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


The Shoshones, Utes, and Pah-Utes are the principal Indian tribes seen along the railroad from Salt Lake to Stockton. In the Yosemite Valley there are the “Diggers,” so called because, in times of scarcity, they subsist on acorns, roots, and insects and their grubs, dug from the earth. Though low in the scale of man, they are not the abject creatures generally represented; they are mild, harmless, and singularly honest. Of their honesty you can have no doubt when you see in the woods and valleys little storehouses, raised above inundations, and made of bushes, grasses, and stakes, in which their acorns and nuts are stored for the winter; they always respect each other’s property thus arranged, but these repositories have often been broken into and robbed by mischievous and unscrupulous whites. As usual with the American aborigines, they are more sinned against than sinning. They are very dark-colored, fond of gaudy beads and colors, and expert hunters and fishermen; they will catch a string of trout where the Eastern angler, with his flies and costly outfit, cannot get a bite. They are addicted to intemperance, when they can get fire-water; but for this, and the consequent poverty, misery, and disease, the whites are accountable.

While we were in the Valley, there was a grand pow-wow one night over the chief, who was supposed to be dying; all sorts of howlings and incantations were practised by his women; but the smell of his breath, his sudden revival at the mention of whiskey, and the fact that he was out fishing, all next day, were sufficient proofs that it was only a fit of delirium tremens.

Near Clark’s hotel is an Indian sweat-house, which is an object of curiosity to travellers. It consists of an oval depression in the ground, about eight feet long and two feet deep; over this is a heavily-thatched dome-shaped roof, plastered with mud and leaves; on the mud floor is placed a circle of rounded stones, enclosing a bed of twigs and leaves; a fire is made around the stones, upon which, when highly heated, water is poured, at the same time extinguishing the fire, but raising an abundance of very hot steam; the patient, naked, then lies down upon the inner bed of leaves, and the entrance is nearly closed; after sweating sufficiently, he rushes out and plunges into a branch of the Merced River near by—a primitive but effectual Russian bath.

They possess the art of making baskets of straw which will hold water, and they make a very ingenious straw box for keeping their worm bait alive; burying it in the earth, yet not allowing the worms to escape. The women are perfectly hideous, as usual doing all the drudgery, while the men hunt, fish, drink and smoke. One fine fellow at Mr. Clark’s had charge of the train horses; he was good

Mirror Lake and Mount Watkins

Mirror Lake and Mt. Watkins.

PAGE 43.

natured, strong, industrious, a fine rider, and skilled in all woodcraft.

It is averred by sundry persons not far from Cape Cod, that a baked skunk is a great luxury, and that, if properly killed and dressed, the flesh is not tainted with the well-known perfume of this animal. The Diggers are of the same opinion, and this dish with them corresponds to roast turkey with us. The following account of the manner in which the animal is captured by them is taken from a Western paper, and was written by an alleged eye-witness:

“On my journey hither, I observed two Digger Indians in a ravine, a little distance above the road, slowly and cautiously approaching each other, with their eyes intently fastened on some animal which a second glance discovered to be a well-developed specimen of the skunk. The Indian who was behind it held out his hand, and moved it slowly round in a circle, and this seemed to distract the attention of the animal, for he followed the motion closely with his eyes, and, though he elevated his tail several times, as if about to fire, he never executed his threat. Slowly, slowly they approached, the other attracted its attention, and the auspicious moment arrived. In the twinkling of an eye, the Indian behind dashed upon it, snatched it up by the extremity of its uplifted tail, and held it high aloft at arm’s length. Then the other Indian ran up, flattened out his hand, and struck it on the back of the neck as he would have done with a knife, breaking that organ thereby, and the thing was accomplished. The animal seemed to feel itself so ignominiously disgraced and outraged, and all the proprieties and amenities of civilized warfare so utterly disregarded, in being hoisted by the tip of the tail, that it abandoned its usual means of defence in disgust. The consequence was that the entire operation was accomplished without the diffusion of the usual odor, which appears to be the main point in the killing.”

The Mongolian origin of the American Indian has generally been accepted by closet ethnologists; but any one who takes this California trip will be likely to have this opinion, if he entertain it, shaken. Here you see the Indian and the Chinese side by side: except in the general contour of the face and the straight black hair, there is hardly any resemblance in physical character, and their mental characteristics are entirely opposite. The Diggers, and other California Indians, are supposed by some to have come from the west by sea, from the Japanese or Malayan Islands, instead of from the northeast, by way of Greenland, like the Esquimaux. Whatever their origin, they are fast disappearing, as they cannot adopt the civilization of the white race; scorning agriculture and manual labor, they are truly in the hunter state, and in their Stone Age, beyond which they will never progress.


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