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Next: 7. Discovery of YosemiteContentsPrevious: 5. Hornitos and Coulterville

The Call of Gold (1936) by Newell D. Chamberlain


In 1849, James D. Savage, who had been a member of Fremont’s force in the conquest of California, established a store built of logs, on the south fork of the Merced River, close to its junction with the main river, and there he engaged in trading and mining.

He had worked his way farther up into the mountains than most other white men, through the help of the Indians, whose language he could speak. For protection and influence, he married a number of squaws, from different tribes, one of whom was the daughter of Ten-ie-ya, the great chief of the Yosemite tribe. An eye-witness to this Indian ceremony of marriage, said, “her skin was the color of smoked parchment and her nose was of the pancake order, her eyes looked as if they had been scooped out with a soup ladle and the cavity filled with glass marbles and her lips resembled two small logs, somewhat discolored by fire.”

Savage taught the Indians how to pan for gold. They had never before known its value, although they had seen it everywhere in the beds of streams. Fish, meat, acorns, worms, hides, and flint had been the only things of value in their lives until then. He gave them clothing, beans and flour, and taught them their use, in exchange for the gold which they brought in. It took the Indians a long time to learn how to cook beans. Horse meat was their most cherished food.

Everything went along smoothly at first, but soon the Indians showed signs of discontent in having to work for what they wanted. They preferred to roam and visit other tribes and horses were their great temptation.

Savage gave them very little in exchange for their gold, so they started to plunder, as this seemed the quickest way to satisfy their newly acquired desires. In the Spring of 1850, after a hostile attack by members of the Yosemite tribe, Savage and a number of his Indian miners, worked their way up the rocky canyon of the Merced as far as Cascade Falls, about two and a half miles from Yosemite Valley, endeavoring to locate the stronghold of the marauders. Seeing ahead an almost impenetrable retreat and fearing ambush, he returned and decided to move his store of goods. Accordingly, he established a new location for his main store, near the junction of Agua Fria and Mariposa Creeks, about six miles southwest of Mariposa, and a branch store on the Fresno River.

Deciding to show the Indians the strength of the whites, without revealing his motive, Savage invited one of the influential Indian chiefs, Jose Jerez, to accompany him on a purchasing trip to San Francisco. Two of Savage’s wives, Eekino and Homut, also went along. A general jubilee was in progress, celebrating the admission of California as a State. The Indian chief became drunk, and, on one occassion, it was necessary for Savage to knock him down, for which humiliation, he secretly vowed revenge.

On returning, Jose called his tribe together to a big feed, when it was decided to send a messenger to the chiefs of the neighboring tribes, calling together a council of chiefs, to be held in the hollow of the forked yellow pines. At this council, he gave an account of his trip to San Francisco, where everybody talked gold, gold, gold. He said, “The whites in the city are numerous but the tribe there are not like the tribe that hunts gold in the mountains. They will not come to the mountains. They will not help the gold-diggers. If the gold-diggers go to the white tribe in the big village, they give their gold for strong water and games. When the gold is gone, the whites there drive the gold-diggers back to the mountains with clubs. All the country belongs to the Indians. The white tribes will not go to war with the Indians in the mountains. They cannot bring their ships and big guns to us. We have no cause to fear them. If the tribes of Indians will unite, the whole tribe of gold-diggers could easily be driven out. But, if the gold-diggers increase, it might be too many and the Indians would be destroyed.” It was agreed to drive out or kill the whites and appropriate their horses and provisions.

The Indians became bolder; marauding and stealing increased. Lone travelers were killed and their mules, horses and provisions stolen by Indians lurking behind rocks and trees. In November, 1850, Savage’s branch store was raided and his clerk, Greeley, and two men were killed. Shortly afterwards, the Agua Fria store was plundered and burned. Savage’s wives were spirited away. A volunteer Company was formed, which afterwards became known as the Mariposa Battalion, by decree of Governor MacDougal. Savage was elected Major and John J. Kuykendall, John Boling and William Dill, Captains.

Savage strongly advised the Indians to live in peace with the whites and told them that, with very little labor daily, they could procure sufficient gold to purchase their clothing and food. To this, one of the chiefs replied that panning for gold was a hard way to get a living and that they could more easily supply their wants by stealing from the whites.

Major Savage and the other leaders became convinced that the only way to get the Indians to terms was to fight them, saying that it would be ridiculous to make a solemn treaty, without first chastising them and then bringing them to terms by means of their fears; that, otherwise, a treaty would be worth just about as much as a rope of sand because they would violate it as soon as opportunity for plunder and murder offered itself.

So, in January, 1851, Major Savage, with a party of sixty men, started from Mariposa in pursuit of troublesome Indians. A correspondent of the “Daily Alta California”, after a personal interview, wrote; “Savage is a man possessing more than ordinary intelligence and shrewdness. He is about twenty-eight years old and remarkable for his energy of character and whole-hearted generosity. He is from Illinois, where he went to school until he was fourteen, when he became a mountaineer and lived several years among the Sacs and Foxes and other Indians. Five or six years ago, he came to California, where he has lived mostly among the Indians, over whom he has had the control of a chief, until recently. He speaks five Indian tongues, besides German, French,

Chinese mining on Mariposa Creek, 1867
[click to enlarge]
Chinese mining on Mariposa Creek, 1867.

Spanish and English. His uniform, when he left Mariposa, was a tattered coat, corduroy pants, tarpaulin hat, horsehair beard and a buffalo hair mustachio. The Indians know him and he would stand a poor chance, if not disguised.”

In the mountains, near the head of the San Joaquin River, the whites became confident that they were very close on the Indians, so it was thought advisable to camp and maneuver with caution and system. Before camp was established, innumerable arrows came whizzing about with unprecedented velocity but no serious fighting occurred that evening. At dawn of day, however, the Indians commenced their attack in their own style of fighting, from behind rocks and trees and the battle continued until about three in the afternoon, when the Indians made a general retreat, leaving behind about forty dead warriors. The whites succeeded in capturing over one hundred head of horses and mules, which they brought to Mariposa. There were no whites killed, but several were wounded.

After a number of such battles, the Indians were greatly checked in their career of murder and robbery, and several of the tribes signified their willingness to sign a treaty of peace with the Indian Commissioners and be removed to a reservation. Captain Boling, on the eve of an expected battle, in his endeavor to exhort his men to do their duty, spoke as follows: “Gentlemen - hem - fellow citizens - hem - soldiers - hem - fellow volunteers -”, then tremblingly and after a long pause, he broke out with a laugh and said, “Boys, I will only say in conclusion that I hope I will fight better than I speak.”

One of the tribes, however, stated that they did not wish for peace, but felt secure in their deep grassy valley, where one Indian was more than ten white men. The campaign against this tribe resulted in the discovery and naming of Yosemite Valley.

Next: 7. Discovery of YosemiteContentsPrevious: 5. Hornitos and Coulterville

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