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


Other Events of the Sixties

The summer of 1864 was one of extreme drought. This occurrence had a profound effect upon the history of the Sierra, as it drove the stockmen into the high mountains to seek pasture for their cattle. The Whitney Report mentions a large number of cattle in the meadows near the sources of the San Joaquin. The drought was felt on both sides of the range and it is probable that many of the passes were crossed both from the east and west that summer and the region became well known as good summer grazing ground. From that time on, cattle and sheep were to be found in the most remote mountain meadows and canyon heads. The cattle, of course, did not travel so far as the sheep, nor did they do so much damage. In dry years there was always over-grazing, and the destruction to the watershed, particularly in the Kern River region, has probably permanently impaired the water supply of the San Joaquin Valley. Sheep eat everything within reach, pulling up the small growth by the roots, leaving nothing for reproduction, and even destroying the soil itself by pulverizing it with their sharp hoofs. The first rains thereafter wash the soil down the rivers. Clarence King observed on his trip to Mount Whitney in 1873 that “The Kern Plateau, so, green and lovely on my former visit in 1864, was now a gray sea of rolling granite ridges, darkened at intervals by forest, but no longer velveted with meadows and upland grasses. The indefatigable shepherds have camped everywhere, leaving hardly a spear of grass behind them. 66

For this the stockmen can hardly be blamed as they were acting for their own legitimate interests—at least in the early days—and neither they nor anyone else realized the damage they were doing until many years later. At first the stockmen were the typical American pioneer settlers, but in later years the sheep grazing industry fell largely into the hands of Portuguese, Frenchmen, and Basques, who had no permanent interest in the country. The sheep-men divided the range among themselves and until the forest reserves and national parks were established, they had matters pretty much their own way. They built rude trails across passes that remained unknown to others for half a century, and here and there, in some high gravelly open space near the snowline, one can still see their stone shelters. The sheepmen, like the Indians, were indeed pioneers, but as they contributed little to the public knowledge of the Sierra, it is only occasionally that they will be brought into this record of exploration.

Miners also penetrated the High Sierra in the decade following 1860. The Kearsarge mines were located, in the fall of 1864, near Kearsarge Pass. Some sympathizers with the Confederate cause had recently named a small range of hills in Owens Valley the Alabama Hills in honor of the Confederate privateer. The discoverers of the new mines were Union sympathizers and evened up the score by naming their mine for the Union battleship. The discovery of the Kearsarge mines brought other prospectors to the vicinity and a camp was soon established. On March 1, 1866, following a heavy storm in the mountains, an avalanche descended upon this camp, sweeping away a number of cabins. The wife of one of the miners was killed in the disaster. 67 Development of the mine continued for several years, and a stamp mill was built at a cost of $40,000. But success as only intermittent, and the mines and mill ultimately fell into disuse; yet even today one may find some old bearded miner picking away at the rocks high up on Kearsarge Mountain with the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, particularly if that human be a miner.

A picturesque incident in the history of the Sierra occurred in 1861, when a little caravan of nine Bactrian camels crossed the Sierra Nevada to the Nevada mines. These camels should not be confused with the ones imported by the War Department in 1856 and 1857 for the purpose of establishing a camel transport over the arid lands from New Mexico to Southern California. The earlier camels came from the Mediterranean, but the ones that were brought across the Sierra in 1861 were imported from Asia and were not connected with the experiment of the War Department in the southwest. In Vischer’s Pictorial there is a picture of the Bactrian camels in the midst of the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees—a startlingly incongruous scene. 68

A visit to Kings River Canyon that deserves to be better known was made in September 1868 by E. C. Winchell of Millerton and Captain John N. Appleton, retired English sea-captain, guided by William Haines. Winchell wrote a remarkably interesting account of the trip, with admirable descriptions of the sequoia forests, the meadows and streams on the route, and of the great canyon itself, which was published in the Daily Morning Call, San Francisco, September 11 and 12, 1872. Horse Corral Meadow was then known as “Crescent Lawn,” and on the route from Thomas’ Mill were “People’s Creek” and “Water-Spout Creek.” Winchell gave names to many of the features of the Canyon, as for instance, “Pillars of Hercules,” “The Colosseum,” “The Rotunda,” “Thunder Creek.” Eleven years later his son, Lil A. Winchell, gave similar names to the cliffs and domes of Tehipite.

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66 King: Mountaineering, 1874, p. 285.

67 Chalfant: The Story of Inyo, 1922, pp. 197-198.

68 Vischer’s Pictorial of California, San Francisco, 1870, pp. 51 66-67; Edward Fitzgerald Beale, by Stephen Bonsal, 1912, pp. 198-210.


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