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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)

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California—The Yosemite

Bear Valley, Cal., Aug. 14, 1859.

I left Sacramento on Monday morning last, traveling by stage to Stockton, forty-eight miles nearly due south, crossing the Mokelumne, and keeping first the Sacramento and then the San Joaquin a few miles on our right, and Mount Diablo conspicuous still further west. We traversed a level, fertile plain, sparsely wooded near the rivers—a plain which should be, but is not yet, densely peopled, and very productive. There are some fine orchard gardens near the cities, and might well be many; but a good part of the intermediate country is uninclosed, and the residue mainly devoted to large ranches (or loose and slovenly cattle husbandry), and in less degree to the growing of small grain—wheat and barley. The stubble indicates good crops, but there is not a sufficient area devoted to them. Uncertainty of land-titles—that paramount curse of California—is assigned as the cause of this inadequacy of cultivation, which I trust is not to continue.

Stockton is situated on a bayou of the San Joaquin, at the head of regular steamboat navigation on that river, which makes it the third or fourth city of California, with fifteen thousand inhabitants, and an extensive carrying trade. The better dwellings are in good part surrounded by fine gardens, well filled with delicious fruit. In some of them, the primitive, wide-spreading oaks have been preserved, giving them an aspect of beauty and coolness most grateful to the traveler recently arrived from the plains. Stockton has the State Insane Asylum, and a very interesting commencement of a cabinet of natural history; better still, she has an Artesian well one thousand feet deep, bored at a cost of ten thousand dollars, and pouring forth a copious and unfailing stream, some feet above the surface of the earth. Deep as it is, it penetrates only successive strata of what appears to be alluvial deposit, never touching bed-rock. Artesian wells are becoming common in California, and I trust are yet to play an important part in the development and extension not only of her agricultural but also of her mining industry, now crippled (especially in the south) by the general dearth of water. I have a suspicion that all the water hitherto obtained by canals or ditches, so expensively constructed, could have been procured far cheaper by digging Artesian wells, which, however multiplied, could hardly fail, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, to strike copious fountains at no unreasonable depth.

I left Stockton next morning in a carriage with a friend who proposed to go through to Bear Valley (seventy-five miles) before sleeping—a feat which I doubted the ability of any span of livery horses to accomplish. My doubt was misplaced. Good horses, an early start, careful, considerate driving, frequent watering, and the dry, bracing air of California, carried us through by a little after ten p. m., and our team would readily have gone ten miles further had we required it. I judge that sixty miles of just such roads would have been as hard a drive in any state east of the Rocky Mountains.

Our general course this day was east by south, passing mainly over moderately undulating prairie of very unequal but generally indifferent fertility, and crossing successively, at intervals of about twenty miles, the small rivers Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced, all flowing from the mountains westward into the San Joaquin, and all rendered turbid, by the mining operations in progress on their banks or in their beds. The Stanislaus runs through a belt of rather light and thin oak, some two or three miles wide; the others have a few scattering oaks and that is all. There is considerable husbandry—mainly of the ranching order, near Stockton and along the rivers aforesaid, but very little industry of any kind on the naked prairies between them, and not a drop of running water, except, perhaps, a spring or two under some of the low hills which have a tolerably steep side respectively. There are a very few deep holes in some of the winter water-courses at which cattle still find drink, though of a bad quality. One settler from Massachusetts, who lives mainly by cattle-growing, informed us that he came around Cape Horn eight or ten years since, has now about ninety head of cattle, which are fast increasing, and intends to erect a wind-mill this winter, by whose aid he will be able to have a good garden at once, and a fine fruit-orchard within a few years. (Wind-mills located over wells or other reservoirs of water, which they raise for use in irrigation, are very common in Stockton, and are rapidly going up throughout middle California). He has to go seven miles for his fuel, fencing-stuff, etc., on the Stanislaus. His nearest neighbors, on the road we traveled, are some five to ten miles distant, but I believe he has nearer. He is doubtless richer here than in Massachusetts, but I cannot realize that his family are happier or more favorably situated for mental and moral improvement, there being no school within reach, and the children depending for instruction on their New-England mother alone. But their children will not have New-England mothers—and what then? I fear this cattle ranching, with long intervals between the ranches, is destined to half barbarize many thousands of the next generation, whom schools can scarcely reach, and to whom “the sound of the church-going bell” will be a stranger. Most of the agriculturists of this region, however, came here from Missouri, Arkansas, or Texas—many of them from Missouri or Arkansas by way of Texas—and do not seem to regard common schools as essential to civilized life.

We crossed the Merced sixty miles from Stockton (all these rivers are crossed by toll-bridges, or ferries—charges, one dollar each per wagon) just before sunset; and now our road became rugged and bad, as we rose the first of the foot-hills of the Sierra. Thus far we had seen few traces of mining, save the muddy-colored waters of the rivers; but seven miles further brought us to Quartzburg, in the center of a nearly washed-out valley of gold-bearing gravel; and thence our way led seven miles further, over a far higher foot-hill, into Bear Valley, where we found friends and grateful rest. The next day I devoted to an examination of Colonel Fremont’s mines and works, of which I may speak hereafter, but must now hurry on to the Yosemite.

I left Bear Valley, two hours later than was fit, at 6, a. m., on Thursday, resolved to push through to my immediate destination that night. My friend had preceded me betimes to Mariposas, twelve miles on our way, to complete preparations for the trip; but we were unluckily delayed here again by misapprehensions and the preŽngagement of animals for attendance on a camp-meeting, so that it was high noon when we reached the end of the wagon-road, twelve miles below Mariposa, where the saddle is the only resource, while it is still nearly forty miles (many of them steep ones) to the Yosemite fall. Every one assured us that to get through that day was impossible; yet I had no more time to give to the journey, and must try. My friend is a good rider, while I can barely ride at all, not having spent five hours on horseback, save in my visit to the Kansas gold mines, within the last thirty years. But the two gentlemen from Mariposas who accompanied and guided us, knew all about the journey that we didn’t—which is saying a great deal—so we pressed buoyantly, confidently on.

Hussey’s steam saw-mill, where we mounted (or rather I did, for the rest had done so before), marks pretty fairly the division between the oaks of the lower, and the firs of the higher elevations, though the two of course melt into each other. As we rose gradually but steadily, the white soon faded out, then the black, and last the live-oak, though the genuineness of this last is disputed, while the yellow, pitch, and sugar-pines, cedars, and balsam-firs became more numerous and stately, till they at length had the ground almost wholly to themselves, save that the manzanito and other shrubs (mostly evergreens also) clustered on nearly every opening among the trees. There is little or no precipice or bare rock for miles, and we rose along the southern face of the ridge overlooking the Cholchilla Valley, until we seemed to have half California spread out before us like a map. Our range of vision extended south to the tulť lake, or immense morass, in which the San Joaquin has its source, and west to the Coast Range, which alone barred the Pacific Ocean from our view. Still rising, we wound gradually around the peak of our first mountain through a slight depression or pass, and soon looked off upon the valley of the South Fork of the Merced, which opened for miles north and east of us. On this side, the descent is far steeper, and we traversed for miles a mere trace along the side of the mountain, where a misstep must have landed us at least a thousand feet below. In time, this too was left behind, and we descended fitfully and tortuously the east end of the mountain to the South Fork, whereon, sixteen miles from Hussey’s and but five from the Big Trees of Mariposas, we halted for rest and food. Before six, we were again in the saddle, crossing the fork and winding up over another mountain northward, with a precipitous descent of at least two thousand feet beside us for a mile or so. A steep ascent of half a mile carried us over the divide, whence we descended very rapidly to Alder Creek, at the northern base. Following up this creek over a succession of steep pitches, interleaved with more level patches, we bade adieu to daylight at “Grizzly Flat,” a spot noted for encounters with the monarch of our American forests, and thence crossed a ridge to “Summit Meadows,” a succession of mainly narrow grassy levels, which wind in and out among the promontories of more or less shattered granite which make down from the mountain peaks on either side, but pursue a generally eastward direction to pour their tiny tribute into the Great Chasm. Our route led us six or eight times across these meadows—which were often so boggy as to require a very nice choice of footing—and, intermediately, across the generally wooded promontories which deflected the probably continuous meadow into what seemed to us many, until we stood at length, about ten p. m., on the brink of the awful abyss, and halted a moment to tighten girths and take breath for the descent.

And here let me renew my tribute to the marvelous bounty and beauty of the forests of this whole mountain region. The Sierra Nevadas lack the glorious glaciers, the frequent rains, the rich verdure, the abundant cataracts of the Alps; but they far surpass them—they surpass any other mountains I ever saw—in the wealth and grace of their trees. Look down from almost any of their peaks, and your range of vision is filled, bounded, satisfied, by what might be termed a tempest-tossed sea of evergreens, filling every upland valley, covering every hillside, crowning every peak but the highest, with their unfading luxuriance. That I saw during this day’s travel many hundreds of pines eight feet in diameter, with cedars at least six feet, I am confident; and there were miles after miles of such and smaller trees of like genus standing as thick as they could grow. Steep mountain-sides, allowing them to grow, rank above rank, without obstructing each other’s sunshine, seem peculiarly favorable to the production of these serviceable giants. But the Summit Meadows are peculiar in their heavy fringe of balsam-fir of all sizes, from those barely one foot high to those hardly less than two hundred, their branches surrounding them in collars, their extremities gracefully bent down by the weight of winter snows, making them here, I am confident, the most beautiful trees on earth. The dry promontories which separate these meadows are also covered with a species of spruce, which is only less graceful than the fir aforesaid. I never before enjoyed such a tree-feast as on this wearing, difficult ride.

Descent into the Yosemite is only practicable at three points—one near the head of the valley, where a small stream makes in from the direction of the main ridge of the Sierra, down which there is a trail from the vicinity of Water River, Utah—a trail practicable, I believe, for men on foot only. The other two lead in near the outlet, from Mariposas and Coulterville respectively, on opposite banks of the Merced, and are practicable for sure-footed mules or horses. We, of course, made our descent by the Mariposas trail, on the south side of the little river which here escapes from the famous valley by a cañon which water alone can safely, if at all, traverse, being shut in by lofty precipices, and broken by successive falls.

My friends insisted that I should look over the brink into the profound abyss before clambering down its side; but I, apprehending giddiness, and feeling the need of steady nerves, firmly declined. So we formed line again, and moved on.

The night was clear and bright, as all summer nights in this region are; the atmosphere cool, but not really cold; the moon had risen before 7 o’clock, and was shedding so much light as to bother us in our forest-path, where the shadow of a standing pine looked exceedingly like the substance of a fallen one, and many semblances were unreal and misleading. It was often hard to realize that the dark, narrow current-like passage to the left was our trail, and not the winding, broader, moonlighted-opening on the right. The safest course was to give your horse a free rein, and trust to his sagacity, or self-love for keeping the trail. As we descended by zigzags the north face of the all but perpendicular mountain our moonlight soon left us, or was present only by reflection from the opposite cliff. Soon, the trail became at once so steep, so rough, and so tortuous, that we all dismounted; but my attempt at walking proved a miserable failure. I had been riding with a bad Mexican stirrup, which barely admitted the toes of my left foot; and continual pressure on these had sprained and swelled them, so that walking was positive torture. I persevered in the attempt, till my companions insisted on my remounting, and thus floundering slowly to the bottom. By steady effort, we descended the three miles (four thousand feet perpendicular) in two hours, and stood at night by the rushing, roaring waters of the Merced.

That first full, deliberate gaze up the opposite height! can I ever forget it? The valley is here scarcely half a mile wide, while its northern wall of mainly naked, perpendicular granite is at least four thousand feet high—probably more. But the modicnumn of moonlight that fell into this awful gorge gave to that precipice a vagueness of outline, an indefinite vastness, a ghostly and weird spirituality. Had the mountain spoken to me in audible voice, or began to lean over with the purpose of burying me beneath its crushing mass, I should hardly have been surprised. Its whiteness, thrown into bold relief by the patches of trees or shrubs which fringed or flecked it wherever a few handfuls of its moss, slowly decomposed to earth, could contrive to hold on, continually suggested the presence of snow, which suggestion, with difficulty refuted, was at once renewed. And, looking up the valley, we saw just such mountain precipices, barely separated by intervening water-courses (mainly dry at this season) of-inconsiderable depth, and only receding sufficiently to make room for a very narrow meadow inclosing the river, to the furthest limit of vision.

We discussed the propriety of camping directly at the foot of the pass, but decided against it, because of the inadequacy of the grass at this point for our tired, hungry beasts, and resolved to push on to the nearest of the two houses in the valley, which was said to be four miles distant. To my dying day, I shall remember that weary, interminable ride up the valley. We had been on foot since daylight; it was now past midnight; all were nearly used up, and I in torture from over twelve hours’ steady riding on the hardest trotting horse in America. Yet we pressed on, and on, through clumps of trees, and bits of forest, and patches of meadow, and over hillocks of mountain debris, mainly granite bowlders of every size, often nearly as round as cannon balls, forming all but perpendicular banks to the capricious torrent that brought them hither—those stupendous precipices on either side glaring down upon us all the while. How many times our heavy eyes—I mean those of my San Francisco friend and my own—were lighted up by visions of that intensely desired cabin—visions which seemed distinct and unmistakable, but, which, alas! a nearer view proved to be made up of moonlight and shadow, rock and trees, into which they faded one after another. It seemed at length that we should never reach the cabin; and my wavering mind recalled elfish German stories of the Wild Huntsman, and of men who, having accepted invitations to a midnight chase, found on their return that said chase had been prolonged till all their relatives and friends were dead, and no one could be induced to recognize or recollect them. Gladly could I have thrown myself recklessly from the saddle, and lain where I fell till morning, but this would never answer, and we kept steadily on.

“Time and the hour wear out the longest day.”

At length the real cabin—one made of posts and beams and whip-sawed boards, instead of rock, and shadow, and moonshine—was reached, and we all eagerly dismounted, turning out our weary steeds into abundant grass, and stirring up the astonished landlord, who had never before received guests at that unseemingly hour. (It was after one a. m.) He made us welcome, however, to his best accommodations, which would have found us lenient critics even had they been worse; and I crept into my rude but clean bed so soon as possible, while the rest awaited the preparation of some refreshment for the inner man. There was never a dainty that could have tempted me to eat at that hour. I am told that none ever before traveled from Bear Valley to the Yosemite in one day—I am confident no green-horns ever did. The distance can hardly exceed thirty miles by an air line; but only a bird could traverse that line, while, by way of Mariposas and the South Fork, it must be fully sixty miles, with a rise and fall of not less than twenty thousand feet.

The fall of the Yosemite, so called, is a humbug. It is not the Merced River that makes this fall, but a mere tributary trout brook, which pitches in from the north by a barely once-broken descent of two thousand six hundred feet, while the Merced enters the valley at its eastern extremity, over falls of six hundred and two hundred and fifty feet. But a river thrice as large as the Merced, at this season, would be utterly dwarfed by all the other accessories of this prodigious chasm. Only a Mississippi or a Niagara could be adequate to their exactions. I readily concede that a hundred times the present amount of water may roll down the Yosemite Fall in the months of May and June, when the snows are melting from the central ranges of the Sierra Nevada, which bound this abyss on the east; but this would not add a fraction to the wonder of this vivid exemplification of the divine power and majesty. At present, the little stream that leaps down the Yosemite, and is all but shattered to mist by the amazing descent, looks like a tape-line let down from the cloud-capped height to measure the depth of the abyss. The Yosemite Valley (or Gorge) is the most unique and majestic of nature’s marvels, but the Yosemite Fall is of little account. Were it absent, the valley would not be perceptibly less worthy of a fatiguing visit.

We traversed the valley from end to end the next day, but an accumulation of details on such a subject only serve to confuse and blunt the observer’s powers of perception and appreciation. Perhaps the visitor who should be content with a long look into the abyss from the most convenient height, without braving the toil of a descent, would be wiser than all of us; and yet that first glance upward from the foot will long haunt me as more impressive than any look downward from the summit could be.

I shall not multiply details, nor waste paper in noting all the foolish names which foolish people have given to different peaks or turrets. Just think of two giant stone-towers, or pillars, which rise a thousand feet above the towering cliff which form their base, being styled the “Two Sisters!” [Editor’s note: Cathedral Spires] Could anything be more maladroit and lackadaisical? “The Dome” [Editor’s note: Half Dome] is a high, round, naked peak, which rises between the Merced and its little tributary from the inmost recesses of the Sierra Nevada already instanced, and which towers to an altitude of over five thousand feet above the waters at its base. Picture to yourself a perpendicular wall of bare granite nearly or quite one mile high! Yet there are some dozen or score of peaks in all, ranging from three thousand to five thousand feet above the valley; and a biscuit tossed from any of them would strike very near its base, and its fragments go bounding and falling still further. I certainly miss here the glaciers of Chamonix, but I know no single wonder of nature on earth which can claim superiority over the Yosemite. Just dream yourself for one hour in a chasm nearly ten miles long, with egress, save for birds and water, but at three points, up the face of precipices from three thousand to four thousand feet high, the chasm scarcely more than a mile wide at any point, and tapering to a mere gorge, or canyon, at either end, with walls of mainly naked and perpendicular white granite, from three thousand to five thousand feet high, so that looking up to the sky from it is like looking out of an unfathomable profound—and you will have some conception of the Yosemite.

We dined at two o’clock, and then rode leisurely down the valley, gazing by daylight at the wonders we had previously passed in the night. The spectacle was immense; but I still think the moonlight view the more impressive.

Our faithful beasts climbed the steep acclivity at a little more than the rate of a mile per hour, so that we had still an hour or two of sunshine before us as we stood at last on the summit. I took a last long look into and up the valley, with the sun still lighting up the greater portion of the opposite cliffs, and then turned my horse’s head westward. We reached, at 10Ĺ p. m., the ranche on the South Fork, kept by a solitary man, who has no neighbor nearer than sixteen miles, and there halted for the night.

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