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A Vacation among the Sierras (1962),
by Thomas Starr King


Introduction

On April 28, 1860, a diminutive, unhandsome young man with long, lank hair and the luminous eyes of a spaniel stepped ashore in San Francisco to take up his duties as pastor of the First Unitarian Church. He had come, he told a friend, because “I do think we are unfaithful in huddling so closely around the cosy stove of civilization in this blessed Boston, and I, for one, am ready to go out into the cold and see if I am good for anything.” 1

The next morning, as he walked to the pulpit to deliver his first sermon in his new church, the curious and somewhat disappointed congregation wondered if this unimpressive figure could indeed be Thomas Starr King, the famed minister of the Hollis Street Church in Boston, the brilliant lecturer who shared the lyceum platform on equal terms with such giants as Henry Ward Beecher and Wendell Phillips, and the writer of so many graceful travel letters to the Boston Evening Transcript and of the recently published book, The White Hills. But once his “manly and sonorous” voice was heard, the audience sat spellbound, and when his sermon—not highly polished but displaying a “broad and liberal Christian charity”—was finished, “every thoughtful hearer felt that a new spiritual force was added to the community” The listeners knew, said one who was present, “they had a great man before them” 2

From that moment Starr King’s reputation grew rapidly in California. The press, in general, was friendly toward this newcomer who was ever ready to lend his eloquent tongue and to open his purse for worthy causes. During his first few weeks in San Francisco he lectured on behalf of the Mercantile Library Association and the Ladies’ Seamen’s Friend Society, among others. The only sour notes came from a few of the more conservatively orthodox in the community and from the pro-Southern papers, for it was known that King had long been an ardent opponent of slavery.

“I have given the people one or two decided intimations in that line wh[ich] frighten the timid parishioners” he wrote to a friend during May, 1860, “but still the church is crowded.” The Southerners refused to attend his lectures, he continued. “They . . . said that I must not be countenanced. Result: crammed houses. How powerful the Southerners must be!” 3 It is not surprising that this scrappy little man with the broad mouth and pudgy nose soon became known to California’s pro-slavery editors as the “Yankee poodle.” 4

King arrived in California committed to stay only a year. It was soon apparent, however, that more time would be required to pay off the church debt and place the Unitarian Society on a sound basis. By summer he was talking of remaining for two years, but he was far from jubilant at the prospect. 5 “I am not homesick” he wrote bravely with tongue in cheek to a New York friend during May; but he was—desperately. “People are very kind.—But it isn’t New England. I wonder why I came” he confessed a few months later. 6

His wife, Julia, was patently unreconciled to her “banishment” in San Francisco. The climate, the dust, the fleas, the high prices, the streets “bilious with Chinamen"—all upset her. “She often bursts out into a storm of wrath on the city” her husband confided to a friend on May 20. 7 It appeared that California might not long hold the Thomas Starr Kings!

But there were aspects of life in the West which the new preacher found appealing. One was the open-hearted manner in which he was immediately welcomed into some of the inner circles of San Francisco. In the words of another, and obviously impressed, “Liberal Christian minister” King’s parish was “soon unequaled in the city for the social and business standing, and the intellectual and moral worth of its membership.” 8 It was among such people of substance and merit that King found his new friends. And, somewhat to his surprise, he discovered that they listened with respect to his opinions, not only on religion and literature but on politics and civic affairs as well. He quickly realized that it was within his power to become a leader for good throughout the community and even beyond it.

By July, 1860, this newcomer was boldly urging the Dashaways, a San Francisco temperance society, to seek state financial support for their Home for the Inebriate. “I think” he stated in a public address, “by every consideration of justice, of honor and of duty, (regardless of mercy) the Legislature is bound to foster such an institution.” 9

Such calm assurance in civic matters had not been his habit in Boston. Although he had performed many public services and had spoken often on public and political subjects, King never reached the first ranks of community leadership before coming to California. Despite his eminence in the pulpit and on the lecture platform and despite—or perhaps because of—his friendship with such men as Emerson and Wendell Phillips, he was never gathered in whole-heartedly by the Brahmins of Beacon Hill and Back Bay.

The son of a respected but impecunious Universalist minister, he had been forced to leave school to help support his family when his father became too ill to continue his duties. The death of his father when King was only fifteen had ended all hope of attending college, and he had spent the remainder of his youth as a clerk in a dry goods store, as a school teacher, and as a bookkeeper in the Charlestown Navy Yard. In his spare time he continued his studies for the ministry under the supervision of several learned preachers who recognized his remarkable intellectual gifts.

When he was called to his first church at the age of twenty-two he was considered by his peers in the ministry to be better prepared for his duties than most divinity school graduates; but this fact was no substitute in Boston for family connections and a Harvard education. “The circle of fashion could hardly comprehend his transcendent merit;” admitted one of King’s friends.” 10

“Any attempt of his to assume the position of a leader of public opinion in Boston” wrote another long-time associate, “would have been crushed by the mere superciliousness of the educated and fashionable classes. All that would be necessary to teach him his subordinate position would have been a few blandly ironical sneers, a little lifting of the eyebrows, a slight shrugging of the shoulders, and, in the clubs, an expression of apathetic wonder as to who was the Unitarian parson who talked in such ‘tall’ language.” 11

King, outwardly buoyant and humorous, was inwardly sensitive. He knew that he was sometimes slightingly referred to as the “graduate of the Boston Navy Yard;” and he tempered his actions accordingly; but he was too sound and too sensible to let the situation mar his life and work. He laughed when a Worcester church made him an offer at double his salary"—provided he would first study for a year at the Harvard Divinity School. 12 During 1850 Harvard College granted him an honorary Master of Arts degree. “Only think of it” he joked; “A.M.? Wonder when I shall be P.M.? Probably not till after the Meridian of life.” 13

Nevertheless, it was a heady experience for King to find that in San Francisco he was judged solely on the basis of his own intrinsic merits. “I am wanted for several societies” he wrote to a New York friend on June 4, 1860. “In fact” he added, “I am quite in demand, & am very near being ‘somebody’ out here.” 14 Elbert Hubbard was sometimes mistaken in what he wrote, but he was right when he said, “Starr King was that kind of Plant which needs to be repotted in order to make it flower at its very best.” 15

Another aspect of San Francisco life which aroused King’s enthusiasm was the opportunity to explore and enjoy the yet almost pristine beauty of California. When he sailed into the Golden Gate he brought with him an already secure reputation as a keen observer of the natural scene and as a mountaineer of tested ability.

At the age of thirteen he had visited the White Hills of New Hampshire. That first look, evidently, kindled within him an enthusiasm which endured nearly as long as life itself. After he became a minister, he spent his vacations either on the New England coast or in the mountains of New Hampshire, but in time he concentrated on the latter. It was in the highlands that he found his greatest refreshment and inspiration. “Oh God! how wonderful are thy works!” he wrote after an excursion through the White Hills in 1849. “One passage of Scripture seems to be written on every cliff, and echoed to the soul from every ridge.” 16

Before long he knew every summit and valley in the range, much better, it is said, than even the native guides. A noble peak and a ravine which he was the first to explore still bear his name. The memory of his exploits and presence yet lingers in the hills of New Hampshire, though not always in accurate form. “Starr King did climb” notes one recent book on the region. “From his youth on into his sixties he climbed most of our big peaks over those early God-awful trails and often with no trail at all"—a truly prodigious feat for one who did not reach his fortieth birthday! 17

In 1853 he began sending articles on his mountain excursions to the Boston Transcript. These pieces proved popular and formed the backbone of his book, The White Hills, which was published in 1859, only a few months before his departure for California. King made arrangements with the editor of the paper, one of his good friends, to continue supplying articles during his trip to the West Coast and after his arrival. Thus, at least partly to find interesting material for his Boston audience, he soon began to “tap the scenery of the state” by making little journeys out into the rural districts from San Francisco.

Before a month passed he drove around the southern arm of San Francisco Bay and visited a newly discovered limestone cave in El Dorado County. This last trip carried him into the Mother Lode region, and at one point he obtained a panoramic view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. The dazzling array of soaring peaks was stunning to the newcomer. If you think the mere mention of the range is impressive, he wrote in a jocular vein to a correspondent in New York, “what then when you see it fitly described by the great prose-poet of mountains?—I mean, of course, myself.” 18 Other visits, to Napa Valley and elsewhere on the north shore of the bay, soon followed, all to be pictured in glowing terms for the readers of the Transcript.

King may have been disappointed in his first impressions of the raw and bustling San Francisco, but he at once fell in love with the rural countryside. His letters and articles are almost rhapsodic when they describe the great fields of wildflowers, the orchards and vineyards, the rolling hills, and the calm bays of central California. “I shall enjoy my work here, and the country will be a perpetual resource and delight,” he predicted on May 11; and at least as early as May 20 he had determined to write a book on the state.” 19

These two streams in Starr King’s new life—his growing intimacy with the more substantial members of his parish and community, and his rush to see as much of California’s scenery as possible during the two years he planned to remain—appparently merged during the late spring of 1860 to start him on the road to the Yosemite Valley. Several of King’s new friends—men of property and broad experience in the world—were intrigued by the reports which had been floating about San Francisco for nearly ten years of the great cliffs and waterfalls to be found along the upper Merced River. They wanted to “see the elephant” and they wanted the new minister to go with them. King was anxious to go. He had heard of the wonders of this Sierra gorge while still in Boston and hoped to measure its glories against those of his own White Hills. A meeting of minds quickly resulted.

Little is known concerning the origins of the excursion. Evidently the travelers at first hoped to make the trip during late May or June, but King’s commitments, largely speaking engagements, caused a delay until nearly the middle of July. Then, a preacher had to be found to take King’s pulpit during his absence. The Reverend Samuel D. Simonds, pastor of the Folsom Street Methodist Church, agreed to fill the gap for one Sunday. On the evening of July 10 King lectured in his own church on behalf of the “Inebriate Asylum” of the Dashaway Association, whose members had sworn solemnly to “dash away the cup.” When he stepped down from the lectern his calendar was clear for nearly two weeks ahead. 20

The next afternoon he and four companions boarded the steamboat Cornelia for the pleasant ride up the bay and the San Joaquin River to Stockton. An hour before departure time King was still at his eternal writing of letters to friends. “But I must stop, & run for the boat & the Sierras” he at last told one correspondent. “Hallelujah.” 21

In addition to King, the only member of the party who thus far has been positively identified was Squire P. Dewey, a forty-niner and San Francisco resident who had prospered in real estate. Probably also one of the party—at least he accompanied King during a walk in Yosemite—was Alpheus Bull, another arrival of 1849 who had made his “pile” as a merchant and miller in the upper Sacramento Valley. At any rate, besides King and 22 Dewey there were two other mature men in the company and a “supple youth of sixteen,” a son of one of the excursionists, evidently Dewey.

A trip to Yosemite in 1860 was still a pioneering experience. Although miners undoubtedly saw the valley during the restless search for gold in 1849 and 1850 and may even have descended to its floor, the effective discovery was not made until 1851 when the volunteer troops of the Mariposa Battalion went in to round up the local Indians. The discoverers were impressed by the great domes and cliffs of the Yosemite, but newspaper accounts of their find attracted little attention. Other visitors entered the valley during the years immediately following, but they all seem to have had some utilitarian purpose in mind—prospecting, punishing renegade natives, or, even, hunting grizzly bears.

The first recognized party of tourists did not reach Yosemite until 1855. It was headed by James Mason Hutchings and included Thomas A. Ayres, the first artist known to have sketched the valley. Due to the reports spread by the Hutchings party, other groups of sight-seers entered later in the same year, and during 1856 rough horse trails were completed into the gorge from both Mariposa and Coulterville. A hotel of sorts was erected in the latter year, but no adequate accommodations for travelers were available until Beardsley and Hite’s Upper Hotel was fully opened for business during the summer of 1859. The visitors of 1860, therefore, were reasonably near the front of the 23 trickle of tourists which has since swelled to a mighty flood.

The Cornelia reached Stockton very early on the morning of Thursday, July 12; and at six o’clock King and his friends were aboard the stage for Coulterville, about seventy-five miles to the southeast. The route through Knights Ferry and Don Pedro’s Bar was then a field of operation much favored by highwaymen, and the preacher from New England could not repress a thrill at the possibility of participating in that quintessence of frontier experiences, a holdup. “Our stage took a box of treasure & it was guarded by double-barreled rifles all capped,” he wrote to a friend that evening. 24

But the party reached its day’s destination without unusual incident; and the next morning the travelers mounted horses for the long, hot ride through the Sierra foothills to Mariposa. That tourist travel to Yosemite was still in its infancy is amply attested by the fact that the San Franciscans considered it necessary to hire two guides to accompany them beyond Coulterville, neither of whom, it turned out, had ever been into the valley by the Mariposa route.

High point of the day’s journey for King was the stop at John Charles Frémont’s Mariposa Estate. As an abolitionist, he had supported the Pathfinder’s bid for the Presidency in 1856; and a firm friendship between the Kings and the Frémonts was even then developing in San Francisco. He was pleased when he learned that two places on the estate, Benton Mills and Bullion Mountain, had been christened in honor of the Pathfinder’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart Benton. “Capital names!” he exclaimed.” 25

On the morning of July 14 the travelers rode from Mariposa over the Chowchilla Mountains to Clark’s Ranch at the present Wawona. They hired a local pig driver as a guide and spent the afternoon exploring the nearby Mariposa Grove. Always the inveterate correspondent, King stopped amidst the giant sequoias to write a letter to one of his Eastern friends, the Reverend William R. Alger. His words to Alger perfectly reveal not only his own wonder at the natural beauties about him but also his capacity to convey those beauties to others.

“It is Saturday evening, 5 1/4 p. m. (8 1/2 p. m. with you),” he wrote, “and the delicious afternoon light is pouring down the snuff-colored back of the Titan over my head, who is as old at least as Christianity. . . . The voices of the party—seven men— with me, sound strangely, hallowing in the distance, in this natural temple in which man is a mite. Above their noise swells the musical melancholy of the old conservatives, wakened by winds that sweep from the snow-capped granite of the Sierras which we see across a mighty gorge, by a walk of but a few rods distance. I can scarcely credit my senses that I am here. . . . The Guide, who looks like Henry Ward Beecher, and would serve as his double, asks: ‘Gettin’ putty well through, mister?’ I say, ‘Yes’ so I must stop.” 26

The next day the company pushed on into Yosemite Valley. King’s first view of the gorge, obtained from the top of the south rim at or near Old Inspiration Point, was a thrilling but shattering experience. “Poor White Mountain Notch” he quipped to a correspondent that evening. “Its nose is broken. If you can find any copies of King’s book on the New Hampshire ant-hills, I advise you, as a friend to the author, to buy up the remaining edition & make a bonfire of them in the park.” 27

King and his companions devoted Monday and Tuesday, July 16 and 17, to an examination of the valley itself. Like most tourists even today, they visited Mirror Lake and the principal waterfalls. Somewhat to his surprise, King felt at ease beneath the towering rocks. “I supposed that grotesqueness would be the prominent characteristic of the cliffs and pillars. But the forms are very noble” he told a friend on the evening of the seventeenth. “We have persons in our party who have scoured Switzerland, and travelled extensively among the Peruvian Andes; and they say that no such rock-scenery is offered by Alps or Cordilleras.” Yet, even amidst all “the beauty and wildness” which he appreciated with every fiber, he could not forget his old home. “My heart is in New England” he confided as he sat beside the waning campfire, lulled by the distant roar of Yosemite Falls. 28

The homeward journey was begun on the morning of July 18. Riding through Crane Flat on the north side of Yosemite Valley, the party reached Coulterville by evening on the nineteenth. Few details are available concerning the remainder of the trip, but presumably San Francisco was reached by the twenty-first, since the newspapers of that date announced that King would preach the next day.

King returned home jubilant. “Back from the Yo Semite!” he exulted on July 22. “Sunburned, blistered, tired, but strong & full of enthusiasm for the glorious notch & the Sierras! I shall preach about it next Sunday,—&, in time, write two or three letters to the Transcript concerning it. Undoubtedly it is the grandest piece of rock- & water-scenery in the world.” 29

The trip to Yosemite was an important event in King’s career. The impact of the endless forests, the massive granite walls, and the serrated peaks was as deep as it was immediate. Something of what the experience meant to him can be gained from the sermon on Yosemite which he delivered a week after his return. “A sermon on Yosemite?” asked the San Francisco Evening Bulletin in anticipation of the scornful smiles of the orthodox. Yes, the editor answered. “Did not He preach a sermon on the mount?” 30 As may be judged from his text, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,” for King the wonders of Yosemite were one more magnificent revelation of God’s eternal glory.

The Sierra Nevada became a force in King’s life. Although parish, community, and wartime labors did not permit many mountain journeys during the four additional years allotted him on earth, he did make several other Sierra visits. There were, for instance, a trip with his family to the Calaveras Grove and, notably, one to Lake Tahoe. “Next to the Himalaya” he said in one of his sermons, the Sierra Nevada, “bears the most noble name of all the mountain-chains on the globe.” 31

His feelings about the range were summed up in two powerful sermons preached during 1863, “Lessons from the Sierra Nevada” and “Living Water from Lake Tahoe.” In the latter he made the statement that the great scenes in nature are not wasted even though put to no secular service or even though never observed by human eyes. God’s purpose in creating such glories, he said, is not to receive “our poor appreciation.” Rather, he continued, “it is to express the fullness of his thought, the overflow of his art, the depth of his goodness, and to enjoy the expression of it, that God compacts the globes in space, and adorns them with splendors like the Himalaya and the Andes, and sprinkles upon them the brilliance of lakes and seas, and binds them into mighty harmonies, and beholds them obey his central will.” It is our “sovereign privilege,” King observed, “that we are called to the possibility of sympathy with his joy.” By love of nature, “we go into harmony with God.” 32

These words came close to being, if indeed they were not, a plea for scenic conservation. One wonders what effect, if any, they may have had upon the California gentlemen “of fortune, of taste and of refinement.” who during the next year successfully sponsored the Congressional bill which set aside the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove for “Public use, resort and recreation . . . inalienable for all time.”

As far as available sources reveal, it appears that after the Yosemite trip King thought less and less of writing a book about California and more and more of one concerning the Sierra. “Had he lived another year,.” said one of his most intimate friends, “we should have had the pendent of his ‘White Hills’ in an adequate picture of the Sierra Nevada.” 33

It perhaps would be going too far to say that Starr King started to become a Californian during his Yosemite visit. Till his last breath he maintained his affection for New England and continued to speak of returning there “on a vacation of one, two, or a dozen, or thirty years.” 34 Yet, Yosemite made a powerful impression on him, and his love for California scenery undoubtedly was one of the reasons he kept extending the term of his San Francisco residence. At the time of his death in 1864 the former Bostonian was planning to leave California for a vacation in Europe, but he said that after two years he “would be glad to return and remain.” His close associate, R. B. Swain, said, “I am sure he had no intention of leaving us permanently.” 35 Something had wooed Starr King from the White Hills. Could it have been the Yosemite?

If the Yosemite visit of 1860 was important for Starr King, it was perhaps even more significant for Yosemite. During the fall of that year King got around to describing the journey for the readers of the Boston Evening Transcript. Instead of two or three letters as originally planned, the account occupied eight, all of which were printed in scattered issues of the paper between December 1, 1860, and February 9, 1861.

King’s lively narrative, which has been termed “the first really thorough description of an extended Yosemite trip,” was, as were all his California letters, well received and widely read. Oliver Wendell Holmes told King, “We read all you write from California with great pleasure,” and asked for a stereoscopic picture of the “Great Pines.” John Greenleaf Whittier also told King of his interest in “thy occasional letters in the Transcript.” King’s longtime friend, Henry W. Bellows, said shortly after the preacher’s death, “You will find the newspapers in which his portraiture of these sublime and charming scenes are found, carefully laid away in hundreds of New England homes, as permanent sources of delight.” 36

King was by no means the first person to call the wonders of Yosemite to public attention. The volunteer soldiers who first entered the valley during 1851 and members of later expeditions gave accounts of their exploits to the California newspapers, but little was said in these letters about the scenery observed. However, the “fortuitous” mention of a thousand-foot waterfall by one of these early writers caught the eye of James Mason Hutchings, who was planning to publish an illustrated monthly magazine. Seeing possibilities for story material, he and four companions, guided by two Indians, visited the valley during the summer of 1855. While returning from this pioneer tourist excursion, the party stopped at Mariposa, and Hutchings wrote a “full rehearsal” of all the sights observed for the local press. His sketch appeared in the Mariposa Gazette on July 12, 1855, and was reprinted by “most of the leading newspapers of the day.” 37

Hutchings did not maintain that his was the first article about Yosemite, but he asserted that as a result of it “for the first time the attention of the public, generally, was awakened towards the marvelous scenery of the Yo Semite Valley.” The later flourishing and lucrative Yosemite tourist trade was, he claimed, a direct result of the description he wrote for the Mariposa Gazette. “It was therefore my good fortune to start this scenic and financial ball rolling,” he once declared with due modesty to the members of the California State Legislature.” 38 And no one has ever successfully contradicted him.

Stimulated by the reports circulated by the Hutchings party, other sight-seers pushed into the gorge that same summer. As a result, the “incomparable valley” received additional publicity. One of the 1855 visitors, the Reverend W. A. Scott of San Francisco, produced several “tersely written” articles upon his return; and in October, 1855, a drawing of Yosemite Falls made by Thomas A. Ayres during the Hutchings trip was published as a lithograph and was widely circulated throughout the nation.

The first extended description of the valley was printed during July, 1856, by Hutchings in his own Hutchings’ California Magazine. That same summer the ill-fated Thomas Ayres visited Yosemite again, and on returning to San Francisco he gave the press an account of his trip which occupied almost two columns of densely spaced type. By that time word of Yosemite’s wonders was beginning to be distributed along the Altantic seaboard, and before the end of 1856 at least one enthusiastic description of valley scenery had been published in the East.” 39

The next year James Denman, principal of a San Francisco school, ventured to Yosemite with a company of sight-seers. In a six-part article entitled “The Sublime and the Beautiful of California” he advised the readers of the San Francisco Bulletin that those “who can only find pleasure and recreation in the richly carpeted halls of luxury” should visit Napa Springs; and then he proceeded to recount in infinite detail the joys and delights of roughing it on a camping trip to the Yosemite. Dr. Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion of 1851 and historian of Yosemite’s discovery, later maintained that Denman’s account “was the first description that gave the public any definite idea of the magnitude of the scenery, or any accuracy of measurements of the heights of the diffs and waterfalls.” 40

Another candidate for the honor of producing the “first” substantial published description of a trip to the new wonderland was the unnamed “special reporter” of the San Francisco Alta California who during the summer of 1858 wrote a lengthy narrative entitled “The Yo-Semite Falls—A Ramble Thitther.” 41 The prominent California author, John S. Hittell, disregarded all of these earlier accounts and in his once-popular guidebook to Yosemite asserted that the Reverend Ferdinand C. Ewer produced “the first long description of the scenery” as the result of a visit made during 1859.” 42

But undoubtedly the most important account of a trip to Yosemite produced during that year was the one written by Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, during his famous overland journey to California. Greeley’s experiences while rushing through Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove during August, 1859, were recounted in a series of letters published in the Tribune that same season. The next year these articles were gathered together to form his book, An Overland Journey, from New York to San Francisco, in the Summer of 1859. Greeley did not “multiply details” in his description of the valley, and he pronounced Yosemite Falls a “humbug” because there was little water in it at the time of his visit; but the total impression of the scene upon him is summarized by his words: “I know of no single wonder of nature on earth which can claim a superiority over the Yosemite” Greeley’s articles reached a wide audience in the East. One reader was a Boston minister named Thomas Starr King.

It is plain, therefore, that by the time King came along in 1860 the Yosemite Valley had been frequently described in print and that a number of detailed accounts of visits to the gorge had been published. At least one of these travel narratives had been circulated extensively in the eastern part of the United States. The importance of King’s letters in making Yosemite known, then, lay not so much in their early date, their length, or in their numerous readers. His narrative marked a milestone in Yosemite literature because of his ability to make others visualize the scenes described and because of his already established reputation as a nature writer.

If the naturalists who interpret our nation’s great scenic parks have learned anything from years of dealing with the public, it is that there are many persons who must be told that a view is beautiful before they will be impressed. Accounts of Yosemite’s wonders circulated through the country for some years without creating much of a stir. No recognized authority on scenery had told people that here was something worth looking at.

As the editor of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin said at the time of King’s death, his White Hills “had made the White Mountains classical, and brought them within the circle of all Eastern summer tourists.” When this man spoke of the beauties of Yosemite, New Englanders were inclined to listen. “No one had really seen the Sierra Nevada, Mt. Shasta, the Yo Semite Valley, or the coast of Oregon and the region of Mt. Hood,” said Henry W. Bellows, “until his fine eye saw and his cunning brain and hand depicted them",” 43 It was not without reason that writers of promotional literature and Yosemite guidebooks soon began to use King’s words and name to give authority to their statements. 44

Perhaps this point should not be too long belabored, since, after all, it is difficult to prove that any significant number of the tourists who later poured into Yosemite were motivated by reading King’s letters. Yet he undoubtedly helped to bring the valley into the national consciousness as a place worth seeing— and worth preserving. In the words of one authority, King’s articles “acquainted the Easterners better than anything else could with the fabulous beauties of Yosemite.” 45 And aside from their importance in making Yosemite known, King’s letters are significant today as historical source materials, for the intimate glimpses they give of such places as Coulterville, the Mariposa Estate, Clark’s Ranch, and the Yosemite Valley itself.

One other value of the letters must be noted. They throw an illuminating shaft of light upon the personality of Thomas Starr King. Most of King’s biographers speak of his ebullient, infectious sense of humor. “A casual acquaintance might suppose,” wrote one of these chroniclers, “that to tell stories was his great ambition.” 46 A favorite method of expressing his love of fun was to imitate others. On one recalled occasion, for instance, he mimicked the preaching of Henry Ward Beecher for Emerson, to the mutual delight of both himself and the Sage of Concord. 47 “He had the keenest eye for the odd, eccentric and ludicrous in the speech and conduct of his fellow-creatures,” said Charles W. Wendte. “No one had such a fund of anecdotes and comical experiences, and no one could tell a story so inimitably.” 48

This trait is admirably illustrated in King’s Yosemite letters. His gleeful sketches of the valley hotel proprieter, Charles Peck, who naively described a cascade-streaked cliff as “jest like calico,” display all the story-telling talents claimed by the biographers. Yet the anecdotes also seem to show something more.

King’s mimicries, claimed his associates, were made in the kindest of spirits. “His wit, however telling, was so genial that it never wounded a heart or lost him a friend,” explained one of his parishioners. 49 But to present-day ears, unaccustomed to nineteenth-century humor which often ridiculed people of certain classes, races, or nationalities, these stories may seem to show a trace of condescension on the part of their scholarly Boston-oriented narrator. King may have meant no slight, but one wonders what landlord Peck may have felt if anyone bothered to point out to him his naked soul exposed to the readers of the Evening Transcript.

It may not be amiss to suggest that King’s biographers have thus far failed to give the full measure of their man. In fact, one is inclined to feel that few persons have suffered so much at the hands of their friends. “Keep my memory green,” charged King as he lay on his deathbed. His admirers to the present day have striven faithfully to carry out that injunction. In the process they have come near to praising their subject into oblivion.

Beyond a doubt King possessed all the essential inner goodness and most of the talents claimed for him. But portraying him almost exclusively in the robes of a saint has not tended to make him a personality of unalloyed appeal to those not fortunate enough to have known him during his lifetime. One of King’s boyhood teachers later recorded his impressions of the youth for the benefit of posterity. “I can call to remembrance no act or word in his school-days to censure or disapprove,” said this worthy man. “Always cheerful, industrious, and conscientious, he left no duty unperformed. . . . I always felt that I had at least one pupil whose whole influence was on the side of nobleness, justice, and truth; and whose example in all respects, by the wayside, on the playground, and in the schoolroom, was exerted in sustaining and upholding wise and judicious regulations.” 50 Even though this picture may be true, it does not serve to whet the appetite for more information about the subject.

Good, wise, and generous though he was, Thomas Starr King was no plaster saint. He was very much a man, with some of man’s failings and shortcomings. To recognize this fact does not detract from his stature but only serves to make him more tangible.

It might be well to acknowledge openly, for instance, that King was not always charitable, forgiving, and tolerant. When the cause of evil, as he saw it, was to be combatted, he was no man to live and let live.

This aspect of his personality is illustrated by an incident which occurred while the minister and his family were en route from New York to California. It was discovered that a fellow passenger aboard ship, a “Madame Doremus” was in reality the notorious Mrs. E. A. Cunningham, whose trial for the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell in 1857 had for months been the sensation of New York. She had been acquitted in triumph after a mishandled prosecution had made her somewhat of a heroine, but all public good will was lost when she was detected attempting to pass off a borrowed infant as her child by Dr. Burdell in order to gain possession of the victim’s not inconsiderable estate.

King’s diary appears to show that he helped expose this woman who, “her name an epithet of approbrium on every tongue” was seeking to make a new start in life on the distant shore of the Pacific. The unrelenting minister of Jehovah would have no part in sheltering one whom he considered to be a “lying wretch.” 51

Ordinarily in political debates or in theological arguments it was his habit to state the position of his opponent in clear, rational, and disinterested terms before he proceeded methodically and rapidly to demolish it in phrases quite as temperate. But under the stress of great issues his calm often gave way to impatience, his reasoned argument to invective. In the heat of crisis “his love of a fight was far from Christlike.” 52

And sometimes it did not take too great an issue to arouse his ire. Shortly after his arrival in San Francisco he fell into a dispute with the officers of the Episcopal Diocese of California. These gentlemen, it seems, were displeased because King, a Unitarian, had been invited by the Episcopal Sunday School to deliver a Fourth of July oration. King was humorous and reasonably polite in the rejoinders which were printed in the newspapers, and he did give the speech; but the matter rankled in his breast. A few months later he told a friend, “the Episcopalians must be put in their corner, & not be suffered to swagger over the whole field & bully the rest of us.” 53

Appalled by the unsafe and uncomfortable conditions on the Vanderbilt ships to the Isthmus, King called the owner a “shark and a wolf intermixed” who “ought to be dragged after the ship, in the sea” He characterized Vanderbilt’s son-in-law as a “liar,” and advised a friend to be charitable and try to think of the shipping magnate as “a genial old gentleman full of the spirit of brotherly kindness at ten per cent.” 54

But it was the Civil War that most aroused King’s impatience and fighting spirit. Pray for Jefferson Davis as president of the seceding states? he asked on one public occasion. “Pray for him! As soon as for antichrist! Never!” During 1862 when the fight in the East was going badly for the Union, King became despondent. “What louts & boobies are [sic] leaders are!” he complained. “Pope is a swaggering braggart; McClellan a slowpoke; Lincoln a wretched tavern-joker in the most serious hours of history.” 55

Such words reveal a flesh and blood man who knew what he believed to be right and who was willing to fight for it. He had a crusader’s intolerance for those whom he considered to be immoral, traitorous, proud, lazy, or vain. “The dandy,” he once said with scorn, “is entitled to stand in the first rank of ghosts—he is a whiskered essence, an organized perfume.” 56 Such human qualities are shared with many another of the world’s heroes, and Thomas Starr King’s biographers have no need to be ashamed of them.

It is difficult to anticipate what history’s final judgment will be in the case of Thomas Starr King. As an orator he moved thousands. Even the least educated could feel the power of his inner conviction. “Them’s idees,” a man was heard to say at one of his lectures. Yet “orators live but in memory"; and as we read his speeches a century later some of them still sway us, in places we catch the glint of his fire, but for the most part the themes, though lofty, worthy, and logically developed, seem dully unoriginal and the pace pedestrian. We must conclude that it was less what was said than when it was said and who said it that was the key to his greatness on the platform. A woman who carried the treasured memory of one of King’s lectures for twenty-five years confessed that “it wasn’t the address so much as the man” that captivated her.” 57 Evidently Bret Harte wrote better than he knew when he pondered “On a Pen of Thomas Starr King":

“But all in vain the enchanter’s wand we wave:
No stroke of ours recalls his magic vision;
The incantation that its power gave
Sleeps with the dead magician.” 58

“Do we inquire who is greatest as a preacher?” Starr King once asked. “The definition should be,” he continued, “he who can enlighten most dearly the minds of men in regard to duty, thrill them with a conviction of responsibility, and draw them by the sweetest persuasion to the law of God and to purity of life.” 59 A minister who set such an ideal for himself could scarcely help but be a good preacher, and Starr King was far more than good. A disciple of William Ellery Channing, he ”was one of the great propagators of the Unitarian faith.” 60 Churchmen of his persuasion even now say that his sermons and his theological discourses are as valid as the day they were written.

These are matters a layman hesitates to judge, but one hazards the guess that not even many churchmen read Starr King’s sermons today. Certainly the average man, if he could be brought to study them, would find little to thrill him in King’s treatises on “The Trinity” or “The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment”; and even the best of his sermons are rather hard going. Eternal truths remain the same, but ways of explaining them change from generation to generation.

At first glance, King’s position as a great Civil War patriot seems secure. Largely in recognition of his services to the Union cause, his likeness, along with that of Father Serra, represents California in Statuary Hall in the nation’s capitol. His portrait in Sacramento bears the inscription: “The man whose matchless oratory saved California to the Union.” A typical statement of his biographers asserts: “Historians everywhere agree that Starr King, almost single-handed, saved a great state for the Union.” 61

As a matter of fact, historians are in no such agreement. Most of the general histories of California pay rather scant attention to King’s rôle as a patriot during the conflict. Sober, solid research has demonstrated to the satisfaction of many scholarly and professional historians that California would have remained in the Union had there been no Thomas Starr King— or Colonel E. D. Baker, or the Sacramento Union, or any of the other single forces which have been advanced as the “savior” of California.” 62 The sweeping assertions by King’s admirers may actually have harmed his reputation. Because of the controversy generated by these claims, one suspects, King’s very real services in arousing active patriotism and in raising funds for the Sanitary Commission, and his part in the development of the new Republican party in the state, have not been given the unbiased, scholarly attention they deserve. The final verdict on King the “savior of California” must await a new trial.

It would be ironic if, in the long run, King should be remembered principally as a nature writer. Except for a few eulogists at the time of his death, not even King’s most enthusiastic advocates have claimed that he was a great author. Yet he has a recognized place among the group headed by Emerson and Thoreau which during the mid-nineteenth century caused Americans to see the world with “new eyes.”

King was an ardent admirer of nature, both in the field and as described on the written page. “I envy you your approaching rapture,” he once told a friend who was about to read Thoreau’s Walden. 63 For him nature was a continual revelation of God, an exciting confirmation of the dignity of human nature, and a lesson in the meaning of immortality. 64

Early during his visits to the White Hills he became convinced that the “rare beauty” of this region should be better known to the people of Boston and the Eastern states, and he began to describe the mountains for the readers of the Transcript. His purpose in writing these articles and his later book, The White Hills; Their Legends, Landscape, and Poetry, was, he said, “to help persons appreciate landscape more adequately” and to provide a guide and a stimulant to the enjoyment of particular “noble landscapes” in New Hampshire.” 65 His effort was successful. He carried his readers with him through the White Hills describing scenes, and events of history and legend, in clear and animated, and sometimes brilliant, prose.

His book was recognized as “a classic in every respect.” 66 It was, said one reviewer, “the most elaborate attempt to picture to the mind’s eye the grandeur and beauty of natural scenery which has graced our native literature” and it was called “a volume of aesthetic teaching, thus far without a rival.” 67 Following Walden by only five years and Beecher’s Star Papers by only four, roughly contemporaneous with the articles of Wilson Flagg and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and preceding by six years the first nature essay of John Burroughs, King’s White Hills was a representative product of one of the greatest periods of American nature writing. King’s method of presentation, says one careful student, “was not only enjoyed by his contemporaries but was copied by many a later writer.” 68

Unfortunately for the book’s long-range popularity, certain aspects of King’s writing were not entirely in accord with later literary tastes. His work reveals a decided tendency to force upon White Hills visitors “all the emotions they ought to feel and all the imaginations they ought to shape, in viewing magnificent scenery.” 69 King pillories at length people who hurry through picturesque landscapes or otherwise fail to appreciate sublime views. “A large proportion of the summer travellers in New Hampshire bolt the scenery, as a man, driven by work, bolts his dinner in a restaurant,” he scolds in one typical outburst.

Another of his aims was to “associate with principal scenes poetic passages which illustrate, either the permanent character of the views, or some peculiar aspect in which the author of the book has seen them.” After all, he explained, “one cannot carry a poetic library on a journey among the hills"; and he attempted to supply the deficiency by liberal quotations from the great poets of America and Europe. He also followed Ruskin in believing that landscapes should be judged according to arbitrary rules of art. Thus, he said in describing a certain view, “the spot would be perfect” if only the scene could be amended to place a lake in the foreground. 70 Some of these same characteristics mark his later Yosemite letters and may explain why they have failed to remain alive in California literature.

The scholarly and systematic study of nature writing in America is still a relatively recent development. 71 King’s reputation in this field has survived the test of the pioneer surveys; it may increase as the work continues. In any new assessment, King’s Yosemite letters may play a significant part.

After their first publication in the Boston Transcript, King’s eight articles on his visit to the Yosemite gradually fell into obscurity. 72 Brief excerpts from them have appeared in several Yosemite guidebooks and in biographies of King, and longer parts were presented in Charles W. Wendte’s Thomas Starr King, Patriot and Preacher; but as far as the present editor has been able to determine, the series has never before been reprinted in its entirety. The letters are reproduced exactly as they appeared in the Transcript, except that obvious typographical errors have been corrected and present-day usage has been followed in italicizing the titles of publications, in the spelling of Latin plant names, and in the placing of accent marks.

In republishing Starr King’s Yosemite letters, The Book Club of California has been assisted by many persons and institutions. Above all, the Club acknowledges its indebtedness to Dr. Hans Huth, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was through Dr. Huth’s perceptive study, Yosemite: the Story of an Idea, that the present editor first became aware of the importance of King’s narrative. Dr. Huth had hoped to publish the letters himself, but he cheerfully yielded his prior claim and even lent his photostats of the Transcript articles.

Special thanks are also due to Dr. James D. Hart, Acting Director, and to the staff of the Bancroft Library for research assistance and for permission to reproduce items from the library’s superb collection of early Yosemite and Mariposa photographs. The Club also expresses its appreciation to Mrs. Helen S. Giffen and Dr. Elliot Evans, of the staff of the Society of California Pioneers; Mr. Douglass H. Hubbard, Chief Park Naturalist, Yosemite National Park; Mrs. Sarah W. Flannery, Mr. B. Joseph O’Neil, and Mr. Michael J. Venezia, of the Boston Public Library; Mr. John M. Mahoney, of the Western Regional Office, National Park Service; Mr. Allan R. Ottley, California Section Librarian, and the staff of the California State Library; and the Yosemite Natural History Association for information concerning Thomas Starr King and the early history of Yosemite.

John A. Hussey

Piedmont, California
August 8, 1962


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