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Naming the Valley—Signification and Origin of the Word—Its proper Pronunciation: Yo-sem-i-ty—Mr. Hutchings and Yo-Ham-i-te—His Restoration of Yo-sem-i-te.

My devout astonishment at the supreme grandeur of the scenery by which I was surrounded, continued to engross my mind. The warmth of the fires and preparations for supper, however, awakened in me other sensations, which rapidly dissipated my excitement. As we rode up, Major Savage remarked to Capt. Boling, “We had better move on up, and hunt out the “Grizzlies” before we go into camp for the night. We shall yet have considerable time to look about this hole before dark.” Captain Boling then reported that the young guide had halted here, and poured out a volley of Indian lingo which no one could understand, and had given a negative shake of his head when the course was pointed out, and signs were made for him to move on. The Captain, not comprehending this performance, had followed the trail of the Indians to the bank of the stream near by, but had not ventured further, thinking it best to wait for Major Savage to come up. After a few inquiries, the Major said there was a ford below, where the Indians crossed the Merced; and that he would go with the guide and examine it. Major Savage and Captains Boling and Dill then started down to the crossing. They soon returned, and we were ordered to arrange our camp for the night. Captain Boling said the Merced was too high to ford. The river had swollen during the day from the melting of the snow, but would fall again by morning.

The guide had told the Major there was no other way up the valley, as it was impossible to pass the rocks on the south side of the stream. From this, it was evident the Major had never before seen the valley, and upon inquiry, said so. One of our best men, Tunnehill, who had been listening to what the Captain was saying, very positively remarked: “I have long since learned to discredit everything told by an Indian. I never knew one to tell the truth. This imp of Satan has been lying to the Major, and to me his object is very transparent. He knows a better ford than the one below us.” A comrade laughingly observed: “Perhaps you can find it for the Major, and help him give us an evening ride; I have had all the exercise I need to-day, and feel as hungry as a wolf.” Without a reply, Tunnehill mounted his little black mule and left at a gallop. He returned in a short time, at the same rapid gate, but was in a sorry plight. The mule and rider had unexpectedly taken a plunge bath in the ice-cold waters of the Merced. As such mishaps excited but little sympathy, Tunnehill was greeted with: “Hallo! what’s the matter, comrade?” “Where do you get your washing done?” “Been trying to cool off that frisky animal, have you?” “Old Ten-ie-ya’s Cañon is not in as hot a place as we supposed, is it?” “How about the reliability of the Indian race?” To all these bantering jokes, though in an uncomfortable plight, Tunnehill, with great good nature, replied: “I am all right! I believe in orthodox immersion, but this kind of baptism has only confirmed me in previous convictions.” The shivering mule was rubbed, blanketed, and provided for, before his master attended to his own comfort, and then we learned that, in his attempt to explore a way across the Merced, his mule was swept off its feet, and both were carried for some distance down the raging torrent.

(630 feet in height.)
After supper, guards stationed, and the camp fires plentifully provided for, we gathered around the burning logs of oak and pine, found near our camp. The hearty supper and cheerful blaze created a general good feeling. Social converse and anecdotes—mingled with jokes—were freely exchanged, as we enjoyed the solace of our pipes and warmed ourselves preparatory to seeking further refreshment in sleep. While thus engaged, I retained a full consciousness of our locality; for being in close proximity to the huge cliff that had so attracted my attention, my mind was frequently drawn away from my comrades. After the jollity of the camp had somewhat subsided, the valley became the topic of conversation around our camp fire. None of us at that time, surmised the extreme vastness of those cliffs; although before dark, we had seen El Capitan looking down upon our camp, while the “Bridal Veil” was being wafted in the breeze. Many of us felt the mysterious grandeur of the scenery, as defined by our limited opportunity to study it. I had—previous to my descent with the Major—observed the towering height above us of the old “Rock Chief,” and noticing the length of the steep descent into the valley, had at least some idea of its solemn immensity.

It may appear sentimental, but the coarse jokes of the careless, and the indifference of the practical, sensibly jarred my more devout feelings, while this subject was a matter of general conversation; as if a sacred subject had been ruthlessly profaned, or the visible power of Deity disregarded. After relating my observations from the “Old Bear Valley Trail,” I suggested that this valley should have an appropriate name by which to designate it, and in a tone of pleasantry, said to Tunnehill, who was drying his wet clothing by our fire, “You are the first white man that ever received any form of baptism in this valley, and you should be considered the proper person to give a baptismal name to the valley itself.” He replied, “If whisky can be provided for such a ceremony, I shall be happy to participate; but if it is to be another cold water affair, I have no desire to take a hand. I have done enough in that line for tonight.” Timely jokes and ready repartee for a time changed the subject, but in the lull of this exciting pastime, some one remarked, “I like Bunnell’s suggestion of giving this valley a name, and to-night is a good time to do it.” “All right—if you have got one, show your hand,” was the response of another. Different names were proposed, but none were satisfactory to a majority of our circle. Some romantic and foreign names were offered, but I observed that a very large number were canonical and Scripture names. From this I inferred that I was not the only one in whom religious emotions or thoughts had been aroused by the mysterious power of the surrounding scenery.

As I did not take a fancy to any of the names proposed, I remarked that “an American name would be the most appropriate;” that “I could not see any necessity for going to a foreign country for a name for American scenery—the grandest that had ever yet been looked upon. That it would be better to give it an Indian name than to import a strange and inexpressive one; that the name of the tribe who had occupied it, would be more appropriate than any I had heard suggested.” I then proposed “that we give the valley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return, would be perpetuated.” I was here interrupted by Mr. Tunnehill, who impatiently exclaimed: “Devil take the Indians and their names! Why should we honor these vagabond murderers by perpetuating their name?” Another said: “I agree with Tunnehill;—the Indians and their names. Mad Anthony’s plan for me! Let’s call this Paradise Valley.” In reply, I said to the last speaker, “Still, for a young man with such religious tendencies they would be good objects on which to develop your Christianity.” Unexpectedly, a hearty laugh was raised, which broke up further discussion, and before opportunity was given for any others to object to the name, John O’Neal, a rollicking Texan of Capt. Boling’s company, vociferously announced to the whole camp the subject of our discussion, by saying, “Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! A vote will now be taken to decide what name shall be given to this valley.” The question of giving it the name of Yo-sem-i-ty was then explained; and upon a viva voce vote being taken, it was almost unanimously adopted. The name that was there and thus adopted by us, while seated around our camp fires, on the first visit of a white man to this remarkable locality, is the name by which it is now known to the world.

At the time I proposed this name, the signification of it (a grizzly bear) was not generally known to our battalion, although “the grizzlies” was frequently used to designate this tribe. Neither was it pronounced with uniformity. For a correct pronunciation, Major Savage was our best authority. He could speak the dialects of most of the mountain tribes in this part of California, but he confessed that he could not readily understand Ten-ie-ya, or the Indian guide, as they appeared to speak a Pai-ute jargon.

Major Savage checked the noisy demonstrations of our “Master of Ceremonies,” but approvingly participated in our proceedings, and told us that the name was Yo-sem-i-ty, as pronounced by Ten-ie-ya, or O-soom-i-ty, as pronounced by some other bands; and that it signified a full-grown grizzly bear. He further stated, that the name was given to old Ten-ie-ya’s band, because of their lawless and predatory character.

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

As I had observed that the different tribes in Mariposa County differed somewhat in the pronunciation of this name, I asked an explanation of the fact. With a smile and a look, as if he suspected I was quizzing him, the Major replied: “They only differ, as do the Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, or as in the different Shires of England; but you know well enough how similar in sound words may be of entirely different meaning, and how much depends on accent. I have found this to be the greatest difficulty a learner has to contend with.”

After the name had been decided upon, the Major narrated some of his experiences in the use of the general “sign language"—as a Rocky Mountain man—and his practice of it when he first came among the California Indians, until he had acquired their language. The Major regarded the Kah-we-ah, as the parent language of the San-Joaquin Valley Indians, while that in use by the other mountain tribes in their vicinity, were but so many dialects of Kah-we-ah, the Pai-ute and more Northern tribes. When we sought our repose, it was with feelings of quiet satisfaction that I wrapped myself in my blankets, and soundly slept.

I consider it proper, to digress somewhat from a regular narrative of the incidents of our expedition, to consider some matters relative to the name “Yosemity.” This was the form of orthography and pronunciation originally in use by our battalion. Lieutenant Moore, of the U.S.A. in his report of an expedition to the Valley in 1852, substituted e as the terminal letter, in place of y, in use by us; no doubt thinking the use of e more scholarly, or perhaps supposing Yosemite to be of Spanish derivation. This orthography has been adopted, and is in general use, but the proper pronunciation, as a consequence, is not always attainable to the general reader.

Sometime after the name had been adopted, I learned from Major Savage that Ten-ei-ya repudiated the name for the Valley, but proudly acknowledged it as the designation of his band, claiming that “when he was a young chief, this name had been selected because they occupied the mountains and valleys which were the favorite resort of the Grizzly Bears, and because his people were expert in killing them. That his tribe had adopted the name because those who had bestowed it were afraid of the ‘the Grizzlies’ and feared his band.”

It was traditionary with the other Indians, that the band to which the name Yosemite had been given, had originally been formed and was then composed of outlaws or refugees from other tribes. That nearly all were descendants of the neighboring tribes on both sides of “Kay-o-pha,” or “Skye Mountains;” the “High Sierras.”

Ten-ie-ya was asked concerning this tradition, and responded rather loftily: “I am the descendant of an Ah-wah-ne-chee chief. His people lived in the mountains and valley where my people have lived. The valley was then called Ah-wah-nee. Ah-wah-ne-chee signifies the dwellers in Ahwahnee.”

I afterwards learned the traditional history of Ten-ie-ya’s ancestors. His statement was to the effect, that the Ah-wah-ne-chees had many years ago been a large tribe, and lived in territory now claimed by him and his people. That by wars, and a fatal black-sickness (probably small-pox or measles), nearly all had been destroyed. The survivors of the band fled from the valley and joined other tribes. For years afterward, the country was uninhabited; but few of the extinct tribe ever visited it, and from a superstitious fear, it was avoided. Some of his ancestors had gone to the Mono tribe and been adopted by them. His father had taken a wife from that tribe. His mother was a Mono woman, and he had lived with her people while young. Eventually, Ten-ie-ya, with some of his father’s tribe had visited the valley, and claimed it as their birth-right. He thus became the founder of the new tribe or band, which has since been called the “Yosemite.”

It is very probable that the statement of Major Savage, as to the origin of the name as applicable to Ten-ie-ya’s band, was traditional with his informants, but I give credit to Ten-ie-ya’s own history of his tribe as most probable.

From my knowledge of Indian customs, I am aware that it is not uncommon for them to change the names of persons or localities after some remarkable event in the history of either. It would not, therefore, appear strange that Ten-ie-ya should have adopted another name for his band. I was unable to fix upon any definite date at which the Ah-wah-ne-chees became extinct as a tribe, but from the fact that some of the Yosemites claimed to be direct descendants, the time could not have been as long as would be inferred from their descriptions. When these facts were communicated to Captain Boling, and Ah-wah-ne was ascertained to be the classical name, the Captain said that name was all right enough for history or poetry, but that we could not now change the name Yosemite, nor was it desirable to do so. I made every effort to ascertain the signification of Ah-wah-ne, but could never fully satisfy myself, as I received different interpretations at different times. In endeavoring to ascertain from Ten-ie-ya his explanation of the name, he, by the motion of his hands, indicated depth, while trying to illustrate the name, at the same time plucking grass which he held up before me. From these “signs” I inferred that it must mean the deep grassy valley. Still, it may not mean that. Sandino was unable to give its true signification, saying by way of explanation that Ah-wah-ne was a name of the old tribe, that he did not know how to translate. Major Savage also said that Ten-ie-ya and a few of the old Indians in his band used words which he did not fully understand, and which the others could neither use nor explain.

[Editor’s note: the correct meaning of Ahwahnee is “(gaping) mouth.” See “Origin of the Place Name Yosemite”—dea.]

The dialect of the Yosemites was a composite of that of almost every tribe around them; and even words of Spanish derivation were discovered in their conversations.

It is not uncommon for the mountain men and traders, to acquire a mixed jargon of Indian dialects, which they mingle with Spanish, French or English in their talk to an extent sometimes amusing. The Indians readily adopt words from this lingo, and learn to Anglicize Indian names in conversation with “Americans.” This, when done by the Mission Indians, who perhaps have already made efforts to improve the Indian name with Mission Spanish, tends to mislead the inquirer after "pure” Indian names.

The Mission Indians after deserting, introduced and applied Spanish names to objects that already had Indian designations, and in this way, new words are formed from corrupted Mission Spanish, that may lead to wrong interpretations. I learned from Russio, the chief interpreter, that sometimes more than one word was used to express the same object, and often one word expressed different objects. As an illustration of corrupted Spanish that passes for Indian, the words Oya (olla) and Hoya, may be taken. Oya signifies a water pot, and Hoya, a pit hole. From these words the Mission Indians have formed “Loya,” which is used to designate camp grounds where holes in the rocks may be found near, in which to pulverize acorns, grass seeds, as well as to the “Sentinal Rock,” from its fancied resemblance to a water pot, or long water basket. Another source of difficulty, is that of representing by written characters the echoing gutteral sounds of some Indian words. While being aware of this, I can safely assert that Yosemite, is purer and better Indian than is Mississippi, (“Me-ze-se-be,” the river that runs every where; that is, “Endless river) or many other names that are regarded as good if not pure Indian.* [*According to the Rev. S. G. Wright, of Leach Lake, Minnesota Reservation, and “Wain-ding” (the source of the wind), the best interpreters of the Chippewa perhaps now living, but few, if any, of the Chippewa names for our lakes and rivers have been preserved in their purity.]

Our interpretors were, or had been, Mission Indians, who rendered the dialects into as good Spanish as they had at command, but rather than fail in their office, for want of words, they would occasionally insert one of their own coining. This was done, regardless of the consequences, and when chided, declared it was for our benefit they had done so.

Attempts were made to supersede the name we had given the valley, by substituting some fancied improvements. At first, I supposed these to be simply changes rung on Yosemite, but soon observed the earnestness of the sponsors in advocating the new names, in their magazine and newspaper articles. They claimed to have acquired the correct name from their Indian guides, employed on their visits to the Yosemite.

In 1855 Mr. J. M. Hutchings, of San Francisco, visited the Yosemite, and published a description of it, and also published a lithograph of the Yosemite Fall. Through his energetic efforts, the valley was more fully advertised. He ambitiously gave it the name of Yo-Hamite, and tenaciously adhered to it for some time; though Yosemite had already crystalized.

The Rev. Doctor Scott, of San Francisco, in a newspaper article—disappointing to his admirers—descriptive of his travels and sojourn there, endeavored to dispossess both Mr. Hutchings and myself of our names, and named the valley Yo-Amite: probably as a peace offering to us both.

I did not at first consider it good policy to respond to these articles. I had no desire to engage in a newspaper controversy with such influences against me; but after solicitations from Mr. Ayers, and other friends, I gave the facts upon which were based editorials in the “California Chronicle,” “Sacramento Union,” the Mariposa and other papers.

By invitation of Mr. Hutchings, I had a personal interview with him in San Francisco, relative to this matter, and at his request furnished some of the incidents connected with our expedition against the Indians, as hereinbefore narrated. These he published in his magazine, and afterwards in his “Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California."

This statement of facts was signed by myself, and certified to by two members of the State legislature—James M. Roan and George H. Crenshaw—as follows: “We, the undersigned, having been members of the same company, and through most of the scenes depicted by Doctor Bunnell, have no hesitation in saying that the article above is correct.”

Mr. Hutchings says: “We cheerfully give place to the above communication, that the public may learn how and by whom this remarkable valley was first visited and named; and, although we have differed with the writer and others concerning the name given, as explained in several articles that have appeared at different times in the several newspapers of the day, in which Yo-Hamite was preferred; yet as Mr. Bunnell was among the first to visit the valley, we most willingly accord to him the right of giving it whatsoever name he pleases.”

Mr. Hutchings then goes on to explain how he obtained the name Yo-Hamite from his Indian guide Kos-sum; that its correctness was affirmed by John Hunt, previous to the publication of the lithograph of the great falls, etc., and during this explanation, says: “Up to this time we had never heard or known any other name than Yosemite;” and farther on in a manly way says: “Had we before known that Doctor Bunnell and his party were the first whites who ever entered the valley (although we have the honor of being the first in later years to visit it and call public attention to it), we should long ago have submitted to the name Doctor Bunnell had given it, as the discoverer of the valley.”

After my interview with Mr. Hutchings—for I had never heard the word Yo-Hamite until it was published by him—I asked John Hunt, the Indian trader referred to, where he had got the word furnished to Mr. Hutchings. John, with some embarrassment, said, that “Yo-Hem-i-te was the way his Indians pronounced the name.” I asked what name? “Why, Yosemite,” said John. But, I replied, you know that the Indian name for the valley is Ah-wah-ne! and the name given by us was the name of Ten-ie-ya’s band? “Of course, (said John,) but my Indians now apply the word Yo-Hemite to the valley or the territory adjacent, though their name for a bear is Osoomity.” John Hunt’s squaw was called, and asked by him the meaning of the word, but confessed her ignorance. Mr. Cunningham was also consulted, but could give us no certain information; but surmised that the word had been derived from “Le-Hamite ‘The Arrowwood.’” Another said possibly from “Hem-nock,” the Kah-we-ah word for God. As to Yo-Amite, insisted on by Doctor Scott, I made no effort to find an interpretation of it.

Previous: Chapter IIIIndexNext: Chapter V

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