Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: PioneersContentsPrevious: Mariposa Hills

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




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

The entire story of very early events in the Yosemite region is pervaded by the spirit of one individual. In spite of the fact that no historian has chronicled the events of his brief but exciting career, the name of James D. Savage is legendary throughout the region of the Southern Mines. It has been the ambition of more than one writer of California history to pin down the fables of this pioneer and to establish his true life story on stable supports of authentic source. Scattered through the literature of the gold days are sketchy accounts of his exploits, and rarely narratives of firsthand experiences with his affairs may be found. Before relating Savage definitely to Yosemite itself we shall do well to consider his personal history.

During the beginning years of the gold excitement, his fame spread throughout the camps and to the ports upon which the mines depended for supplies. Savage was the subject of continual gossip, conjecture, and acclaim. His career was short, but it was crowded with thrilling happenings and terminated with violence in a just cause. Throughout it, Savage was brave— a man born to lead.

Because he played a leading role in the discovery of Yosemite Valley, national park officials have been energetic in their attempt to complete his life story and give it adequate representation in the Yosemite Museum. For several years, as historical material had been accumulating there, and details of most events in the Yosemite drama unfolded and took their proper place in the exhibits, Savage still remained a mystery.

At last there came a Yosemite visitor who was descended from the grandfather of James D. Savage. This lady, Ida Savage Bolles, after learning of the local interest in her relative, communicated with yet another relative, who today resides in the same Middle Western state from which “Jim” Savage came. The result was that Mrs. Louise Savage Ireland took up the challenge and devoted many months to the determining of the California pioneer’s ancestry. To her we acknowledge indebtedness for her persevering search, which involved considerable travel and correspondence. Not only did she reveal the ancestry of Jim Savage, but she located a “delightful old lady” who, as a girl, knew Jim of California fame. This unexpected biographical material provides firsthand information about the youth of James D. Savage such as has not been obtained from any living Californian who knew him in his halcyon days.

The following story of the life of the first white man to enter Yosemite Valley, though incomplete, is much more comprehensive than anything that has previously appeared in print, and is, we believe, gathered from sources1 [1Foremost among the references is L. H. Bunnell’s Discovery of the Yosemite, published in 1880. Bunnell was closely associated with Savage during three of his most active years in the Mariposa region; his account is intimate and rich in detail and unprejudiced. We catch an interesting glimpse of Savage, the ’forty-niner, through the pages also of George H. Tinkham’s California Men and Events. Something additional of his gold mining and trading is gleaned from the writings of W. E. Wilde and S. P. Elias. Elliott’s History of Fresno County contributes a number of authenticated incidents, and J. M. Hutchings reveals matters regarding influences that undoubtedly figured in his tragic death. United States Senate documents record his official dealings with the Indians; L. A. Winchell gives some information on his enemies; contemporary newspapers describe his meeting with death; and finally Depositions from the Papers of Geo. W. Wright, One of Two First Congressmen from California, provides papers pertaining to the Court of Claims, 1858, in which appears sworn testimony regarding the shooting of Savage. This last paper formed a part of the Boutwell Dunlap Collection. ] wholly dependable.

James D. Savage was one of six children born to Peter Savage and Doritha Shaunce. Henry C. Pratt of Virginia, Illinois, a second cousin, writes, “My mother, Emily Savage, born in 1817, and her cousin, James Savage, were near the same age.” This is the best approximation of his age contained in the biographical material accumulated by Mrs. Ireland. The parent, Peter Savage, went by ox cart and raft from Cayuga County, New York, to Jacksonville, Morgan County, Illinois, in 1822. Sixteen years lated Peter’s family removed to Princeton, Bureau County, Illinois.

Mrs. Ireland in her quest met Mrs. Sarah Seton Porter of Princeton, who at the time of the interview in 1928 was ninety-eight years old. Mrs. Porter knew James D. Savage as a youth. She recalls that

Jim Savage was grown when his father, Peter, brought the family to Princeton from Morgan County. Jim was smart as a whip, shrewd, apt in picking up languages, such as German and French— for both tongues were spoken here, the two races having settlements in and about Princeton. He was vigorous and strong, had blue eyes and a magnificent physique, loved all kinds of sports engaged in in his day, was tactful, likable, and interesting. . . .

Sometimes Jim would come to church, but, oh, he was such a wag of a youth. More often than not, he would remain outside, and when he knew time had come for prayer, he’d flick the knees of his horse and make him kneel, too, and then wink at us inside. We couldn’t laugh of course, but we always watched for this trick of Jim’s. He got such a lot of fun out of doing it.

Savage took a wife, Eliza, and settled in Peru, Illinois. A daughter was born to this union. He and his brother, Morgan, were caught in the wave of California fever that affected many of the border settlements in the ’forties and they joined one of the overland parties in 1846. Lydia Savage Healy, another second cousin, expresses the opinion that the brothers joined Frémont’s third expedition. However, since it is known that Savage’s wife and child made the start, it is evident that they were with one of the parties of emigrants who, that year, made the journey. Mrs. Porter, then Sarah Seton, with two brothers and a sister drove from Princeton to Peru to bid them farewell.

On this journey, “suffering and discouragement went hand in hand.” The wife and child did not survive the trip. Only the physically fit endured the hardships, and among these were Savage and his brother. By what route they entered California is not known, but S. P. Elias reports that Savage

volunteered beneath the Bear flag and fought through the war against the Mexicans. A member of Frémont’s battalion, he was with Frémont both in Oregon and in California. After peace and before the discovery of gold, and shortly after the disbanding of Frémont’s battalion, he went to the south, settled among the Indians, and through José and Jésus, two of the most powerful chiefs in the valley of the San Joaquin, he established an intimacy with the principal tribes. By his indomitable energy, capability of endurance, and personal prowess he acquired a complete mastery over them to such an extent that he was elected chief of several of the tribes. He obtained great influence over the Indians of the lowlands and led them successfully against their mountain enemies, conquering a peace wherever he forayed.

In any event, when Frémont and Pico put their signatures to the Cahuenga peace treaty on January 13, 1847, the Mexican War, so far as California was concerned, was at an end. Frémont’s battalion was disbanded, and we may believe, with Elias, that James D. Savage then established his intimacy with the principal Indian tribes of the San Joaquin.

His aptitude for “picking up languages” apparently came to the fore, for he mastered the Indian dialect and extended his influence until it amounted to something of a barbaric despotism. The Indians acknowledged his authority, and he, no doubt, improved their condition. In the wars with the mountain tribes Savage’s tactics won them victories, and he brought about progress, generally.

Prior to the gold rush, his territory was seldom visited by whites, but early in 1848, hardly a year subsequent to his conquest of the Indians, there poured in that flood of miners which transformed the entire picture. Savage adapted himself to it forthwith, and soon his name was on the lips of everyone. When he let it be known among his Indian followers that he would like to acquire a lot of the yellow metal, the squaws set to work and turned the product of their labors into the lap of the white chief. W. E. Wilde writes that Savage was associated with the Rev. James Woods in 1848 and that he and his Indians were working the gravel deposits at what became known as Big Oak Flat. It was here that a white Texan stabbed Luturio, one of the Indian leaders, and the Texan in turn was killed by the Indians. Savage, knowing the potentialities of enraged Indians, pacified them and withdrew with them to other localities.

George H. Tinkham next throws a spotlight on Savage at Jamestown in May (?) 1849. Cornelius Sullivan related to Tinkham that

under a brushwood tent, supported by upright poles, sat James D. Savage, measuring and pouring gold dust into the candle boxes by his side. Five hundred or more naked Indians, with belts of cloth bound around their waists or suspended from their heads brought the dust to Savage, and in return for it received a bright piece of cloth or some beads.

Just how much gold dust Savage acquired was never reported, but that it was an enormous amount is not to be questioned. For some two years his army of Indian followers busied themselves in gleaning the creeks and ravines of the foothills, and considering the facility with which gold could be gathered it is small wonder that he was reputed to have barrels fall of it.

We learn from L. H. Bunnell, one of Savage’s intimate acquaintances of long standing, that in 1849-1850 Savage had established his trading post at the mouth of the South Fork of the Merced, not more than fifteen miles below Yosemite Valley, and on the line of the present Merced-Yosemite highway.

At this point, engaged in gold mining, he had employed a party of native Indians. Early in the season of 1850 his trading-post and mining camp were attacked by a band of the Yosemite Indians. This tribe, or band, claimed the territory in that vicinity, and attempted to drive Savage off. Their real object, however, was plunder. They were considered treacherous and dangerous, and were very troublesome to the miners generally.

Savage and his Indian miners repulsed the attack and drove off the marauders, but from this occurrence he no longer deemed this location desirable. Being fully aware of the murderous propensities of his assailants, he removed to Mariposa Creek, not far from the junction of the Agua Fria, and near to the site of the old stone fort. Soon after, he established a branch post on the Fresno, where the mining prospects became most encouraging, as the high water subsided in that stream. This branch station was placed in charge of a man by the name of Greeley.

This event on the South Fork constitutes the initial step in the hostilities that were to result in Savage’s renown as the discoverer of Yosemite Valley. Since he had remained so close to the remarkable canyon for some months prior to the Indian attack, and because the threatening Indians frequently boasted of a “deep valley in which one Indian is more than ten white men,” Bunnell once asked Savage whether he had ever entered the mysterious place. Savage’s words were: “Last year while I was located at the mouth of the South Fork of the Merced, I was attacked by the Yosemites, but with the Indian miners I had in my employ, drove them off, and followed some of them up the Merced River into a canyon, which I supposed led to their stronghold, as the Indians then with me said it was not a safe place to go into. From the appearance of this rocky gorge I had no difficulty in believing them. Fearing an ambush, I did not follow them. It was on this account that I changed my location to Mariposa Creek. I would like to get into the den of the thieving murderers. If ever I have a chance I will smoke out the Grizzly Bears [the Yosemites] from their holes, where they are thought to be so secure.”

Savage built up an exceedingly prosperous business at his trading posts on the Fresno and on Mariposa Creek. He stocked his stores with merchandise from San Francisco Bay and exchanged the goods at enormous profits for the gold brought in by the Indians. An ounce of gold bought a can of oysters, five pounds of flour, or a pound of bacon; a shirt required five ounces, and a pair of boots or a hat brought a full pound of the precious metal. His customers included white prospectors as well as his subservient Indians, for the white men would agree to his exacting terms in preference to leaving their diggings to make a trip for supplies to the growing village of Mariposa.

The Indians never questioned the rate of exchange, for to them it seemed that their white chief was working miracles in providing quantities of desirable food and prized raiment in return for something that was to be had for the taking. To guarantee a continuance of cordial relations with his Indian friends, and to cement the alliance of several tribes, Savage had taken wives from among the young squaws of different tribes. Two of these were called Eekino and Homut. It is not known which tribes were represented in his household, but the wives are reported to have totaled five. If their bridal contract was recognized by all their tribesmen, it is not difficult to understand how Savage’s supporters numbered five hundred.

The Mariposa Creek store retinue of whites was thrown into a state of some agitation one fall day in 1850 when one of Savage’s wives confided the information that the mountain Indians were combining to wipe the whites from the hills. Confirmation of her rumor was obtained from some of the friendly bucks who had long followed Savage. These Indians declared that they had learned that the mountain tribe, the Yosemites, were ready to descend upon Savage again for the purpose of plunder and that they were maneuvering to secure the combined forces of other tribes.

Savage did not misunderstand the threat, as did some others of the white men. Hoping to impress the Indians with the wonders, numbers, and power of the whites, he conceived the idea of taking some of them to that milling base of supply, San Francisco. It is probable, too, that he planned to put some of his great store of accumulated gold in safekeeping on the same trip. Accordingly, he announced that he was going to “the Bay” for a new stock of goods and invited José Juarez, a chief of influence with the Chowchillas and Chukchansies, to accompany him. José accepted the invitation. With them went some of Savage’s dependable Indian friends, including a wife or two.

It was the occasion of this trip that provided the crowning touch for Savage’s reputation among the whites of all the gold camps. The story of the affair spread to as many localities as were represented in San Francisco’s picturesque population at the time of the visit, and legends of Jim Savage’s barrel of gold are handed down to this day. How large the barrel may have been it is now impossible to ascertain, but certainly a fabulous fortune traveled with the strange party.

They made their headquarters at the Revere House and became the sensation of the hour.2 [2 Bell (1927) records that the photographer, Vance, made pictures of Savage and his Indians on this occasion. ] The Indians arrayed themselves in gaudy finery and gorged themselves with costly viands and considerable liquor. To the great distress of Savage, José maintained himself in a state of drunkenness throughout most of their stay. In order to prevent disturbances Savage locked him up on one occasion and when he was somewhat sobered remonstrated with him. José flew into an excited rage, became abusive with his tongue, and finally disclosed his secret of the war against the whites. Savage knocked him down.

The party remained to witness the celebration of the admission of California into the Union on October 29, 1850. Savage deposited his gold in exchange for goods to be delivered as needed, gilded his already colorful visit with enough gambling and reckless spending to stagger the residents, and gathered his retinue for the return journey.

José had maintained a silence and dignity ever after the violent quarrel with his chief.

No sooner had they reached the foothill territory from which they had traveled a fortnight before than they were greeted with news of Indian threats. As the Fresno station maintained by Savage seemed to be in immediate danger, the party went there at once. Numerous Indians were about, but all seemed quiet. However, the white agents employed by Savage revealed that the Indians were no longer trading.

Savage thereupon invited all Indians present to meet with him and proceeded at once to conduct a peaceful confab before his store. Addressing them he said:

“I know that some of the Indians do not wish to be friends with the white men and that they are trying to unite the different tribes for the purpose of a war. It is better for the Indians and white men to be friends. If the Indians make war on the white men, every tribe will be exterminated; not one will be left. I have just been where the white men are more numerous than the wasps and ants; and if war is made and the Americans are aroused to anger, every Indian engaged in the war will be killed before the whites will be satisfied.”

Having made himself clearly understood in the Indian language he turned to his fellow traveler, José, for confirmation of his statements regarding the power of the whites. José stepped forward and delivered himself of the following brief but energetic oration:

“Our brother has told his Indian relatives much that is truth; we have seen many people; the white men are very numerous; but the white men we saw on our visit are of many tribes; they are not like the tribe that dig gold in the mountains.” He then gave an absurd description of what he had seen while below, and continued: “Those white tribes will not come to the mountains. They will not help the gold diggers if the Indians make war against them. If the gold diggers go to the white tribes in the big village, they give their gold for strong water and games; when they have no more gold, the white tribes drive the gold diggers back to the mountains with clubs. They strike them down [referring to the police], as your white relative struck me while I was with him. The white tribes will not go to war with the Indians in the mountains. They cannot bring their big ships and big guns to us; we have no cause to fear them. They will not injure us.”

His climax came as a bold argument for the immediate declaration of war upon the whites.

Chief José Rey of the Chowchillas then contributed his plea for immediate hostilities, and Savage withdrew before the two hostile chiefs. Upon his return to the Mariposa Station, his appeals for immediate preparation for war were given small hearing by the whites. A few were inclined to scoff.

Close on the heels of the warnings, however, came news of an attack on the Fresno store. All the whites except the messenger who had brought the news were killed. The Mariposa Indian War was on.

Savage had gone to Horse Shoe Bend in the Merced Canyon to solicit aid. He had hoped to find a more attentive audience there than among the county officials at Agua Fria. In his absence his Mariposa store was burned, its three white attendants were killed, and his wives were carried off by the assailants.

Cassady, one of the rival traders who had scoffed at Savage’s first news of impending disaster, was surprised in his establishment and met quick death. Three other murderous attacks took place in the immediate vicinity, and the whites finally leaped to the defense of their holdings.

James Burney, the county sheriff, took a place at the head of a body of volunteers who had banded for mutual protection. On January 6, 1851, James D. Savage accompanied this party in an attack made upon an Indian encampment of several hundred squaws and bucks under the leadership of José Rey. This was the first organized movement of the whites against the Indians of the Mariposa Hills.

By this time Governor McDougal had issued a proclamation calling for volunteers, and the Mariposa Battalion came into existence. Savage was made major in full command. Three companies, under John J. Kuykendall, John Boling, and William Dill, were organized and drilled near Savage’s ruined Mariposa store. 3 [3 A muster roll of the Mariposa Battalion appears in Elliott, 1881, and in Russell, 1931, pp. 186-191. ] The affairs of this punitive body of men are dealt with in another chapter. Let it here suffice to say that its activities were especially directed against the mountain tribe of “Grizzlies,” and that on March 25, 1851, Savage and his men entered the mysterious stronghold, Yosemite Valley.

In 1928 it was my privilege to interview Maria Lebrado, one of the last members of the Yosemite tribe who experienced subjection by the whites. I eagerly sought ethnological and historical data, which was forthcoming in gratifying abundance. Purposely I had avoided questioning the aged squaw about Major Savage; but presently she asked, in jumbled English and Spanish, if I knew about the “Captain” of the white soldiers. She called him “Chowwis,” and described him as a blond chief whose light hair fell upon his shoulders and whose beard hung halfway to his waist. She had been much impressed by his commanding blue eyes and declared that his shirts were always red. To this member of the mountain tribe of Yosemite the Major was recalled as something of a thorn in her flesh. That he was a beloved leader of the foothill tribes she agreed, but hastened to explain that those Indians, too, were enemies of her people. Maria is the only person I have met who had seen Savage.

For five months Savage commanded the movements of the Mariposa Battalion. Its various units were active in the Sierra Summit region above Yosemite, at the headwaters of the Chowchilla, and on the upper reaches of the San Joaquin. In every encounter the Indians were defeated and they finally sued for peace. The prowess of Savage as a mountaineer and military leader is borne out in a letter, published in Alta California on June 12, 1851, in which the battalion’s sergeant major describes at length for the adjutant a foray at the headwaters of the San Joaquin:

. . . I am aware that you have been high up and deep in the mountains and snow yourself, but I believe this trip ranks all others. The Major himself has seen cañons and snow peaks this trip which he never saw before. It is astonishing what this man can endure. Traveling on day and night, through snow and over the mountains, without food, is not considered fatigue to him, and as you are well aware the boys will follow him as long as he leaves a sign.

The same Alta carries a resolution, signed by men in Dill’s and Boling’s companies, affirming in great detail their high confidence in Savage.

In addition to his activities with the battalion in the field, Major Savage functioned conspicuously in aiding the United States Indian Commissioners in preparing a peace treaty. He maintained a friendly attitude toward the oppressed Indians and, had the government made good its promises, or had the appropriations not been absorbed elsewhere, the tribes of the Sierra would have been more adequately provided for. The treaty, signed April 29, 1851, does not carry the “signatures” of Tenaya of the Yosemites or of the leader of the Chowchillas.

On July 1, 1851, the Mariposa Battalion was mustered out. Major Savage resumed his trading operations in a store on the Fresno River near Coarse Gold. In compliance with the treaty, a reservation for the Indians was set aside on the Fresno, and another on the Kings River. In the fall of 1851 the Fresno store was the polling place for a large number of voters for county officers. That winter Savage built Fort Bishop, near the Fresno reservation, and prepared to carry on a prosperous trade. He spoke as follows on this subject to L. H. Bunnell:

If I can make good my losses by the Indians out of the Indians, I am going to do it. I was the best friend the Indians had, and they would have destroyed me. Now that they once more call me “Chief,” they shall build me up. I will be just to them, as I have been merciful, for, after all, they are but poor ignorant beings, but my losses must be made good.

During the first months of 1852, Major Savage conducted a substantial, if not a phenomenal, business with the miners of the Fresno and surrounding territory, and with the Indians at the agency. No Indian hostilities were in evidence, but a policy of excluding them from the store proper was adhered to. The goods which they bought with their gold dust were handed out to them through small openings left in the walls. These openings were securely fastened at night.

Not infrequently the Indians were subjected to abusive treatment at the hands of certain whites. The mistreatment was enough to provoke an uprising, but with a few exceptions they remained on the reservations. An important light on subsequent events in Savage’s life is brought out in this statement by L. H. Bunnell:

As far as I was able to learn at the time, a few persons envied them the possession of their Kings River reservation and determined to “squat” upon it, after they should have been driven off. This “border element” was made use of by an unprincipled schemer, who it was understood was willing to accept office, when a division of Mariposa County should have been made, or when a vacancy of any kind should occur. But population was required, and the best lands had been reserved for the savages. A few hangers-on, at the agencies, that had been discharged for want of employment and other reasons, made claims upon the Kings River reservation; the Indians came to warn them off, when they were at once fired upon, and it was reported that several were killed.

Further details of the deplorable act committed by the would-be “squatters” are provided by the following news item which appeared in the Alta California of July 7, 1852:

Anticipated Indian Difficulties on King’s River

By Mr. Stelle, who came express to Stockton on the 5th inst., we have received the annexed correspondence from

San Joaquin, (Evening,) July 2, 1852.

Editors Alta California:—A few days ago, the Indians on King’s River warned Campbell, Poole & Co., ferrymen, twenty miles from here, to leave, showing at the same time their papers from the Indian Commissioners. The Indians then left, and threatened to kill the ferrymen if on their reservation when they returned. Mr. Campbell has been collecting volunteers, many have joined him. Major Harvey left this evening with some eighteen or twenty men. A fine chance for the boys to have a frolic, locate some land, and be well paid by Uncle Sam.

These agitations and murders were denounced by Major Savage in unsparing terms. Although the citizens of Mariposa were at the time unable to learn the details of the affair at Kings River, which was a distant settlement, the great mass of the people were satisfied that wrong had been done to the Indians; however, there had been a decided opposition by citizens generally to the establishment of two agencies in the county, and the selection of the best agricultural lands for reservations. Mariposa then included nearly the whole San Joaquin Valley south of the Tuolumne.

The opponents to the recommendations of the commissioners claimed that “The government of the United States has no right to select the territory of a sovereign State to establish reservations for the Indians, nor for any other purpose, without the consent of the State.” The state legislature of 1851-1852 instructed the senators and representatives in congress to use their influence to have the Indians removed beyond the limits of the state.

W. W. Elliott, in his History of Fresno County (1881), reveals further details: “Sometime previous to August 16, 1852, one Major Harvey, the first county Judge of Tulare County, and Wm. J. Campbell, either hired or incited a lot of men, who rushed into one of the rancherias on Kings River and succeeded in killing a number of old squaws.”

Elliott’s assertions are supported by the following news item from the San Francisco Daily Herald, August 21, 1852:

Among other acts by white men calculated to excite the Indians, a ferry was established over the San Joaquin, within an Indian reservation, above Fort Miller, some miles above Savage’s. The Indians, no doubt, considered this an encroachment; and from an idea that the ferry stopped fish from ascending the river, some straggling Indian, acting without authority from chiefs or council, spoke of this notion about the fish at the ferry, and saying that the ferry was within their lands, added that it would have to be broken up. The proprietor of the ferry, assuming this as a threatened hostility, or making a pretence of it, assembled a few willing friends, who, armed with rifles, appeared suddenly among some Indian families while most of the men were many miles off, peaceably at work at Savage’s, without dreaming of danger, and without justifiable provocation the white men fired upon the families, killing two women, as it is stated, and some children, and wounding several others.

With such conditions prevailing on the Kings, it is small wonder that numerous Kings Agency Indians traveled to the Fresno in order to trade with Savage. Needless to say, this aroused the further ire of the traders on the Kings. The white malcontents continued their agitation, and the wronged Indians of the Kings wailed to Savage of their troubles. Consistently with his earlier acts, wherein the public good was involved, Major Savage attempted to pacify the Indians. He also denounced the “squatters” with all the emphasis of his personality and high standing. He asserted that they should be punished under the laws which they had violated and presented the case to the Indian Commissioners.

Harvey and the trader Campbell made common cause of denouncing Major Savage in return. Word was sent to the Major that they dared him to set foot in Kings River region. Upon its receipt, Savage mounted his horse and traveled to the Kings River Agency.

The events that occurred upon his arrival have been variously described by half a dozen writers. Elliott’s description, which agrees essentially with Bunnell’s, is as follows:

On the 16th day of August, 1852, Savage paid a visit to the Kings River Reservation, but previously to this Harvey declared that if Savage ever came there he would not return alive. Arriving at the reservation early in the forenoon, Savage found there Harvey and Judge Marvin, and a quarrel at once ensued between Savage and Harvey, the latter demanding of Savage a retraction of the language he had used regarding Harvey, whereupon Savage slapped Harvey across the face with his open hand, and while doing so, his pistol fell out of his shirt bosom and was picked up by Marvin. Harvey then stepped up to Marvin and said: “Marvin you have disarmed me; you have my pistol.” “No.” said Marvin, “this is Major Savage’s pistol,” whereupon Harvey, finding Savage unarmed, commenced firing his own pistol, shooting five balls into Savage, who fell, and died almost instantly. Marvin was standing by all this time, with Savage’s pistol in his hands, too cowardly or scared to interfere and prevent the murder. At this time Harvey was County Judge of Tulare County, and one Joel H. Brooks, who had been in the employment of Savage for several years, and who had received at his hands nothing but kindness and favors, was appointed by Harvey, Justice of the Peace, for the sole purpose of investigating Harvey’s case for the killing of Savage. Of course Harvey was acquitted by Brooks—was not even held to answer before the Grand Jury. Harvey finally left, in mortal fear of the Indians, for he imagined that every Indian was seeking his life to avenge the murder of Savage. Afterwards, Harvey died of paralysis.

In 1926 the late Boutwell Dunlap unearthed 169 pages of depositions in manuscript form, taken in a law case of 1858 in which the death of Savage was made an issue. The incidents related by the witness under oath are redolent of the old wild days. This testimony comes from the same Brooks who as magistrate had acquitted Harvey. It is quoted as follows:

Twenty-four hours after the Indians had ordered Campbell to leave, Harvey and his company had a fight with the Indians, killing some and whipping the balance. Savage was then an Indian agent appointed by Wozencroft. Savage and Wozencroft made a great fuss about the American people abusing the Indians and succeeded in getting the Commanding General of the U.S. forces on the Pacific to send up a couple of companies of troops to Tulare County, to take up Major Harvey and the men that were under his command and that had assisted him in this horrible murder of “the poor innocent savages.”

The circumstances which led to Savage’s death grew out of this difficulty. The troops had crossed Kings River. This was some time in August 1852 in the morning. Major Savage and Judge John G. Marvin rode up to the door of Campbell’s trading-house. Savage called for Harvey. Harvey stepped to the door. Savage remarked, “I understand, Major Harvey, that you say I am no gentleman.” Harvey replies, “I have frequently made that statement.” Savage remarked, to Harvey, “There is a good horse, saddle, bridle, spurs and leggings which belong to me. I fetched them, for the purpose of letting you have them to leave this country with.” Harvey replied, “I have got a fine mule and I will leave the country on my own animal, when I want to leave it.” Savage called for breakfast. Savage and Marvin ate breakfast by themselves in a brush house outside the store. After they had got through their breakfast, Savage tied up his hair, rolled up his sleeves, took his six-shooter out of its scabbard and placed it in front of him under the waistband of his pantaloons. He then walked into Campbell’s store and asked Major Harvey if he could not induce him to call him a gentleman. Harvey told him that he had made up his mind and had expressed his opinion in regard to that, and did not think he would alter it. He knocked Harvey down and stamped upon him a little. They were separated by some gentlemen in the house, and Harvey got up. Savage says, “To what conclusion have you come in regard to my gentlemancy?” Harvey replies, “I think you are a damned scoundrel.” Savage knocked Harvey down again. They were again separated by gentlemen present. As Harvey straightened himself onto his feet, he presented a six-shooter and shot Major Savage through the heart. Savage fell without saying anything. It was supposed that Harvey shot him twice after he was dead, every ball taking effect in his heart. That is all I know about the fight. I gained this information by taking the testimony as magistrate of those who saw it.

What may have become of the court records of the so-called trial is unknown, but a scrap of testimony by the proprietor of the house in which the killing took place was preserved by the San Francisco Daily Herald, September 3, 1852, as follows:

The People of the State of California vs. Walter H. Harvey, for the killing of James D. Savage, on the 16th day of August, 1852, contrary to the laws of the State of California, &c.

Mr. Edmunds sworn, says—“Yesterday morning Major Savage came into my house and asked Major Harvey if he had said he was no gentleman. Major Harvey replied he had said it. Major Savage struck Major Harvey on the side of the head and knocked him down on some sacks of flour, and then proceeded to kick and beat him. Judge Marvin and some one else interfered, and Major Savage was taken off of Major Harvey. Major Savage still had hold of Major Harvey when Major Harvey kicked him. Major Savage then struck Major Harvey on the cheek, and knocked him down the second time, and used him, the same as before. By some means I cannot say, Major Savage was again taken off, and they separated. Major Savage was in the act of attacking him again, when Major Harvey draw his pistol and shot hint.”

Question by the Court—Did Major Harvey shoot more than once?

Answer—I think he did; I found four holes in him.

Question—Did Major Savage knock Major Harvey down before he drew his pistol?

Answer—The prisoner had been knocked down by Major Savage twice before he drew his pistol, or made any attempt to shoot him.

Mr. Gonele sworn—corroborates the evidence of Mr. Edmunds. Mr. Knider sworn, also does the same.

This is all the testimony given in as to the fight, Major Fitzgerald, U.S.A., sworn, testified to some facts which induced him to think Major Savage not a gentleman.

The Court, upon this testimony, discharged Major Harvey without requiring bail.

So passed the leading figure in early Yosemite history. In this day of greater appreciation of individual heroism, sacrifice, and pioneer accomplishment in public service, how one covets unprejudiced narratives of such lives as was that of James D. Savage! Bunnell comments feelingly on “his many noble qualities, his manly courage, his generous hospitality, his unyielding devotion to friends, and his kindness to immigrant strangers.” A writer in the Daily Herald of September 4, 1852, contributes more details of events that followed the murder.

Effect of Major Savage’s Death upon the Indians

We have received a letter dated August 31st. on the Indian Reservation, Upper San Joaquin, giving some further particulars of the murder of Major James Savage and the effect produced thereby upon the Indians. The writer has resided among them upwards of two years, understood their language and their habits, and for a long time assisted Major Savage in managing them. His opinions therefore are entitled to weight. The following extracts will show the probable effect this murder will have on the prospects of the southern section of the State:

“You have doubtless ere this heard of the death, or rather murder, of Major Savage upon King’s River. It has produced considerable sensation throughout the country and is deeply regretted, for the country and the government have lost the services of a man whom it will not be easy to replace. He could do more to keep the Indians in subjection than all the forces that Uncle Sam could send here. The Indians were terribly excited at his death. Some of them reached the scene of the tragedy soon after it occurred. They threw themselves upon his body, uttering the most terrific cries, bathing their hands and faces in his blood, and even stooping and drinking it, as it gushed from his wounds. It was with difficulty his remains could be interred. The Chiefs clung to his body, and swore they would die with their father.

“The night he was buried the Indians built large fires, around which they danced, singing the while the mournful death chaunt, until the hills around rang with the sound. I have never seen such profound manifestations of grief. The young men, as they whirled wildly and distractedly around in the dance, shouted the name of their ‘father’ that was gone; while the squaws sat rocking their bodies to and fro, chaunting their mournful dirges, until the very blood within one curdled with horror at the scene.

“I have not the slightest doubt that there will be a general outbreak this winter. Just as soon as the rainy season sets in we shall have the beginning of one of the most protracted and expensive wars the people of California have ever been engaged in. The Indians are quiet now, but are evidently contemplating some hostile movement. They told me, a few days since, that their ‘father’ was gone and they would not live with the whites any longer.

“I have studied the character of these Indians, as you know, for more than two years, and have acquired my experience in managing them under Savage himself. I do not speak lightly nor unadvisedly, therefore, when I assert that no more disastrous event could have occurred to the interests of this State, than the murder of the gallant Major Savage.”

It is possible that more details of Savage’s biography may be brought to light, and it is with that hope, coupled with the desire to give his memory just due, that this material is presented for public perusal.

On the Fresno River, near the site of his old trading post, rest the bones of the “white chief.” In 1855, Dr. Leach, who had been associated with Savage in trading with the Indians, journeyed to the Kings River, disinterred the remains, and transferred them to their present resting place. A ten-foot shaft of Connecticut granite, bearing the simple inscription, “Maj. Jas. D. Savage,” marks the spot. On July 4, 1929, the little city of Madera, California, honored the memory of Savage by placing an inscribed plaque on a city gate. These memorials, presumably, are the only public reminders of the importance of James D. Savage in the history of the state.

The story of Major Savage may be concluded with a reference to his family ties. As has been related, Californians were, until 1928, wholly mystified about his origin. Through the researches of Louise Savage Ireland we are made to sense the human side of his saga and are brought to an understanding of his intimate family connections and his faithfulness to blood ties. L. H. Savage of El Paso, Texas, writes that his father, John W. Savage, first cousin of James D. Savage, made a vain attempt to join the Major in California. Returning miners in 1850 told the Illinois Savages that “Jim” invited them to come to California, where he would make them rich. John, then a boy of nineteen years, financed by older members of the family, shipped for the Golden State and sailed around the Horn. Almost a year elapsed before he reached San Francisco. There he learned that his noted relative had met death six months before.

What became of any wealth that the Major may have amassed remains a mystery. The Indians he struggled to protect and the lands he tried to save for them long ago passed out of the reckoning. By way of explanation we quote from Hutchings’ In the Heart of the Sierras:

The reservation on the Fresno gradually became unpopular on this account [because the Indians craved their mountain homes], but mainly from bad management; was afterwards abolished by the Government; and, finally, its lands and buildings were gobbled up by sharp-sighted, if not unprincipled men, who, like many others of that class, became rich out of the acquisition.

One cannot but wonder what counteracting influences James D. Savage would have exercised in the Fresno Agency business had he been permitted to live.

Next: PioneersContentsPrevious: Mariposa Hills

Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management