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In the Heart of the Sierras by James M. Hutchings (1888)


General View of the Yo Semite Valley. Sketched by Thos. Ayres, June 27, 1855 (not June 20)—first ever taken.


Portrait of James Mason Hutchings
James M. Hutchings
James Mason Hutchings was born February 10, 1820 in England. He emmigrated to the U.S. in 1848, then went to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush. He became wealthy as a miner, lost it all in a bank failure, then became wealthy again from publishing. In 1855 he led the first tourist party into Yosemite, then became one of the first settlers in Yosemite Valley. Hutchings published an illustrated magazine, Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine that told the world about Yosemite and the Sierra. He was a tireless promoter, of himself and Yosemite. After Yosemite Valley was dedicated as a park in 1864, Hutchings thought he was entitled to 160 acres of land in the valley, through his mis-interpretation of preemption law. He sued, unsuccessfully, to have 160 acres in from Yosemite Valley deeded to himself and appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He did, however, get a generous payment from the State of California to help compensate for loss of land use. Compare Hutchings argument for private land at the end of Chapter 12 versus Josiah Whitney’s argument, at the end of Chapter 1 of his The Yosemite Book, that giving away land in Yosemite Valley, even to a few early settlers, will destroy its value as a park.

This book is most notable for its omission. In the book’s 496 pages, John Muir’s name is not mentioned at all. Hutchings refers to Muir once, not by name, but as a ‘good practical sawyer’ in Chapter 10 (page 129). Clearly, the complete omission of Muir was intentional. It’s widely believed that Hutchings was jealous of Muir because Hutchings first wife, Elvira (Sproat) Hutchings, was attracted to Muir when they lived in the Valley. In reality, Muir wasn’t attracted to Elvira, as he was focused on his observations of glaciers and other natural works. Hutchings and family to moved out of the valley to San Francisco and the marriage ended in divorce in 1875. It’s also thought Mr. Hutchings was jealous of Muir’s sudden fame after Muir’s articles on glaciers in and around Yosemite were published in the early 1870s. This was after Hutchings had lived and wrote extensively about Yosemite Valley for nearly two decades.

Hutchings poured all he had in In the Heart of the Sierras. The book is a potpourri of almost all things Yosemite. In this comprehensive work, he includes natural and human history, ample illustrations, many personal stories, mining tails, travel tips, and several, ponderous descriptions of various routes to Yosemite. In fairness, getting to Yosemite was much more difficult than it is now. Much of the material was drawn from earlier articles and illustrations published in his magazine and elsewhere.

A few quirks in should be mentioned. The title is In the Heart of the Sierras. Sierra is a Spanish word meaning ‘mountain range’—it The Sierra Nevada is one range and shouldn’t have the plural ‘s’ at the end. Hutchings insisted, correctly I believe, that the correct prounciation was “Yo Ham-i-te ” or “Yo-Hem-i-te. ” (two words, see Chapter 4 and compare with Chapter 4 of Bunnell’s Discovery of the Yosemite). However, by then the spelling of the word “Yosemite” used by the Whitney Survey, was firmly in use. Both forms are correct. Yos.s.e’meti was used by the Central Miwok and Yohhe’meti was used by the Southern Miwok. For details, see “Origin of the Word Yosemite”.

In the Heart of the Sierras. was written in the overly-flowerly, stilted prose popular in the 1800s, but it’s still fun to read for not only as a “looking glass” into 19th century Yosemite, but for its sense of discovery and adventure that’s lacking in modern Yosemite books.

Hutchings remarried twice and was an innkeeper for the Calaveras Big Tree Grove Hotel, north of Yosemite. James Hutchings was killed October 31, 1902 while visiting Yosemite when his horse reared and threw him from his buggy.

A biography of Mr. Hutchings appears in Mrs. H. J. Taylor “James Mason Hutchings” in Yosemite Indians and Other Sketches (1936) and Hank Johnston Yosemite’s Yesterdays, v. 2, chapter 2 (1991).

Photography: George Fiske and Ansel Adams

George Fiske Years later, when photographer Ansel Adams was a boy, his Aunt Mary gave him a copy of In the Heart of the Sierras when he was sick. The book piqued his interest enough to persuade his parents to vacation in Yosemite in 1916. Most of the photographs in the book are by George Fiske. George Fiske was born 1835 in Amherst, New Hampshire and moved west with his brother to San Francisco. He apprenticed with Charles L. Weed and worked with Carleton E. Watkins, both early Yosemite photographers. Fiske and his wife moved to Yosemite in 1879 and lived there until he committed suicide in 1918. Fiske was living alone when he shot himself and he often told his neighbors he was “tired of living.” Most of his negatives were destroyed when his house burned in 1904. After his death, his remaining negatives were acquired by the Yosemite Park Company and stored neglected in a sawmill attic, which burned in 1943. Ansel Adams suggested they be stored safely in the Yosemite Museum fireproof basement, but his suggestion was ignored. “If that hadn’t happened,” says Adams, “Fiske could have been revealed today, I firmly believe, as a top photographer, a top interpretive photographer. I really can”t get excited at [Carleton] Watkins and [Eadweard] Muybridge—I do get excited at Fiske. I think he had the better eye.” (Hickman & Pitts, George Fiske, Yosemite Photographer (1980)).

—Dan Anderson

1888 edition transcribed by Dan Anderson, May 2004, from a copy in the San Diego Public Library.

Bibliographic Note

In the Heart of the Sierras; the Yo Semite Valley, both historical and descriptive: and Scenes by the Way. Big Tree Groves. The High Sierra, with its Magnificent Scenery, Ancient and Modern Glaciers, and Other Objects of Interest; with tables of distances and altitudes, maps, etc. profusely illustrated. By J. M. Hutchings, of yo semite. Published at the Old Cabin, Yo Semite Valley, and at Pacific Press Publishing House, Oakland, Cal. 1888. by James Mason Hutchings (1820 - 1902) (Oakland, California: Pacific Press Publishing House, 1888) 496pp.: Ill., 3 maps (1 folded); Octavo, 22 cm. Hardbound in cloth with gilt lettering, with gold edging on pages. Cover design by artist Thomas Hill.

In the Heart of the Sierras was printed in 4 editions. The text was identical for each edition, including typographic errors—only the illustrations changed between editions. When this book was published, publishing photos in books as collotypes, instead of the old method of hand-rendered engravings, was new technology. The first edition was printed in 1886 and the last in 1888. The 1888 edition is used here.

In 1990 In the Heart of the Sierras was reprinted for the first time after the 1888 edition by Peter Browning of Great West Books. Browning’s reprint includes an introduction with background information on James Hutchings and on the book itself. Furthermore, Browning’s has tracked down many of original photographs for the engravings and collotype illustrations used in the book, and has included the original photographs in the reprint edition. This reprint is out-of-print, but is available at used book stores and may be reprinted in the future.

Digitized by Dan Anderson, 2004, from a copy in the San Diego Public Library. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.
    —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us

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