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Yosemite Indians and Other Sketches (1936) by Mrs. H. J. Taylor


JAMES MASON HUTCHINGS. Photograph by Thos. Houseworth

Photograph by Thos. Houseworth


Chapter 3: James Mason Hutchings • 1820-1902

I n the old cemetery in Yosemite Valley a large, rough, granite rock bears the inscription: “Pioneer of Yosemite.” The marble headstone reads: “In memory of J. M. H. , Pioneer, Patriot. February 10, 1818-October 31, 1902.”

In a letter Gertrude Hutchings Mills states: “My father was born February 10, 1820 in the little village of Towcester, Northhamptonshire, England. His mother, Barbara Mason Hutchings, was fifty-two years old when he, the youngest of a large family of children, was born. His father, William Hutchings, was a carpenter and cabinet maker, and my father learned that trade. In 1848 he left England for America and in 1849 crossed the plains and located in California.”

Yosemite Valley was discovered in 1851 by the Mariposa Battalion sent to capture the Yosemite Indians. Little information about the Valley reached the press. One bit of description attracted attention —“a waterfall nearly a thousand feet high.” Here was something different from the rest of the known world; here was the magnet that should later draw the world. James Mason Hutchings, living in San Francisco, contemplated the publication of a magazine, the California Monthly, and treasured the newspaper scrap containing the startling statement. To see that waterfall and other wonderful scenes would supply him with priceless material for his publishing venture. It would be a hazardous trip to Yosemite but he determined to go. He made inquiry of the soldiers who had been there concerning the route but not one could give him directions. They had gone to capture the Indians; the scenes and trails had made little impression.

Two Yosemite Indians were secured as guides. With Thomas Ayres, the well known San Francisco artist to make drawings for the contemplated magazine, and three additional friends, Hutchings and his party left Mariposa in late June, 1855.* [*Heart of Sierra, 1886, p. 92, Hutchings says: “It is by no means claimed that ours was the first party making the trip there” [to Yosemite Valley].] On the afternoon of the third day the party arrived at Inspiration Point, and Thomas Ayres, on June 20, 1855 sketched the first picture ever made of Yosemite. [Editor’s note: the correct date is June 27, 1855.—dea]

It was night when the party reached the floor of the Valley; they unrolled their blankets and slept at the foot of the Indian trail and awoke to a memorable day. Not far away Pohono, from great heights, was daintily pouring it waters and refreshing the valley as it had been doing for centuries. Gazing upon this wind blown stream of falling water the party named it “Bridal Veil Falls.” The name is full of sentiment but it is a loss to the world that Pohono, so full of meaning revealing the superstitions and imaginings characteristic of the Indian mind, was not retained. Setting out to explore the Valley, the party came to an open meadow and the “water-fall nearly a thousand feet high” suddenly became a reality and more, for Yosemite Falls is 2,526 feet high. Mr. Hutchings and his party spent five days in the Valley. On his return many were eager to hear of the experiences and scenes of the journey and he wrote an article published in the Mariposa Gazette in July, 1855. Leading newspapers of the time copied the article and Yosemite was made known to the world. Mr. Hutchings says: “In October, 1855 was published a lithographic view of Yosemite Falls (then called Yo-Ham-i-te) from a sketch taken for the writer by Mr. Thomas Ayres in the preceding June, which was the first pictorial representation of any scene in the great Valley ever given to the public.”

The first number of the California Monthly was published in San Francisco in July, 1856. The leading article was on Yosemite and the sketch made the summer before by Thomas Ayres accompanied it. After five years the California Monthly was discontinued due to Mr. Hutchings’ impaired health. His physician advised him to live in the out of doors and he at once thought of Yosemite. In January, 1862, he attempted to enter the Valley to ascertain whether it was habitable all through the year but failed on account of heavy floods. In the second attempt, made in March of the same year, he was accompanied by James C. Lamon and Galen Clark. The trail was completely covered by snow two to ten feet deep. When his companions felt they could go no farther, they advised Hutchings to return until the snow should melt, but he determined to keep on alone. There is enviable fiber in a man who pushes forward alone to the hoped-for goal, facing hunger, exhaustion, and death, in the trackless snows of the Sierra. Six days in the deep snows, making scarcely a mile a day, breaking through the crust and literally climbing out again, used up his last ounce of strength. Weariness and fatigue made it impossible to proceed. He dropped his pack and sat down upon it, “to write a few lines to the dear ones at home—possibly the last.” The day was at its close. The sky was gloomy and threatening. His head was bowed on his knees and the end seemed at hand. Such moments try the souls of men.

The weary traveler looked up. The clouds were lifting and the sky was growing clear. Natural features became definitely outlined. Could it be that he was sitting on the granite walls of Yosemite? Below was the Merced winding its way through green meadows, and there was no more snow! Despair changed to unbounded joy; the goal lay before him; his weariness became strength; and he descended into the Valley. Courage and perseverance were crowned with success.

The following summer, 1863, Mr. Hutchings bought the two-story frame building in Yosemite that had not proved successful as a tourist hotel; he would make it successful. Each story, sixty-by-twenty feet, was without partitions and the doors and windows were of cotton cloth. In the spring of 1864 he packed in all their household goods, fifty miles on mule back, over the trail that later became the Coulterville road. The family took up its residence April 20, 1864, and the two-story frame building was henceforth known as The Hutchings House. When tourists arrived the “ladies” were given the upstairs—the men the downstairs, but this was not Mr. Hutchings’ idea of a hotel and he determined to make improvements. For immediate use he packed in bolts of muslin and with it he partitioned off rooms giving some degree of privacy. The house accommodated twenty-eight people but a few additional ones could always be sheltered. One night, when all had retired and every bed was occupied, twenty-nine additional guests arrived. Mr. Hutchings was a genial host. Not only did he feed this hungry party at that late hour but also lodged every one of them. A newly arrived bale of blankets kept them warm and floor space sufficed for beds.

In the autumn of 1865 Mr. Hutchings packed in a saw mill and improvements soon followed. A porch across the front, a sitting room at the rear, and permanent partitions added greatly to the comfort and appearance of The Hutchings House. The sitting room, built around a large Incense cedar (Libocedrus decurrens), became known as The Big Tree Room. In the Souvenir of California, 1894, Mr. Hutchings says: “This cedar, 175 feet high, was standing there when the room was planned. I had not the heart to cut it down, so I fenced it in, or rather, built around it . . . the base of the tree, eight feet in diameter, is an ever present guest in that sitting room. . . . The large, open fireplace was built with my own hands. . . . Travelers from all climes and countries welcomed the sheltering comfort and blazing log fire of this room.”

The Big Tree Room with its great fireplace, built in 1866, may be seen today. Nearby stands Cedar Cottage, the oldest building in Yosemite, with its whip-sawed timbers. In 1864 Mr. Hutchings preempted 160 acres extending from The Hutchings House across the Merced to the foot of Yosemite Falls. To get the maximum warmth and sunlight during the winter months a site near Yosemite Falls was selected where, in 1865, he built the log cabin that was his home for many years.

Mr. Hutchings was hospitable and his cabin, with its comfortable living room and great fireplace, was known to thousands of tourists. Canon Kingsley wrote thus: “Of all the homes that I have seen, in all my travels, this is the most delectable.” Hutchings loved Yosemite and the surrounding country and lost no time in making it known to the world. The San Francisco Chronicle of November 1, 1902 says: “So rapidly did tourist travel increase that in 1872 when he [Hutchings] surrendered his possessions to the state he had 109 saddle animals for tourist use on the trails and over the floor of the Valley.”

In the spring, following the completion of the log cabin, he fenced in a five-acre plot for an orchard. In the Heart of Sierras, 1886, on page 142, he says: “Many of the trees were grown from seeds of choice apples that had been sent to us, the plants from which were afterwards budded or grafted. In this way a thrifty orchard, of about one hundred and fifty trees came into being and now bears many tons annually of assorted fruit.” In her letter of October, 1930, Gertrude Hutchings Mills says: “The orchard was a short distance below the old saw mill near the foot of Yosemite Falls. . . . An irrigating ditch carried water to the barn and side ditches watered the vegetable garden. We had a variety of apples; I remember well Spitzenberg, Winesap, King, Rhode Island Greenings, and Northern Spy. A wormy apple was unknown. We had Bartlett and Sichel pear trees, also a few peaches and nectarines.”

The strawberry patch, obtained after much effort and great discouragement, was famous for its quantity and quality of fruit. Mr. Hutchings sent for a much advertised variety called “British Queen” and the plants were shipped by Panama. The first order was dried up and dead when it arrived. The second order rotted from too much moisture. The mail bag containing the third order had been so close to the steamship’s funnel that the bag was nearly burned and the plants were entirely destroyed. From the fourth order thirteen small roots were obtained. These cost Mr. Hutchings $45 but they soon increased to thousands and many of the largest plants produced nearly two hundred berries each.

In Mr. Hutchings and his family, the Indians found friends. Gertrude Hutchings Mills says: “The Indians were my good friends from babyhood. Among them were Dick, Mary, Jim, Bill, Lucy, Sally Ann, and our own Tom Hutchings. On leaving Yosemite my father adopted seed gathering as a side industry. He sent seeds of the Sierra trees and shrubs to Thomas Meecham of Philadelphia and also to Veitch of England. Tom was my father’s invaluable aide in this industry.” In the price list the seed of the Sequoia gigantea was quoted at $12 per pound; the Sequoia sempervirens, at $4 per pound.

When Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees became a state park in 1864, Mr. Hutchings was seriously affected. According to the grant there could be no privately owned land in the park. He had paid $400 in gold for 160 acres which he cultivated and planted to gardens and orchards; he had built his barn and house, and Yosemite was home. In 1874 the State of California paid Mr. Hutchings $24,000 for his buildings and improvements, and in return he relinquished his claim. His premises were leased to John K. Barnard and The Hutchings House became the Barnard Hotel. From 1880 to 1883 Hutchings held the office of “Guardian of the Valley.”

Besides the California Monthly, Mr. Hutchings published several books and pamphlets. Best known are Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California, 267 pages, published in San Francisco, 1862, and In the Heart of the Sierras, 496 pages, published at the Old Cabin, Yosemite Valley, 1886. His last publication was Summer Rambles, probably in 1893, as the cover carried, “Don’t go to the World’s Fair, go to Yosemite.” Miner’s Ten Commandments was first published in the Placerville Herald in 1853; later it was put into letter-sheet form and ninety-seven thousand were sold in a little over a year.

The Miner’s Ten Commandments as written by Mr. Hutchings follow:


A Man Spake these Words, and Said:

I am a miner, who wandered from “away down East,” and came to sojourn in a strange land, and “see the elephant.” And behold I saw him, and can bear witness, that from the key of his trunk to the end of his tail, his whole body has passed before me: and lo! I followed him, until his huge feet stood still before a clap-board shanty, then with his trunk extended, he pointed to a candle-card tacked upon a shingle, as though he would say, “READ!” and I read:


Thou shalt have no other claim than one.


Thou shalt not make unto thyself any false claim, nor any likeness to a mean man by jumping one; whatsoever thou findest on the top above, or on the rock beneath, or in the crevice underneath the rock; for, if thou doest, I shall surely visit the miners around, and tell them what thou hast done, and should they decide against thee, thou shalt take thy pick-axe and thy pan, thy shovel, and thy blankets, with all thou hast, and “go prospecting” for “new diggings,” but thou shalt find none. Then, when in sorrow and despair thou returnest to thy old claim, thou shalt find it all worked out, and yet no “pile” made for thee, that thou mightest bury it in the ground, or hide it in an old boot beneath thy bunk, or in buckskin or bottle beneath thy cabin floor. Besides this, thou shalt discover that all thou hadst in thy purse has quietly drifted away; that thy boots and thy garments have been worn out, so that there is nothing good about them but the pockets, and thy patience will be like unto thy garments; and, as a last resort, thou shall hire thy body out to make thy board and save thy worthless bacon.


Thou shalt not go prospecting before thy claim gives out. Neither shalt thou take thy money nor thy gold dust, nor thy good name, to the gambling-table in vain; for “monte,” “Roulette,” “twenty-one,” “faro,” “lansquenet,” “poker,” or any other games will conclusively prove to thee that the more thou puttest down, the less thou shalt take up; and when thou thinkest of the gray hairs that thou art bringing “in sorrow to the grave,” of the home thou hast disgraced, of family and friends thou hast wronged, thou shalt ask thyself, “Verily am I not a simpleton of the first water?”


Thou shalt not remember what thy friends do at home on the Sabbath Day, lest the remembrance should not compare favorably with what thou doest here; for well thou knowest that on that day thou washest all thy dirty clothes, darnest all thy stockings, patchest up thy nether garments, dost tap thy boots, chop thy whole week’s fire-wood, make up and bake thy bread and boil thy pork and beans, that thou wait not when at night thou returnest from thy labors weary. But, alas! thou rememberest not that for six days thou mayest dig, or pick, or wash, all that thy body can stand under; by which, if thou art careful, thou canst not wear out thy body in two years, but if thou workest hard on Sunday also thou canst do it in six months; and thou and thy wife, thy son and thy daughter, thy male friend and thy female friend, thy morals and thy conscience, be none the better for it: and thou shalt try to justify thyself because the trader and the black-smith, the carpenter and the merchant, the tailor and cheap-john huckster, the gamblers and buccaneers, defy God, religion and civilization by keeping not the Sabbath Day, such as memory, youth, and home, made hallowed.


Thou shalt not think more of gold, and how thou canst make it fastest, than of how thou art likely to enjoy it, after thou hast ridden rough-shod over all thy good old parents’ precepts and examples; that thou mayest have nothing to reprove and sting thee, when thou art left ALONE in the land to which thy mother’s love and father’s blessing hath unswervingly followed thee.


Thou shalt not ruin thy health nor kill thy body, by working in the rain, even though thou shouldst make enough thereby to buy physic and attendance with. Neither shalt thou destroy thy self by getting “tight,” nor “high,” nor “stewed,” nor “corned,” nor “half seas over,” nor “three sheets in the wind,” by drinking smoothly down, “brandy slings,” “gin cocktails,” “whiskey punches,” “rum toddies,” nor “egg nogs,” neither shalt thou suck “mint juleps,” nor “sherry cobblers,” through a straw; nor take it “neat” from a decanter, nor guzzle “lager beer” or “half and half” until thou art like a swine; in as much as while thou art swallowing down thy purse, and thy coat from off thy back, thou art burning it from off thy stomach, beside devouring thine own and others’ heritages. And if thou couldst see the houses and lands, with piles of gold and silver thou hast gobbled up, and the home comforts thou hast sacrificed and wasted, thou shouldst feel a choking in thy throat; and when to these thou addest thy crooked walkings, and thy hic-hiccuping talkings, of lodgings in the gutter, of broilings in the sun, of prospect holes half full of mud and water, and of shafts and ditches from which thou hast emerged like a drowning rat, thou shalt feel disgusted with thy self and all such reminiscences, and enquire: “Is thy servant a dog that he doeth these things?” Surely, then, thou wilt be tempted to say: “Farewell, old bottle, I will kiss thy whiskey-moistened lips no more. And thou, slings, cocktails, punches, toddies, nogs, juleps, and sangarees, forever farewell. Thy remembrance shames me; henceforth, therefore, ‘I cut thy acquaintance,’ and with thee, headaches, tremblings, heart burnings, blue devils, and all the unholy catalogue of evils that follow in thy train. My wife’s welcoming smile and kiss, and my children’s merry-hearted laugh, shall charm and reward me for having the manly courage, at all times, and under every kind of circumstances, to say ‘NO’. Strong drink, comest thou in any form or garb, I wish thee an eternal farewell.”


Thou shalt not grow discouraged because thou hast not made thy “pile,” nor think of going home for not having “struck a lead,” nor “found a rich crevice,” nor “sunk a hole upon a pocket,” lest in going home thou shalt leave three or four dollars a day, and there go to work, ashamed, at fifty cents—and serve thee right—for, as thou well knowest, sooner or later here thou tightest strike “pay dirt” in some shape, keep thy self-respect, and then seek home to make thy self and others happy.


Thou shalt not steal a pick, or a shovel, or a pan from thy fellow miner; nor take away his tools without his leave; nor borrow those he cannot spare; nor return them broken; nor trouble him to fetch them back again when he needs their use. Neither shalt thou spin long yarns to him while his water rent is running on; nor remove his stakes to enlarge thy claim; nor undermine his bank in following a lead; nor pan out gold from his riffle-box; nor wash the tailings from his sluice’s mouth. Neither shalt thou take specimens from the company’s pan and put them into thy mouth, until thou canst, unseen, transfer them to thy purse; nor cheat thy partner of the smallest portion of his fair share; nor steal from thy cabin-mate his gold dust to add it unto thine; for in any one or all of these things he will be sure to discover what thou hast done, when he will straightway call “a miners’ meeting,” and if the law hinder them not, they will hang thee; or give thee fifty lashes, accompanied with the ejaculation “vamose”; or they will shave thy head and brand thee like a horse-thief, with R burned in upon thy cheek, to be known and read of all men— Californians in particular.


Thou shalt not tell any false tales about “good diggings in the mountains” to thy neighbor, that thou mayest benefit a friend who hath mules, and provisions, and tools, and blankets he could not otherwise sell; lest, after thus deceiving thy neighbor, when he returneth through the snow, with naught left him but his rifle, he present thee with the leaden contents thereof, and, like a dog, thou shalt fall down and die; when public opinion expressed upon the case would be, “served him right.”


Thou shalt not commit “unsuitable matrimony,” not covet “single blessedness;” nor forget “absent maidens;” nor neglect thy “first love,” knowing how patiently, and faithfully, aye longingly, she watchingly waiteth thy return, yea, and covereth every epistle that thou sendeth her with kisses—until she hath thyself. Neither shalt thou covet thy neighbor’s wife nor by presents or attentions steal away her heart-love from him, nor trifle with the affections of his daughter; yet, if thy heart be free, and thou lovest and covetest each other, thou shalt “pop the question” like a man, lest another more manly than thou art should step in before thee, and thence forward thou love her in vain; and in the anguish of thy heart’s disappointment thou shouldst regretfully express thyself thus: “Verily, such is life!” and thy future lot be that of a poor, crusty, lonely, despised and comfortless old bachelor.

“A new Commandment giveth I unto Thee.”

If thou hast a wife and little ones that thou lovest dearer than thine own life, thou shalt keep them constantly before thee, to nerve and prompt thee to every noble effort, until thou canst say, “Thank God I have enough. I will return to them.” Then as thou journeyest toward thy much-loved home and precious ones, ere thou hast crossed the blessed threshold, they shall welcome thee with kisses, and, falling upon thy neck, weep tears of unutterable joy that thou art come.

So mote it be.

Mr. Hutchings was thoroughly familiar with the stage routes as well as the surrounding country of the Sierra. He liked to take tourists over the route which led through the Tuolumne Grove where one could see the first tunnel cut through a Big Tree, in 1878. The “Dead Giant,” as the tree is known, is barked ninety feet from the ground and stands a ghastly specter among the living trees of the forest. There was also an unusual sight in the Calaveras Grove. A Big Tree, twenty-five feet in diameter, was stumped five and a half feet above ground; a roof was built over it and a stairway led to the top of the stump which was used for dancing parties, lectures, and religious services. On July Fourth, 1854, Mr. Hutchings was one of thirty-two persons who had at one time “skipped the light fantastic toe” in quadrille on this stump with seventeen bystanders looking on and no one was crowded. The route also led through Sonora. In the Souvenir of California, 1894, p. 41, Mr. Hutchings says: “Sonora is one of the prettiest mining towns, and one that has never been excelled for its rich gold deposits, not only in its placer mines, but also in its quartz ledges. Over one thousand pounds of gold were taken from the Bonanza ledge in six days, but a few years ago. At Vallacinto I once saw a nugget of gold taken out, shaped like a beef’s kidney, that weighed 26 pounds, 2 ounces.”

Mr. Hutchings, fond of people whether personal guests or tourists, entertained many whose names stood high in science, art, literature, and political life. When B. F. Taylor was a guest in the cabin and came to know Florence, the beautiful and attractive daughter of the family, he suggested that one of the peaks of the Sierra be named “Mount Florence” in her honor. This same author gives the following word picture of James Mason Hutchings (Between the Gates, 1878): “A man of culture, he is an enthusiastic lover of the region wherein he has passed so many years. Tall, spare, made of whipcord and grit, he is a revised and improved edition of Cooper’s Leather Stocking. His gray hair does not suggest age, but like a horse iron-gray, means endurance.”

Even after he relinquished his claim, Yosemite remained home to Mr Hutchings. When his daughter Florence, the first white child born in Yosemite, died September 26, 1881, her funeral service was held in the Big Tree Room of the former Hutchings House and burial was in Yosemite. Six weeks later A[u]gusta L. Hutchings died after only a few hours illness and again the funeral service was held in the Big Tree Room. Her grave is by the side of Florence’s. The pioneer was sadly bereft by the loss of his daughter and his devoted wife and companion, who had been his inspiration since the early childhood of his three children. He describes her in these words: “Think what a wife should be, and she was that.” Mr. Hutchings now devoted much of his time to writing. It was in the beloved old cabin that he wrote In the Heart of the Sierras. Emily A. Hutchings was his devoted wife and companion in the autumn of his life. The years passed but Mr. Hutchings did not grow old. He was strong and vigorous when like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky death struck him down at the age of 82 years.

The San Francisco Chronicle of Sunday, November 2, 1902, carried the headlines: “Fatal accident to Father of Yosemite, James Mason Hutchings, victim of a runaway. The Pioneer writer popularized the Valley. Yosemite, November 1, 1902, J. M. Hutchings . . . met with a tragic death last evening on the Oak Flat road about 500 yards above where that road intersects the floor of the Valley. . . . Mrs. Hutchings says that one of the horses shied . . . and jumped over the wagon tongue and started to run. . . . The wagon struck the side of a large rock and Mrs. Hutchings was thrown from the wagon. About twenty feet farther down Mr. Hutchings was thrown head first on a pile of rocks and expired within five minutes. . . . The remains were brought to the Big Tree Room.”

In a letter Mrs. Emily A. Hutchings says: “From the moment the sad accident was known, the greatest sympathy and kindness were shown, loving hands gave reverent aid, and on Sunday, November 2, 1902, my dear husband was borne from the Big Tree Room and its time-honored memories. The residents of the Valley and many of the Indians, who had long known him, followed. We laid him to rest, surrounded by nature in her most glorious garb, and under the peaks and domes he had loved so well and had explored so fearlessly.”

As a Yosemite pioneer Mr. Hutchings had wide contacts. His culture, education, and literary bent drew men of note to him, and his genial personality made his approachable and interesting to all. His enthu[s]iasm for Yosemite—the spot he loved above all others— increased unceasingly until death suddenly took him at the age of 82 years.

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