Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: Discovery of GoldContentsPrevious: Yo-Semite Discovery and Settlement

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


ORIGIN OF THE NAME YO-SEMITE.

[Editor’s note: For the correct origin of the word Yosemite see “Origin of the Word Yosemite.”dea. ]

Before dismissing the Yo-Semite, I must refer to the orthography of this name as well as its signification. The discussion has been extended, and some of the points brought out are of much interest. The Indians know the place as Ah-wah-nee, and it is strange that this was not adopted. The Indian name for the Falls spelled as nearly after their pronunciation as possible would be Yo-ham-ĕ-tă or Yo hem-ē-tā. The present name seems to have gained currency during the Summer of 1851 and is retained, though several attempts were early made to change it. Dr. L. H. Bunnell is probably the first man who recorded the name of the Valley, and his orthography is that now in use. In vain I have searched among the books upon California and the Valley for some solution of this problem, but all leave it by saying it is impossible to tell how the name came into use. All inquiries into the adoption of names of places bring to light certain historical facts, and to the student it is of much interest as well as profit to pursue such investigations. The following seems to me a solution of this vexed question.

It has been suggested that this name was that of the most powerful tribe of Indians, who had given to the country about their name, but this has been disapproved by historians of the early wars with the natives, and, in fact, the Yo-Semites were not a distinct tribe,1 but the Indians who dwelt in the valley were composed of defeated parties from several tribes, and this name has rather been in later days given this band of outcast warriors than theirs to the valley.

1See Dr. Bunnell’s ‘Indian ‘Wars,’ Hutchings’ Magazine, &c.

It is well known that the Indian sees in every mountain, and tree, in the waterfall, and in every weird spot, a spirit or nymph, whose life is enwrapped in this outward form. In the waterfall at the entrance to the Valley he saw the spirit of the night wind; in the mountain called South Dome he saw the goddess of the Valley; in the trees he found nymphs who exercised a certain power over him. The whole race is very imaginative, and given to the contemplation of things supernatural. Those who have lived among them till they have learned their traditions, their customs and habits of thought, tell us that certain of them travel from tribe to tribe, and around a council fire tell the most wonderful stories of their origin, the visits of the great spirit to earth, the great battles of their tribe, in which the genii which preside over their fortune took part. They point you to Mount Shasta, as the wigwam where the great spirit dwells, to little Mount Shasta where lives the grizzly bear, the father of all Indians, with his god-wife. He imagines smoke rising from the wigwam fires within these mountains, and on their side he sees plainly the print of the feet of the great spirit, made when he came down the mountain.

It was perfectly natural, then, that the Indian should find a pervading spirit in the Valley That which struck him as the development, as it were, of this spirit, was the great fall, which seemed grand and awful to his untutored mind; and this he called Yo-ham-ē-tā, and as this spirit of the grand and awful pervaded all the Valley, he found Yo-ham-ē-tā at every step, for mountains and waterfalls all were grand and imposing. It was also in perfect accord with his nature that this spirit should be that which to him is the most awful thing known—a great and full-grown grizzly bear. He has implicit belief that every Indian who leads a wicked life is to become a grizzly bear, doomed to live among the snowy mountains, where there is no deer for his food. His heaven is a place where he can lie all day in his wigwam, and deer will come to his door to be made into venison. It was then, I repeat, in accord with his nature to find the spirit of the great grizzly bear in the valley—to him Yo-ham-ē-tā. The name of the locus or the place, then, was Ah-wah-nee, and the spirit of Ah-wah-nee was Yo-ham-ē-tā.

For the orthography it is more difficult to account. We know that the Spaniards, as they gradually spread themselves over the country, mingled with the native tribes, and that there grew up a race in California called Mexicans. Their language is mostly Spanish, but somewhat modified by the Indian. Long intercourse with the Spaniards also had taught the Indians many new words. The children of the mingling of these races speak to-day peculiar dialects. Since settlements were made by Americans, this race has died out or been driven out of most of the towns. You can see that all these circumstances had much influence upon the language of the several peoples. The s and z sounds are quite wanting in the Indian dialects, and in the words now used by the Indians which have these sounds, they have been modified by or taken entire from the Spanish. It is one of the most difficult tasks to put into English letters the words and names of the Indians, for among the members of a single tribe each individual has a pronunciation different from the other. This influence of the Spanish upon the speech of the natives is very apparent, and the difficulty in spelling Indian words is forcibly proven by a single trial.

It is said that when the Americans made their way over into the valley, the Indians in their despair cried out what seemed like Yo-sem-i-te. Dr. Bunnell first gave this orthography, and he supposed it to be the Indian name of the Valley. Later investigations showed it to be not the name of the Valley, but of one of the waterfalls, or rather a corruption of that name. All through the State we see the laboured attempts on the part of the whites to get rid of the Indian names. They early began to hate the natives, and this hatred became so fierce that they would not even allow a name to remain to remind them of the Indian or any of his race. All that was Spanish they retained and cherished, and even if any Indian name became early attached to a place, later years would see the word so changed that little of the original would be left. The Indian name Yo-hem-ē-tā may have been thus treated, although the early date at which we find the present orthography given indicates that it had its origin in an attempt to put into English letters the spoken word of the Indians.

The very thing that those natives of the forests, who for so long had found a secure retreat in this, to them Ah-wah-nee, where the spirit Yo-ham-ē-tā found its home, would do when, with ruthless march, the invaders came upon them, would be to cry to that spirit to protect them and the place where they dwelt. The white men caught the word and put it as nearly as they could into English letters, so that upon their return to the settlements they gave the name, each pronouncing it, as nearly as he could, as they had heard it. All have now acquiesced in this orthography, and there would be little use to try to make current another name, if, indeed, any other would be better. Let it remain and perpetuate the traditions of the poor Indian who saw in this awful and sublime scenery that mighty spirit which was ever before him—the dread grizzly bear!



Next: Discovery of GoldContentsPrevious: Yo-Semite Discovery and Settlement

Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/atlantic_to_the_pacific/origin_of_name_yosemite.html