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Chapter One.


During the past few years a rapidly growing interest in the native Indians has been manifested by a large majority of visitors to the Yosemite Valley. They have evinced a great desire to see them in their rudely constructed summer camps, and to purchase some articles of their artistic basket and bead work, to take away as highly prized souvenirs.

They are also anxious to learn something of their former modes of life, habits and domestic industries, before their original tribal relations were ruthlessly broken up by the sudden advent of the white population of gold miners and others in 1850, and the subsequent war, in which the Indians were defeated, and, as a result, nearly exterminated.


According to statements made by Teneiya (Ten-eye´-ya 1) chief of the Yosemites, to Dr. L. H. Bunnell, and published by him in his book on the “Discovery of the Yosemite,” the original Indian name of the Valley was Ah-wah´-nee, which has been translated as “deep grassy valley,” and the Indians living there were called Ah-wah-nee´-chees, which signified “dwellers in Ah-wah´-nee.” [Editor’s note: the correct meaning of Ahwahnee is “(gaping) mouth.” See “Origin of the Place Name Yosemite”—dea.]

Many years ago, the old chief said, the Ah-wah-nee´-chees had been a large and powerful tribe, but by reason of wars and a fatal black sickness, nearly all had been destroyed, and the survivors of the band fled from the Valley and joined other tribes.

For years afterwards this locality was uninhabited, but finally Teneiya, who claimed to be descended from an Ah-wah-nee´-chee

2,634 Feet.

Photograph by Fiske.

Near the foot of these falls was located the village of Ah-wah´-nee, the Indian capital and residence of Chief Teneiya. There were eight other villages in the Valley.

chief, left the Mo´nos, where he had been born and brought up, and, gathering some of his father’s old tribe around him, visited the Valley and claimed it as the birthright of his people. He then became the founder of a new tribe or band, which received the name “Yo-sem´-i-te.” This word signifies a full-grown grizzly bear, and Teneiya said that the name had been given to his band because they occupied the mountains and valleys which were the favorite resort of the grizzly bears, and his people were expert in killing them; that his tribe had adopted the name because those who had bestowed it were afraid of the grizzlies, and also feared his band.

The Yosemites were perhaps the most warlike of any of the tribes in this part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, who were, as a rule, a peaceful people, dividing the territory among them, and indulging in few controversies. In fact, these Indians in general were less belligerent and warlike than any others on the Pacific Coast. When difficulties arose, they were usually settled peacefully by arbitration, in a grand council of the chiefs and head men of the tribes involved, without resorting to open hostilities.


Other bands of Indians in the vicinity of the Yosemite Valley were the Po-ho-nee´-chees, who lived near the headwaters of the Po-ho´-no or Bridal Veil Creek in summer, and on the South Fork of the Merced´ River in winter, about twelve miles below Wawo´na; the Po-to-en´-cies who lived on the Merced River; Wil-tuc-um´-nees, Tuol´-umne River; Noot´-choos and Chow-chil´-las, Chowchilla Valley; Ho-na´ches and Me´-woos, Fresno River and vicinity; and Chook-chan´-ces, San Joaquin River and vicinity.

These tribes, including the Yosemites, were all somewhat affiliated by common ancestry or by intermarriage, and were similar in their general characteristics and customs. They were all called by the early California settlers, “Digger Indians,” as a term of derision, on account of their not being good fighters, and from their practice of digging the tuberous roots of certain native plants, for food.


Dr. Bunnell, in his book already referred to, has given the soldiers’ and white men’s account of the cause of the Indian war of 1851, but a statement of the grievances on the part of the Indians, which caused the uniting of all the different tribes in the mining region adjacent to Yosemite, in an attempt to drive the white invaders from their country, has never been published, and a brief account of these grievances may be interesting.


The first parties of prospecting miners, were welcomed by the Indians with their usual friendliness and hospitality toward strangers—a universal characteristic of these tribes,—and the mining for gold was watched with great interest. They soon learned the value of the gold dust, and some of them engaged in mining, and exchanged their gold at the trading stations for blankets and fancy trinkets, at an enormous profit to the traders, and peace and good feeling prevailed for a short time.

The reports, of the rich gold “diggin’s” on the waters of the Tuolumne, Merced, Mariposa, Chowchilla, and Fresno Rivers, soon spread, and miners by thousands came and took possession of the whole country, paying no regard to the natural rights or wishes of the Indians.

Some of the Indian chiefs made the proposition that if the miners would give them some of the gold which they found in their part of the country, they might stay and work. This offer was not listened to by the miners, and a large majority of the white invaders treated the natives as though they had no rights whatever to be respected. In some instances, where Indians had found and were working good mining claims, they were forcibly driven away by white miners, who took possession of their claims and worked them.

Moreover, the Indians saw that their main sources of food supply were being rapidly destroyed. The oak trees, which produced the acorns—one of their staple articles of food,—were being cut down and burned by miners and others in clearing up land for cultivation, and the deer and other


AN INDIAN DANCER.  Chow-chil-la Indian in full war-dance costume.
Chow-chil-la Indian in full war-dance costume.

Copyrighted Photograph by Boysen.
[Editor’s note: Francisco Georgley—dea.]


food game were being rapidly killed off or driven from the locality.

In the “early days,” before California was admitted as a free State into the Union, it was reported, and was probably true, that some of the immigrants from the slave-holding States took Indians and made slaves of them in working their mining claims. It was no uncommon event for the sanctity of their homes and families to be invaded by some of the “baser sort,” and young women taken, willing or not, for servants and wives.


In retaliation, and as some, compensation for these many grievous outrages upon their natural inalienable rights of domain and property, and their native customs, the Indians stole horses and mules from the white settlers, and killed them for food for their families, who, in many instances, were in a condition of starvation.

Finally the chiefs and leading men of all the tribes involved met in a grand council, and resolved to combine their warrior forces in one great effort to drive all their white enemies from the country, before they became more numerous and formidable.


To prepare for this struggle for existence, they made raids upon some of the principal trading posts in the mining sections, killed those in charge, took all the blankets, clothing and provisions they could carry away, and fled to the mountains, where they were soon pursued by the soldiers and volunteer citizens, and a spirited battle was fought without any decisive advantage to either side.

The breaking out of actual hostilities created great excitement among the whites, and an urgent call was made upon the Governor of the State for a military force to meet the emergency, and protect the settlers—a force strong enough to thoroughly subdue the Indians, and remove all of them to reservations to be selected by the United States Indian Commissioners for that purpose.

Meantime the Governor and the Commissioners, who had then arrived, were receiving numerous communications, many of them from persons in high official positions, earnestly urging a more humane and just policy, averring that the Indians had real cause for complaint, that they had been “more sinned against than sinning” since the settling of California by the whites, and that they were justly entitled to protection by the Government and compensation for the spoliations and grievances they had suffered.

These protests doubtless had some influence in delaying hostile measures, and in the inauguration of efforts to induce the Indians to come in and treat with the Commissioners, envoys being sent out to assure them of fair treatment and personal safety. Many of the Indians accepted these offers, and, as the different tribes surrendered, they were taken to the two reservations which the Commissioners had established for them on the Fresno River, the principal one being a few miles above the place where the town of Madera is now located.

As before stated, these Indians were not a warlike people. Their only weapons were their bows and arrows, and these they soon found nearly useless in defending themselves at long range against soldiers armed with rifles. Moreover, their stock of provisions was so limited that they either had to surrender or starve.


The Yosemites and one or two other bands of Indians had refused to surrender, and had retreated to their mountain strongholds, where they proposed to make a last determined resistance. Active preparations were accordingly made by the State authorities to follow them, and either capture or exterminate all the tribes involved. For this purpose a body of State volunteers, known as the Mariposa Battalion, was organized, under the command of Major James D. Savage, to pursue these tribes into the mountains; and, after many long marches and some fighting, the Indians were all defeated, captured, and, with their women and children, put upon the reservations under strong military guard.

It was during this campaign that Major Savage and his men discovered the Yosemite Valley, about the 21st of March, 1851, while in pursuit of the Yosemites, under old Chief Teneiya, for whom Lake Teneiya and Teneiya Canyon have appropriately been named.


3,900 Feet.

Photograph by Foley.

Named by the soldiers who discovered the Valley, to commemorate the capture of the three sons of Teneiya near this place. The Indian name means “Falling Rocks.”


2:1 The Indian names are usually pronounced exactly as spelled, with each syllable distinctly sounded, and the principal accent on the penult, as in Ah-wah´-nee, or the antepenult, as in Yo-sem´-i-te. Where doubt might exist, the accent will be indicated, or the pronunciation given in parenthesis.

[ Next: Chapter 2: Effects of the War. | Contents | Previous: Introduction & Sketch of the Author ]

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management