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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


I find it difficult to proceed further without relieving myself of some observations upon the names that have become, I fear, firmly fixed upon many of the principal features of the valley. I own that I do not expect to find that my point of view is shared by a majority of people, but I am sure, nevertheless, that there must be a large number of persons whose appreciation and enjoyment of natural beauty are disturbed by the association with it of a name based on some inopportune feat of humor (or the lack of it), or on some inept sentimentality.

Particularly irritating examples occur in the names of two small waterfalls at the lower end of the valley. At the northwest angle of El Capitan a small creek pours down in a fall of thirty-three hundred feet. It is a charming fall, peculiarly airy and childlike; but the pleasure with which one views it is far from being enhanced by its fatuous name of The Virgin’s Tears. (Ribbon Fall is now adopted as the official title, but the other, unanimously backed by the Jehus, easily holds the field.) On the opposite side of the valley, a small, inconstant stream known as Meadow Brook executes a fall which has received the name of The Widow’s Tears. This sickly designation, which bears all the marks of stage-driver origin even before your whip delivers himself of the jocose explanation that the fall only lasts for two or three weeks, has actually received official sanction, and appears upon the maps of the Geological Survey. This will never do: is it too much to hope that a dignified Department of the National Service will refuse to perpetuate this trumpery appellation, and in future maps employ the natural title of Meadow Brook Fall?

The name of Inspiration Point is hardly less objectionable. That famous spot gives what is perhaps the most admirable of all the many great views of the region. No doubt all of us ought to, and most of us do, acquire a certain amount of inspiration from the inexpressible beauty of the landscape that opens from this renowned station. But I do not think that it enhances the fine impression, rather I am sure for my own part that it belittles it, to be notified that you are expected to feel inspired. The old Adam is a perverse rogue, and resents these instructions; and while it may be to an extent interesting to know that some worthy gentleman who preceded you experienced here certain creditable emotions, it is irritating to have it conveyed in the very name of the place that you ought to suffer the same ecstasy. Inspiration, in any case, is a timid bird, which appears without advertisement, delights not in sign-boards, and the louder it is whistled for is the more apt to refuse to come. I have heard the spot spoken of by warm and jocular young gentlemen as Perspiration Point; and although that species of witticism is, generally speaking, distasteful to me, I find that I suffer no pang when it is practised at the expense of this piece of pedantry.

Another instance of this obtrusive suggestion occurs in the name of Artists’ Point. I imagine an artist arriving unexpectedly (as an artist should arrive on the scenes of his successes) at this spot, whence he sees with rejoicing a most true and perfect landscape, without fear and without reproach. Eagerly he seizes upon it and marks it for his own; and with hasty fingers he prepares the instruments of his craft, calling upon Winsor and Newton. He sits down and begins those operations which answer to a preliminary survey in engineering. Suddenly he perceives, close by, an object that looks strangely like a sign-post. He reconnoitres it in the manner of the woodpecker in the story: “Looks like a sign-post; ugly enough for a sign-post; blamed if I don’t believe it is It sign-post.” Hurriedly he rises and approaches it: it is a sign-post; and it informs him that this is the spot from which, as a matter of course, artists are expected to paint the valley. “Good heavens!” he cries, “am I to be Number Four Hundred and Seventy-three?” and he loathes the stale sweetness like a man who might discover that his bride had been three times divorced.

Bridal Veil Fall suffers, although not so severely, from the same ill-judged sentimentalism as The Virgin’s Tears. Why may we not be left to discover these resemblances, or what others we prefer, for ourselves? Surely what is wanted is a name, and not a descriptive title reflecting the idiosyncrasies of some person who chanced to be early on the scene and hastened to take advantage of the fact. In some instances we know the offender by his own avowal. Dr. Bunnell, in his book of personal reminiscences entitled “The Discovery of the Yosemite,” says,—

“The most of the names were selected by myself, and adopted by our command.” (He is not here using the idiom of royalty, but by “our command” refers to the Mariposa Battalion, the body of men who under Major Savage in 1851 discovered the valley while pursuing marauding Indians.) “This deference was awarded to my selections because I was actively interested in acquiring the Indian names and significations, and because I was considered the most interested in the scenery.”

One can but wish that the names which interested him so much had suited him better.

There can be no great objection to such titles as El Capitan, The Sentinel, and so on; although even there I think pure names would be preferable. Clouds’ Rest and Washington Column are harmless, and the naming of the domes, as North, Half, and Sentinel, is well enough. But one may wish that Mr. Watkins had been denied his mountain, and Mr. Murphy his dome, if it were only for the sake of the poets yet to be. What will they do with such monsters? I confess I am thankful that Wordsworth had no such problems to encounter, but instead such gentle giants as Glaramara and Helvellyn. Derwentwater, moreover, is better than Lake McGee, and Martindale than Jackass Meadows.

When it is a question of trees, flowers, and animals, it is reasonable enough to designate species by the names of their discoverers (though Clarke crow is unfortunate in some indefinite way), and the latinized terminations give a dignified flavor. These things are more or less intimate and personal. But when it is a mountain that is to be baptized some adequacy should be observed, and the names of none but distinguished men bestowed upon them; nor those if for any reason they are inappropriate.

The obviously best thing would be to keep to the native names as far as they go, and in adding to them to eschew local and temporary considerations. The only valid objection to the use of the Indian names W( Auld be in cases where they were too obstreperous in pronunciation, which is seldom the fact. The longest of them all consist of five syllables, and in every case the sounds are simple and characteristic, and often also euphonious; as, for instance, Patill'ima, for the spot which we somewhat inconsequently call Glacier Point; Lo'ya, signifying a camp or signal station, the name for Sentinel Rock; and Ahwah'nee, meaning a deep valley, which was the name of the valley itself, Yosemite being the name of the tribe that inhabited it at the time of its discovery.

I acknowledge that it is a matter of difficulty, at this day, to secure an exact interpretation, if that were necessary, or even a reasonably certain phonetic spelling, of the early Indian names. In the hope of getting some light upon a number of disputed points of this nature, I one evening interviewed at his camp a friendly Indian (friendly in more than the official sense) who I had reason to think might speak with authority. He had been born in the valley, in the old, peaceful days of “heap deer, heap acorn, heap big time,” and was highly intelligent, willing to impart his lore, and confident of its accuracy; but after five minutes of conversation my hopes faded, and in ten, died.

It was a picturesque scene, at least. With Miguel was a younger Indian and the latter’s squaw, who by the uncertain light worked silently upon a half-finished basket of handsome shape and design. We held our philological powwow by a flickering fire that burned under an aged cedar. Ten yards away was a party of women and girls who were seated on the ground around a larger fire that threw brigandish, ruddy lights upon jetty eyes, ropes and curtains of dusky hair, glistening teeth, tawny cheeks, and dirty but shapely feet. Necklaces of beads, blue, red, and yellow, threw in a vivacious sprinkling of color that happily relieved the shapeless squalor of “store” garments of the kind that describe themselves with innocent precision as “wrappers.” Some of the girls were quite pretty, though it required an effort to suppose that any of the older women could ever have been so.

Surly dogs, the intricacies of whose breed would defy the sagacity of Seven Dials, prowled, growled, and occasionally howled in the shadowy purlieus, and the round sleek visage of a pappoose, strapped in its basket-cradle, appeared in a solemn and intermittent manner from behind the bandannaed back of a wrinkled squaw. Something in a pot over the fire sputtered in an interesting manner, and was occasionally stirred with a twig by the woman with the pappoose, upon whom, after every such operation, she economically bestowed the twig with its adhering nourishment.

This party paid no attention to us, but maintained an animated conversation among themselves, accompanied with an obbligato of pleasant, low-toned laughter. Finding my Indian at one moment in doubt how to explain to me some fine shade of meaning, I suggested that we might consult the women at the other fire. But this Miguel promptly negatived, dismissing the idea with a contemptuous gesture and, “Pai-utes; no good”; the younger man and the squaw signifying their agreement by sardonic gruntings.

The Pai-utes of the Mono Desert region on the eastern side of the Sierra are in the habit of repairing yearly to the Yosemite for the purpose of sharing in the double harvest,—first of the tourists, later of acorns; and for some reason which I could not discover, their Yosemite neighbors seem to be willing to suffer this encroachment. It may be that the principles of Free Trade, although they have by no means fulfilled among larger communities the generous hopes of the founders of the doctrine by abolishing racial and national jealousies, are succeeding in this small instance, where the exchanges are such humble matters as acorns and piņon-nuts.

My faith in Miguel’s ability as an interpreter was badly shaken early in our interview when he averred that many of the Indian words which I propounded to him had no meanings whatever. One after another of them was declared to be “Just name, all same your name; not mean nothing.” In vain I labored with him, refusing to believe that it could be as he said, and almost feeling the sincerity of Hiawatha himself to be hanging on the event. Now and then he would verify one of my examples, with an air so frank that I could not suppose him to be deliberately misleading me when, the next moment, he declared some supposed interpretation to be “White man story; no good.” When I argued that even white men’s names meant something he was vastly interested, but became sceptical when I was at a loss to expound my own at his request. And it was not reassuring to be told, when I put it to him that, after all, the versions I proposed to him had certainly been given by some of his people, “Some time white man fool Indian; some time Indian fool white man maybe.” This sounded so alarming at the end of our lengthy debate that I thought it best to retire with what few corroborations I had secured, for fear that a fuller revelation might come; and I did not in the sequel act upon my friend’s cordial invitation, “You come ’gain, I tell you some more.”

The interview at least left me with a high respect for the Cherokee Sequoyah (after whom the giant trees and redwoods of California have been fittingly named), who early in the last century achieved the feat of reducing the Indian languages to eighty-six syllabic characters. It is unfortunate that his labors did not result in spreading the art of writing among the native populations, which would have availed to define more or less exactly the sound-syllables and their meanings. Any language that is spoken only, not written, must tend to a looseness of pronunciation, extending to the length of neighboring tribes, originally speaking the same language, becoming mutually unintelligible.

A case in point is the word Yosemite itself, which Miguel stoutly affirmed to be no Indian word whatever, declaring that the real word was Er-her'-ma-te (h guttural), signifying a bear. The difference is no doubt one merely of local pronunciation; but the difficulty of identifying these elusive sounds is even better illustrated in the word Illilouette. The early geographers of the valley attempted in this case to adhere to the Indian name of the waterfall, but failed to fix the sound in English characters nearer than Illilouette for Too-loo'-lo-wy-ak, which spelling closely represents the Indian word. Considerable as the divergence is, it is not surprising to one who has contended with similar problems; but it seems a gratuitous flourish to furnish a supposed Indian name with the gallicized termination “ette”; an anomaly which advertises its own monstrosity.

In the early “Guide-book to the Yosemite” prepared by Professor Whitney, he delved somewhat deeply into the intricacies of the Indian names of localities in the region, and gave a comprehensive list of them. But he was fain to conclude his remarks upon the subject with the confession,—“The discrepancies between the statements of the different interpreters it is beyond our power to reconcile.” In the same book he offered a suggestion which I could wish might have been adopted,—that the general title of the Cordilleras of North America should be used to designate the whole system of our Western mountain ranges. It would be a good appellation geographically, and an excellent one imaginatively, wafting the mind back to the day-dream mountains of boyhood, when we roved with friendly Gauchos over boundless llanos in the shadow of the mighty Andes.

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