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


CHAPTER IV.

THE NAME—”YO SEMITE"—ITS ORIGIN AND MEANING.

Tu-tock-ah-nu-lah, or El Capitan. 3,300 Feet above the Valley, Looking West.
Photo by Geo. Fiske.Photo-Typo by Britton & Rey, S. F.
Tu-tock-ah-nu-lah, or El Capitan.
3,300 Feet above the Valley, Looking West.
On the choice of friends
Our good or evil name depends.
Gay.
I do beseech you
(Chiefly that I might set it in my prayers),
What is your name?
Shakspear’s Tempest, Act III.
Time is lord of thee:
Thy wealth, thy glory, and thy name are his.
Thomas Love Peacock’s Time.

After the safe arrival of the command on the floor of the cliff-encompassed home of the “Grizzlies,” as the Yo Semites were invariably termed by the troops, it would seem that although supposed to be surrounded by hostile Indians, and that, too, in their much-vaunted stronghold, there evidently existed an utter absence of precaution, as of fear, inasmuch as all kinds of rollicking mirth and jollity held unchecked court in the lair of the enemy, and around a huge camp-fire, on the very evening of their arrival. It was here, and under these circumstances, and on this occasion, that the now famous valley received

THE MUSICAL NAME—YO SEMITE.

Its meaning is, according to the very best authorities, a large, or full-grown, grizzly bear; and is pronounced Yo Sem-i-tee. The old Indian name was Ah-wah-nee, and the tribe which inhabited it—the remote ancestors of Ten-ie-ya—were Ah-wah-nee-chees, the origination or signification of which is still veiled in mystery. All these considerations, and other proposed names meriting attention, were fully discussed at this opportune juncture; but “Yo Semite,” the one suggested by Dr. L. H. Bunnell, was finally adopted by an almost unanimous vote.

[Editor’s note: For the correct origin of the word Yosemite see “Origin of the Word Yosemite.”dea.]

From an intelligent Indian, whose life the writer was once instrumental in saving, and from whom many interesting facts concerning his race have been obtained, and will be given in due season, he received the following

LEGENDARY TRADITION CONCERNING “YO SEMITE.”

A band of the Ah-wah-nee-chees, then a tribe numbering over one thousand, was encamped among the oaks near the foot of Indian Cañon; when, early one morning, an athletic chief deter mined upon going to Mirror Lake (called by them “Ke-ko-too-yem,” or Sleeping Water, and “Ah-wi-yah”) for the purpose of spearing a number of its delicious trout. On threading his way among the bowlders that strewed the ground, and when passing one of the largest, he was suddenly met by an enormous grizzly bear. The abruptness of this unexpected meeting must have been interpreted by the grizzly as an unjustifiable intrusion upon his ursine privileges and domain, as he immediately declared it a casus belli, by an instantaneous and ferocious attack upon the Indian. Unprepared as the young chief was for such an unequal encounter, he resolved upon standing his ground, and doing his best, as nobly as he could, so that the children of Ah-wah-nee might see that the valorous blood of their ancestors was still flowing in the veins of their descendants. The dead limb of a tree, lying near, provided him with a weapon of defense, and with it he dealt out heavy and lusty blows upon the head of his antagonist; and, although badly lacerated and torn by the teeth and claws of the infuriated brute, the Indian courageously held to the uneven contest, until the eyes of bruin began to glaze in the cold glare of death; and “victory had perched upon the banners” of the chief. The astonished Indians, in admiring acknowledgment of the un exampled prowess of the dauntless Ah-wah-nee-chee, thence forth called him “Yo Semite” in honor of his successful and great achievement. This well-won cognomen was eventually transmitted to his children; and, finally, to the whole tribe; so that the “Yo Semites” were known, and feared, by all the Indians around their wildly defensive habitation.

It is apparent from Dr. Bunnell’s statement* [* “Discovery of the Yo Semite,” page 62.] that the signification of “Yo Semite” was not generally known to the battalion; nor was there any uniformity in its general pronunciation, even among the Indians themselves, some calling it Oo-soom-i tee, others Oo-hum-i-tee, Yo-hum-i-tee, Yo-hem-i-tee, and still others Yo-ham-i-tee, while Bullack, the oldest of the Yo Semites now living, calls it Ah Hum-a-tee-all, however, having the same meaning. Nor is this much to be wondered at, from a people entirely without a written language. Even in England—intelligent and progressive England—(as well as some portions of the United States) there is an anomaly existing in pronunciation. In London, for instance, the word “corn” is enunciated cawn; in Hampshire, it is carn; while on the borders of Scotland it is coorn, and all intending to speak it corn. In Herefordshire, beef is spoken bif; and feet, fit. Who, then, can wonder at the unlettered savage varying in his pronunciation.

In the summer of 1855, Thomas Ayres, Alexander Stair, Walter Millard, and the writer, made the first tourist trip to Yo Semite ever attempted—about which something more will be presented hereafter. We engaged two Yo Semite Indians as guides. Towards night of the first day out, we inquired of the principal guide, Kossum, how far it might possibly be to Yo Semite—for then we knew it by no other name. He looked at us earnestly, and replied: “No Yo Semitee! Yo Hamitee; sabe, Yo-ham-i-tee.” In this way we were corrected not less than thirty-five or forty times. After returning to San Francisco, having arranged for the publication of a large lithograph of the Yo Semite Falls, before attaching the name to it, I wrote to Mr. John Hunt, who was keeping a store on the Fresno River, and from whom we had obtained our Indian guides, requesting him to go to the most intelligent among them, and ascertain the exact way of pronouncing the name given to the valley. His answer was, “The correct pronunciation is Yo-ham-i-te or Yo-hem-i-te.” This, then, was the name placed on the lithograph.

After the first attempted portrayal of the valley in Hutching’s California Magazine, July, 1856, wherein Yo-ham-i-tee* [* Dr. Wozencraft, chairman of the United States Indian Commission, still gives this as the only name known in 1851, and the correct one.] was still used, there ensued a spirited though good-natured news paper contest between Dr. Bunnell and the writer, upon its orthography; the former contending for Yo Semite, and the latter for Yo Hamitee, on account of the reasons above given. This discussion disclosed information, generally unknown before, of the naming of the valley, as proposed by Dr. Bunnell, on the night of its first entrance by white people, May 5th or 6th, 1851, [Editor’s note: March 27, 1851—see previous chapter.] and naturally invited acquiescence in the privilege and right of its first visitors to give it a nomenclature most in accordance with their own expressed selection; hence, unquestioned concurrence in perpetuating the now well-established name, “Yo Semite.”

Before fully closing these inquiries, it may not be inappropriate to consider why preference is given here to the construction of the word Yo Semite with a capital S on its second syllable. It is this: Dr. Bunnell, to whom the world is indebted for the choice and adoption of this euphonious name, so gave it to the writer, some thirty years ago, and before the present slovenly way of spelling it came into practice. It is true, Dr. Bunnell, in his valuable work, "The Discovery of the Yosemite,” has fallen into that habit; but, when asked his reasons for making the change, replied, “I allowed the printer to follow his own way of spelling it. Yours, however, is the correct one, and I must give you credit for keeping up its pure orthography, that being the construction given to it, and agreed upon, at our first camp-fire in Yo Semite in 1851.” The Act of Congress making the donation of the valley to the State, so gives it.


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