Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: Mariposa Battalion and Death of TenayaContentsPrevious: Indians of Ahwahnee

Yosemite Tales and Trails (1934) by Katherine Ames Taylor


DISCOVERY OF YOSEMITE

Those men of the Mariposa Battalion, approaching Yosemite for the first time, had only the vaguest idea of what lay ahead of them. In an effort to keep the white men out of their mountains the Yosemites had painted a lurid picture of their valley.

“It must be the very devil of a place!” one of the soldiers commented as he listened to the gloomy recital of Tenaya.

“A hell of a hole!” opined another, his appetite whetted to see this inferno.

So it was with the worst possible expectations that these discoverers of Yosemite first looked down into the Valley from Inspiration Point.

For long hours the troops had marched over rugged passes and through deep defiles covered with snow, suffering from the cold and exposure, liable to a surprise attack from Indians at any time, slipping on the edge of precipices where one misstep meant almost certain death. Floundering through the drifts they stumbled out upon Inspiration Point late in the afternoon of March 25, 1851, and Yosemite Valley lay below them, half veiled in a bluish haze.

What a moment in human history! Yet, only one out of all that company of men stopped to give the view more than a passing thought. One look and the rest were away already swinging down the trail with their minds full of a camp to make, supper to prepare, wood to cut, horses to feed, and possible Indians to round up before nightfall. If there was any thrill connected with the first look it was largely one of curiosity satisfied and triumph at reaching, at last, the old Chief’s hide-out. Not for one moment did they suspect that in entering Yosemite that day they were making history or fulfilling a prophecy.

Only Dr. Lafayette Bunnell had any real appreciation of that moment. Dismounting

Yosemite Falls is not only one of the highest in the world, but one of the most beautiful. By Ansel Adams
[click to enlarge]
Yosemite Falls is not only one
of the highest in the world,
but one of the most beautiful
from his horse he wallowed through snow to his hips to reach a projecting ledge from which he could see more of the Valley. Oblivious of all else, he was even unaware that his companions had gone on until Major Savage, riding in the rear of the column, hailed him from the trail below, urging him on before he lost his scalp as well as his wits.

That night, late in March, white men pitched their first camp in Yosemite, not far from Bridal Veil Falls and across the meadows from El Capitan. A bronze plaque marks the spot today near a large overhanging rock on the banks of the Merced River. That rock, blackened by countless campfires since, still poignantly suggests the blaze about which those men gathered that night, tired but good-natured, joking with each other as they sprawled on the ground, while not far away hostile and stealthy Indians watched their every move.

It was that night, too, around the campfire, that the Valley was given a name. Doctor Bunnell suggested they call it Yosemite, for the Indians who lived there. Several protested “honoring the devils who caused us all this trouble” and offered “Paradise Valley” and a number of Biblical and foreign names. But Doctor Bunnell’s suggestion carried, and Yosemite was christened in high spirits and with fire-water.

The next day a thorough search of the Valley was made, and although there was evidence everywhere of Indians having hastily abandoned their villages, with embers still warm from fires of the night before, only one Indian was found, a decrepit old squaw, crouched in a cave near the Royal Arches. Too old to scramble up the rocks with her kinsmen, she had been left behind, “thrown away,” as Tenaya nonchalantly put it. Hostile and taciturn she would give no information about the tribe.

So Major Savage and his men had to content themselves on that visit with burning the several villages they found scattered throughout the Valley, destroying the large caches of acorns they found, hoping to starve the defiant Indians into the reservations.

The second night they made their camp in the Indian Caves, where so many barbecues are held now, and the men compared notes on what they had seen in the

There is a sense of power and excitement about the Nevada Falls which is tremendously exhilarating. By Ansel Adams
[click to enlarge]
There is a sense of power and
excitement about the Nevada Falls
which is tremendously exhilarating
various scouting parties. It had been a hard day for men and horses, as the water in the Merced River and its tributaries was so high that in their frequent crossings all had been soaked to the skin in the icy water. And though the men of that first battalion may have had little appreciation for the mile-high cliffs which surrounded them, they were thoroughly impressed by the water of Yosemite!

The general verdict seemed to be that the Indians had not greatly exaggerated their stories. Yosemite was gloomy indeed, and the men were not sorry to leave. Major Savage admitted, however, that they were in no condition to judge the Valley fairly. The annoyances and disappointments of a fruitless search, together with their many wettings, overcast skies, and an approaching snow-storm, would dampen the ardor of more enthusiastic men than they pretended to be. Nevertheless, they were glad to have seen for themselves this much-vaunted refuge of the Yosemites, and they were cheered by the thought of all the destruction they had wrought there.

The following day they were back in camp at Wawona, and during that three days’ absence from headquarters, as Doctor Bunnell points out, they had entered, named, and partially explored one of the geographical wonders of the world. And little except the exploration of Yosemite was accomplished by that first expedition, for on returning to camp they learned that between Wawona and the Commissioner’s camp all of the seventy-two Indians the battalion had captured had escaped from their guards, made over-confident by the Indians’ seeming resignation and desire to make peace, and had returned with Tenaya to their snow-bound “grassy Valley.”



Next: Mariposa Battalion and Death of TenayaContentsPrevious: Indians of Ahwahnee

Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/yosemite_tales_and_trails/discovery.html