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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester


After the first excitement of gold-mining was over, the men who had come into the State with the intention of remaining, turned to the pursuit of farming. A landed estate was termed a rancho, which has become now ranch by corruption, and the owner a rancher. Some of these settlers took up lands in the great valleys in which flow the two great rivers of the State, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, along the banks of their tributaries, the Tuolumne, the Merced, and the Fresno. Above the foot hills which bound these valleys on the East, on the sides of the Sierra Nevadas are many meadows. These are situated in valleys, and are so protected by the surrounding hills, that during the summer months they are covered with a rank growing grass, which is a sweet food for cattle and sheep.

As early as 1850 many pioneers had settled in the San Joaquin valley, and having collected their herds of cattle, they sought for them food during the dry summer. Thus early they began to drive them up into the mountains and into the pastures as the grass in the plains became dry and dead. Trouble soon came from the Indians, who, scattered about among the mountains, began their depredations. The losses and trouble became so great that the ranchers formed themselves into a company—a guard for common safety.

As a natural result, there grew out of this organisation a military company. It was composed of the hardy ranchers and sturdy miners from the near-by diggings, who avowed their purpose to be, either to drive the Indians from the country or themselves die in the attempt. In the country around were many tribes—the Monos, the Merceds, the Yo-Semites, and others,1 the latter probably not a distinct tribe, but composed of defeated parties from several tribes who had taken refuge in the great valley. These gave the settlers the most trouble, and against them their power was chiefly used.

1Chook-chan-cie, Po-to-en-cie, Noot-cho, Po-ho-ne-chee, Ho-na-chee, Chow-chilla.

Skirmishing and fighting became general along this part of the Sierras. The whites would drive the Indians far up into the mountains, but they would always lose track of them, the Indians taking refuge in some fastness the entrance to which they could not discover. Thus for some time these skirmishes went on between the parties contending for the mastery. The whites became more emboldened, and pushing further into the mountains, discovered that the retreat into which the Indians took themselves was a vast gorge, a sight of which they obtained from a near-by peak. Those who had seen this place of retreat told wonderful stories about it upon their return to the plains. Undoubtedly this was the first time white men had ever obtained even a glimpse of this wonderful scenery, and it is not surprising that those who composed the company should have given such a description of the gorge as to lead others to desire to see it. This was late in the summer of 1850. During the rainy or winter season the ranchers talked over the discovery, and talking only magnified the stories, which spread into the mining camps, and at night around the camp-fires many were the wonderful tales related, and many were the plans formed for exploring the ‘mountain retreat’ the next season. A great excitement was raised in the adjacent settlements, so that when spring came it was no difficult task for Capt. Boling to organise his company of picked men, to make an expedition into the mountains both for the purpose of exploring the valley or gorge, and to exterminate the Indians, so that they would not trouble the settlers during the coming planting-time. March 1851 saw the company fully organised and equipped, and ready to start. They called to their aid Te-nei-ya, an old chief, who had always been friendly to the whites. He led the band of explorers, and knowing the trail, a few days’ march brought them into that valley which we now know as ‘Yo-Semite.’ Imagination can only paint the scene, as those hardy ranchers, led by the old and friendly Te-nei-ya, stood upon the edge of the mountains which form the sides of this wonderful valley. The romantic wildness and sublime grandeur of the scene spread out before them must have overpowered them, even though made of ‘stern stuff.’

It is related that at one time on the way Te-nei-ya failed the whites, and they were forced to call to their aid another friendly Indian, Cow-chit-ty by name, who led them on and has to this day remained friendly.

A few days of imprisonment brought Te-nei-ya and his followers to terms, and as he was chief of the most powerful tribe, the whites kept good watch that he did not betray them again. He, ever after his humiliation, remained friendly, and conducted the company to the edge of the valley.

It is related that the Indians were terribly disheartened by this to them unceremonious invasion, and, after a little skirmishing, made peace with the men who had found the way into this retreat which had for so long been their secure hiding-place.

The story of the visit of the Indian chief, JosŤ Jerez, a name more Spanish than Indian, under charge of James D. Savage, to San Francisco, the offence given the chief, and the manner in which he and his people avenged it, is told quite graphically by Mr. Hutchings.1 To these incidents he gives, I apprehend, too much prominence in the train of circumstances which led to the discovery of the valley.

1See ‘Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California,’ &c. J. M. Hutchings, of Yo-Semite, 1870. N. Y.

As the Indians kept their peace, there was no occasion for the whites to push farther into the mountains, and for a year or more little was done towards exploring the Valley. Little seems to have been said about the discovery outside of the country immediately around. To the renewed excitement in the finding of gold all turned their attention, and for a time forgot the wonderful scenery, which had been viewed only in part.

The killing of two miners in or near the Valley in the summer of 1852, led to the fitting out of a second expedition. This time the miners from the Mariposa country furnished the men, and they styled themselves the ‘Mariposa Battalion.’ They pushed into the Valley, attacked the Indians without mercy, killed many, and drove out the rest. These last took refuge with the Monos, who dwelt by the lake of the same name upon the Eastern side of the Sierras. We are told that the tribes afterwards fought among themselves, and that the Monos almost entirely exterminated the Yo-Semites, Upon the return of the soldiers, each had his story to tell, some of which obtained quite a circulation through the State, but were generally discredited, being looked upon as the ‘yarns of a traveller.’ They were not given to exaggeration if they were as moderate in all their estimates as in giving the height of the Yo-Semite Fall, which they reported as being ‘more than 1,000 feet high.’ That of the mountain peaks they gave at about half their real altitude.

To find a good reason for the tardiness with which the stories of the towering cliffs, the magnificent waterfalls, the great trees and the wonderful scenery in and around this Valley, spread through the State and found their way into the Eastern press, is difficult. It can only be explained by the extraordinary excitement which existed about gold, the restlessness of the people, who rushed from place to place as the stories of newly-found ‘diggings’ reached them, and the general distrust with which all the more sober part of the people there, and all Eastern people, accepted the stories which were told of California. At all events several years passed away before much was known of the Yo-Semite.

What little had become known with any accuracy was communicated by Dr. L. H. Bunnel, who had been a member of the celebrated ‘Mariposa Battalion.’ He had looked upon the scenery with artist-eye, and was a true lover of Nature. He was a gentleman of extended knowledge, and succeeding in winning the confidence of the Indians who accompanied them, and whom he met on the way, he obtained from them all the information which he could respecting names of the waterfalls, the mountains, and the valley itself. To him is due the name given to the valley. His accounts of what he had seen gradually attracted attention, and few names are so closely connected with the history of the valley.

In 1855 Mr. J. M. Hutchings, with a small party, made the first excursion into the valley. He was led to the place by the stories of the wonderful scenery which had reached him, and to obtain material for his series of papers illustrating the scenery of California. A second party of sixteen persons from the town of Mariposa made a visit the same year to the valley. The reports made by these tourists, and the descriptions which now found their way into the press, made the year 1856 memorable in opening the travel to the Yo-Semite. A trail was cut on the Mariposa side, and it may be said that by the next year pleasure travel was fairly began.

Of course these early visitors were forced to carry with them a full set of camp equipage, and the condition of the roads and the trails up the mountains made the journey one of hardship, and in many places very dangerous. As tourists began to turn their steps towards the valley, persons, whose aim was to turn a penny into their pockets, began to try to meet the wants of these travellers. In the autumn of 1856 the first house was built, and was for many years known as the Lower Hotel. The building is still standing, and forms a part of the hotel now known as the New Sentinel. In the Spring of 1857 one Hite erected a canvas house some half a mile further up the valley from the Lower Hotel. In the Spring of 1858 was erected the building which now forms Hutchings’ Hotel. Messrs. Hite and Beardsley were the owners, and for a season they kept it as a hotel. It was continued by different parties—Peck, Longhurst and others— till 1864, when Mr. Hutchings assumed the business which has since been continued by him. The Lower Hotel was kept successively by John Reed in 1857, by one Cunningham from 1858 to 1861. In 1863 G. F. Leidig took it and kept it till 1870. In 1871 Leidig erected a new hotel an eighth of a mile further down than this, which he is now keeping. In 1817 a small building was erected to be used as a store-house above the site of the present Hutchings’ Hotel. All these, save the Leidig’s new hotel, which I have mentioned, were rude structures made from rough boards, without plastering, and with partitions made of cloth. Everything at this time had to be brought upon the backs of mules or horses from fifty to sixty miles, and over the roughest of rough mountain trails. In 1871 Mr. John Smith erected a building in which he opened a saloon, bath-rooms, a barber’s shop, &c., for the accommodation of guests. In 1872 Mr. Hutchings added a new building to his hotel, which is used as a dormitory. Several small unfinished buildings are scattered through the Valley, used for various purposes, as photographic galleries, telegraph office, a store, &c. The houses and buildings of J. C. Lamon are situated at the upper end of the Valley. These comprise the buildings so far erected in the Valley, and all of them are rude structures, affording only a poor protection against storms.

The first white man who took up his residence in the valley was Mr. J. C. Lamon. From his own lips I learned the following facts of his life. He was led to the Valley from hearing the wonderful stories about it while at work in the mines in the Mariposa country. In 1859 he made his first journey into the Yo-Semite. He was perfectly enraptured by the place, and his first impulses were to make it his home. He staid during the summer, and made some considerable progress in exploring different parts of the Valley and the country immediately around. He fixes the day that he reached the Valley as either the 18th or 20th of April, 1859. The next year he returned to the Valley with the full determination to make it his permanent abode, and began to clear up a piece of land, erect a log cabin, set out trees, &c. In the winter he lived among the various towns down among the foot-hills, as Mariposa, Coulterville, and the mining camps. He returned the next season, and having completed his house he has since resided there during Winter as well as Summer. For several years he spent the long Winter alone in this vast solitude, with little of animate life around him. Even the Indians seek other places to pass the Winter—the birds fly away to the lower valleys—the deer go down nearer the dwelling-places of man. He told me that the scenery was so grand, so ever-changing, that he could not feel lonesome. Occasionally as he would think of himself alone in this Valley, with impassable barriers of snow between him and the settlements, he would offer up a prayer that he might be protected against sickness and suffering, for with health he found ample resources of happiness. For two years he had an occasional companion in the person of James Wilmer, and as he was an early inhabitant of the valley, a record of his life ought to be preserved.

Coming down the Mariposa trail, just as you reach the level of the valley, you pass a large tree, around the trunk of which are some rough boards, standing with inclined sides. This rude structure of boards covers a great opening in the tree which fire has made. The space within scarcely allows a man to lie with extended limbs. The guide tells you that the hermit lived here, and that he died in the valley, and was buried near the banks of the swift-flowing Merced. This is all he can tell. Of his name, his history, his motives, he can say nothing. Wilmer was from New York. There terrible and unrelenting adversities and domestic troubles coming upon him, he sought in the great mountain solitude escape from his cares. He lived in this rudely-constructed shelter and spent his time in fishing and hunting. All the solicitations of Mr. Lamon that he would come. and share his cabin with him were politely refused; ‘for,’ said Mr. Lamon, ‘Wilmer showed his good bringing up, and I think he was born a gentleman.’ At long intervals he would spend a day at Lamon’s cabin, and then talk of his past life. Letters came to him from his friends, and then he would become very low-spirited. He grew more and more dejected and sad, ceased to find any oblivion in his fishing-rod and rifle, and often told Lamon that he had fully resolved to take his own life. He had not been seen for a longer time than usual; the Indians as they came to the cabin said, ‘White man gone, we no see him;’ and so Lamon started for the rude shelter at the tree, with a sad heart. There was no one there, and nothing to indicate where Wilmer had gone. Next day, while searching the river, he found the body thrown upon the rocky bank. Thus ended the life of James Wilmer, whose grave made that day was the first for a white man in that weird solitude. There is, however, a tradition that the two miners killed in 1852 were buried at the foot of the Bridal Veil Fall, but I could not learn that this was well authenticated.

Thus is narrated the story of the discovery and settlement of the Yo-Semite. So far little has been done to mar the beauty of the scenery. The decision of the court, giving to the commissioners power over the lands granted as a park, will cause many changes to be at once made which will improve the accommodation for tourists. The opening of the carriage road into the valley, while it robs the journey of much romance and adventure, also saves much fatigue and delay. No doubt modern improvements will soon find their way into Yo-Semite.

Next: Origin of Name Yo-SemiteContentsPrevious: Yo-Semite Plants

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management