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The Wonders of the Yosemite Valley, and of California by Samuel Kneeland (1872)


Before describing the Yosemite Valley, it may be of interest to the reader to know something more of the history of the discovery of this wonderful locality, within a few years known only to the Indian tribes. The following historical sketch is condensed from the “Geological Survey of California,” published by authority of the Legislature.

In the year 1864, Congress influenced by intelligent citizens of California, passed the following Act:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That there shall be, and is hereby, granted to the State of California, the ‘Cleft’ or ‘Gorge’ in the Granite Peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountain, situated in the County of Mariposa, in the State aforesaid, and the head waters of the Merced River, and known as the Yosemite Valley, with its branches and spurs, in estimated length fifteen miles, and in average width one mile back from the main edge of the precipice, on each side of the Valley, with the stipulation, nevertheless, that the said State shall accept this grant upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time; but leases not exceeding ten years may be granted for portions of said premises. All incomes derived from leases of privileges to be expended in the preservation and improvement of the property, or the roads leading, thereto; the boundaries to be established at the cost of said State by the United States Surveyor-General of California, whose official plat, when affirmed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, shall constitute the evidence of the locus, extent, and limits of the said Cleft or Gorge; the premises to be managed by the Governor of the State, with eight other Commissioners, to be appointed by the Executive of California, and who shall receive no compensation for their services.

Sect. 2. And be it further enacted, That there shall likewise be, and there is hereby granted to the said State of California, the tracts embracing what is known as the ‘Mariposa Big Tree Grove,’ not to exceed the area of four sections, and to be taken in legal subdivisions of one-quarter section each, with the like stipulations as expressed in the first section of this Act as to the State’s acceptance, with like conditions as in the first section of this Act as to inalienability, yet with the same lease privileges; the income to be expended in the preservation, improvement, and protection of the property, the premises to be managed by legal subdivisions as aforesaid; and the official plat of the United States Surveyor-General, when affirmed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, to be the evidence of the locus of the said Mariposa Big Tree Grove.”

El Capitan from the Merced River

(3100 feet above Valley,) from Merced River.

PAGE 41.

This Act was approved by the President, June 30, 1864; and soon after, Governor Low, of California, issued a proclamation, taking possession of the tracts thus granted in behalf of the State, appointing, commissioners to manage them, and warning all persons against trespassing or settling there without authority, and forbidding the cutting of timber, and other injurious acts. The necessary surveys were made, and the limits of the Valley and the Mariposa Grove were established in the same year.

The grant by Congress had no validity until the State, by its Legislature, had solemnly promised to accept the trust, forever binding when once accepted.

At the next session of the California Legislature, an Act was passed accepting the Valley and the Grove, on the conditions imposed by Congress, and containing provisions for the punishment of persons committing. depredations on the premises, and appointing a guardian of the grant. Since the passage of this act, the vandalism of those who would have destroyed the grove, who would have cut down a giant tree to build their houses, has been in a great measure arrested; visitors, however, may remember a huge pine prostrate near the upper hotel in the Valley, cut down in the winter of 1869-70 by persons whom Mr. Galen Clark, the guardian, had succeeded in placing in the hands of justice.

The whites living on the streams near the Valley, as early as 1850, had been greatly harassed by the scattered Indians in this region, and finally formed a military company to expel them from the country. As the Indians were pursued it became evident that they had a safe retreat high up in the mountains, and it was determined to trace them to, their refuge; this was found to be the Yosemite Valley, which thus came to be known to the whites. In the spring of 1851 an expedition, under the command of Captain Boling, started to explore this Valley and to drive the Indians out of it; guided by an old chief, Tenaya, whose name is given to one of the cañons of the Merced River, they reached the valley, and drove the Indians from their supposed impregnable retreat, killing a few, and making a peace with the rest—this, it will be seen, was fourteen years before the Act of Congress, above referred to. The Indians again becoming, troublesome to the miners, another expedition was fitted ont for the Valley in 1852, by the Mariposa Battalion; some of the Indians were killed, and the rest fled to the Mono tribe, on the eastern side of the Sierra; having stolen some horses from their friends, the Monos pursued them back to the Valley, where a bloody battle was fought, resulting int the almost entire extermination of the Yosemite tribe.

According to Dr. Bunnell, the Indians in and around the Valley were a mixed race, made up by refugees from many widely-scattered tribes; each family is said to have had a tract set apart for its use, which had its own name; all we know of their language is preserved in the sonorous and often musical names given to the waterfalls and rocks, as elsewhere stated, which, however, have in most cases been replaced by Spanish and English names.

The visit of the soldiers did very little toward opening the Valley to public notice; their wonderful stories found their way into the newspapers, but were passed over as the exaggerations so often published by travellers in distant regions, where there is no liability of contradiction by eye-witnesses. Mr. J. M. Hutchings, who has been long, identified with the history of the Valley, and who now keeps a hotel there, seems to have been the first, in 1855, to collect a party of tourists to visit the Yosemite for pleasure; in the same year, another, and a larger, party from Mariposa went into the Valley. In 1856, the regular pleasure travel may be said to have commenced—if it can be called pleasure to toil up and down steep ridges, dangerous on horseback, at that time, and very fatiguing on foot. The trail from Clark and Moore’s hotel is even now abominable, and unnecessarily so; fallen trees might be removed, rolling stones picked out, fords levelled, mud holes made safe, and projecting rocks knocked off, at very little cost of time or money. It seems unbecoming in the State to allow such neglect of the trails, now that the visitors number thousands, and many of them ladies, in the course of the summer. Mercy for the horse, as well as for the rider, demands more care to be devoted to these trails, which seem now as if purposely made to wrench, torture, and fatigue the poor traveller, and compel him to stop at the houses of entertainment along their course. Were the trails properly attended to, it would be easy enough to go from Clark’s into the Valley in a day; now it is very hard to do this, and by the time they have gone twelve miles, most travellers are weary enough to rest at the “Half-way House,” and to make the other twelve miles on the next day; like a Chicago train, which generally contrives to get you in an hour too late to make your Eastern or Western connection, thus compelling an unnecessary expenditure there, this trail seems to be neglected intentionally for a similar end.

The first house built in the Valley, in the autumn of 1856, opposite the Yosemite Fall, is still standing, and is occupied as a hotel. In 1860, Mr. J. C. Lamon took up his residence in the Valley, where he now lives, a lonely bachelor, in a comfortable log house. He has truly made the wilderness to “blossom like the rose,” and has succeeded in raising excellent vegetables, and some exceedingly fine berries, and other fruit; his garden is one of the “sights” in the Valley, and the visitor is always sure of a welcome reception; if the proprietor be not at home to sell you his fruit, you are allowed to pick and eat, but not to carry away, in his garden, depositing on his window a quarter or half-dollar in silver. He thinks that he has a claim to the tract cultivated by himself, and considers himself a bona fide settler; of course he has no legal claim, as the land was not open to pre-emption, never having been surveyed and put into the market. Many summer residents have since put in their claims, which are invalid under the United States laws, for the above reason, and also because they were not accompanied by permanent residence. None of the claimants, it is hoped, will be allowed to have their pretensions recognized by Congress, or in any way sanctioned by public opinion. The gift of Congress is too precious to the State and to the country to be hampered by the restrictions which would inevitably be imposed by the greed of individual owners or lessees, who would surely manage it for private benefit, and not for public good. In the language of the “Survey,” “As the tide of travel in the direction of this wonderful and unique locality increases, so will the vexations, restraints, and annoying charges, which are so universal at all places of great resort, be multiplied. The screws will be put on just as fast as the public can be educated into bearing the pressure. Instead of having every convenience for circulation in and about the Valley—free trails, roads, and bridges, with every facility offered for the enjoyment of Nature in the greatest of her works, unrestrained except by the requirements of decency and order—the public will find, if the ownership of the Valley passes into private hands, that opportunity will be taken to levy toll at every point of view, on every trail, on every bridge, and at every turning, while there will be no inducement to do anything for the public accommodation, except that which may be made immediately available as a new means of raising a tax on the unfortunate traveller. . .. The Yosemite Valley is an exceptional creation, and, as such, has been exceptionally provided for jointly by the Nation and the State; it has been made a National public park, and placed under the charge of the State of California. Let Californians beware how they make the name of their State a by-word and reproach for all time, by trying to throw off and repudiate a noble task which they undertook to perform—that of holding the Yosemite Valley as a place of public use, resort, and recreation, inalienable for all time!”

A few years since, some scientific men, familiar with California, and especially with this Valley, undertook to obtain the signatures of their fellows throughout the land, and of those connected with learned societies, remonstrating against the enormity of permitting the claims of private individuals to stand in the way of the reservation of this Valley as a public park forever. They were successful in obtaining the approval of the great majority of American savants, scholars, and eminent men; and it is to be hoped that Congress will never recognize such claims. It would be better far to pay ten times their estimate of alleged improvements, and to secure the right of the nation to the full control of every portion of the Valley and its surroundings mentioned in the Act of Congress of 1864.


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