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James D. Savage, Indian Fighter, and Explorer of Yosemite Valley
“He was born in Cayuga County, New York around 1817. At about 5 years of age he went to Jacksonville, Illinois, and then moved to Princeton, Bureau County, Illinois at the age of 21. He married and settled in Peru, Illinois.
“In 1846, Savage heard the call and caught the fever of restlessness that infected Illinois, and with his wife and child joined an emigrant train that was going across country to California. His wife, Eliza, and their child both died on this harsh journey.
“He reached Sutter’s Fort with the Boggs party on October 28, 1846. He immediately volunteered to serve in the California Battalion under Fremont and remained in service until the disbanding in April of 1847. He was with Sutter in May, 1848, aiding Marshall in the construction of the mill at Coloma where gold was first discovered on January 24, 1848, by James W. Marshall, an employee of John A. Sutter of Sacramento. This gold discovery spread like wildfire and soon swarms of gold seekers in covered wagons, on horseback, and even on foot were headed for this gold country.
“By 1849, the Mariposa hills were occupied by the miners; more than three thousand inhabitants occupied the town of Mariposa. It was near here that James D. Savage started his mining and trading episode. He first located on a tributary of the Tuolumne River where he both mined and acted as a trader between the Indians and miners. He also employed Indians to work “the diggins” for him, paying them for their gold with blankets, knives, and other goods that he had in his store. In this triple capacity, Savage soon acquired wealth, fame, and influence.
“In 1849 as more and more miners came into the area, Indians were unable to maintain their ground against the encroachments of the whites. Savage withdrew from Woods Creek and went about 20 miles further south to the region called Big Oak Flat. His Indians followed him and soon developed their “diggins” for him. Savage paid them in provisions and goods as before and undertook to protect them against the whites. By this time he had learned their language and was an important figure among them.
“During the year 1849 quarrelling began between the Indians and the whites, and the white miners now took up arms. Savage was able to act as intermediary and prevented bloodshed, but he thought it best to retire from the district.
“He then went south, established a store on the Merced River near Horseshoe Bend, and developed his talent for learning the language and gaining the friendship of the Indians. Here he further cemented his alliance with the Indians by taking several of their women as his wives. The number of these wives is legend, but the figures range from two to twenty seven; five, however, is the figure most frequently mentioned.
“In 1849, Savage had set up another store near the bottom of the Merced River Canyon, which is the deep gash in the mountains that seperates the Big Oak Flat region from the Mariposa area. Here, however, Savage was in danger of a tribe of Indians with whom neither he nor any other white man had been able to establish friendly relations, the Yosemite or Grizzly Bear Indians, who inhabited the almost impenetrable valley which they called Ahwahnee, the deep grassy valley. [Editor’s note: For the correct origin of the words Yosemite and Ahwahnee see “Origin of the Word Yosemite.”—DEA]
“One time after a raid on his post, when Savage chased these Indians up the Merced River, he gave up the attempt to overtake them when the canyon wall became so narrow that he feared he would be ambushed. It was probably on this occasion that he passed the entrance of, or possibly went up into Cascade Canyon, whose precipitious walls would be a remarkable sight in themselves were they not completely subdued by the incomparable grandeur of the Yosemite Valley close by.
“After a severe attack by the Indians in the early spring of 1850, Savage abandoned this site and withdrew. He came down the Merced River and went up Bear Creek until he came to the high country above Mariposa. He then set up two trading posts; one where the Agua Fria meets the Mariposa near the site of the old stone fort, and and the other about 20 miles further south on the right bank of the Fresno River about 4 miles from the present town of Coarse Gold. The spot where he located came to be known as the old Fresno Crossing and was a place where the main wagon road between Mariposa and the Coarse Gold “diggins” cross the Fresno River.
“In the fall of 1850 Savage’s Indian friends told him that the Yosemites and some other discontented Indian tribes were about to declare open war on the whites. Savage believed in the possibility of such an attack and took active steps to avert it. With the idea of impressing the Indians with the power and overwhelming number of,. the whites, Savage took with him to San Francisco a chief of the Chowchillas by the name of Jose Juarez; two squaws and several braves also went to San Francisco. They spent money recklessly and made themselves extremely conspicuous. Savage, anticipating war with the Indians, took a lot of his gold with him for safekeeping, barrels full according to legend, but instead of depositing it anywhere, he seems to have squandered most of it in gambling.
“After staying in San Francisco long enough to share the excitement of the announcement of the admission of California into the Union, Savage went back to the Indians in his Fresno River store. His attempts to convince them of the power and strength of the whites was futile; he was overruled, and the Indians decided to go on the warpath. At this point Savage withdrew to warn the whites. “Around December 18, or 19, Savage’s Fresno River store was attacked. Greely, the manager, and two clerks were killed while the third escaped through the intervention of an Indian friend and a gentleman named Long Haired Brown, who eluded his pursuers all the way to Mariposa.
“Savage went to Horseshoe Bend to get a group together to go after the Indians. While he was gone, his store at the junction of the Agua Fria and Mariposa was attacked, his assistant killed, his goods stolen, and his squaws carried off.
“On January 13, 1851, Governor MacDougal wrote to Sheriff Burney, the Sheriff of all Mariposa County, authorizing him to muster a force of men for the protection of lives and property in Mariposa County. The command with commission of Major was offered to Savage, and the men formed into three companies. The entire Battalion was composed of about 200 men and thereafter became known as the now famous Mariposa Battalion.
“Savage drilled the Mariposa Battalion at the Lewis Ranch about 15 miles southwest of the Agua Fria on the Mariposa Creek, until on February 16, 1851, when Governor MacDougal ordered all military activity ceased until peaceable means of reconciling the Indians could be tried.
“A Federal Commission then endeavored to persuade the tribes of the Sierra south of the Stanislaus River to come in and talk peace. Only the friendly ones reported. When the warring tribes of the Mariposa region failed to appear at a feast and council scheduled for them at Fremont’s Ranch on the Mariposa River, the Mariposa Battalion was given orders to bring them in by force. They left the Lewis Ranch on their now famous expedition, on March 19, 1851.
“The expedition went up Mariposa Creek, passed Savage’s ruined store at the junction of the Mariposa and the Agua Fria, and turned off toward the Chowchilla Mountains. It followed through the mining camps of Bootjack and Usona to Wawona. From Wawona they went down the south fork of the Merced River to Bishop Creek.
“Savage and the Companies of the Mariposa Battalion completely surprised about 1,000 Nuchu Indians at a place called Bishop’s Camp at the fork of Bishop Creek and the Merced River, who readily agreed to the terms of the Commissioners. Nuchu runners were then sent out to the other tribes, threatening them with severe reprisals if they did not come in and surrender like the Nuchus.
“One of the runners reached the Yosemites with this message and on March 23, 1851, Tenaya, Chief of the Yosemites, the most recalcitrant of all the chieftains, stood at the edge of Savage’s camp in dignified silence until bidden entry. Suspicious at first but finally appearing won over, Tenaya departed to bring in the rest of his people. The next day he returned to say that his tribe was coming in, but that since the trails were full of deep snow, it would take time to bring in the men, women, and children. This seemed reasonable, but by the next day when none had shown themselves, Savage figured that the crafty Tenaya had actually ordered his people to go higher into the mountains.
‘By the strange and humorous means of a foot race, which incidentally included Indians, Savage selected 57 men to follow after Tenaya and the Yosemites. This bizarre foot race served the purpose of warming up the men, providing excitement for the Indians still in the vicinity, and perhaps most importantly, insuring the fleetness of the 57 volunteers.
“The volunteers ascended the divide to the east of Bishop’s Camp, progressing slowly in deep snow. In midafternoon they met 72 Yosemites heading for Savage’s Camp. Tenaya explained this was all that had come and that the rest had fled to the Tuolumne, and to the Monos across the Sierra Nevada. Knowing the Yosemites were a large tribe, Savage sent Tenaya and the 72 Indians to his camp and pressed on, following the Indians trail in the snow.
“After more than an hour’s march, they reached a promontory in the vicinity of Old Inspiration Point, and from this spot across from Majestic El Capitan, late in the afternoon of March 27, 1851, the awestruck Major Savage and his men had revealed to them the full glory of Yosemite Valley.
“They camped that night at the foot of Bridalveil Falls and then discussed a name for the Valley. Unaware of the beautiful Indian name Ahwahnee, meaning “deep grassy valley”, [Editor’s note: For the correct origin of the word Ahwahnee see “Origin of the Word Yosemite.”—dea] the men voted to name it after the tribe and called it Yosemite.
“This concludes our discovery story except to tell that after several days of exploration in the Valley, one aged squaw was discovered, and through the negligence of some of the soldiers, Tenaya and most of the Yosemites were allowed to escape.
“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. Savage engaged again in trading and in cattle ranching. Bad blood had sprung up between him and some of the settlers along King’s River. He was fearless and felt the security from danger at the hands of those he disliked, which he expressed in seemingly careless but purposeful disdain and contempt. Among those toward whom he thus felt was Major Harvey, then the County Judge of Tulare. He had spoken foully of Harvey, and his language had been reported to that gentleman, August 16, 1852. Savage visited King’s River Reservation, where William Campbell, whom he also disliked, was agent. Judge Marvin of Tuolumne was there present with Major Harvey. The latter asked Savage if the reported language had been uttered by him, and, on Savage responding that it was correctly reported, Harvey demanded its retraction. Savage’s only response was a slap in the face, and at that instant his pistol dropped from his loose shirt bosom. Harvey instantly drew his pistol and fired with fatal effect. Savage fell dead. An examination before a neighboring justice of the peace ended in Major Harvey’s immediate release, as it was held that he had acted in clear self-defense.
“The remains of Major Savage were at the time buried near where he fell. In 1855, they were removed by Dr. Leach, his firm friend and at one time his business partner, and given permanent sepulture at the point on Fresno River known as “Leach’s old store,” which had also been Savage’s trading post. Doctor Leach erected over the spot a granite monument, ten feet high, square and massive and stern, typical of the robust form and the sturdy spirit of the strange and strong man whose memory it commemorates, and upon one of its sides is carved simply his name. He sleeps the everlasting sleep in the enduring, rock-bound bed in the middle of the stream on whose banks he last dwelt, and its gentle murmurings in placid flow, and its wild turbulence when lashed by angry winds, are alike as the calmness and the passionate moments of his lifetime, the lullaby of his peaceful rest, and the wierd threnody of his violent end.” 1
1 Quotations are from a letter and speech by Kenneth J. Fryer, at the dedication of a plaque in honor of James D. Savage. This plaque is located at the new Inspiration Point right near the eastern entrance to the Wawona Tunnel.
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