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Lights and Shadows of Yosemite (1926) by Katherine Ames Taylor


Discovery of Yosemite by the White Men

Military business, and not luck, led to the discovery of Yosemite Valley by white men.

In 1851 the Mariposa Battalion was organized, with Major James D. Savage in command, for a punitive expedition into the mountains back of Fresno against Chief Tenaya and his stubborn band of Yosemite Indians, who had been killing miners and pillaging their supplies and stores in the placer mining region west of Yosemite. Tenaya defied the Government’s demands to come down into the reservations provided for the Indians.

It was on a March afternoon in 1851 that this small band of men looked down from Inspiration Point, on the old Indian trail, and saw for the first time what John Muir so justly calls “the Incomparable Valley.” It had been a long and hazardous journey, with the rather terrifying Unknown ahead of them, and it is quite likely that the majority of those rugged, practical-minded men gave a nod or two of appreciation, like their predecessors, the Indians, then hastened on down the trail to pitch camp before night fell.

Only Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell, out of that pioneer group, was deeply impressed by the beauty and wonder which stretched before them. He left the trail and wallowed through snow to the edge of the cliff so that he might enjoy more fully the view before him. Lost in his emotions, he was recalled to reality by the voice of Major Savage, who exhorted him to come out of his dream before he lost his scalp to some inhospitable Indian. And when, in a burst of eloquence, he tried to communicate some of his sensations to the Major, he was cut short good-humoredly with a “Hold up, Doc! You are soaring too high for me. This is rough riding; we had better mind this devilish trail, or we shall go soaring over some of these slippery rocks.”

But after camp had been pitched, in the shelter of a great rock beside the Merced River, commanding a view of El Capitan across the water, and a hearty meal had been consumed, the men gathered about the roaring camp fires in a more appreciative mood. Dr.

Yosemite Valley, frosted with snow as seen in winter from Artist Point, the view first seen by the discoverers. PHOTO BY GEO. E. STONE
PHOTO BY GEO. E. STONE
[click to enlarge]
Yosemite Valley, frosted with snow as seen in winter from Artist Point, the view first seen by the discoverers
Bunnell was still absorbed in the wonders of his surroundings, and it was he who suggested that the name of Yosemite be given the valley, after the Indians who had made it their home for so many years. And that night, by a unanimous vote, the valley was so baptized, with El Capitan as a silent witness.

Early the next morning the Mariposa Battalion began an exploration of the valley in the pursuit of the Indians. At the foot of El Capitan they found the first Indian camp, within hailing distance and spying distance of the first white men’s camp in the valley, with indications that it had been occupied the night before by the Indians. At the mouth of Indian Canyon, site of the present-day Indian Village, a second camp was found, a third beneath the Royal Arches, and a fourth at the base of Half Dome at the entrance to Tenaya Canyon. All evidence pointed to a hasty and recent flight, while in nearly every camp were found articles stolen from miners.

But the only Indian captured was a decrepit squaw, who had been unable to scramble up the rocks with her kinsmen. After burning the caches of acorns and stored foods, in the hopes of starving the Indians out of the mountains, the Mariposa Battalion made camp a second night, preparing to return to the lowlands the following day.

When the various scouting parties of the expedition compared notes on the scenic splendors of this Indian stronghold, the outstanding feature in the minds of the majority, after their many forced fordings of the Merced River, seems to have been that there was very much water in the valley, and very cold water! None of them, with the possible exception of Dr. Bunnell, felt the urge to stay and pitch a pleasure camp there. That second night, about their camp fire, various estimates were made of the height of El Capitan. They ranged anywhere from the simple-minded guess of 400 feet to the absurdity suggested by a much-traveled foreigner, and sustained by Dr. Bunnell, that it might be as much as 1500 feet! Which is, in fact, less than half of its actual height of 3600 feet!

Such was the first visit of white men to Yosemite to be followed in May by a second expedition of volunteers, under Captain Boling,

Nevada Falls plunges 594 feet with an ever changing series of comet-like sprays. PHOTO BY GEO. E. STONE
PHOTO BY GEO. E. STONE
[click to enlarge]
Nevada Falls plunges 594 feet with an ever changing series of comet-like sprays
one which succeeded in capturing and bringing into the reservation Tenaya and his followers.

In 1925 a bronze plaque was erected on the site of the first white man’s camp in Yosemite by the California State Medical Association to the memory of Dr. Bunnell of that pioneer party. Dr. Bunnell visited the Valley a number of times and wrote a book which is the best authority for incidents surrounding the discovery of Yosemite and for its early history. A huge overhanging rock, close to the bank of the Merced River, opposite El Capitan, was the site of this camp. It is blackened from the smoke of many camp fires since that time and suggests poignantly the blaze about which the Mariposa Battalion gathered, while just across the river flickered the protected fire of the hostile and stealthy Indians.

Royal Archer, in Yosemite Valley, with North Dome, 7,531 feet high in the background. PHOTO BY ANSEL ADAMS
PHOTO BY ANSEL ADAMS
[click to enlarge]
Royal Archer, in Yosemite Valley, with North Dome, 7,531 feet high in the background


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