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Place Names of the High Sierra (1926)
by Francis P. Farquhar


The mountain range that forms the eastern wall of the great interior valley of California became definitely known to white men for the first time in 1776, when Padre GarcÚs visited the Indian rancherias on the eastern side of the Tulare Valley. The knowledge of the Spaniards was limited to distant views of the snow-capped peaks and to the lower courses of the rivers that flow from them. To these rivers they gave names that in later years were applied to their upper reaches.

Indians lived along the rivers and had summer camps in the mountains. They traded back and forth with tribes on the eastern side of the range. But so far as can be discovered they had no specific names for places in the High Sierra. Most of the Indian names outside of the lower cañons have been bestowed by white men. Attempts to interpret such names poetically are likely to lead one astray from the true character of the Indian significance. The thoughts of these California tribes were largely concerned with the functions of everyday life, with animals, and with legends in which animals played a principal part.

The American trappers reached the vicinity of the Sierra Nevada in 1826, and for a decade looked it over, not finding it very productive in furs. They were the first to cross the range, however; Jedediah S. Smith making the first passage in 1827, from west to east, and Joseph R. Walker crossing in 1833 in the opposite direction.

The nomenclature of the Sierra, other than the Spanish and Indian names for the rivers, begins with the exploring expeditions of Fremont in the ’40s, when the names of members of the party were given to several of the rivers and passes. Then suddenly came the discovery of gold, bringing a throng of adventurous prospectors. The wonders of Yosemite and the Big Trees became known. Knowledge of the resources of the state became an important matter, and a state geological survey was authorized.

The State Geological Survey under Whitney explored the Sierra Nevada from one end to the other, placing names upon the prominent peaks and mapping the principal features. There were few local names, as there were few local people to give them, so names had to be supplied. For the most part the names of persons connected with the survey or the names of men of science were selected. This practice, begun by Fremont and extended by the Whitney Survey, has been continued to the present time, with the result that a large portion of the names in the Sierra Nevada are names of persons.

While there are some objections to this practice, it is, nevertheless, not without its advantages. In the nomenclature of the Sierra we find preserved a great deal of its history, and this history becomes more interesting as we discover the varied personalities of those who have taken part in it. It is with the hope of preserving to some extent these personalities that the biographical data in this book have been compiled. Not a great deal can be said about a man in the few lines available for each of these names, yet some conception can be obtained from even a bare statement of the episodes of his career.. The f act that an army officer, well known in his later years as a colonel or general, was but a second lieutenant just out of the Military Academy when he took part in exploring the mountain passes is worth keeping in mind. In the same way, the personality of a man of science becomes more vivid if we know that he received academic honors from many institutions.

It is unfortunate that we cannot have more knowledge of the old-timers who spent summer after summer in the High Sierra. Their characters are scarcely indicated by the brief biographical facts available. Many of them are far more deserving of place names in their own mountains than are the casual visitors from cities. Fortunately they are well represented in the mountain meadows and streams.

This record of the origin and significance of the place names of the High Sierra was begun in 1919 as the result of numerous inquiries passed around camp-fires on trips in the mountains. What at first seemed like a simple task grew into quite a formidable undertaking, largely due to the variety of the sources of information. After a while, however, there seemed to be a sufficient volume of data to make it worth while to publish it, and it was presented in three installments in the Sierra Club Bulletins of 1923, 1924, and 1925. With the publication of this material, corrections and additions began to come in and new sources of information opened up. The volume of material has more than doubled, and it has seemed worth while to issue it in the more permanent form of a book.

Acknowledgments of the sources of information are in most instances given with the data themselves. In references to publications I have endeavored to be specific, in order that others may be led as directly as possible to the original sources. These references, moreover, furnish a fairly comprehensive bibliography. A great deal of the information has been obtained directly from persons having a first-hand knowledge. For biographical data I have consulted “Who’s Who in America,” “Engineering Who’s Who,” Heitman’s “Historical Register of the United States Army,” the official Army registers, catalogues of graduates of universities, and other reference books.

I cannot adequately express my appreciation of the generous assistance that I have had in the preparation of this book. Most of those who have helped are, like myself, enthusiastic lovers of the Sierra, and will take some satisfaction in having had a part in this co-operative effort to make the region better known and more interesting to those who visit it. It is impossible to mention all of them, but to several of them who have rendered abundant and continuous assistance some special acknowledgment is due.

I have been especially fortunate in having the constant co-operation of Professor J. N. Le Conte, who probably has a more intimate acquaintance with the High Sierra than any other person. Mr. Theodore S. Solomons, Colonel N. F. McClure, the late Colonel Harry C. Benson, the late Mr. George R. Davis, Mr. W. A. Chalfant, Mr. Lilbourne A. Winchell, Mr. Walter L. Huber, and Colonel George W. Stewart have responded repeatedly to calls for information and have taken a most encouraging interest in the progress of the work. The assistance of Colonel R. B. Marshall, formerly Chief Geographer of the United States Geological Survey, has been especially valuable. Mr. Chester Versteeg, of Los Angeles, has most generously placed at my disposal a great deal of interesting information that he has been gathering from pioneer residents of the Sierra foothills with a view to publishing a book on the Sierra Nevada. This has added substantially to the volume and reliability of the data upon which I have drawn. I also want to express to Mr. George P. Vance, reader for the printers, my appreciation of his assistance in reading the proof. Because of his long association with the Sierra Club Bulletin as proof-reader, Mr. Vance has been able to offer many helpful suggestions. It is worthy of observation that he read the proof of the first number of the Sierra Club Bulletin, published in 1893.

In order to keep the work within bounds, the region of the High Sierra included in this volume has been limited on the north by the divide separating the Tuolumne from the Stanislaus watershed, and on the south by the vicinity of Olancha Peak. In a few instances, names are found beyond these boundaries. From the Stanislaus River, north, the origins of place names are largely from sources quite different from those included in this book and might properly form the subject of a separate publication.

Completeness in a work of this character is out of the question. Many names are excluded because they are commonplace or obvious; others because no reliable information seems obtainable; and others simply because of lack of time to run down promising clues. New information will continue to appear, and no doubt some of it will disclose errors in what is already published. Nevertheless, a substantial portion of the ground has been covered, and reasonable care has been exercised in establishing authority for the facts.

Supplementary to the place names there are presented a few biographies of persons who have played important parts in the history of the High Sierra, but for whom no places have been named. This list could, of course, be expanded indefinitely, but has been confined to a few representative individuals concerning whom data could be obtained. There is added a list of maps showing the development of the nomenclature of the High Sierra. Finally, a table of the publications of the Sierra Club is given for the purpose of increasing the facility of looking up references.

Francis P. Farquhar.

San Francisco, April, 1926.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management