and announced that they were on Indian Territory. Customarily, this usually mean that the tribe was owed a tribute for passing, although none was requested. The miners knew that the land had been “sold” to the whites in exchange for gifts and protection at the reservation. But, since there was no threat and by no means was there a display of hostility, the miners disregarded the encounter.

Upon entering the valley, however, the miners were ambushed. Shurbon and Rose were killed immediately, but Tudor made his escape, though seriously wounded. When news of this attack reached civilization, there was great concern that another Indian War would ensue. The management at the agency where Tenaya was released along with allowing a number of this braves to leave as well, was severely chastised. The commander at Fort Miller (the US Army post near the reservation), when told of the attack, sent a detachment under the leadership of Lt Tredwell Moore, to capture and bring to justice those involved with the murders. Upon arriving in the valley, five braves were captured. They did not deny they ambushed the miners, but declared they had the right to defend their home. Lt Moore pointed out that the valley now belonged to the whites according to the treaty. The Yosemites maintained that Tenaya never signed such an agreement and the other tribes had no right to sell their valley.

Lt Moore was convinced that he had the murders. Clothes of the murdered miners were found in the position of the captives. The naked bodies of Shurbon and Rose were found and buried in a meadow near Bridal Vail Falls. Moore did not believe that questions “…of title and jurisdiction …” were pertinent and pronounced judgment and had them shot.

The execution was witnessed by one of Tenaya’s scouts. Tenaya feared he would also be blamed for the attack. He immediately, gathered his people and left the valley for the Mono-Paiutes where he grew up. Lt Moore, followed but failed to locate him and, eventually, returned to Fort Miller and the case was closed. [xiii]

It is not really clear from Bunnell’s book if Tenaya “sanctioned” the ambush or if the braves had orders to prohibit others from entering the valley. After Bunnell was “mustered out” of the Mariposa Battalion, he acquired interest in some mining west of the valley and had many Native Americans as miners working for him. It is from them that Bunnell learned of this encounter and its outcome.

Tenaya and his band were well received by the Monos. His rein as chief of the “Pai-Utes colony of Ahwahne” was well respected by the Monos. Tenaya and his people were protected from the inquiries of Lt Moore and then given lands to settle. But Tenaya wanted to return to the “his” valley. He would stay there until (or unless) they were driven out by the whites again. After a while, some of the braves went out on a “foraging” party near the Mono-Paiute Camp. The Mono and Paiutes had recently raided some Southern California Ranchos and made off with a number of horses and mules. Tenaya’s men saw an opportunity. Rather than risk a raid on the whites, they would just help themselves to some of the spoils of the Mono-Paiutes, thinking they could make good their escape and avoid detection.

A torturous route back to the valley was made with their spoils and after a few days, felt their deed unrecognized or, at least, secure in the feeling they were safe, they killed a few of the horses and had a big feast, celebrating their return to the Ahwahne. They, unfortunately, were not safe and were surprised in their wig-wams, sleeping off their feast.

The old chief had held off much of the attack when a young chief of the Monos, having run out of arrows, grabbed a rock fragment and hurled it at Tenaya, crushing his skull. As he fell, other members of the Monos, as is custom, also hurled rocks until Tenaya was, literally, stoned to death.[xiv]

So, after years of being feared and respected by his contemporaries and highly sought after by the Mariposa Battalion, coupled with his fear that the “horsemen of the lowlands” would overtake his valley and scatter his tribe, Tenaya was finally killed and the prophesy fulfilled by his own kind.

I don’t have any way of knowing how much of this is a true history of the old chief. I have mixed feelings about it. It does seem evident that Tenaya lead a “gang”, for the lack of a better term, of renegades and they were, indeed, feared by other tribes, not only in the valley, but outside as well. These were “serious dudes.” The name “Yosemite” does not mean “they are naughty” or “they are bad guys”; it means “They are killers.” It is also apparent that both Tenaya’s band and the Chowchillas were very hostile and involved in murderous attacks on the settlers for reasons of plunder as well as trying drive them out of their territory. But it is also evident that the miners did encroach on the lands depended upon by Tenaya and his people as well as the Chowchillas. And there is no question that the killing of Tenaya’s son can no way be called anything other than a cold blooded murder. No matter how you look at it, the situation is just plain sad.

History has shown that the whites have prevailed. It has not shown which side was right and whether or not Tenaya deserves to be commemorated. But the fact is that Tenaya IS commemorated, and given that, we should probably take a moment when we encounter one of his tributes and reflect.

Monument to the attacks on Shurborn, Tudor and Rose

Monument to the attacks on Shurborn, Tudor and Rose

[NOTE: Since this posting, I’ve run across some additional information, most which is speculative at this time. In John Bingaman’s book The Ahwaneechees: A Story of the Yosemite Indians, Several (eight) miners from Coarsegold (not just the three: Shurborn, Rose and Tudor) headed to the Valley. Once they reached the valley, they were ambushed and all but Shurborn, Rose and Tudor escaped and, later Tudor, who was severely wounded and eventually made it back. According to Bingaman, the incident occurred on May 20, 1852. Those that escaped made it back to Coarsegold about June 2nd and organized a posse to bring the indians to justice. They found Shurborn and Rose stripped of their clothes. They were buried but they did not find the culprits and returned to Coarsegold. A report was made to the reservation which was forwarded to Fort Williams and from where, during June and July of 1852, a Lt Tredwell Moore was tasked to seek out indians responsible and deal with them. Here, except for the fact the victims were already buried, the story pretty much follows Bunnell’s account.

According to Eldon Grupp, a historian posting on the facebook group, Yosemite History, believes that these accounts have a minor flaw. It was Shuborn and Tudor who were killed and Rose was the one injured, but had escape. He further believes that it was Rose that instigated the incident. Shurborn, Tudor and Rose were all partners in the same mine. The others in the party were miners of different claims. Grupp believes that Rose arranged for the attack in order to get full possession of their mine.

It is an interesting theory and one that seems to fit our vision of the rough and tumble era of the old west. Though it is certainly too soon to discount a theory that hasn’t fully been completed and I do not mean to disparage his work in any way. But I do hope that Eldon’s efforts will clarify things. Why would, when confronted by Lt Moore, the Yosemites claim their right to defend their land as a motivating factor, rather than pointing to Rose as the instigator? How could Rose make such an arrangement? Why would the Yosemites agree? Who was it that saw Rose and not Tudor back in Coarsegold?

The image was posted on Facebook’s Yosemite History by collector, John Carpenter. It depicts the date of May 2, 1852 (not May 20, but then, we’ve seen errors in dates posted in the valley before). The sign, has since, gone missing. The actual location is a bit unclear. Apparently it is in the Pohono Meadow near the road across from the placard depicting Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir’s meeting. It is said the tree is also gone, but he rock is still there. Why these men were not moved to the Pioneer Cemetery is not certain, but it is possible that this monument is just that; a monument, not a grave marker and the actual grave site is not marked.

[i] Discovery of The Yosemite by Lafayette Bunnell, 1892, Chapter V. Digitized and corrected by Dan Anderson, 2004. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.     —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us

[ii] ibid

[iii] Ibid Chapter III

[iv] Ibid

[v] I don’t think so. The tribes people certainly were looking forward to the gifts and meals, and the end of the fighting, but Tenaya was concerned that being placed on a reservations with ALL the other tribes wouldn’t be too healthy for him since he had some enemies among them. He later said as much. But for now, he was going along with it because he was, quite obviously, out numbered.

[vi] How the Yo-Semity Valley was Discovered and Named by Lafayette Bunnell as appeared in the May 1859 copy of Hutchings’ California Magazine page 500.

[vii] Discovery of The Yosemite by Lafayette Bunnell, 1892. Chapter IX near the end.

[viii] How the Yo-Semity Valley was Discovered and Named by Lafayette Bunnell as appeared in the May 1859 copy of Hutchings’ California Magazine page 501.

[ix] Discovery of The Yosemite by Lafayette Bunnell, 1892, Chapter XI

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid, Chapter IV

[xii] Ibid Chapter XIV

[xiii] Ibid Chapter XVII

[xiv] Ibid Chapter XVIII