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Origin of the Word Yosemite

by Daniel E. Anderson
(December 2004; last updated July 2011)

Gresham’s Law of Information: Bad information drives out good. No matter how long ago a correction for a particular error may have appeared in print or online, it never seems to catch up with the ever-widening distribution of the error.

What does Yosemite mean?

Yosemite Valley looking west from Yosemite Village
The Yosemite People called Yosemite
Ahwahnee or “mouth,” because the valley
walls resembled a gaping bear’s mouth.
Yohhe'meti (Southern Miwok) or Yos.s.e'meti (Central Miwok) originally referred to the Indian tribe that lived in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite means literally “those who kill” (Yos, “to kill,” the modifier e, “one who,” and the plural suffix -meti). It was used by the surrounding Miwok tribes. The Yosemite people were referred to as killers by these surrounding tribes, who feared them. The Yosemite tribe, led by Chief Tenaya, were composed of renegades from multiple tribes, including Mono Paiute from the eastern Sierra. The Paiute were traditional enemies of the more-peaceful Miwok people.

What did the Yosemite People call the Yosemite Valley?

The Yosemite people called Yosemite Valley Awooni or Owwoni for (gaping) “large mouth,” where the stem Awo or Owwo means “mouth” and the suffix ni means “large.” This referred to the appearance of the Yosemite Valley walls from the the village of Ahwahnee, which was located on the valley floor. The spelling used by Bunnell was “Ahwahne” and later “Ahwahnee.” The Yosemite people called themselves as Ah-wah-ne-chee, or “dwellers of Ahwahnee.” Ahwahnee originally referred to the largest and most powerful Indian village in the valley (located 1/2 mile west of Yosemite Village and south of Northside Drive), but the word also came to mean the entire valley.

When asked, Chief Tenaya, tried to explain the meaning of “Ahwahnee” by using sign language. Tenaya “by the motion of his hands, indicated depth, while trying to illustrate the name, at the same time plucking grass which he held up before me.” Major Savage mistakingly interpreted Ahwahnee to mean “deep grassy valley,” when Tenaya was signing “mouth.” 1

Miwok or Me-wuk (Southern dialect), by the way, is the Miwok word for “people.”

Mr. Bunnell, who named the valley, thought Yosemite meant “Grizzly Bear.” However, this was another mistake in interpretation made by his commander, Major James Savage, who knew the Miwok language but confused Yosemite for hmat.i or smat.i, which means “grizzly bear.” Major Savage himself said ”he could not readily understand Ten-ie-ya, or the Indian guide, as they appeared to speak a Pai-ute jargon.”2

So why is the Valley called Yosemite and not Ahwahnee?

Yosemite Valley was named by L. H. Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion in 1851. The Battalion was formed by local miners in the foothills after neighboring tribes, feeling encroached on their lands, raided Savage’s Trading Post, killing several people there at the time. Mr. Bunnell named the valley in honor of the tribe they were about to capture and drive out of their home, Yosemite Valley. Pioneers at the time often disregarded native place names or didn’t know them and used place names of their own making. To quote Mr. Bunnell3:

As I did not take a fancy to any of the names proposed, I remarked that “an American name would be the most appropriate;” that “I could not see any necessity for going to a foreign country for a name for American scenery—the grandest that had ever yet been looked upon. That it would be better to give it an Indian name than to import a strange and inexpressive one; that the name of the tribe who had occupied it, would be more appropriate than any I had heard suggested.” I then proposed “that we give the valley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return, would be perpetuated.” . . . . upon a viva voce vote being taken, it was almost unanimously adopted.

It was common practice by European settlers in 18th century United States to either ignore a Indian (Native American) place name and rename it, or, as with Yosemite, to use another Indian word for a place name.

How do you pronounce Yosemite and Ahwahnee?

Yosemite is pronounced yo-SE-mea-tea.

Ahwahnee is pronounced ah-WAA-nee.

———

1 Bunnell, L. H. Discovery of the Yosemite (1892), chapter 4, p. 65.

2 Ibid., chapter 4, p. 63.

3 Ibid. chapter 4, p. 62.


Origin of the Place Name Yosemite

The following article explains of the meaning of the word Yosemite in more detail. It is from “Yosemite and Tamalpais,” Names (Journal of the American Name Society) 3(3):185-186 (Sept. 1955) by Dr. Madison Scott Beeler, Professor of Linguistics, University of California Berkeley (1910-1989). Dr. Beeler was an authority on California names of Indian origin.

Yosemite and Tamalpais

MADISON S. BEELER

Recent work on a California Indian language belonging to the linguistic stock called Miwok has familiarized me with the literature on the languages of that family, and particularly with the publications of Lucy Freeland de Angulo, who is the authority on the subject. The following two place names derived from Miwok are presented to draw the attention of onomatologists to work which may have escaped their notice.

The name of Yosemite1 has been connected with the Sierra Miwok word for ‘(grizzly-)bear’ and with a collective noun meaning ‘the killers’ or ‘a band of killers.’ In Mrs.[Lucy Shepard] Freeland’s “Language of the Sierra Miwok”2 ‘bear’ appears as š'mati (p. 3) and yoš-met^i is defined as ‘the Killers’ (p. 159). These words, although of course distinct in the native tongue, show a notable degree of similarity in their phonological structure, and a confusion between them, or their being taken as variant forms of a single term is easily understandable on the part of those unfamiliar with the language. That the second, and not the first, is the true etymon is most likely. In the first place, the word for ‘bear’ lacks the initial y-, and the high central vowel (transcribed ) of its initial syllable was commonly equated by Spanish speakers with their vowel e and by Anglo-Americans either with or with u. And secondly, yoš-met^i fits readily into the morphological pattern of Miwok: the suffixation to the verbal root yš- ‘to kill’ of the morpheme -e- ‘one who, that which, does something’ yields the agent noun yoš ‘killer,’ and this is pluralized by the addition of -met^i, “a pluralizing suffix, probably more or less collective in meaning, used in all dialects” (op. cit., p. 158). The variant yohmet^i?, proper to the southern or Mariposa dialect of Sierra Miwok, in whose range the famous valley lies, indicates that the word first was heard by white men from the lips of speakers of the more northerly dialects. “This [the form with -š-] is the name which was applied by the neighboring Miwok to the dwellers in Yosemite Valley, who appear to have been (at least in historic times) a band of renegades from various tribes” (op cit. p. 159).

[At this point the article continues about the etymology of Mt. Tamalpais.]

———

1For a discussion and a bibliography see Erwin G. Gudde, California Place Names, 1949, s.v.

2Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, Memoir 6 of the International Journal of American Linguistics, 1951.


Anderson Article References


[Yosemite] Copyright © 2004-2011 Dan Anderson. All rights reserved.
Last updated 10 July 2011.

If you have questions or comments, please send a message to Dan Anderson.

http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/origin_of_word_yosemite.html