Yosemite History

Yosemite History

The history of Yosemite is millions of years old. Aside from the fact that not everything that has happened in the valley in that time is known, it is not clear how much of that history would be interesting or even pertinent. So let me be brief to start and then go into more detail…Let’s see….brief…okay:

After millions of years of plate tectonics, glaciers and erosion, the valley was inhabited, for the last 10,000 years by immigrants that came over from, probably, the Asian continent. Then California gold rush miners worked the hills and streams near the valley, but Chief Tenaya says, “Hey, that’s my dirt” with bows and arrows. James Savage says, “Yeow, that’s my store” with the Mariposa Battalion who catches Tenaya in Yosemite Valley which Lafeyette Bunnell writes about and James Hutchings reads. Hutchings then publishes drawings of the Valley by Thomas Ayres which compels Galen Clark to settle there to die. But instead he lives and with the help of influential visitors, is able to get Abraham Lincoln to give Yosemite to California. Clark is put in charge of Yosemite, goes broke and Henry Washburn bails him out and creates Wawona. John Muir enters the park looking for something of beauty on which to feast his new eyes while the State of California, looking for more gold, hires Josiah Whitney to survey the environs of Yosemite. Muir discovers beauty and glaciers. Whitney says beauty and earthquakes and they lock antlers (Muir wins that battle, but only after both he and Whitney have passed on). But not before Muir starts the Sierra Club, fights and looses Hetch Hetchy Valley to San Francisco water needs and wins creating Yosemite National Park. David and Jenny Curry make tent cabin camping fun. Photographers and artists illustrate the beauty, mystery and encroachment upon same (with guys like Muir and Clark pointing helping fingers in the direction of said “beauty” and “encroachments”) as environmental concerns take a front seat to park management so it is, now over 150 years later, still as beautiful (if not more so) as ever.

Yosemite Grant (1864) and Yosemite National Park (1890)

Yosemite was the first park set aside by a nation for the enjoyment by everyone, in the history of the world. Until that time, there had been some preserves set aside for royalty or the well-to-do. Arguably, there had been municipal parks set aside. Indeed, Frederick Olmsted, one of the first commissions to the Yosemite Grant, had designed New York’s Central Park ten years earlier. Nevertheless, this was truly an historic event and testimony to the unique nature of our young country. Prior to a democratic society, the very idea of the national government providing something for the masses was totally outside human experience. But even here in the newly formed United States of America, it took an act of congress to get it done.

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed what has become known as the Yosemite Grant. It set aside 39,000 acres of land which encompassed what are now the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. It was granted to the new State of California for “… the preservation, improvement and protection of the property…” and that “…the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time….” This was not merely a guide line or a recommendation; it was the condition under which the grant was made.

It wasn’t until 1890 that Yosemite became a National Park. This was done at the urging of John Muir and others to preserver areas around the Yosemite Grant and encompasses what is currently the whole park. However, the Valley and Big Trees remained under the purview of California until 1906 when it was absorbed by the National Park System.

Yosemite became the third National Park to be named (Yellowstone National Park was the first and was created in 1872 because, at the time, there was no state in the area it encompassed to grant it to! Sequoia was the second National Park, created just a week prior).[i]


Valley Formation

The picture of the valley formation we now have begins about 50 million years ago when the whole area consisted of a rolling hill landscape with what is now the Merced River meandering through it. About 10 million years ago plate tectonics continued their work and had raised the Sierra Nevada range further, causing the Merced to slope more demonstratively to the west and cut the valley deeper. Over the next 7 million years, erosion had exposed the granite cliffs and had cut the valley to about 3000 feet deep.

A series of glaciers scoured out the valley beginning about a million years ago. The last, called the Tioga Glacier, advanced only as far as Bridalveil Falls. It left a moraine at the mouth of the valley and the melting glacier became Lake Yosemite which then silted up and left behind the flat valley there is today.

Native Americans of Yosemite and How the Name Came About.

The earliest visitors to the valley may be been as much as 10,000 years ago. The last known settlers, the Ahwahnichee, inhabited the valley for most of nearly 4,000 years. They called the valley Ahwahnee and themselves Ahwahni-chee (People of Ahwahnee). They were part of the Sierra Miwoks. The Miwok tribe(s) were all over what is now California and so classified (by Westerner Anthropologists) by their language and cultural similarities.

There were more than 30 different tribes inhabiting the valley and, naturally, some were located on the south side of the Merced River and others on the north. There was a Miwok practice of defining everything in nature as being on the “water” side or “land” side. The Grizzly Bear was the symbol for the Land Side and the Coyote for the Water side. In Yosemite, the “grizzlies” were on the north side of the river and this is where Chief Tenaya resided. The Coyotes were on the south side. It was the practice of the people to only marry members of the opposite side of the river (it kind of make you wonder if that isn’t where the song “Running Bear” got its influence….hmmmm, I wonder if Johnny Preston was a historian, or a Miwok…but I digress). This would have a tendency to reduce inbreeding.

This is also the beginning of a broader point of confusion in the names of things. If the people themselves called the valley Ahwahnee. So, where did “Yosemite” come from? As I’ll expound upon in a later post, it was members of the Mariposa Battalion that named the valley with terms they had misunderstood. They were chasing the “Yosemities” or “Yosemitoes” (depending on who you read). The Miwok word for Grizzly Bear, which was what the land side tribes were called, is “isimati.” But written down by anglo-saxons, it was done with the letter “u” or sometimes, an umlaut “ü” for the first “i” of the word. It would easily sound like “yosemite”. But more significantly, the land side tribe, lead by Chief Tenaya, was quite the warrior and the water side of the valley and those out side the valley called them Yosemite, which means “they are killers.”[ii] So you have an “actual” name and a disparaging name that sound similar.

Finally, it was the goal of Lafayette Bunnel to “honor” the tribe they were about to capture and name the valley after them rather than carry on the name the natives used themselves. He thought the tribe was called “Yosemite.”


Discovery of the Valley by Westerners

The valley was discovered by westerners by the Mariposa Battalion that was put together to deal with skirmishes with the local Native Americans around the town of Mariposa during the gold rush. The valley was discovered as they were led there by Chief Tenaya to gather his tribe and escort them to a reservation. They entered the valley on March 25, 1851.

James D. Savage was a ‘49er”. A prospector-turned-merchant and ran a trading post on the Merced River at its south fork[iii] about 15 miles west of the valley. Savage became quite the Indian Scout, speaking many of their native tongues and taking (or have bestowed upon him) many Native American wives and servants. Some say the number was as high as 12 wives (the actual number was 5). Because of this relationship and his wives, he and those close to him felt safe from the increasing Indian uprisings in the area.

Late in 1850, his trading post was attacked by renegades outside his sphere of influence from Chief Tenaya. Tenaya was the leader of a band of Native Americans from the, as yet, undiscovered Yosemite Valley in retaliation for his and others encroachment onto Tenaya’s territory. It appears, also, that Savage may be been loosing influence with his Native American friends. Though Savage and his employees did fight off the attack and even tracked them, nearly, to the valley, it was clear to Savage that the renegades would have the strategic advantage in the gorge. Rather than risk further confrontations, Savage moved operations to his other store, just south of Mariposa. He had just opened a third store further east in what is now Oakhurst and upon returning from a trip to San Francisco, both remaining stores were attacked. One employee escaped the rest were massacred and livestock were stolen. Savage appealed to the Governor of California who authorized the formation of the Mariposa Battalion and put Savage in charge with the rank of Major. He was just about to take off when US Indian Commissioners arrived with new marching orders. The Battalion was to round up Tenaya’s tribe and any other tribes they may find and get them to accept a treaty and escort them to a reservation along the Fresno River. Many of the local tribes were also approached and had already agreed to the “treaty.”

The Battalion met Tenaya outside the valley and when confronted with the sizable force Savage commanded (over 200), he agreed to lead them to the valley where he would have his tribe accept the treaty.

Thus, the Mariposa Battalion became the first westerners to see the valley[iv] on March 25, 1851. Tenaya and Savage discussed the valley. Though Savage was familiar with many of the Miwok languages, Tenaya’s version of the language was mixed with influences of the Mono-Paiutes, so Savage and his scout relied heavily on sign language. This is where, at least part, of the confusion of the valley names came into play. Tenaya was trying to describe the name of the valley, which they call Ahwahnee meaning “large gaping mouth” because the entrance to the valley looked to them like a reclined bear with his mouth open. But as he said so, Tenaya swept his arm from side to side indicating the valley and grabbed a stalk of grass, which Savage took to mean, “Big grassy valley”.[v] He completely missed the point that the tribe knew themselves as the Ahwahnechee. It could be that Savage wasn’t prepared to hear it since he had already known they were called the Yosemitos or Yosemites, by many other tribes.

A member of the Battalion, camp surgeon Lafayette Bunnel, was probably the only member of the party to really appreciate the spectacular beauty of the place. It doesn’t seem surprising, once you think about it. The men would not stop to admire the scenery. These were 100 of the toughest men of the Battalion on a military mission where they could be ambushed at any moment. That kind of mental distraction is the kind of thing that will get you killed. But Bunnel, a doctor, was actually on a mission of mercy, should the need arise. Stopping the smell the roses doesn’t seem at all out of the expected. It was he that proposed and named many of the features, including the valley itself. So even if they knew the name of the valley, and it is possible they did know it, they would have give it their own name anyway. Bunnel said as much in an article he had written years later about their experience:

“As I did not take a fancy to any of the names proposed, I remarked that ‘an American name would be the most appropriate;’ that ‘I could not see any necessity for going to a foreign country for a name for American scenery—the grandest that had ever yet been looked upon. That it would be better to give it an Indian name than to import a strange and inexpressive one; that the name of the tribe who had occupied it, would be more appropriate than any I had heard suggested.’ I then proposed “that we give the valley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return, would be perpetuated.” . . . . upon a viva voce vote being taken, it was almost unanimously adopted.”


Galen Clark and the Creation of the Park

One of the first visitors, certainly the first to document the trip, to Yosemite was organized by James Mason Hutchings. He along with illustrator Thomas Ayers and others, visited the valley in early 1855 and wrote about it in his magazine. That summer, Galen Clark, working in Mariposa at the time, read the account of a trip into the park. He was so intrigued that he made his own trip into the area the same summer and was quite taken aback. He fell in love with the place.

Galen Clark was a ne’er-do-well from the east coast. He had three sons and two daughters.[vi] When his wife died from Tuberculosis (or “Consumption” as it was called back then) a few days after delivering his youngest son, Galen was already in dire straits financially. He sent the children to Massachusetts to be raised and schooled by relatives. He then went to California and the gold rush where he worked in at the Mariposa Ditch Company (after failing as a miner). In 1855 he organized a trip to Yosemite after reading about such a trip taken the previous month. He absolutely fell in love with the place and, while there, wandered into the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees for the first time[vii].

In the following year, he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and was given about 6 months to live. The doctor suggested mountain air might make the discomfort a bit easier to take. So, at the age of 42, he came to Yosemite to die. He had expected to die at “any hour”. In spite this, he homesteaded 160 acres, figuring his chances of living or dying “…were about even…” and in the event he lived, he wanted a place to stay. Not only did his health improve but he lived well into his ninties. He had built himself a small log cabin in 1857 and soon took in travelers during the summer months. It became known as “Clark’s Station” and he was known as a charming and gracious host, always willing to share his findings and feelings about the area. During the winter months, he would explore the grounds, collecting information and stories for the next season of guests. But, alas, he ran himself into dept and finally had to sell the place in 1876. It was purchased by the Washburn brothers (see below)[viii].

Galen Clark was quite well received, almost from the start. His visitors called him “Mr. Yosemite.” His gracious hospitality, wit and informative stories were not lost on them. These guests were well connected, influential people. One of whom, Senator John Conness, helped him write legislation that would create the “Yosemite Grant” in 1864. The grant included Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. He became one of the commissioners to oversee the requirements of the Grant in 1866 and was elected as the first Superintendent of the Park. As other commissioners came and went, Galen Clark remained as Superintendent for over twenty years, although, not continuously. In 1880, a new board of commissioners was appointed who replaced him with James Mason Hutchings, but after 9 years and two superintendents later, the commission reappointed Galen Clark in 1889.

Clark had no interest in self promotion. He rejected the suggestion that the Mariposa Grove be named “Clark’s Grove”. He wished to be buried in the park, near Yosemite Falls and even picked out and dug is own grave twenty years ahead of time. He marked the spot with four Sequoia saplings in what is now the Yosemite Cemetery. He finally passed away just a few days before his 96th birthday at his daughter’s home in Oakland California. The Washburn brothers, who purchased “Clark’s Station” from him and built up what is now Wawona, insisted on covering all burial costs.

John Muir and the National Park Service

John Muir was born in Scotland, raised in Wisconsin and attended college there. He took various jobs in manufacturing to fund his college and suffered an accident that left him blind. After a number of months, his eyesight returned a he vowed to spend the rest of his life studying the beauties of Nature. He began the trek by walking to the Gulf of Mexico where he caught a steamer bound for South America. But he heard about Yosemite and took a detour that led him to California, where he called home for the rest of his life.

John Muir first walked into the valley in 1867. Growing up in the Midwest, Muir was just flat blown away by the mountains in general and “The Yosemite” in particular. He was gangly, introspective, in awe of the scenery and eloquent in his description of it. He had long hair and a beard, spent much of his time in the outdoors with flora, fauna, wildlife and the rocks. He was, it seems, the world’s first hippy, except that he wandered into San Francisco about 100 years early. He was even a draft dodger[ix]. He wandered aimlessly over the park, taking notes.

His wanderings covered not just the valley, but of also the back country where he spent much of his time on which he expounded in his documentation. It was during these trips he developed his theory of glaciation and, also, developed a concern for the high country’s preservation. Sheep herding (which he was one for a small while) was destroying the meadows. Commercialism and overdevelopment in the valley was polluting its resources. So with the help of his close friend, Galen Clark, and some others, he petitioned the US Government to set aside the areas surrounding the original Yosemite Grant as a National Park. This came to pass on October 1, 1890.

Once it became a National Park, he concentrated on working with California to get them to relinquish the original Yosemite Grant and to be absorbed by the National Park System. He formed the Sierra Club (and acted as its first president) and through that organization concentrated on the Yosemite Grant effort. He also spearheaded the opposition to the project to dam up the Hetch Hetchy valley to make it a reservoir. And, through the Sierra Club, he helped define the mission of the National Park Service.

John Muir, more than almost any other person, can claim responsibility for the caring stewardship of not only Yosemite but of the whole National Park System supplied by the National Park Service. It was John Muir that brought the attention of the beauties of the Valley and surrounding environs to the country and the whole world. It was his influence, mostly through the Sierra Club, that there even is a National Park Service and also helped form its doctrine. Some of his namesakes are The John Muir Trail which begins in the park at Happy Isles and runs 214 miles along the Sierra Nevada Range through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia and all the way to Mt Whitney. The Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, and the Muir Glacier on Mt Shasta are also named after him. April 21, his birthday, is now noted as John Muir Day in California.


The Plight of Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy is the red-headed step child of Yosemite and its story is just one big heart-break after another. Hetch Hetchy was once a scenic valley that rivaled that of Yosemite Valley in beauty although on a smaller scale. It never was then, nor is today that well attended. What attention it did receive, was usually from artists and photographers looking for new source material or sheepherders taking unauthorized advantage of the meadows.

John Muir, himself, actually had to coax friends of his to visit the valley with him[x]. There were no roads to Hetch Hetchy Valley. Access was only on foot or horseback. Upon arrival, there were no amenities such as hotels and shops to support the tourist. Visitors to Yosemite Valley did so with at least a two day, sometimes three day, arduous trip by stage coach and the last few miles by horseback. So, they were not highly motivated to travel another twenty miles to visit a smaller version of the valley, even if they knew about it (which most didn’t).

San Francisco water was supplied by third party vendors who had it trucked and boated into the city. There were always shortages in water and power. The city burnt to the ground more than 6 times just during the two year period from 1850 to 1852[xi] due to the lack of water and water pressure. In fairness to San Francisco, it had investigated a total of 13 other sites before focusing on the Hetch Hetchy Valley. City engineer, Carl Grunsky, his successor Marsden Manson, and the US Geological Survey all agreed that the most sustainable source, free of conflicting claims, free of pollutants, the greatest potential for hydro-electric power and a source that could be delivered without the need for purification, filtration or even pumping[xii] was the Tuolumne River. The earthquake of 1906 nearly destroyed the city again; not because of the quake, but because of the lack of water and power after the quake.

Picky, Picky, Picky.

Even so, getting the rights and the dam was not easily. Through a concentrated effort launched as early as 1899, authorization to build the dam was finally approved in 1913 and the dam completed in 1934.

I’m agog. How could this even be considered in a National Park? I understand and recognize “the greater good” here. Maybe. But a park is supposed to be immune from that kind of thing. The Majority Rule can’t rule all the time, or the minority gets overrun. In fact, this couldn’t happen today. I would argue, a significant reason is because of Hetch Hetchy. But this is a discussion for another time.

Josiah Dwight Whitney and the Valley Formation Conflict

Josiah Dwight Whitney, California’s state geologist, graduate of Yale, and, eventually, professor at Harvard, studied the valley beginning in 1863. Whitney was a member of a number of geological surveys, culminating with a survey of the lead region (the metal) in the upper Missouri River (from 1858-60). He was the State Geologist for California in 1860. The assignment by the California Legislature, focusing on his mineralogy specialty, had the objective of putting together a geological survey of the state with emphasis on mineral deposits. He organized a survey of California that not only covered the mineralogy requirements, but also Geology, Geography, Botany, Zoology and Paleontology. He even published two more volumes at this time (both on paleontology) which left the California Legislature a bit taken aback as they hoped he would discover more gold or other precious metals.

The legislature finally suspended the funding for the survey in 1867 and actually stripped him of his title in 1874 because of his delays and distractions. Whitney was appointed to Harvard as a professor to begin a school of mines in 1865, but immediately requested and was granted an indefinite leave of absence to finish his California Survey. But, in 1868 he began the school (without finishing the survey) and lead students through some field work in Colorado the next year. He took up full time residence at Harvard in 1874 (and finished the California Survey on his own time and with his own money).

It isn’t like he didn’t do useful work. In 1854 he wrote Metallic Wealth of the United States, which became the standard reference for the next 15 years. He did participate in a number of geological surveys in the Midwest and, for good or ill, was the head of the California Geological Survey.

For me, however, it is not his many faux pas that will keep him near and dear to my heart as an object of ridicule (which I’ll expound upon shortly). All I can think of is that he must have been fun at parties. It certainly wasn’t his academic achievements that provided him the calling card for a career in Geology; his schooling was in mineralogy, chemistry and astronomy.

The mechanism of the formation of the valley was in controversy between Josiah Whitney and John Muir for many years. Whitney was the head of the California State Geological Survey and began is his survey in 1863 concluded the valley was formed by “faulting.” According to Whitney, the valley was formed when two faults, which are now the north and south rim of the valley, gave way and the ground in between them just dropped to what is now the valley floor. John Muir, who first entered the valley 5 years later, believed the valley was created by glaciation due to similarities he saw in the valley, with actual glaciers in the high country, and later in Alaska. This, of course, disputed Whitney. The dispute went on for years and was never resolved in their lifetimes. Whitney was agog to be upstaged by an “ignoramus” and a “…mere sheepherder….” The United States Geological Survey (USGS) sent a team consisting of Francois Matthes and Frank Calkins in 1913 to study the region (and to settle the dispute). By this time, Whitney had already passed on and Muir would die the following year. Nevertheless, it was 1930 before the survey was completed and published, which found that John Muir was, essentially, correct. Neither Whitney nor Muir ever heard the verdict, of course. But then again, it is difficult to image either one of them would have cared since they both believed they were right all along.

It may seem ironic that it was Muir that had the correct story rather than California’s State Geologist on the origin of the valley, but it was Muir, not Whitney that had a more formal education in Geology. While at Wisconsin, Muir attended a number of classes on Geology, while Whitney focused on mineralogy and chemistry (so who’s the “ignoramus” now, Mr. Whitney?). He also made other mistakes, but these missteps aren’t what have me actually looking for points with which to ridicule him. It was his ungraciousness and arrogance with the name calling that Whitney inflicted upon Muir.

Actually, mistakes are understandable; even forgivable, and, as it happens, necessary. As Carl Sagan said in his epic TV show, Cosmos, “There’s nothing wrong in being wrong. It’s how we learn what is right.” Josiah Whitney was old school, mentored by old school geologists. Characteristic of “research” during that period was to explain things in terms of cataclysmic scenarios. Excavations during the 19th century revealed a tumultuous past with “broken” striations and even the first account of extinct animals, including dinosaurs. This also had the tendency to keep discoveries in harmony with biblical history. It was not that science was trying to brace up the biblical system, but rather, at the time, the biblical account of a cataclysmic past, such as the flood, coincided with a tumultuous history, which evidence from the excavations had suggested. And it was the frame work upon which previous discoveries and explanations were wrought. Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published only a few years earlier (in 1859) and its significance hadn’t yet trickled into all the sciences. In a way, Whitney was a victim of his time and own experience, while Muir looked at the world through, quite literally, new eyes.


[i] Actually, at the time, Yosemite was the 4th National Park. The second National Park was Makinac Island created in 1875, but reverted back to state (Michigan) control in 1895. So, in 1890, Yosemite was the 4th National park, but in 1895 it became the 3rd.

[ii] Yosemite and Tamalpais Names by Madison S Beeler, Professor of Linguistics at University of California at Berkeley

[iii] Marked as a California Historical Landmark No. 527 and can be found on Highway 140 between Mariposa and El Portel about 7 miles from the valley.

[iv] Almost no one. There are speculations that three parties may have seen the valley in passing in previous years. The two reports are “iffy”: but one, which didn’t come to light for nearly 100 years, comes from the diary of a William Penn Abrams dated October 1849 when he and a companion saw some Grizzly Bear tracks outside of Savage’s Trading Post and went to track it down. They got lost in the mountains and come across the Valley. From the description, it was almost certainly viewed from near Inspiration Point. Also, in 1833, Pioneers crossing the Sierra Nevada between the Tuolumne and Merced rivers are said to have gazed into the valley, but most historians now believe they looked down on the west end of the valley near the Cascades.

[v] There it is! Tenaya “signed” with an accent!

[vi] So I guess he wasn’t a TOTAL good for nothing

[vii] Yosemite Indians and Other Sketches (1936) by Mrs H. J. Taylor, Chapter 4, Galen Clark 1814-1910 “Guardian of Yosemite” Well, maybe. At least he was one of the first to see the trees, but certainly the first known to count, measure them and give it a name.

[viii] Even after he had to sell “Clark’s Station”, the new owners assured him of a room at no charge, for the rest of his life.

[ix] Of the seven mini-biographies I’ve read on line, three don’t mention anything about it and four seem to tiptoe around this issue with regard to his jaunt to Canada between 1863 and 1866 and that it “may” have been to avoid the draft. Ecotopia.com went so far to say that his trip to Canada was “…perhaps to avoid the draft, but this is far from being certain….” Horsefeathers!. There was a draft and during his prime years for being called up he had gone to Canada. There is no way to sugar coat it, John Muir was a draft dodger – pure and simple.

[x] The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy by Richard W. Righter, Oxford University Press, 2005, Pages 19-21

[xi] Images of America – Hetch Hetchy by Beverly Hennessey, Arcadia Publishing, 2012, page 17

[xii] A system of flues and canals, completely sustained by gravity, could be constructed to lead the water to the Bay Area.