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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar


Early Settlers in the High Sierra

Before the National Forest Reserves and the National Parks were established, a few pioneers staked out their claims in the regions of the Sierra above the settlements. Some of these men explored the mountains far and wide, but as they seldom made known what they saw, only a brief mention of a few of them will be made here.

One interesting pioneer of this period was John Baptist Lembert, a strange sort of hermit who took up a quarter-section of land in Tuolumne Meadows in 1885 as a homestead. His claim included the Soda Springs and the meadow land across the river. Lembert had lived for a time in and around Yosemite and conceived the idea of raising fine breeds of goats in the High Sierra. He built a log cabin on his claim and lived there with his goats for several years, both winter and summer, until the heavy storms in the winter of 1889-1890 forced him to flee to Yosemite and abandon his goats. With the loss of his stock, he took to collecting butterflies and botanical specimens, which he sold to museums. His career ended in a tragedy in the winter of 1896-97 when his body was found in a cabin near Cascade Creek below Yosemite Valley, bearing the unmistakable signs of murder. The Lembert claim, which had been patented in 1895, was purchased in 1912 by members of the Sierra Club. 94

John L. Murphy, a well-known guide of Yosemite Valley, secured a preemption patent on 160 acres on the shores of Lake Tenaya in 1886. An interesting account of Murphy is given in Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Bits of Travel at Home.”

William Helm, for a time a partner of Frank Dusy, settled near the North Fork of Kings River. Helms Meadow beam his came. Collins, Shippe, Woods and others are likewise identified with the central regions of the Sierra. George Fiske of Sanger built a cabin at his mine on Cartridge Creek; Poly A. Kanawyer and D. K. Zumwalt established themselves in Kings River Canyon; and Jesse B. Agnew stills spends his summers at Horse Corral Meadow.

In the Kaweah region the pioneers were less permanently established in the higher country as it was easier to make short excursions from the valley. Hale Tharp has already been mentioned. Prominent among others were Joseph Palmer, William Clough, and James Wolverton.

Strangest of all was the project of the Kaweah Co-operative Commonwealth Colony, a socialist enterprise for which an earthly paradise was promised in the prospectuses and advertisements, but which ended with convictions in the courts. The essence of the proposal was: a purely socialistic colony was to be established on the Kaweah River; a road was to be built by labor of the colonists up to the Giant Forest; the trees were then to be cut, sawed into lumber at the colony mill, and sold for a handsome price; the laborers were to receive wages in paper time-checks, redeemable at the colony store for merchandise— real money was an abhorrence save as it came into the treasury from the outside world. The first part of this program was carried out. The road was built nearly to Giant Forest and is still in use. But the titles to the timber lands were dubious and, luckily for future generations, none of the big trees were cut. The collapse of the scheme was hastened by internal discord and fraud on the part of the promoters and the Co-operative Colony faded from the scene in 1891. 95

————
94 Sierra Club Bulletin, 1913, IX, pp. 36-30.

95 Visalia Delta, November and December 1891; Kaweah: How and Why the Colony Died, by Burnette G. Haskell, in Out West, September 1902; San Francisco Examiner, November 29, 1891.


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