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One Hundred Years in Yosemite (1947) by Carl P. Russell

The First Drawing Made in Yosemite. By Thomas A. Ayers, 1855.

By Thomas A. Ayers, 1855

The First Drawing Made in Yosemite




Woodcut from the first edition (1931)
Woodcut from the first edition (1931)

That picturesque type known as the American trapper ushered in the opening event of Sierra Nevada history. True, the Spaniards of the previous century had viewed the “snowy range of mountains,” had applied the name Sierra Nevada, and even had visited its western base. But penetration of the wild and snowy fastness awaited the coming of Americans.

In the opening decades of the nineteenth century the entire American West was occupied by scattered bands of trappers. From the ranks of the “Fur Brigade” came Jedediah Strong Smith, a youthful fur trader, not yet thirty years old but experienced in his profession and well educated for his time. In the summer of 1826 he took his place at the head of a party of men organized to explore the unknown region lying between Great Salt Lake and the California coast. Smith’s leadership of this party gave him a first place in the history of the Sierra Nevada. His party left the Salt Lake rendezvous on August 22, 1826. A southwest course was followed across the deserts of Utah and Nevada, penetrating the Mojave country and the Cajon Pass. On November 27 they went into camp near Mission San Gabriel. Smith was thus the first American to make the transcontinental journey to California, the harbinger of a great overland human flood.

The Spanish governor of California refused to permit the party to travel north as Smith had planned. Instead, he instructed that they should quit California by the route used in entering. Reinforced with food, clothing, and horses supplied by the friendly Mission San Gabriel, Smith returned to the neighborhood of the Cajon Pass. It was not his intention, however, to be easily deterred in his plan to explore California. He followed the Sierra Madre to the junction of the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada and entered the San Joaquin Valley. He found the great interior valley inhabited by large numbers of Indians, who were in no way hostile or dangerous. There were “few beaver and elk, deer and antelope in abundance.” Reaching one of the streams flowing from the mountains, he determined to cross the Sierra Nevada and return to Great Salt Lake. Smith called this stream the Wimmelche after a tribe of Indians by that name who inhabited the region thereabouts. C. Hart Merriam has established the fact that Smith’s “Wimmelche” is the Kings River, and the time of his arrival there as February of 1827. Since the passes of the Sierra in this region are never open before the advent of summer, it is not surprising that his party failed in this attempted crossing of the range. Authorities have differed in their interpretation of Smith’s writing regarding his ultimate success in traversing the Sierra, but there is little doubt that he crossed north of the Yosemite region, perhaps as far north as the American River.

Smith was, then, the first white man known to have crossed the Sierra Nevada. His pathfinding exploits did not take him into the limits of the present Yosemite National Park, but because his manuscript maps were made available to government officials who influenced later expeditions and because he was the first to explore the mountain region of which the Yosemite is an outstanding feature, his expedition provides the opening story in any account of Yosemite affairs.

Smith’s explorations paved the way for a notable influx of American trappers to the valleys west of the Sierra Nevada. Smith, in fact, returned to California that same summer. Pattie, Young, Ogden, Wolfskill, Jackson, and Walker all brought parties to the new fields during the first five years following the Smith venture. Fur traders informed the settlers in the western states of the easy life in California and enticed them with stories of the undeveloped resources of the Pacific slope. Pioneers were then occupying much of the country just west of the Missouri, and a gradual tide of westward emigration brought attention first to Oregon and then to California.

The presence of Americans in California greatly annoyed the Mexican officials of the country. The fears of these officials were justified, for the trappers scarcely concealed their desire to overthrow Mexican authority and assume control themselves. To add to the threatened confusion, revolt brewed among the Mexicans who held the land.

In 1832 Captain B. L. E. Bonneville secured leave of absence from the United States Army and launched a private venture in exploring and trapping. One Joseph Reddeford Walker, who had achieved fame as a frontiersman, was engaged by Bonneville to take charge of a portion of his command. Walker’s party of explorers was ordered to cross the desert west of Great Salt Lake and visit California. Reliable knowledge of the Sierra Nevada and the first inkling of the existence of Yosemite Valley resulted from this expedition, made in 1833.

Joseph Walker, born in 1798 on the Tennessee River near the present Knoxville, Tennessee, had moved westward with the advancing frontier in 1818 to the extreme western boundary of Missouri. There he and his brothers rented government land near the Indian Factory, Fort Osage. They put in a crop and during slack seasons mingled with the Osages and the Kanzas Indians. Here Walker formed his first ideas of trade with the Indians—ideas which bore fruit during his later experiences on the Santa Fe Trail and with the fur brigades in the Rocky Mountains.

Early in 1831, Walker, enroute southward from his home to buy horses, stopped at Fort Gibson in the heart of the Cherokee Nation in the eastern part of the present Oklahoma. Several companies of the 7th U. S. Infantry were stationed here. This circumstance brought about a sequence of events which left permanent marks upon Walker’s personal career and upon the history of the American West. Captain B. L. E. Bonneville was in command of B Company of the 7th Infantry. Bonneville confided in Walker that the government was about to place him on detached service in order that he might conduct a private expedition into the Rocky Mountains for furs and geographical data. He asked Walker to join him as guide and counselor. To this proposal Walker acceded enthusiastically and proceeded forthwith to organize the equipment and personnel needed for the venture.

On the first of May, 1832, Bonneville and Walker led westward a caravan of twenty wagons attended by one hundred and ten mounted trappers, hunters, and servants from the Missouri River landing where Fort Osage had once stood. Out upon the Kansas plains they went, up the Platte, to the Sweetwater, and through South Pass. In the valleys of the Green and the Snake they trapped and traded through the winter and spring of 1832-33. After the rendezvous on the Green in July, 1883, Walker was named by Bonneville to be the leader of the now famous Walker expedition to the Pacific.

The reports of Jedediah Smith on his trip of 1826 to California and the much talked about adventures of Smith, as discussed by the mountain men, seem to have been decisive factors which influenced Bonneville to authorize this ambitious undertaking. The fact that a scant 4,000 pounds of beaver was all he had to show for his campaign of the past year also may have contributed to his determination to take another fling at exploration, trapping, and the trade. Walker’s California party consisted of fifty men, with four horses each, a year’s supply of food, ammunition, and trade goods. Zenas Leonard and George Nidever, two free trappers who had joined the Bonneville crowd at the Green River rendezvous, were selected as members of the Walker party. Both were to become conspicuous in California history by virtue of their writings.

Because Walker was the first white man to lead a party of explorers to the brink of Yosemite’s cliffs, he is given a first place in Yosemite history. It is worthwhile to record here some of the appraisals of Walker, the man, made by his contemporaries and companions.

Zenas Leonard, clerk of the Walker party, wrote, “Mr. Walker was a man well calculated to undertake a business of this kind [the California expedition]. He was well hardened to the hardships of the wilderness—understood the character of the Indians very well . . . was kind and affable to his men, but at the same time at liberty to command without giving offence . . . and to explore unknown regions was his chief delight.”

Washington Irving said of Walker, “About six feet high, strong built, dark complexioned, brave in spirit, though mild in manners. He had resided for many years in Missouri, on the frontier; had been among the earliest adventurers to Santa Fe, where he went to trap beaver, and was taken by the Spaniards. Being liberated, he engaged with the Spaniards and Sioux Indians in a war against the Pawnees; then returned to Missouri, and had acted by turns as sheriff, trader, trapper, until he was enlisted as a leader by Captain Bonneville.”

Hubert Howe Bancroft, the historian, estimated, “Captain Joe Walker was one of the bravest and most skillful of the mountain men; none was better acquainted than he with the geography or the native tribes of the Great Basin; and the was withal less boastful and pretentious than most of his class”

Walker’s biographer, Douglas S. Watson, referring to Bonneville’s effort to blame the financial failure of his western enterprises upon a scapegoat, stated, “Whatever may have been Bonneville’s purpose in besmirching Walker in which Irving so willingly lent himself, he has hardly succeeded, for where one person today knows the name Bonneville, thousands regard Captain Joseph Reddeford Walker as one of the foremost of western explorers, worthy to be grouped with Jedediah Strong Smith and Ewing Young as the trilogy responsible for the march of this nation to the shores of the Pacific; the true pathfinders.”

Walker’s perseverance in completing his California journey grew out of a solemn determination to make a personal contribution to the expansion of the United States westward to the Pacific. His cavalcade crossed the Great Basin west of Great Salt Lake via the valley of the Humboldt and, passing south by Carson Lake and the Bridgeport Valley, struck westward into the Sierra Nevada. The exact course they took across the Sierra has been a matter of conjecture; some students have attempted to identify it with the Truckee route, and others have maintained that no ascent was made until the party reached the stream now known as Walker River. It seems probable that they climbed the eastern flank of the Sierra by one of the southern tributaries of the East Walker River. Once over the crest of the range, they traveled west along the divide between the Tuolumne and the Merced rivers directly into the heart of the present Yosemite National Park.

In Leonard’s narrative is found the following very significant comment regarding the crossing:

We travelled a few miles every day, still on top of the mountain, and our course continually obstructed with snow hills and rocks. Here we began to encounter in our path many small streams which would shoot out from under these high snow-banks, and after running a short distance in deep chasms which they have through the ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below. Some of these precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high. Some of the men thought that if we could succeed in descending one of these precipices to the bottom, we might thus work our way into the valley below—but on making several attempts we found it utterly impossible for a man to descend, to say nothing of our horses. We were then obliged to keep along the top of the dividing ridge between two of these chasms which seemed to lead pretty near in the direction we were going—which was west,—in passing over the mountain, supposing it to run north and south.

[Editor’s note: today historians generally believe the Walker party looked down The Cascades, which are just west of Yosemite Valley, instead of Yosemite Valley itself.—dea]

Walker’s tombstone, in Martinez, California, bears the inscription, “Camped at Yosemite Nov. 13, 1833.” Leonard’s description of their route belies the idea of his having camped in Yosemite Valley, and the date is obviously an error as there is reliable evidence that Walker had reached the San Joaquin plain before this date. L. H. Bunnell in his Discovery of the Yosemite records the following regarding Walker’s route and his Yosemite camp sites:

The topography of the country over which the Mono Trail ran, and which was followed by Capt. Walker, did not admit of his seeing the valley proper. The depression indicating the valley, and its magnificent surroundings, could alone have been discovered, and in Capt. Walker’s conversations with me at various times while encamped between Coulterville and the Yosemite, he was manly enough to say so. Upon one occasion I told Capt. Walker that Ten-ie-ya had said that, “A small party of white men once crossed the mountains on the north side, but were so guided as not to see the Valley proper.” With a smile the Captain said, “That was my party, but I was not deceived, for the lay of the land showed there was a valley below; but we had become nearly barefooted, our animals poor, and ourselves on the verge of starvation; so we followed down the ridge to Bull Creek, where, killing a deer, we went into camp.”

Francis Farquhar, in his article, “Walker’s Discovery of Yosemite,” analyzes the problem of Walker’s route through the Yosemite region and shows clearly that the Walker party was not guided by Indians. He concludes quite rightly that Bunnell was not justified in depriving Walker of the distinction of discovering Yosemite Valley. Douglas S. Watson, in his volume, West Wind: The Life of Joseph Reddeford Walker, offers further evidence to this end.

It requires no great stretch of the imagination to visualize scouts along the flanks of the Walker party coming out upon the brink of Yosemite Valley and looking down in wonder upon the plunging waters of Yosemite Falls and, perhaps, venturing to the edge of the Hetch Hetchy. In any case we have in the 1839 account by Leonard the first authentic printed reference to the Yosemite region. Another passage from this narrative must be quoted here:

In the last two days travelling we have found some trees of the Redwood species, incredibly large—some of which would measure from 16 to 18 fathom round the trunk at the height of a man’s head from the ground.

This is the first published mention of the Big Trees of the Sierra. If we accept Bunnell’s contention that the Walker party camped at Bull Creek (Hazel Green), we will also agree that the party followed the old Mono Trail of the Indians. This route would have taken them near the Merced Grove of Big Trees. There is probably no way of determining definitely whether the Merced Grove, the Tuolumne Grove, or both, were seen by Walker’s men, but this incident so casually mentioned is clearly the discovery of the famous Big Trees, and here for the first time is a scholarly record of observations made in the present Yosemite National Park. We may accept Leonard’s writings as the earliest document in Yosemite history and the Walker party as the discoverer of both the Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia gigantea.

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