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Yosemite, miracle of grandeur! Rendezvous of beauty unimaginable! Hidden for three and half centuries, wrapped in folds of fir-napped mountains, while explorers—Spanish, Portuguese, Norse, Dutch, English, Russian, French—probed here and there throughout our continent.
But it was not always lonely. Within the deep smoke-scented hollow lived an almost lengendary tribe who called their home “Ahwahnee.”1 Generations passed and the Ahwahneeches were decimated by wars and epidemics. The survivors scattered.
Then the valley waited uninhabited. But it was not forgotten.
A young warrior, Ten-ie-ya, of the blood of the Ahwahneeches, had spent his life among the Pah-Utes living in the foothill country eastward of the peaks. Ahwahnee called to him. With some two hundred souls gathered from the Pah-Utes and other peoples the warrior journeyed west over the mountains and down into the valley. He grew to be an old man and was still chief of this motley tribe which was called “Yo Semite,” meaning perhaps Big Grizzly Bear.2 [Editor’s note: For the correct origin of the word Yosemite see “Origin of the Word Yosemite.”—dea.]
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Ten-ie-ya and his people were there when, in 1833, Joseph Reddeford Walker and his party of mountain men passed along the Mono Trail north of the great gorge of the valley, crossing Yosemite Creek some two miles above the brink of the falls.
Whether Walker or his men detoured close enough to the valley to see any of its features, except possibly Half Dome and the tops of the surrounding peaks, is one of the open questions that add spice to the study of Yosemite. There is no doubt but that they were the first white men entitled to say their eyes had gazed in disturbed awe upon the Yosemite country; but actually to look into the gorge, to see its breath-taking cliffs and waterfalls, is another matter. Although it will probably always be a point having strong arguments for and against, we personally think that they did not. Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell gives this account in his Discovery of the Yosemite:
“The topography of the country over which the Mono Trail ran, and which was followed by Capt. Walker, did not admit of his seeing the valley proper. The depression indicating the valley, and its magnificent surroundings, could alone have been discovered, and in Capt. Walker’s conversations with me at various times while encamped between Coulterville and the Yosemite, he was manly enough to say so. Upon one occasion I told Capt. Walker that Ten-ie-ya had said that, ‘A small party of white men once crossed the mountains on the north side, but were so guided as not to see the valley proper.’3 With a smile the Captain said, “That was my party, but I was not deceived, for the lay of the land showed there was a valley below; but we had become nearly barefooted, our animals poor, and ourselves on the verge of starvation; so we followed down the ridge to Bull Creek, where, killing a deer, we went into camp.”
Bunnell was correct. The country through which runs the Mono Trail gives no intimation of the tremendous drop-off into Yosemite Valley only a couple of miles south, although the conformation of the mountain peaks indicates a depression. The timbered plateau allows but few viewpoints and does not begin to incline and form a mountainside until west of Ribbon Creek (or Virgin’s Tears).
If Bunnell quoted Walker with anything approaching accuracy, Walker did not see the valley. If the quotation is suspected of inaccuracy (for which Bunnell’s character gave no justification) it is best to ignore it and turn to the other source always quoted in an attempt to solve this puzzling question of what white men first saw Yosemite: the account written by Zenas Leonard who traveled with Walker and kept a record of the expedition. From it we learn that the party spent almost a month in crossing over “the moun taro,” as they called the Sierra Nevada Range. Their route has always been a mystery except that they used “the Mono Trail” north of Yosemite which then forks into many branches, but by combining field and library research it seems capable of analysis.
It was October. Where they at first thought they had struck the summit they found old snow left from the winter before, topped by about eight inches of fresh snowfall. They could find no trail, no feed for their horses, no game for themselves. The rebellious men wished to turn back although to do so meant probable death. Walker stemmed the tide by having a couple of horses killed for food.
We can be certain that they had no Indian guide.
Zenas Leonard wrote:
“We travelled a few miles every day, still on top of the mountain, and our course continually obstructed with snow hills and rocks. Here we began to encounter in our path, many small streams which would shoot out from under these high snow-banks, and after running a short distance in deep chasms which they have through the ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below.—Some of these precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high. Some of the man (sic) thought that if we could succeed in descending one of these precipices to the bottom, we might thus work our way into the valley below—but on making several attempts we found it utterly impossible for a man to descend, to say nothing of our horses. We were then obliged to keep along the top of the dividing ridge between two of these chasms which seemed to lead pretty near in the direction we were going—which was West,—in passing over the mountain, supposing it to run north & south.”
If the creeks that “precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another” are to furnish evidence that Walker’s party looked down into Yosemite Valley it is plain that they must be proven to be the creeks that fall over the north rim instead of the south or the men could not have attempted to descend along their courses. Passing over the fact that all the falls flowing over the north wall of the valley would probably be dry by the middle of October we will take them in order: Snow Creek does not have such falls near the top of the mountain. Indian Creek does not fit the picture as down its canyon and beside the falls was a well-worn Indian trail, their accustomed exit from the valley to the north rim. Yosemite Creek and Falls might be considered but it would hardly be possible to be in a position to see them and still to miss the easily accessible Indian Falls trail so close by. Walker’s men were trained mountaineers—the very best. The spectacular, uninterrupted drop of Ribbon Falls, said to be the longest in the world, does not match the description. And it is hardest of all to believe that anyone could have looked down into Yosemite Valley for the first time, no matter how tired and hungry, and not have given a word picture that would apply to it alone and to no other place nearby.
It is easier to reason that the creeks which “precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another” were Cascade and Little Cascade Creeks, Tamarack, Coyote and Wildcat Creeks which the Mono Trail crosses west of Ribbon Creek after the plateau has ended and the mountainside angles sharply more than a mile down to the canyon of the Merced River west of the valley. Their progress is a series of cascades and falls—some of several hundred feet in height. The descent of this mountainside, so old-timers tell us, is impassable; the Indian trails detour around it. The “valley below” into which the men were so anxious to arrive would be either the invisible terrain at the foot of the heavily timbered, snow covered mountain or (using another and broader interpretation ) simply the San Joaquin Valley which was well known to them by reputation as filled with herds of deer and elk. It was late in the year; the winter snows were falling and the men were living on the flesh of exhausted horses which had died or had been killed on the trail. The San Joaquin Valley to the west was their objective. Any detour would be unwelcome.
Some authorities suggest that the word “chasms” refers to the great gorge of Yosemite to the south and that of Hetch Hetchy to the north; but Leonard has already used the word to indicate the canyons of small creeks. We believe that “the dividing ridge between two of these chasms” along the top of which they “were then obliged to keep” and which led west is undoubtedly the ridge running west from Crane Flat on which is the Crane Flat Fire Lookout. A branch of the Mono Trail rode the crest of this hogsback and from it one may see the Tuolumne Grove of Big Trees to the north and a few miles farther along, look down on Merced Grove to the south. A bird’s-eye view of the peculiar dome-like crowns of these trees is like nothing else and would certainly lead to investigation by the hunting parties who wandered far afield in any case. During “two days’ travelling” they saw these trees and measured some specimens “16 to 18 fathom round the trunk.” Now the Sequoia Gigantea grows only in more or less compact groves, never scatteringly through the forests; and the only groups in this particular portion of the country, Tuolumne and Merced Groves, are small, numbering about two dozen trees apiece. It has not yet been suggested to our knowledge that more than one grove was seen by Walker but it would be unnatural to write that they saw two dozen trees growing close together in “two days’ travelling.” The logical reasoning is that the party saw first the grove fartherest east—Tuolumne; then having bivouacked on the trail, strung along past Merced Grove the next day. From no other ridge would they have seen both groves.
After passing above the Big Trees the ridge becomes precipitous; they had difficulty in making the descent from the hogsback. A rocky, steep declivity, impassable for horses, extends for miles, growing worse toward Pilot Peak which climaxes the end of the range.4 Anderson Flat and Deer Flat lie temptingly below, each at an air-line distance of about a mile. Old-timers say that an Indian foot-trail led to Anderson’s Flat on Bull Creek and that it was the logical termination of the trail along the hogsback. On being questioned they say that Walker could have and probably did go that way. It fits Leonard’s description perfectly and one can imagine the weary horses being skidded down the last few hundred feet as Leonard describes. Here the party left the snow and found forage.
The country to the west of Pilot Peak, rather lightly timbered now, was at that time a magnificent forest dwindling down to the foothills. Leonard’s description is too long to quote but fits the topography of the lower hills in every respect. Here, beyond any reasonable doubt, lies Joe Walker’s route.
Referring again to the discovery of Yosemite and discounting the proposition of its being seen by Joseph Reddeford Walker’s men in 1833; the question arises as to whether any other person of white blood viewed the valley before the year 1851 which history has tentatively selected as the date when its amazing vista came to light. The answer is a definite “yes.” The proof is the diary of William Penn Abrams who came to California by the Chagres route in 1849 progressed from San Francisco to Stockton to the Southern Mines, giving an almost daily account of himself as he went along; returned to San Francisco and wrote on October 15, 1849
“Returned to S. F. after visit to Savage property on Merced River prospects are not too good for a mill Savage is a blaspheming fellow who has five sqaws [sic] for wives for which he takes no authority from the Scriptures While at Savage’s Reamer and I saw 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 lead [sic] past a valley inclosed by stupendous cliffs arising 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 side 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.”
The described view from the old Indian trail on the south cliffs is known to thousands: El Capitan to the left, Bridal Veil Fall pouring from beneath the three Cathedral Rocks on the right, while, beyond, the almost unique silhouette of Half Dome arises. Yosemite Falls are invisible around the curve of the valley. To conjure up this scene without seeing it, especially to place it within one day’s trek of James Savage’s trading post, would be a coincidence beyond our credence. William Penn Abrams saw Yosemite in 1849 but evidently did not descend to the valley floor.
Could it be possible that no white man invaded its granite corridor during the three years between the discovery of gold in the spring of 1848 and 1851? Even though it lay beyond the gold belt such a thing seems unlikely with swarms of amateur prospectors roaming the mountains. J. M. Hutchings, whose book In the Heart of the Sierras is one of the standard sources of Yosemite information, had his doubts. “It is true,” he wrote, “the writer has heard of various persons having visited it, when prospecting for gold, as early as 1849, but no responsible data to establish the fact has yet come to his knowledge.”
Who was the first white man to tread the meadows of Yosemite is still an open question and waits for more definite information to be turned up, but scattering bits of information point toward James Savage, a wild and romantic character whose well-known habits render such a conclusion very possible. It is a fact that the honor was accorded to him as leader of the Mariposa Battalion, of which Bunnell was a member, and which entered the valley early in the spring of 1851 to chastise the mysterious Yosemite Indians; but these indefinite stories and rumors hint that he was there at least as early as 1849. One such incident was recorded by Robert A. Curtin in his notebook, the material in which has unfailingly proven to be truthful and correct. He wrote that James Ackerson, who lived in the high mountains, told him of a party of four who were on an “exploration tour” sometime before the Mariposa Battalion entered the valley “ . . . they,” wrote Mr. Curtin, “upon seeing the big valley from Eagle Peak country drifted down into it. They soon found a white man there with the Indians. He approached them and told them they would have to get out as the Indians didn’t want any white men there. ‘Then what are you doing there,’ asked one. He gave an evasive answer, and was quickly told by the spokesman, ‘If any trouble starts you will be the first man I will kill.’ Not knowing what the odds might be, they went back the way they came and told of the discovery upon their return. I always regretted that I did not learn their names, but at that time history meant nothing . . . so a priceless heritage slipped through our fingers.”
Backing up this vague story of a lone white man in the valley is another, more definite statement, signed by a participant in the scene of action and provided with names of the actors. The Modesto Stanislaus News of January 22, 1875, printed this article: “Editor News:- There has been much written and published concerning the first discovery of the great YoSemite valley by the white man, and no doubt the writers believed they were correct in what they have written and published. But there is one great error in their statements, and which, with your leave, I propose to correct.
“In the latter part of the month of June, 1849, the writer of this article, in company with six others, whose names are here given, viz., Remington of New York, Hayyerd, N. Y., Taylor, N. Y., Doctor Clements, of Winchester, Virginia, Goff, of England, Stevens, of Wales, started on a prospecting tour south from Sonora, Tuolumne county, and crossed the Tuolumne river at the place now called Don Pedro’s Bar, we then traveled in a north-easterly direction between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, till we found the camp of James Savage near Pino Blanco. At this time Mr. Savage was acknowledge [sic] the Chief of the Indians from the Mokelumne river to the Merced river on the south, and embracing all the territory from the San Joaquin river on the west to the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We staid in his camp three or four days and got all the information we could in regard to the country south of his camp.
“Now, Mr. Savage was married according to the Indian custom, and I must here state that his wife was not what would be considered a beauty on Fifth Avenue, . . . I asked Mr. Savage where he found her, and who she was. He answered that she was the daughter of the great Chief of the Yo Hamete Valley, that is what the Indians called it. We then asked where the Yo Hamete Valley was. He told us that it was high up on the Merced river, and entirely out of the gold belt. We asked him if he was ever there. He said that he was. And he then went on with a description of the great valley, its waterfalls, etc. Some of the falls he said were 18 hundred feet high. So the reader will see that Yo Semite Valley was known to at least one white man as early as the month of June, 1849, for James Savage was a white man and an American. . . .
“If the foregoing should meet the eye of any of my companions who were on the prospecting trip, they can testify to the correctness of what I have written. . . . Respectfully yours, Huge Paw.”
On the second page of this same issue of the Stanislaus News the editor, a 49er in his own right, expressed his views and incidentally corrected the spelling of the name of the author of the foregoing item as follows: “Yosemite Valley:- On the fourth page of to-day’s issue, ‘Huge Paw’ gives us an article on the discovery of the YoSemite Valley. The writer, we think, very clearly shows that the old mountaineer, James Savage, was actually the first white man that ever visited that wonderful valley. From our own personal knowledge of Savage, and his peculiar roaming habit, we cannot see how he could have well failed in coming across the YoSemite in his many travels among the Indians of the great mountain range of California.”
As might have been expected L. H. Bunnell, who was pardonably proud to have entered the valley with the Mariposa Battalion, wrote clear from his new address in Minnesota to refute this statement. His article appeared in the Mariposa County Gazette, March 13, 1875, stating that Savage personally told him that he had never been in the valley before the advent of the Battalion. Dr. Bunnell’s character for veracity does not permit us to doubt his words but the doctor, himself, says in the article : “ . . . the Major was an inveterate quiz and given to romancing . . .rdquo; so skeptics merely wonder in this case of conflicting stories just which man he was deceiving, Dr. Bunnell or Hugh Paw. It is not irreconcilable that Savage should possibly have been both the leader of the Battalion and the son-in-law of Chief Ten-ie-ya. The company was committed to the job of chastising and changing the marauding policy of the tribe with as little bloodshed as possible and was assembled and practically on the march when Savage was elected commander. In what other position could he have accomplished as much honest good for both races. Students of this small but interesting campaign will note many incidents that point toward this solution: Ten-ie-ya’s calm arrival alone at camp, the escape of the Indian village up the cliff while the Battalion delayed attack and other incidents of clemency—marred by the unplanned shooting of Ten-ie-ya’s two sons by a guard as they attempted escape—total a record of Indian fighting as innocuous and devoid of bloodshed as any one is apt to find in history.
Every reader must form his own opinion, and possibly someone will have another item of information to add to the collection.
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When gold was discovered in California Ten-ie-ya was old and firmly resolved that the ant-like columns of miners should not enter his stronghold. The arresting figure of Savage was also well established among the Indians on the western slope of the Sierra. It was his habit to take a wife from each of the more influential tribes and the estimates of those writers who mention him vary from five to thirty. He possessed some trading posts but his biggest profits came from his numerous in-laws who more or less industriously panned out gold dust and nuggets for his benefit.
There is no need for this volume to treat of the details of depredations by the Chowchilla, Yosemite and other tribes that led to the formation of the Mariposa Battalion of Volunteers which Savage commanded by unanimous vote. Farms and trading posts had been ravaged and men killed for the length of the lower San Joaquin Valley by Indians who were determined to halt the advance of the white men. The subject has been competently handled in other volumes. For source information read Hutchings’ In the Heart of the Sierras, Bunnell and Kuykendall. To find the information in one volume read One Hundred Years in Yosemite by Carl Parcher Russell. It is enough to say here that, after a couple of bloody skirmishes, the Battalion entered the valley—supposedly the first white men to do so—toward the last of March, 1851. Previous sources have said March 25th. Eccleston’s daily diary says the 27th.
The foray was not successful. The tribe had disappeared up the Indian Canyon trail, leaving but one feeble old woman behind them. In May another attempt was made and this time the Indians were brought out and many of them installed on the Fresno Reservation. They were disconsolate and, on solemn promise of good behavior, were soon permitted to go back to their beloved valley.
In May of 1852 they attacked a party of prospectors. Soldiers were dispatched to the valley; found five Indians with articles known to belong to the murdered men and shot them. The rest of the tribe, including Ten-ie-ya, took refuge in the Mono country. Almost exactly fifty years later a reminiscence by Stephen F. Grover came to the authorities at Yosemite showing that this outrage was probably instigated by a white man. It sums up briefly: A party entered Yosemite consisting of Grover, Aich, Peabody, Babcock, an Englishman whose name Grover had forgotten, and three partners in an existing mine, Rose, Tudor and Sherburn. None of the party wished to enter the valley except the partners but were finally persuaded. While encamped they were attacked by Indians. Rose fell first at some distance from camp apparently with a death wound. Sherburn and Tudor were killed but the rest received superficial wounds and escaped to the cliff where with two rifles they kept the Indians at a distance. When one of the leaders of the Yosemites was disabled the Indians withdrew, enabling the prospectors to creep away and return to their camp at Coarse Gold Gulch and their friends. A burial party led by Aich met with no resistance but they found only the bodies of Tudor and Sherburn. In a few days Rose turned up, unhurt, at the partners’ mine about five miles west of Coarse Gold; reported the attack and said that the whole party except himself had been killed. When he heard that he was mistaken and that the other five had escaped he disappeared at once without permitting them to see him and they came to believe that he had egged the Indians on to the attack in order to fall heir to his partners’ share in the mine.
In the summer or fall of 1853 the Mono Indians and the Yosemites quarreled. Ten-ie-ya and several of his braves were stoned to death; the old people were ignored but the women and young children were absorbed by the Monos. The Yosemite tribe was effectively dispersed. Ten-ie-ya’s remains were carried over the mountains to Hite’s Cove on the South Fork of the Merced where they were disposed of according to tribal custom.
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Yosemite became known. Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion should be thanked for most of the scant publicity but, although none of the glory of the surroundings nor the pathos of the events were lost on him, he did not publish his book The Discovery of the Yosemite until 1880. So, at the end of four years although the existence of the amazing valley was noted by the public its features were still hazy and it was still inaccessible. In 1854, so Luella Dickenson wrote, five women and four men visited Yosemite, finding the Indians friendly.
The next man who was to figure in publicizing it was however in California, having arrived inconspicuously in ’49 walking behind a pack mule.
There is an unusual amount of data on James Mason Hutchings, the “father” of the valley, unofficial host to early visitors. His life and his personality were known to all the mountain families for he was a person of prominence in the far-flung community. Helen Hunt Jackson described him as “an enthusiast, a dreamer, a visionary.” His voluminous diary is extant and old-timers will talk of him at length but the most intimate information came from his daughter, Gertrude Hutchings Mills—always called “Cozic.”
This lady, white-haired and frail, is permitted to set her camp anywhere in the park and, between the years 1940 and 1949 She frequently availed herself of the privilege. It was necessary to drive to her secluded tent in Tuolumne Meadows to obtain an interview. It had been raining but the sun was struggling out from behind the clouds. Her fireplace was at the base of a great rock and the space about it was floored with natural flat slabs of granite, wet and shining; but the pitch pine and chunks of dead bark were dry and the energetic blaze leaped and crackled. She was glad to talk of her father and the interview covered a good deal of territory. Only the most significant items or details not apt to be found elsewhere are given here.
“My father lived for awhile in Placerville,” she said. “It was in the early 150S. He wrote a weekly column for the town’s paper. He always liked to write. It was while he was there that he became the author of the “Miners’ Ten Commandments.” It was amazing how many copies were sold.
“About that time he met Joseph Reddeford Walker who captained the first party of white men ever to set eyes on the Yosemite country. They had approached it by way of Bloody Canyon, the only trail that crossed the Sierra in this vicinity. I think the two men talked about the high Sierra country for, from that time, my father was bound and determined to see it.” While she talked Cozie Hutchings Mills continued to feed crumbs of bread to three white-crowned sparrows who ate cautiously from her hand.
“In 1855 father made the journey to Yosemite Valley and took an artist with him to sketch the cliffs and the waterfalls. From that time on Yosemite was in his blood. He brought mother here to live in 1862. They built a house south of the river for no one realized at first that the north side is much warmer in winter—gets the sun longer each day and also the heat reflected from the cliffs. On August 23rd of 1864 the first white child was born in Yosemite— my sister, Florence. Mount Florence, that magnificent peak in the park, was named for her. She dearly loved the woods and all animals and died when she was seventeen.
“I came along later. My real name is Gertrude although no one ever uses it. Father named me for the ship that brought him over from England. My people kept a sort of hotel for it was practically impossible not to take guests with scientists, naturalists and travelers beginning to arrive and no place for shelter. What we had we shared.”
Straight from James Mason Hutchings’ own diary comes the following information: He was not, it seems, exempt from the lure of the gold camps but lost the proceeds of several years’ work in the diggings due to the failure of a private bank and of Adam’s Express Company. He undertook to recoup by traveling through the gold camps selling “letter sheets” to the miners who seldom had anything suitable on which to write home. One variety had a letterhead decorated with supposedly the first picture ever made of a “Mammoth Tree” in Calaveras Grove. Others had pictures of mining processes or of Indians. Some had the Miners’ “Ten Commandments.” Of the latter he sold enough to supply one-fifth of the population of the state.
He did this profitably for a year when he decided to get some sketches of newly-found Yosemite. An Indian guided a party of four, including Hutchings and the artist, Thomas Ayres. These four named Mirror Lake and Bridal Veil Fall. On the way out, while in Mariposa, Hutchings wrote an article for the Mariposa Gazette featuring the scenic wonders of the valley but the notable success of Hutchings’ publicity campaign was greatly aided by the accomplished Ayres, whose pictures were the first likenesses of the beauties of the valley to be circulated and created a sensation. Ten of them are now in the Yosemite Museum. An immediate result of their appearance was a succession of small parties who trekked to the beautiful gorge before the year was out, hiring the same Indian guides.
Yosemite became an obsession with Hutchings. It possessed him. He had always wanted to publish a magazine. Now it became an obligation. He went to San Francisco, rented an office, made arrangements with engravers and printers, acquired a “Daggnerean machine” (whatever that may be), hired an assistant and was then free to dash off to the mines again at the top speed of his horse and wagon.
Famous Hutchings’ California Magazine came off the press for the first time July 18, 1856. The opening article extolled the unique features of “Yo-ham-i-te Valley.” The magazine was only published about five years but is still known in the historical libraries of the nation as an exponent of the old west.
About that time illness in the family made it expedient to leave the foggy coast. Hutchings at once visualized a home in his ideal valley but, as ridiculous as it now sounds, no one was sure at that time but what, in a heavy season, Yosemite might fill a hundred feet deep with snow slides. To disprove this disconcerting theory he had to see it in winter and set out again with an Indian guide; but, when the going got rough, the Indian vanished. Hutchings pluckily kept on alone and the effort did not fall far short of costing his life. He approached the valley from the south cliffs, as was then the custom, and the happiest sight of his journey was the irregular black ribbon of the Merced River showing through the snowdrifts of the valley floor.
There were at that time Indian trails entering the valley from many directions.5
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The exact progress of events in the valley is difficult to chronicle because the main recorders of those early years, Hutchings, Galen Clark, Whitney, Bunnell and others, do not always agree and statements must be weighed one against another and against known facts. Russell’s One Hundred Years in Yosemite, gives a splendid chronological history of the building program and of historic happenings. This will be a more casual but (we hope) enlightening story of the coming of civilization to Yosemite Valley and the comedies and tragedies of the daily lives of the first settlers.
As might have been expected the very first rude shelter to be thrown together was erected in 1855 by some men (including Lafayette Bunnell) who were considering ditching water down to the Mariposa mines; but it was a temporary affair and soon disappeared. The first building intended for permanence was put up the next year, crushed by snow and rebuilt in the spring of 1857. Galen Clark wrote with open disapproval that it was, during its first season, a saloon and gambling place but it soon came under the management of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Neal and was conducted suitably as a simple mountain inn. It was known as Lower Hotel.
Eighteen fifty-seven was notable for the advent of Galen Clark and the establishment of Clark’s Ranch in the lovely opening in the forest later known as Wawona. At once it became an important stopping place on the Mariposa-Yosemite Trail. On May 25th, 1857, Clark was startled by a party in which were five women, the first ever to arrive as tourists. One of their number, Harriet J. Kirtland, tells the story in a journal which makes light of the extreme neighborliness of the grizzly bear in the vicinity but appears to be approaching disaster in the matter of an unironed chemise which, however, she fully intends to launder properly before wearing. Final results are not obtainable.
Galen Clark, retiring and exceedingly independent but much beloved, was a member of the first Board of Commissioners of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove and was more than once appointed “Guardian of the Valley.” As in the cases of John Muir, the famous nature-lover, and James Hutchings, Clark identified himself completely with the stupendous mountain area that he loved and to many is best remembered as the accredited discoverer of the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. He was a silent man and once, when beseiged for information by a lady visitor, told her expressively that his supply of words was not of the artesian type (by which we fear he was referring to John Muir) but that, if she would keep on trying, he could be pumped. He lived in the valley or in its vicinity more than fifty years.
In the spring of 1858 Upper Hotel came into being at what is now the south end of Sentinel Bridge and across the highway. Mr. and Mrs. Neal moved up from Lower Hotel and managed it until 1864 when James Hutchings became the proprietor. It was then known as Hutchings House and, for five or six years, was the stopping place most frequented by particular travelers. Not that it had much to offer but the travelers couldn’t afford to be choosy.
Helen Hunt Jackson, writing under the initials “H. H.,” arrived at Hutchings’ place in the ’70s when the road was only a “sandy path.” There were four buildings, she said, three of which made up the hotel. Two of them were cottages for lodging only: the Cottage by the Rocks and the Cottage by the River, the latter being precariously closer to the full, strong current of the Merced than she “deemed” quite safe although there was always the recompense of viewing Yosemite Falls through a back window while lying in bed. The floors were of rough pine, the walls of thin laths on which was stretched white muslin (far from sound or shadow proof), the mattress a sack filled with fern, the wash bowl a shallow tin pan, while the water was obtained from a barrel in the hall and was merely on a slight detour from the river whence it came and to which it would eventually drain back. Mrs. Hunt mentioned that one window had no curtain, and if she didn’t see an aboriginal nose flattened against the pane during her stay it was because the Indians hadn’t as yet found out that the blind was gone. H. H. had no complaints, however, and had a poor opinion of any dim soul who would put personal comfort above the appreciation of nature’s beauties.
Another building was the Cosmopolitan Saloon, respectable and respected. H. H. was undoubtedly glad to see it as, at that time, it was the only place in the valley where one could get a comfortable hot bath. It had five fully carpeted bath rooms, equipped with pin cushions and bay rum, and a private sitting room for ladies. Nor were the gentlemen neglected. Two fine tables for the billiard room had been brought in miraculously on mule back. Culture had come into the valley with the first families; comfort was arriving. Of course they had always to reckon with the four or five villages of Indians scattered against the cliffs. No resident of the valley objected to their age-old habits but visitors were sometimes disenchanted. Olive Logan, arriving at Hutchings House via saddle train and thoroughly disgruntled, had a few words to say.
“There is an Indian camp beside Hutchings’. A vile stench greets us. These filthy wretches found a dead horse yesterday, and are now eating some of the carcass. Its entrails and other parts are strung out in the sun to dry for future eating . . . Indian men loll under the trees playing cards for silver coin. They glare at us as we approach.”
There was probably something to be said both for Olive’s point of view and that of the Indians. Olive went home at the end of three days leaving Mr. Hutchings “deeply chagrined.”
Meanwhile Yosemite’s first horticulturalist, James C. Lamon, arrived in 1859 and helped to put the finishing touches on Upper Hotel before preėmpting a claim about where Camp Curry and the park stables now are. Under the large pines to the right and in front of the present stables he built the first log cabin home in the valley and, according to pictures in the museum, it was made of trees about eighteen inches in diameter. Near what is now the Camp Curry parking lot he planted four acres of orchard of which the trees still bear fruit. Lamon was the first person to live in Yosemite the year around. During the winters of 1862-63 and 1863-64 he remained entirely alone and, as the first named was one of the heaviest seasons ever recorded, he must have witnessed rare sights. Of the more than 1100 acres in the valley floor Hutchings and Lamon held 160 acres each. Other claims were made but became invalid as the holders failed to maintain permanent residence.
In 1862, so said Cozie Hutchings Mills, her mother came to the valley, but evidently not as yet to remain for the winter season. By ’64 she was permanently installed and the first white baby was born in Yosemite—her daughter, Florence, whom, when she was six, John Muir called “a little black-eyed witch of a girl, the only one in the valley.”6 A good portion of her short life was spent regretting that she had not been born a boy but that slight miscalculation on the part of nature did not prevent her from hiking and even camping in the high mountains alone. She used tobacco, because she liked it, as women do now; was impatient of social usages and of any restraint and was not afraid of anything. Her death at seventeen was directly attributable to her refutation of any form of caution.
According to her father, by the year that Florence was born 653 tourists had managed to arrive undamaged in the valley and Yosemite was granted by act of Congress to the State of California as a recreational reserve or park. It was two seasons later before the Legislature met, officially accepted the gift and appointed Galen Clark “Guardian.” Governor Low at the proper time appointed the Board of Commissioners and announced that claimants to property within the grant must relinquish their title. As was to be expected Hutchings and Lamon resisted this ultimation and litigation began.
And in this year, 1866, Lamon acquired a partner. Fred Leidig with his wife Isabel trekked in from Coulterville.
The intimate story of Yosemite from that time on has been obtained in a large measure from their son, Charles. His fund of information is remarkable and, under test, proves accurate. His father and mother, so he told us, came with pack animals by way of Jenkins Hill and down into the Merced Canyon.7 At the foot of Jenkins Hill was McCann Flat where the Irish McCanns raised goats and kept a small eating place. Isabel had two little children and was using a side saddle. She was glad to rest there before proceeding by saddle trail up Merced Canyon.
Fred Leidig and Jim Lamon farmed 160 acres on both side of the Merced River which flows, deep and silent, through the level valley. The Leidig home was a two-storied log house possibly 150 feet south of the present Ahwahnee Hotel. They weren’t expecting trouble but, just as a precaution, it had a breastwork thrown up all around. Port holes in the cabin were even with the top of the breastwork. There was a spring in the cellar. They lived upstairs but Isabel cooked down by the spring.
Here the Leidigs buried the first to die, their small daughter, Agnes, and a little boy whose name may have been McCoy. It was in the middle of a heavy winter. No one could get out to buy provisions and the family was on short rations although they still had flour and turnips. If a man could work his way as far down the valley as Bridal Veil Fall (so Charles Leidig affirmed) he could usually get through to the settlements but in this year no one succeeded. The hungry children, happening to find some spoiled peaches which had frozen, ate them and died. They were buried, side by side, beneath two oaks near the present Ahwahnee Hotel. Three mouths later Isabel’s third child came into the world— our informant, Charles Leidig, first white boy to be born iii Yo semite Valley.
Years later the body of little Agnes was removed to the cemetery.8
John Muir made his initial appearance in this small cliff-bound society in 1868. The name of the great naturalist is possibly the most famous to be inextricably associated with Yosemite. He arrived without fanfare and was permitted by Hutchings to build for himself a cabin of sugar pine shakes near the foot of Yosemite Falls and right in back of the Hutchings’ home. While there he was employed by Hutchings to build and operate a sawmill adjacent to his cabin.
There has been much adverse criticism against Hutchings and Muir, both nature lovers, for sawing up quantities of the large pines from the floor of the valley. An entirely different light is thrown on this activity by the reading of Muir’s unfinished memoirs in which he tells that he was hired to build a sawmill to cut lumber from pines blown down by a violent wind a year or two before he arrived.9 He constructed from them his cabin with which he was completely charmed. He wrote:
“This cabin, I think, was the handsomest building in the valley and the most useful and convenient for a mountaineer. From the Yosemite Creek, near where it first gathers its beaten waters at the foot of the fall, I dug a small ditch and brought a stream into the cabin, entering at one end and flowing out the other just current enough to allow it to sing and warble in low, sweet tones, . . . My bed was suspended from the rafters and lined with libocedrus plumes, . . .”10
In a few months Hutchings took back the cabin which, being built on his land and with his lumber, he claimed was technically his. Muir moved to Black’s Hotel but apparently often slept in the mill. He wrote to his sister:
“It is hard to write here, as the mill jars so much by the stroke of the saw, and the rain drips from the roof, and I have to set the log every few minutes. I am operating the same mill that I made last winter. I like the piney fragrance of the fresh-sawn boards, and I am in constant view of the grandest of all the falls. I sleep in the mill for the sake of hearing the murmuring hush of the water beneath Inc, and I have a small box-like home fastened beneath the gable of the mill, looking westward down the Valley, where I keep my notes, etc. People call it the hang-nest, because it seems unsupported, thus: [a simple sketch is inserted] Fortunately, the only people that I dislike are afraid to enter it.”11
It seems quite probable that listed under this heading was James Hutchings with whom Muir, by this time, was decidedly not en rapport. Without attempting an explanation, which we are in no way qualified to give, we simply note that the Valleyites who heard their parents discuss the feud predominantly favor Hutchings.
To hear of a quarrel, especially one in which he may not have been one hundred per cent right, makes the famous naturalist seem more human. We honor him as the greatest exponent of the valley. His untiring efforts in its behalf were of two sorts: an unshakeable determination to preserve the alpine sublimity of the high mountain area by having it set aside as a national park (only one, Yellowstone, having preceded it in attaining that status) and an equal determination to prove the glacial origin of Yosemite. The State Geological Survey under the direction of J. D. Whitney did not subscribe to this theory having decided that in some terrific convulsion of nature the bottom of the gorge had simply fallen out. But Muir’s ability to be everywhere and to see everything that pertained to the area, even at continued risk of his life, combined with his meticulous field notes, finally convinced the scientists. We also honor John Muir as the man whose personality and eloquence persuaded the governor, the president of the nation and others in positions of prominence to use their influence toward the preservation of the magnificent country surrounding Yosemite and, possibly most of all, we think of him as the gifted writer whose works make us feel the splendour of the mountains he loved. Yosemite pre served Muir’s name to posterity and John Muir performed a most devoted service to Yosemite.
The building of I,eidig’s Hotel in 1869 seems to have been Jim I,amon’s idea. The land he homesteaded was no longer his. “By the goblins,” he told his partner with his favorite expletive, “you’d better get yourself a hotel for tourists.” So it was erected at the foot of Sentinel Rock—farther west than any of the valley inns— and ran for over twenty years. About the same time Leidig put up a cabin north of the river in the woods at the edge of Leidig’s Meadow where the family lived in the winter when there were no travelers.
While the epidemic of construction lasted A. G. Black tore down historic but unprepossessing Lower Hotel and put up Black’s Hotel on the same site, where it remained until 1888. And, in a perfect eruption of hostelries, Charles Peregoy built Mountain View House on Bridal Veil Creek about four miles above the falls on the Mariposa-Yosemite Trail. Practically all dates for early Yosemite construction can be found in Hutchings’ two books.
Now that they had provided accommodation for the tourists the people of the valley took thought to render the noted landmarks more accessible. In 1870 Albert Snow built a much-needed trail to Vernal and Nevada Fall, giving visitors their first easy view of the two great falls of the Merced River. Harriet Kirtland recounted that in 1857 the men of her party had worked, standing in icy water to their chests, trying to make a safe crossing over the river so that the women might ascend the stream and see Vernal Falls. At first they failed, but succeeded on the second day in felling a tree across the current on which everyone crossed. She added that some of the men had then gone on to see Nevada Fall which, up to that time, but two women had visited. From other sources we learned that the first woman to do so had been Mrs. John Neal. Frances Pool (now Emerald Pool) was named for her. According to the Mariposa Democrat, August 5, 1856, Madame Gautier, hostess of the Union Hotel in Mariposa, was the second woman to make the trip. Lady Franklin, wife of the Arctic explorer, for whom was named Lady Franklin Rock beside the trail, did not visit the falls until 1861. Even after Snow had constructed the trail it was so narrow that it was customary for the afternoon party to wait at this rock until the group which had gone up in the morning came back. Through the years three trusted guides, Sol White, John Murphy and Nathan Pike, became fixtures in the valley and it was a brave tourist who disobeyed their mandates.
Before reaching the first view of Vernal Fall the climber of the ’60s and ’70s passed Register Rock where were painted names of previous passers-by. Sometimes John McPeters sat by the trail with brush and paint and charged for this service. After the first view the climber arrived at the foot of “the ladders” where Snow had contrived a steep ascent. Underneath a large overhanging rock was a shack where a toll keeper slept, ate and separated tourists from 75¢ apiece.
Snow’s hotel, Casa Nevada, was built in full view of the magnificently overwhelming Nevada Fall. “As near the base of the Fall as the Fall will let it stand—in fact,” said H. H., “so near that in some winds half the piazza is drenched with spray.”
Hutchings had meanwhile built a house for his family on the sunny north side of the valley. Yosemite Creek splits into three parts at the base of the falls and their cabin poised at the very edge of the most easterly branch. Back of the cabin he planted an apple orchard which still bears lustily. Back of the orchard, and also on the creek (probably under the first cottonwood trees) was the cabin of which John Muir was so proud and, still farther up the creek (definitely under a couple of frowsly old cottonwoods) was the sawmill. The sawdust is now overgrown with hop vines gone wild and spaced with vigorous young cedars.
Hutchings’ cabin was across the Merced River and the width of the valley from his hotel. The two were connected by a board walk laid across the meadow starred with evening primrose and by a sturdy log bridge placed about as Sentinel Bridge is now. Bridge and walk were free to all. To give his hotel guests a better view of Yosemite Falls Hutchings cleared a lane through the trees on the north side that focussed directly on them. Many a camera enthusiast takes advantage of it today with no knowledge whatsoever of the kindly and visionary man who made it possible. As the hotel needed more room he added a lean-to, which encircled a giant cedar, on the right rear of Hutchings House. Soon the whole building was known as Cedar Cottage. The tree still stands and bears the slanting mark of the roof. The lean-to was large and became the gathering room of the vicinity. All dignitaries were entertained here; parties given; funerals held. Hutchings himself was laid out in it for burial in October of 1902 and a picture showing the coffin exists at the museum. It also shows a crude electric light globe which served to correct an error in the date of his death—first given as the year before electricity came to this cliff-bound and sometimes snow-bound community.
A cable ferry was installed in ’71 by Ira B. Folsom. It was on a distinct curve in the river, about one-half mile west of the foot of the Four Mile Trail, where the Merced most closely approaches the south cliffs. The place is marked on old maps as Ferry Bend and, during the low water of early autumn, one can see the dead trunks of trees swept down during flood season and dropped at this relatively slack stretch. Later Folsom built a toll bridge not more than fifty feet up from the old ford at the mouth of Eagle Creek. The approach to the ford cuts down through a high bank on the north side; the bridge took advantage of its elevation in order to keep above high water when, of course, the ford was impassable. A convenient pine tree plainly shows cable marks about six inches up from the ground. This was the bridge used by the excited crowd of 500 people at the opening festivities of the Big Oak Flat Road.
Bridges were extremely handy articles during a great part of the year but visitors in the dry season, who would have forded without question had the bridge never been built, couldn’t bear to do so in plain sight of such an easy crossing and complained bitterly: Charles Nordhoff wrote in 1875:
“Moreover, abuses are creeping in already. A lease has been granted to a person who has bridged the Merced River, and charges fifty cents per head to all who choose to pass over it—which you need not do.”
Sometime before the winter of 1866-67 a bridge for saddle horses had been thrown across the Merced River near the present Pohono Bridge and another one above Vernal Fall but they lasted a disappointingly short time and went booming down the river in the high water of ’67-’68. The incomparable viewpoints of Yosemite were not attained easily.
In the same year, 1871, that Folsom built his ferry Charles Peregoy erected a tiny inn on the top of Glacier Point. It took so long to get there and to get back that shelter was sometimes necessary. James McCauley decided to expedite matters and, still in the same year, hired John Conway who had superintended construction on the Zigzag to build what was, and is, called the Four Mile Trail. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote that it took eleven months to finish and cost $3000. The toll was $1.00 which she considered reasonable. At the time she went up McCauley was living “in a sort of pine-plank wigwam” with an American flag on top about half way along the trail at Union Point. However, his son, Jules McCauley, says that the trail-side shelter was probably for convenience in constructing or repairing the trail and that the family lived in the toll house just to the east of the foot of Four Mile Trail near the gigantic rock that has apparently fallen from the cliff. In 1878 McCauley built Mountain House at Glacier Point and it still stands.
It may be that these huge boulders at the foot of the trail are the result of a cataclysm of which John Muir wrote and about which Charles Leidig told: A tremendous earthquake shattered Sentinel Rock and sent a portion thundering down the cliff mowing trees like grass before a sickle. It bounded and burst; skidded and came to rest within a few hundred yards of Leidig’s Hotel. Impalpable dust filled the air like fog and took hours to settle after which the entire landscape seemed to have been whitewashed. It was possibly the next year that McCauley built his house among these titanic fragments.
Two uproarious festivals set the valley by the ears when, a month apart in 1874, the rival Coulterville and Big Oak Flat Roads made successful entries to the valley floor. Stages could now unload sightseers at the hotel doors—tired, yes, but probably with a nominal amount of bruises and able to dine comfortably from a table. In this year the State of California commenced to get the park affairs in order and business enterprises which had been in a rather anomalous position began to be run as concessions of the government. The Wawona Road was completed the following season so that the old Mono Trail pack-route was practically abandoned southwest of the park and travel arrived easily. A measure of prosperity arrived also. The Sentinel Hotel was built, squeezed in between River Cottage and the bridge and opposite Hutchings House. This was the stopping place remembered so affectionately by our parents and grandparents and was managed for about twelve years by J. K. Barnard. The stretch lying west of Sentinel Bridge, now known as the “Old Village” was beginning to fill.
According to Charles Leidig life in the valley ran an accustomed routine: Summer and the tourists were undergone on the cool south side of the river; then came a glorious but short period of autumn with its crystal clear sky and flaming colors leading to the inevitable time when snow finally cut them off from outside help or contact and the resident families withdrew to their northside cabins. Excitement then centered around the coming of mail once a month. John Muir wrote to his sister:”12 “A grand event has occurred in our remote snow-bound Valley. Indian Tom13 has come from the lower open world with the mail . . .rdquo;
Mr. Lawrence Degnan told us that a cabin stood just below what is now Pohono Bridge—a tiny place but equipped with food, bed and a fireplace for the mail carrier and warm shelter for his horse. Sometimes he met the snow farther down the canyon but it was always possible for the knowing horse to keep on to the desired objective. In the morning the man went on alone into the valley with snowshoes. One of the last thrills of the fall season, so Mr. Degnan said, and especially so for the children, was the coming of the freighters with the winter supplies—great creaking wagons crammed with molasses, rice, beans, flour and other food that would keep the full six months that must elapse before the road would again be open.
The Leidigs, who ran a hotel before a single road came into the valley, bought their supplies from Taburg and Gulcher’s store in San Francisco and had them delivered by a pack train of from thirty to forty animals. Hooper and Jennings of the same city was another favorite firm. After the wagon roads were completed in ’74 and ’75, Charles Schmidt of Second Garrote freighted in with a jerkline bell-team of mules. He told his own story:
“Most of the supplies I hauled went to Black’s or Barnard’s Hotels or Angelo Cavagnaro’s general store. It used to take me five days to make the trip up into the valley and two days to come back with an empty wagon. That wasn’t bad time though. J. G. Skinner from Jacksonville brought fruit from the orchards around Knight’s Ferry and peddled it from there to Yosemite. He began his business in the ’70’s. It took him eleven days to make the round trip with four horses and a thoroughbrace wagon. James Ackerson brought in timothy hay from Ackerson Meadow. He drove his own four horse wagon. Unless it rained the freight teamsters threw their blankets on the ground and slept wherever night caught them.”
During the open season Chinese brought eggs from outlying ranches in bobbing baskets slung at either end of carrying poles.
Mosquitoes were an almost unendurable pest. During the spring months of melting snow when they were at their unspeakable worst, the Leidigs built smoking fires and pulled their beds as close to them as possible. After the local snow had gone melting drifts in the high Sierra often flooded the meadows making it impossible to pasture the stock or even to cross the valley. Bridges (when at last they came) were most welcome. By the month of June most of the adult population were busy again with duties centering around the entertainment of sightseers, starred now and then by a visitor of distinction.
The large Leidig family, scrubbed painfully, were sent out to feast their infant eyes on ex-president Grant and returned disillusioned to tell Isabel that there was nothing on the porch except men. Four or five Indian villages under the cliffs made the valley Indians a part of everyday life. Charles Leidig played with them as a child and his remembrances are supplemented by those of Eunice Watson Fisher whose father found work in the valley and brought his family there to live when she was small. Eunice and her brother made the descent down the Big Oak Flat Trail tied in saddle bags and hanging on either side of a steady pony. The small Indians were good companions. Dolls made of bundles of sticks amused the girls. They played “rancheree” with forked sticks for people, acorns for bear and pebbles of assorted sizes and shapes for cattle, horses and sheep. Boys made traps and other more or less workable gadgets, ran and swam.
It is worth noting that, although the name for an Indian village is almost always spelled “rancheria” as designated by the Spaniards who first had occasion to write the word, it was seldom pronounced, by anyone familiar with Indian customs and conversation, anything but “rancheree.” Eccleston spells it “rancheri.”
The rancheria nearest to Leidig’s Hotel was strung out along the base of the south cliff from Sentinel Rock eastward; the village nearest their winter cabin was under the sunny cliff just east of the Three Brothers where the modern Indian village may be found today. There was also one at the foot of Indian Canyon and one near Hutchings House.
Young Charles often watched the Indian women with their babies. In the early morning each mother bound her infant’s arms and legs lightly so that it lay wrapped like a mummy. Then she placed it in the specially shaped papoose basket; secured the baby carefully and swung it to her back where it hung whenever she left the village. On grasshopper drives, car i-ying home the game the men had killed, traveling over the mountains, in almost every activity the baby was a passive spectator but always facing the rear. Like the much-quoted goofy bird who flew backwards, he only knew where he had been. Charles spent many idle moments trying to coax a smile from these taper-eyed infants and says that he was never successful. An Indian baby was born solemn.
But, at the end of the day, the mother gently loosened her tiny papoose; waited while it squirmed and stretched and then bathed it with icy water from the creek. The baby shrunk spasmodically as the cold splashings struck its body but never whimpered. If a child was more than a year old the mother was apt cautiously to lower it into a pool and take her hands away, for these children of nature could often swim as soon as they could walk. From the evening bath to the coming of the dark it was loved and fondled and slept against its mother’s breast.
Isabel Leidig, who had through the years eleven children of her own, was especially kind and patient with the small Indians. She had such simple home remedies as were available and was always willing to share them. They learned to go to her for help. A young lad, half Indian, half white whose name was Sam Wells, came to her one day with his foot swelling rapidly from a rattlesnake bite. It happened that a cow had just calved and the first milking stood nearby in a bucket simply because they had not as yet thrown it away. The ingenious woman heated the milk and placed the boy’s foot in it, keeping it the right temperature by dropping in hot rocks. Either because of, or in spite of, the treatment the lad recovered and became devoted to her, always calling her “Grandmama.” The Mariposa Gazette of June 8, 1867, credited his recovery entirely to incredible quantities of straight brandy.
Sometime after this incident the Bull Creek Indians, a tribe of mixed blood living along the Coulterville Road, decided to make war on the nondescript Indian villages in the valley. It was not difficult to imagine that the white families would be in trouble once the war paint was on. Sam Wells was now sixteen. Fred Leidig was in San Francisco buying supplies so Sam warned Isabel of the danger and advised her to take her children and make camp under a rock near the foot of the Four Mile Trail; he also promised modestly that he would do what he could to turn them back. As Leidig’s Hotel on the south side and their cabin north of the river were the most westerly houses in the valley and would be the first in the path of the marauding Indians, Isabel followed his advice. With her children huddled beside her she held vigil under the rock for several nights and nothing happened so she shrugged it off and moved back into her house. Investigation disclosed that Sam had taken an old rifle with what ammunition he possessed; had gone down to the Big Meadows on the Coulterville Road and concealed himself in a hollow log. The Bull Creek Indians came along on schedule but Sam Wells banged away so efficiently that they lost the carefree spirit of battle with which they had started and went home. They carried their dead with them. Sam was a good shot. The story goes that they carried eleven. It has probably grown with the years. At any rate they left Sam just where they killed him when his ammunition ran out.
There was, Charles Leidig told us, about one-half mile west of the rocky bluff near El Portal, an old and respected Indian chief who lived high up on a bluff. About moo feet below him lived his son. Every day they communicated in sign language but no one was allowed to approach the upper ledge where the old man stayed alone. Boylike, Charles disregarded the embargo and, one day, climbed the cliff. The chief patted him on the head and after that he went several times to sit in companionable silence and to admire the unerring skill with which the old Indian could shoot an arrow straight up into the air and have it come to earth near his feet. The boy was fascinated by the success of the chief’s clever quail trap. By following a trail of dropped grain, the quail were lured into a long, narrow passage leading to a compartment of coarsely woven reeds. They squeezed along with heads down, pecking at the seeds. When they emerged into the box-like compartment the seeds disappeared and their heads went up to look around. Never again could they find the low passageway out. This provided quail dinners with no expenditure of effort.
As an Indian grew older he did not usually care for effort. Oh he would, so Mr. Leidig said, load the firewood on his squaw’s back, if he had one, and pull her to her feet. Otherwise she never could have risen. He would even start her toward camp with an unbegrudged kick. But, as a regular thing, an old buck did little more than breathe for himself and only ate what his wife handed him. The young men kept themselves occupied. They fished daily and sold trout and “dog salmon” to the hotels. In past years they had, Mr. Leidig told us, stocked the waters of Yosemite with trout, bringing them alive in baskets from the upper watercourses and moving them quickly from stream to stream.
To catch ground squirrels the Indian women turned snow rivulets into one end of their underground runs, making a strainer of a fiat cedar bough so that dirt wouldn’t wash in. Then they sat patiently with sharpened sticks at the other opening of each run, where the little animals would have to emerge, and speared them. To prepare a squirrel for cooking they removed the bladder and gall bladder and wrapped the rest, au naturel, in wet grass. This bundle they coated thickly with mud and placed under a bed of coals. Spouts of steam showed that it was still cooking pleasantly. When the steam ceased they dug it out, cracked off the mud, peeled off the grass and loosened the skin at the head. One skillful pull and the cook had skin and entrails in one hand and clean white meat in the other.
The social slip during which the Indians of the Mono country had wiped out their friends the Yosemites had not interfered for long with the visiting proclivities of the former. At least once a year they descended on the villages which housed the hybrid successors to the Yosemites. By the time that Mr. Leidig knew them the Monos respectably wore overalls. Out of them their broad, separate-toed feet hung like bell-clappers on either side of their bony horses. They begged horribly of any white person but had come particularly for acorns, apples and wild pigeons. The acorn-bearing black oaks were mainly in the west end of the valley so the local villages set up a deadline, Yosemite Creek, and insisted that the Monos stay up by Mirror Lake unless invited down to visit.
There was a large “sweat-house” a half mile down the river from Leidig’s Hotel which would have located it close to Ferry Bend. It was at the edge of the current—a pit roofed with a dome-like mound made of poles and bark. The squaws spread mud over this and then thickly coated it with earth. A small fire heated it to an almost unbearable temperature and in it the braves steamed until red hot, then ran quickly to the bank and plunged into the swift river only a few miles from its glacial-ice beginnings on the peaks. Therapeutically this was considered sound practice by western Indians but, in the case of the diphtheria epidemic that raged through the Southern Mines, it was usually fatal; so that, when the measles broke out, Galen Clark (at that time Guardian of the Valley) put a complete stop to the custom with but little opposition. Meanwhile the sweat house was a suitable place to entertain various brown-skinned dignitaries. They omitted the icy plunge but could work up quite a festivity by smoking “Indian tobacco” in little wooden pipes. A few puffs, said Mr. Leidig, “made ’em like crazy chickens.”
The Monos were not the only tribe who came to visit and to trade. The Mariposa and Chowchilla tribes, the Bull Creek, Bear Creek and Big Creek Indians all came. The latter being none other than the residents of the Deer Flat rancheria near Big Oak Flat. Many of the Indians contracted tuberculosis from the whites and, when this happened, they gave up all activity and sat chanting “Chum-ha, chum-ha,” meaning I am ready to die. And death usually arrived promptly. Young Charles saw the last ceremonial burning that took place in the valley. The funeral pyre was between their hotel and the river but he was not sure that the cremations always took place at the same spot.
The funeral customs of the Yosemites, especially in later days, were different from those of the Miwoks. We are indebted to Mr. Sell of Ahwahnee, Madera County, for his remembrance of a “cry” that he attended which lasted several days. A large quantity of food, including a whole steer, was provided and all the mourners with their numerous children slept and ate in the dwelling of the deceased’s family. The crying, or wailing, took place at stated times, especially when the body was removed from the house. After final disposition had been made of it the mourners were taken outside and water poured on their hands and heads to “wash away the memory,” after which they settled down to games of various sorts as long as the food lasted. This reaction was also far removed from that of the Monos who burned their dead; mixed pitch with their ashes and smeared their head and arms with the horrible concoction. As a widow was exempt from labor as long as evidences of the pitch remained, no effort was made to remove it and the black gummy mixture often remained in the hair for months.
It was necessary in old Yosemite to take thought ahead for one’s family and also, so Isabel Leidig believed, for one’s neighbors. In order to have clothes Isabel kept a dressmaker by the year. To have a school she, at first, kept the teacher, May Anderson. The earliest schoolhouse was only a few yards from their hotel and almost within the uncertain bounds of the small rancheria against the cliff. It had about twenty-five pupils. The little Indians were welcome although no real effort was made to stimulate their interest. Anything that they cared about they learned easily enough. One bright small boy came at the beginning of each year and stayed until he had seen all the pictures in the text books when he absented himself until more pictures were produced at the beginning of the next term.
The chapel, now at the old village, was first situated right next to the school. It was built in 1879 by the Sunday School Union and was later moved to its present location where it has the honor of being the oldest building left on the valley floor. The bell was donated by Mr. H. D. Bacon of Oakland. The organ by Miss Mary Porter of Philadelphia in memory of Florence Hutchings.14
Times changed. The park authorities began to be more and more conscious that the public had a right to see the wonders of a state park and to return home in a state of pocket book enviably short of stony broke. The land that had been James Lamon’s was leased to Mr. A. Harris who managed it as a camp ground and sold supplies to campers from the first real store. Something was done about flood control; obstructing boulders in the river were blasted out and the old El Capitan Iron Bridge was built in 1879.
The year 1884 was marked by the arrival of John and Bridget Degnan with three small children. John maintained a dairy herd and Bridget, to fill a crying need, tried her hand at baking bread and providing meals for travelers. Her equipment was simple— just a Dutch oven and an open fireplace, but Bridget was a natural cook and business woman and the public appreciated what she offered. The business she started so simply grew steadily; so did the family; and the one is still managed by the other at the same site in the old village.
In the ’80s Mr. Angelo Cavagnaro also founded a store that was destined to be a part of valley history and, quoting J. M. Hutchings, had on hand “almost any article that may be desired, from a box of paper collars to a side of bacon.”15
Mr. Lawrence Degnan remembers the terrible winter of 1889-90 when his father, who was working for the park, shoveled snow from the stable roofs both day and night in a successful effort to keep them from caving in on the animals. Meanwhile his own stout little house was buried completely under fourteen feet of snow and the children were agog with excitement at having candles in the daytime.
About this time Stoneman Hotel was built at what is now Camp Curry with $40,000 of government money. It was leased to J. J. Cook and a comprehensive gesture was made to get rid of the privately built concerns that had served the public in past years. Leidig’s and Black’s Hotels were ordered torn down by the board of park commissioners. Stoneman Hotel lasted eight years and burned to the ground; some say because green lumber was used and its shrinkage caused a fault in the chimney.
In 1890, to the great joy of the valley dwellers, the high mountain area surrounding them was created a national park.16 True the valley which was its nucleus remained a state park for a disturbed period of fifteen years until the necessary legislation had undergone its tedious course when it was receded to the national government. The government accepted it with due formality in 1906 and thus one of the wonderlands of the continent was placed safely under the nation’s wing. The next year after the national park came into being, 1891, began the period of Army control. For awhile headquarters was at Camp A. E. Wood (now Wawona) but was moved into the valley on August 1, 1906, by Major (later Colonel) H. C. Benson.
Charles Leidig remembers the coming of the 14th Cavalry on their tired black horses. They were quartered at Fort Yosemite where Yosemite Lodge now is. In fact the lodge is nothing but the barrack buildings pushed together. The employees’ cottages now across the road from the gas station were then the officers’ homes and were never called anything but “soapsuds row.” The horses were exercised in beautiful Leidig’s Meadow. Fred Leidig had borrowed a bull team from Wawona; grubbed out the willows and planted rye. Its green expanse waving in a soft breeze is lovely and a perfect complement to the rugged cliffs. Toward the western end may be seen the small circle surrounded by the larger oval where the horses were put through their paces by men in uniform with flashing swords.
With the cavalry Gabriel Sovulewski came as supply sergeant and remained until his death. Like Hutchings, Galen Clark and certain of the old guides, he identified himself with the area that he loved and never left it. He moved his family into Hutchings’ old cabin and later rebuilt it. Superintendents came and went but, between times, Mr. Sovulewski acted in their stead and, at all times, kept the mechanics of the park operating smoothly.
In 1899 David A. Curry founded the famous “Camp” that bears his name. He arrived in his beloved valley, where he was to be so impressive a figure, in time to see the turn of the century. Many can remember his powerful voice signaling each night to Glacier Point 3000 feet above him “LET THE FIRE FALL.” He was an unforgettable character and a host par excellence.
The firefall consists of glowing embers from a huge pile of bark fragments which are ignited several hours in advance. At a given signal they are pushed over the edge of the precipice in an even stream of fire falling several hundred feet down the night-shrouded cliff. The spectacle, which nightly holds thousands spellbound and is the spectacular climax to each day of wonder in the park was originated by James McCauley. Just once it was tried from the north cliff and started a conflagration which burned for several days and endangered nearby property.
Theodore Roosevelt came to the park in 1903. If Mr. Leidig remembers the coming of the cavalry, how much more does he remember each day and hour of this visit! The president wished to camp and for three days Charles Leidig was guide, cook and companion—a memorable and prideful experience.
But few landmarks survived into the new century. The hotels had been torn down. Lamon’s cabin was razed. Even Register Rock was painted over by order of Major Benson. The old village was built up solidly, tapering off to the west with a row of studios where famous painters and widely known photographers had their headquarters. Among them were J. T. Boysen, George Fiske and Harry Cassie Best with his sweet and beautiful wife. Major Benson’s home was included in this row. Chris Jorgensen the artist, lived elsewhere in the park. The center of interest had moved eastward from the area around the foot of the Four Mile Trail which had for years included three resorts and Galen Clark’s headquarters as Guardian of the Park.
At the beginning of the new century arrived the automobile with whose advent this intimate chronicle ends. The mountain miles leading to Yosemite were a continual challenge to the more daring drivers, but as yet Yosemite National Park was a stronghold into which the horseless carriage might not legally venture.
But just they same they came.
A. E. and F. H. Holmes of San Jose drove their Stanley Steamer over the Wawona Road in July of 1900 and are acknowledged to have brought the first car into the valley. Mr. Lippincott and son claimed the honor via another road. The museum has a picture of the peculiar appearing vehicle and also of a couple of Locomobiles with their occupants, the first who came by way of the Big Oak Flat Road, in 1901. All three cars made the trip under their own power. Celia Crocker Thompson photographed the Locomobiles as they stopped at Crocker’s Station and says that, having reached that point, they were allowed to go on as the lesser of two evils but that they were fined and “immobilized” upon reaching the valley floor.
It was, of course, a useless gesture. The response of the traveling public to faster transportation was so swift and complete that the hotels and camps where automobiles might not come felt the drop off in custom. The Yosemite Valley Railroad which was completed in 1907 helped the valley but the freight business immediately slumped on the upper roads. Of all the miles that had reechoed to the creaking, pounding and clanking of the great wagons only the section of road between the railway terminus at El Portal and the valley hotels lay under a perpetual cloud of dust raised by the freighters and the big horse-drawn carryalls that brought goods and passengers from the train to their objectives under the shadow of El Capitan.
In a great measure through the efforts of Senator John B. Curtin, the law was changed and motorists were permitted to enter and to spend their money in the park. In 1913 the big carryalls began legally to be crowded off the road by sizzling and snorting little cars arriving by way of the Wawona route. The horses lived through the shock and even began to get used to the process. Motor stages appeared; the Indians, balanced happily on running boards, rode free. In the next year automobiles were permitted on the Big Oak Flat Road and the Coulterville Road. They even swarmed up the Zigzag and the conquest of the park by gasoline was complete.
For a quarter of a century the old roads deteriorated while a new low-level highway up the Merced River in time replaced even the railroad, causing it to be abandoned in 1945. When the need became desperate, the Park, in 1940, constructed the fine highway from Crane Flat down to the valley floor, eliminating the difficult Zigzag section and enabling travelers to enjoy the fascinating country through which the old freight road had wormed its way— mile after mile, year after year—and, at the last steep descent, to enjoy safe conduct down the mountain.
The Big Oak Flat Road at last combines comfort with its beauty. Still the shortest way to Stockton, San Francisco and all of Northern California, thousands of visitors either enter Yosemite or leave through its historic vistas. To thousands the name is synonymous with adventure, excitement, youth. To some it spells the uplift of anticipated vacationing; to others the deep-seated love of childhood home. It is a part of early California, landmarked with century-old houses and still traveled by many of the original families. It has character and authenticity, an individuality all its own.
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