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

Yosemite and the Great Canyons

The most famous of the great canyons of the Sierra is of course the upper canyon of the Merced River, Yosemite Valley; but to the north and south lie other canyons similar in structure and very nearly, if not quite, as remarkable in their scenic features. John Muir frequently referred to them other canyons by the generic name of “yosemites.” The most striking are the Hetch Hetchy or Tuolumne Yosemite on the north, and the Kings River yosemite on the south. The first record of any knowledge of Hetch Hetchy is a reference to its discovery by Joseph Screech in 1850. 31 No mention is made of the Kings River Canyon or of the other great Canyons until some years after the wide publicity that attended the opening up of Yosemite.

Although it is now known with reasonable certainty that Yosemite Valley was seen by the Walker party in 1833, [Ed. note: it is now generally believed that the Walker Party saw The Cascades, north of Yosemite Valley, not Yosemite Valley.—DEA.] it was not until 1851 that it can properly be said to have been discovered and made widely known. The history of the first expedition into Yosemite is well known through the narrative of Dr. Lafayette Houghton Bunnell and the wide publicity given by James Mason Hutchings. 32 It has been very well summarized more recently by Ralph S. Kuykendall. 33 The party of the Mariposa Battalion under Major James D. Savage that entered Yosemite Valley on March 25, 1851, was undoubtedly the first visit by white men to the floor of the Valley. This was followed by a second visit in May by some of the same men under Captain John Bowling. In the following year, May 1852, two prospectors were killed by Indians near the foot of Bridal Veil Falls. Shortly thereafter a punitive expedition under First Lieutenant Tredwell Moore, 2nd Infantry, U. S. A., executed five of the Indians near the scene of the murder and pursued others across the mountains by Lake Tenaya over the Mono trail to Bloody Canyon. They returned to Fort Miller by way of Tuolumne Soda Springs and over a trail that passed to the south of the Yosemite, evidently crossing at the head of Nevada Falls. The discovery of some gold deposits near Mono Lake aroused excitement among the Fresno camps, and a certain Leroy Vining with some companions went to investigate. Leevining Canyon now bears his name.

James Capen Adams, the famous grizzly bear hunter, came to the Sierra in 1852 and established a camp somewhere between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers. He visited Yosemite Valley in the spring of 1854 and shortly afterward, on the Mariposa River, captured alive one of his best grizzlies, the famous Ben Franklin. 34

With the year 1855 the tourist history of Yosemite began when Hutchings visited the Valley with Thomas A. Ayers, Walter Millard, and Alexander Stair. Ayers made a sketch of Yosemite Falls which was published in October by Britton and Rey and was the first illustration of Yosemite scenery to be given to the public. 35 Hutchings described the scenery in an article published in the Mariposa Gazette of August 16, 1855. Several other parties followed immediately, including one which claimed to have discovered Vernal and Nevada falls, although Bunnell makes it very clear that both of these falls were seen by members of the Bowling party in 1851. 36

The first trail into Yosemite was built in 1856 by Milton Mann and Houston Mann, following in general the present route from Wawona. During the same year a primitive house of pine poles and shakes was commenced in the Valley and Yosemite received its first women visitors in a party from Mariposa.

The history of Kings River Canyon begins several years later. Captain John J. Kuykendall’s company of the Mariposa Battalion undoubtedly saw the canyon in 1851, and may have entered it, but the earliest visit to which I have men any definite reference was in 1858, when a man from Tulare named J. H. Johnson and five comrades were piloted across Kearsarge Pass by a Digger Indian named Sampson. 37 It is not impossible that prospectors may have visited the canyon a year or two earlier, however. The real history of the canyon begins with the year 1864 and will he told further on in connection with the explorations of the Whitney Survey. Nothing definite is known of visitors to the other great canyons of the Sierra until some years later.

31 Whitney Survey: Yosemite Guide Book, 1870, p. 110; Muir: Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Overland Monthly, July 1873, pp. 42-43.

32 Bunnell’s Discovery of the Yosemite, 1880; Hutchings Scenes, of Wonder and Curiosity in California, 1860; Hutchings: In the Heart of the Sierras, 1886.

33 Early History of Yosemite Valley, in The Grizzly Bear, July 1919, reprinted by U. S. National Park Service 1919; History of the Yosemite Region, in Handbook of Yosemite National Park by Ansel F. Hall, 1921.

34 The Adventures of James Copan Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California, by Theodore H. Hittell, Boston and San Francisco, 1861, pp. 196-206.

35 Hutchings: Heart of the Sierras, 1886, pp. 80, 97.

36 James H. Lawrence, in Overland Monthly, October 1884; Bunnell: Discovery 1880, p. 85.

37 Chalfant: Story of Inyo, 1922, p. 76.

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