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Weldon Fairbanks Heald (1907-1967), “The Abrams Diary,” [William Penn Abrams Diary, October 18, 1849] “Notes and Correspondence” Sierra Club Bulletin 32(5):126-127 (May 1947).
The Abrams Diary
By Weldon F. Heald
An interesting addition to the documented history of Yosemite has recently come to light. A diary of an itinerant millwright named William Penn Abrams has been found which describes an accidental visit to the valley in 1849—two years before its effective discovery by the Mariposa Battalion.
In faded pencil on the yellowed page of an old journal is an entry under the date October 18, 1849:
Returned to S. F. after visit to Savage property on Merced River, prospects none too good for a mill. Savage is a blasphemous fellow who has five squaws for wives for which he takes his authority from the Scriptures. While at Savage’s Reamer and I saw a grizzly bear tracks and went out to hunt him down getting lost in the mountains and not returning until the following evening, found our way to camp over an Indian trail that led past a valley enclosed by stupendous cliffs rising perhaps 3000 feet from their base and which gave us cause for wonder. Not far off a waterfall dropped from a cliff below three jagged peaks into the valley while farther beyond a rounded mountain stood, the valley wide of which looked as though it had been sliced with a knife as one would slice a loaf of bread and which Reamer and I called the Rock of Ages.
No one could doubt that this is a description of Yosemite Valley, Bridalveil Fall, and Half Dome.
Although Arams’ newly found priority should earn for him a unique place in the chronicles of Yosemite, he cannot be credited with the actual discovery of the valley. The first white men known to have been in the locality were members of Joseph Reddeford Walker’s party who crossed the sierra Nevada from the east in October 1833. Francis Farquhar has conclusively established from the diary of Zenas Leonard, clerk of the expedition, what Walker’s men looked down into Yosemite and probably Hetch Hetchy from the rims but did not descend into them (SCB, August, 1942). [Editor’s note: today historians generally believe the Walker party looked down The Cascades, which are just west of Yosemite Valley, instead of Yosemite Valley itself.—dea] It was not until 1851, however, that the Mariposa Battalion under Major James D. Savage entered the valley, named it and introduced its wonders of the world. The importance of the Abrams diary is that hitherto there had been no evidence that any white man visited the valley or knew of its existence between 1833 and 1851.
The Abrams diary was brought to my attention recently by Mr. William C. Barry, of Glendale, California, who ran across the significant Yosemite page while tracing the genealogy of the Abrams family. Some of the volumes appear to have been lost but four are now in possession of Mrs. Frederick A. Frazier, of Los Angeles, Abrams’ granddaughter. Most of the four volumes composting the diary are written in ink, although some of the pages were first penciled as if ink were not available at the time, then later traced over. The page recording the visit to Yosemite was never inked in but is obviously the same handwriting as found in the rest of the diary and the penciled notes on many of the pages.
William Penn Abrams, born in Sanbornton, New Hampshire in 1820, began a diary at the age of eighteen which he presumably kept up until his accidental death in Portland, Oregon, in 1851. The first volume tells of his leaving New Hampshire in 1839 to seek his fortune in the traditional story-book manner. With his cousin, Cyrus Colby, Abrams went to Boston and took a vessel to New York, thence up the Hudson River to Schenectady and by the newly constructed Erie Canal to Buffalo. A stormy trip on the Great Lakes brought them to “the pleasant and thriving village of Chicago.” Abrams prophesied “it is evident that at some future day, not far distant, Chicago is destined to be a great and flourishing city.”
After crossing the prairies of Illinois by horse and wagon, Abrams and Colby took a steamboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans, thence to Gainesville, Georgia. [Editor’s note: Gainsville, Alabama, not Georgia —dea.] There Abrams operated a lumbermill for ten years until the news of the California gold strike started him on fresh travels.
He and his friend, U. N. Reamer, joined a company which left New Orleans March 15, 1849 on the brig Predaza for Panama. Reaching Chagres in April they crossed the isthmus on foot, taking passage in May on the brig Copiapo for San Francisco. (The original passenger list in Abram’ handwriting is still in existence.) Ten days after their arrival in San Francisco in August Abrams and Reamer were in Stockton headed for the Stanislaus River diggings. Mining proved unprofitable, so the two men returned to Stockton, where they worked at carpentering until a Mr. Murphy sent them up the Merced River to investigate possible mill sites for the purpose of furnishing lumber to the mining camps. It was while on this expedition that Abrams and Reamer saw Yosemite Valley. Abrams, however, was not impressed with California’s possibilities, for in November, 1849, he sailed for Portland, Oregon. There he erected a sawmill for a Mr. Coffin and later became a partner in the enterprise.
The diary makes interesting reading and there is little doubt that it is authentic. Abrams comments on crowded conditions in San Francisco with rooms renting for $300 a month and $250 for enough space to pitch a tent. He also records early events in Oregon Territory. The diary is a simple day-to-day journal that was not intended to be literature; nevertheless, it might well be published because of its factual record of travel in the United States a hundred years ago and its descriptions of the gold rush.
William Penn Abrams, author of the diary entry above, was born August 15, 1820 in Sanbornton, New Hampshire. He married Sarah Lavina Phelps October 11, 1842 in Franklin, NH. He was a millwright. He went to California in 1849, then to Portland the same year. He died November 26, 1876 in Portland, Oregon.
A great-great-grandson, Chet Ogan, adds:
William P. Abrams traveled several times to the Caribbean coast of Louisiana and Alabama “for his health.” He even spent some time in Cuba escaping the humidity and probably the insects. It was for health reasons advised to him by his physician that he went to California.
Digitized by Dan Anderson, December 2004.
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—Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us