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“Discovery” of the Nevada Fall

The following is an account by James H. Lawrence, written in 1884, of an early tourist party of local citizens that visited Yosemite in August 1855. Despite the article’s title, Nevada Falls was not discovered by this party. The first Europeans to see it were the Mariposa Expedition in 1851. See Lafayette H. Bunnell, Discovery of the Yosemite (1892), chapter 5, p. 85.

Compare this article with one written by James Hutchings in 1855, of the first tourist party who visited a few months before, “California for Waterfalls!”


Many interesting reminiscences of pioneer excursions to the Yosemite Valley have been published in the shape of fragmentary sketches in the papers and magazines of the Pacific Coast; and some very interesting compilations issued in book form. One of the most complete is that embraced in “The Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California; or Tourist’s Guide Book,” by J. M. Hutchings. It includes a detailed narrative of the discovery of the valley in 1851, by an expedition under Captain Boling, (the object of which was the pursuit and capture of a marauding band of Indians); also accounts of subsequent explorations by the author of the work, together with notes of local tourists in 1855, ’56, and ’57. Those who lived in Mariposa County during those years, and had the opportunity of personal observation, will take pleasure in testifying to its truthfulness. It is correct as far as it goes; but one of the early excursions, and one which, from its results—both immediate and subsequent —deserves a place in history, seems to have been inadvertently shelved. No published account of it has ever been given, and in fact, not even a notice of it has appeared in print, except a very brief allusion to it in the “Mariposa Gazette” in the year 1855, and an article written by George C. Pearson for “The Rural Press“ in May, 1873, (eighteen years thereafter), and subsequently republished in the “Chicago Journal of Commerce.”

The party mentioned by Mr. Pearson in this article was made up of miners—the old time sort numbering ten in all, and was organized at “Sherlock’s,” a mining camp of some celebrity, about five miles from the town of Mariposa. The date was about the 10th of August, 1855. In the sketch given in “The Press” the writer says: “The party was composed of ten as fearless spirits and noble—hearted fellows as ever shouldered a rifle or gathered around a camp-fire.” Looking back through the intervening gap of twenty-nine years, it becomes a cheerful duty —even at the risk of being charged with boasting as one of the survivors—to endorse the sentiment, and supplement the same with a few details.

With one exception, the Sherlock crowd was made up of pioneers of the “days of 49.” One boy, a sort of waif, had straggled into camp about three months before the expedition. He had been adopted by a party of big-hearted miners, and was known as “the Orphan.” He was a trifle green in camp life, and was taken along out of pure kindness, for educational purposes. The others had “seen the elephant” in his native ferocity—the genuine untamed animal—and in divers places and at sundry times had examined his trunk and taken an inventory of its contents. Our frontier experiences had made us familiar with the perils and dangers of border life. Some had been in the Mexican War; others had fought Indians; all were more than average rifle shots; could pack a mule with the dexterity of a Mexican vaquero; were skilled in wood-craft, and inured to every variety of camp-life. “Hardship” was a word discarded from our vocabulary, and the shorter one, “fun,” substituted. It was emphatically a lively crowd.

A roll of the names of the entire party, with notes of the trip, and various other records of pioneer times in Mariposa, laid away for historical purposes, were swept from the face of the earth by the fire of 1866. I suspect that was the only record of the excursion. As I must trust to memory alone for the names of my companions, not even knowing whether any of them are still alive, the list is necessarily incomplete. There were two of the Mann brothers, Milton and Houston, abbreviated to “Milt” and “Hugh,” E. W. Haughton, J. E. Connor, Geo. C. Pearson and his partner Dickerman, a man by the name of Priest, the long-legged boy, and one other whose name is forgotten.

E. W. Haughton, who was with the Boling Expedition in 1851, was our guide. Two pack mules loaded with blankets, a few cooking utensils, and some provisions constituted our camp outfit; while a half-breed bloodhound, whose owner claimed that he was “the best dog on the Pacific Coast,” and who answered to the name of “Ship,” trotted along with the pack mules. There was some talk about going mounted, but the proposition was voted down by a handsome majority, on the ground that superfluous animals were “too much bother.”

Our first day’s tramp ended in the neighborhood of “McNeill’s saw-mill,” since known as “Lovejoy’s,” and more recently as “Clark’s.” Here was a magnificent camping ground, with all the essentials of wood, water, and grass. The mules were tethered on a luxuriant meadow; camp made; supper cooked, and the prospects of the campaign discussed. Then followed a general sociable smoke; stories of adventures marvelous escapes from dangers by flood and field; traditionary legends of events located “away back in the States”—“home”we all called it, for hardly any one at that date dreamed of making California a permanent abode; the repertoire of songs was opened, for we had musical talent not classical, but melodious and inspiring. How the woods and hills rang! Whoever has experienced camp-life in the mountains can fill the gap in this outline description, and draw a picture of the group of hardy pioneers, all in the flush of young, vigorous manhood, as they reclined in a semicircle about the camp-fire.

In fancy, I see them yet, and hear the ringing chorus, the exultant whoop, and the genuine, unrestrained laughter. It would be worth a year of humdrum civilized society life to recall the reality of one week of the old time.

Daylight saw “the boys” up and astir. Breakfast was cooked and disposed of, and the animals packed. After a brief parley, it was decided that the main body, under the guidance of Haughton, should make a detour in a southerly direction, by way of the Magoon Ranch, somewhere in the vicinity of which our guide knew they would intersect the old Indian trail followed by Boling; while two of the party, known best as Hugh and Jim, followed a ridge which led up to the divide near the head of Devil’s Gulch, from which point it was easy to strike the trail on the northern slope of the Chowchilla Mountains, and follow it up to the south fork of the Merced, at the old crossing, where it was agreed that the next camp should be.

This side show was not on the original bills, but was an impromptu affair, improvised after this fashion. Hugh, who was a noted deer-slayer, had once killed the “biggest and fattest buck that you ever saw, boys, right over on the head of Devil’s Gulch— and,” he continued, “the chances are that a fellow might stumble on a deer this morning; and broiled venison isn’t bad to take.”

Jim, the owner of “the best dog on the Pacific coast,” suggested that a deer was “a little too much for one man to pack,” and that in case of wounding the animal, “a good dog might be handy to have along.”

“All right,” said Hugh. “It’s a whack. I was just waiting for a pard, and you and Ship will fill the bill.”

“We’ll meet you at the South Fork!” halloed the hunters, as they started up the divide.

“South Fork goes; and drinks for the crowd, when we get back to Sherlock’s, that we are there first,” responded Connor, as the train filed through the oaks Chowchilla-wards.

“We take that bet! game’s made! roll!” was echoed back as a parting salute.

The ridge, up which the two skirmishers meandered, grew steeper as they progressed, and the summit—their objective point—appeared to be getting higher, or as Hugh expressed it, “We don’t appear to gain on it much.” Long before it was reached, mid-day was at hand; the scorching rays of the August sun had begun to tell on them; and what with prospecting right—and left for “deer sign,” making sundry observations on the topography of the country, and examining scattered specimens of quartz or “float,” as the miners call it, it was perhaps three o’clock in the afternoon before they rested on the crest of the “divide.”

“Now,” remarked Hugh, “here we are, twenty miles from home, and about ten from any other place—not a smell of deer meat— not even a fresh track—dry as a powder-horn. Look at that dog’s tongue!”

“Ship, old fellow, this is rough on you,” said his owner soothingly, as he fondled his faithful dog. “But you are not in the fault —you have some sense. If you could talk, you would say that nobody but two dog-goned idiots would have expected to find a deer on the sunny side of a mountain in the middle of the day, in the month of August. You would have got into the neighborhood of their range and camped the night before—wouldn’t you, Ship, old boy?”

“Oh, let up, Jim. I take it all on myself,” responded Hugh. “But I’ll swear I didn’t think it was such a climb.” And then he explained how he became acquainted with this region through the experiences of a prospecting party of which he was one; that they had penetrated these hills further than any body; that after they had prospected Devil’s Gulch and pronounced it “no good,” they had followed the south fork of the Merced up to a point higher than anybody had ever gone before or since: and then he was branching off into a story of what an old Indian had told a man who had told his partner when he suddenly changed the subject with the exclamation:

“Listen! what’s that?”

“Deer in a walk?” queried Jim. “I am ready to make oath that no four-footed animal—nothing but a fool man—is going to run, or even trot, in such a temperature as this.”

“Thunder?” suggested Hugh.

Jim laid his ear to the ground.

“Keep quiet!” this to Ship, who was getting restive.

“Running water! by the rod Moses smote the rock with!”

“Blamed if I don’t think you are right, Jim; and away down, down the slope, don’t you see there’s a clump of bushes? Looks like a healthy hill of potatoes or a bunch of weeds. You beat me on ‘harkers,’ but I lay over you with the ‘blinkers.’ But, there’s the water, sure; let’s make for it, for my throat is worrying me.”

It did not take long to “limber up,” and the descent, like that of Avernus we read of, was facile. Ship had apparently snuffed water in the air, for he held his nose knowingly in that direction, and led us straight to the little oasis.

Here was, indeed, a welcome discovery—a living spring; and more than that, a flowing stream. Not a trickling, babbling brooklet, but a roaring, foaming stream of ice-cold water, gushing out of the mountain side.

“Talk about miracles, Hugh; did you ever see anything to equal this?”

“Never!” and then the quality of the beverage was tested. Anybody who has been traveling exposed to a hot sun, and without water, for half a day, knows how it was.

A little clump of gooseberry bushes loaded with berries, ripe and luscious, growing near the fountain, next claimed the attention of the pilgrims. As they had eaten nothing since morning, it is not wonderful that they agreed that they were the best they ever saw.

They lunched. Then a brief conference was held, and it was concluded, judging from what knowledge they had of the “lay of the country,” of their own progress, and of the probable course and distance made by their companions, that they were. ahead of the main body, that it could not be very far to the old Indian trail, and that the distance to the South Fork crossing would not exceed four or five miles. So they loitered along leisurely, leaving the heavy timber to their right, and keeping a bright lookout for the trail.

“Hunt for it, Ship—look sharp, old boy,” was the order given this intelligent quadruped by his owner.

“Looks like he knows what you want,” said Hugh.

“Knows? I should say so. Why, that dog understands every word I say. Let me tell you what that dog did one day. It was when I was camped up at the —”

“There!” interrupted Hugh: “he’s found it—see, he has changed his course. Now, he stops. He’s beckoning with his tail for us to come on.”

Sure enough, when they reached the spot where the dog was, there were the faint traces of an old Indian trail—barely discernible, but still a trail. Hugh decided that the divide along which it ran led to the crossing. A further examination developed mule tracks —two mules. These were followed a quarter of a mile or more, till a closer scrutiny showed that they must have been made some days before. Then it occurred that they remembered hearing that an artist and a “magazine man“ had gone through Mariposa, en route for the Valley. “That accounts for the tracks,” they both said in the same breath.

Ship didn’t appear at all anxious to proceed any further in the direction of the South Fork.

“Look at that dog!” said Jim, with a “proper pride”: “See him turn around and whine. Now listen to that little half-whispered bark. He’s talking, Hugh. Do you know what he’s saying? Just simply this: ‘What in the blazes are you derned idiots going down to the South Fork for? Do you expect to live on air? I don’t—I want a bone.’”

Another council of war was held,, and it was then and there resolved to take the back track until they should meet the pack train. Hugh held the opinion that they would collide with them just about the edge of the heavy timber. The arrangement appeared to be eminently satisfactory to Ship, who started in a dog trot as soon as the decision was announced.

By the time the timber was reached, the shades of twilight were upon them. Twilight soon deepened into darkness. The moon had not yet risen, and the only suspicion of light was the glimmer of the stars through an occasional peep-hole in the dense shadows of the overhanging boughs of the lofty firs, cedars, and sugar pines.

“This is about the thickest growth of timber I ever struck,” remarked Hugh, “and tall! Whew-w, Jim; did you notice just as we were getting into it— before the daylight had faded out entirely? Why, a fellow had to look twice to see the top of one of these trees.”

“Yes,” replied Jim; “they seem to almost touch the stars. Look up whenever you can see a little opening. Did you ever see a clear sky look so dark blue, or stars so bright and so beautiful? Wonder if any of them are lost, and looking for a roosting place in the tall tree-tops?”

Before this time the trail had faded out of sight, and the nose of the sagacious Ship had been called into requisition. “Here,” said the owner; “you go ahead of me; but keep close, old fellow—keep close—do you hear? And Hugh, you keep close to me. The dog will nose out the trail —eh, Ship?”

The dog said “yes” as plainly as he could speak it, and in this order they made their way through the dense forest. Sometimes a fallen tree obstructed their path. Then would follow a halt, and a leap over or a crawl under by the faithful guide.

“Where are you, Ship?” An answering whine. “Trail all right?” An assuring sniff. An hour or more of this groping, feeling, climbing, and crawling, and a comparatively smooth, open space was reached.

The situation was getting serious. It was evident that their companions had made camp on the other side of the mountain; but wherefore, when they had agreed to meet them at the South Fork?

“That’s not a square way of acting,” commented Jim. “They know we have not a thing to eat nor a blanket to our names. It’s a blanked mean, miserable piece of business.”

Hugh agreed, but suggested that possibly they had met with some accident. “Don’t you remember we saw just before sunset some little columns of faint blue smoke rising up in the hills east of us? We agreed that those were Indian fires. About this time of year straggling bands of Monos come over here to gather pine nuts and seeds. Maybe they have lit on to our boys—not that they are unable to take care of themselves, but they might have their mules stampeded, and be delayed and bothered.”

It was reduced to a certainty that the meeting on the South Fork was indefinitely postponed. It was also agreed, without opposition, that they wouldn’t budge another step that night. “Right here we camp.”

A gurgling stream of water was close at hand. Its rumbling underground defined its locality, while an open pool convenient for drinking was but a few yards away. Ship made this discovery.

“Now for a fire—got any matches, Hugh?”

“No! haven’t you any, Jim?”

“Nary match; but I know the trick of lighting a fire without matches” and then Jim explained to Hugh how he could kindle a fire by loading a rifle with a small charge of powder, “just a squib,” using a cotton rag for a wad, and then blowing it into a blaze. “Here are cords of dead wood and no end to dry leaves for kindling,” he added; “This is an old Rocky Mountain project. I had a pard once who was an old trapper. We were together two years. There isn’t anything worth knowing about wood craft and Indian tactics that he and I don’t know—but we’ll try it awhile without fire.”

So, weary with the distance traveled, the steep mountain climb, and the scramble through the timber, they felt around for a smooth place, stretched out for a nap, and were soon fast asleep—three in a bed; Ship in the middle.

Sometime away late at night they awoke shivering. Jim was the first to speak. “Hugh, I don’t know how you feel, but I don’t propose to stand this any longer. What in thunder is the use of a man’s having brains and not setting them at work. You rustle up some dry leaves and light stuff for kindling. I can’t draw this ball, so here goes to shoot it out. As you are a little fidgety about Indians, we’ll make as little noise as possible. I’ll pull it off easy as I can. Now, then—ready—fire! “

“Bang!” went the rifle, and a thousand echoes responded.

“Great Scott!” exclaimed Hugh. “Just listen to it. Will it ever quit? Jee-whillikins! Who ever heard a gun crack like that? It seemed to stop for a while, but it’s going yet broke out in a new place.”

“Well, now, I’m happy and content,” responded Jim; “for if there are any Indians within ten miles of us, they are going to get up and dust. No little squad of Piutes, Diggers, or Monos are going to stop within hearing of a whole army. They’ll think there’s about five hundred of us—won’t they, Hugh?”

“Yes, a thousand, easy enough. Did you ever hear the like of the echoes? They rattled away along the crest of the mountain, jumping in and out of the ravines, butting against the tops of the tall sugar pines, till they got tangled up and lost in a big cañon somewhere away yonder, where they seemed to die out, muttering and grumbling; till directly they gathered themselves together again, and came rolling out big as pounds of wool. Now I’ll gather some dry leaves, and you get your tinder ready.”

The process involved some little trouble and patience, but resulted in a cheerful blaze. After they were thoroughly warmed, the fire was removed a few yards away, the place carefully swept, clean leaves scattered over the pot, the soothing influence of the pipe invoked, the events of the day briefly discussed, and they laid them down to sleep.

“It isn’t as soft as a feather bed,” murmured Hugh, as he gave himself a “good night” stretch; “but it’s nice and warm, and beats that first arrangement all to pieces, eh, Jim? Well, may I be blamed if that chap isn’t fast asleep.” He looked for Ship. The dog had curled himself at his master’s feet and was snoring like a man. “So you don’t want to be sociable neither? I’m blest if you are going to get the best of me. I’ll take a little of this myself”—and in two minutes he was dreaming of his “old Kentucky home, far away.”

Daylight had dawned, and the rays of the rising sun were touching the tops of the pines on the crest of the ridge above them before they awoke. A brief observation showed that they were close to the trail, and they were soon on the move. A few minutes walk brought them to the summit of the Chowchilla Mountain. Here they halted for a rest.

“This is the way they must come,” said Hugh: “that’s as sure as shooting; and we’ll wait for them. This is the trail, and Ned Haughton isn’t the man to leave it to take any cut-offs. Unless something serious has happened, we won’t have to wait long.” The words were hardly spoken till Ship gave a low growl.

“Do you hear what he says? ‘They are coming’”; and in the space of a minute the voices of the boys, the rattle of the cooking traps, and the clatter of the hoofs as they toiled up the steep ascent, were audible. The meeting was a cordial one. Each party had felt some alarm about the safety of the other. The main body, who had failed to come to time as per agreement, were profuse in apologies.

“Now you just thank us for not ambushing and killing the last one of you,” said Hugh.

“And drive those mules straight to our camp, unpack, and cook breakfast, while we sit down and look at you,” added Jim. “Then Hugh has got to tell all about last night’s experience, and you have all got to stay and hear it.”

“Yes,” said Hugh, by way of finish, “and any body who doubts a word of it has got to lick us both.”

So everything was smoothed over. Each vied with the other in serving the hungry hunters, and the breakfast, after their prolonged fast, was a regal feast. Under the cheerful influence of a cup of steaming hot coffee, Hugh grew eloquent. His rendition of the passage in which the report of Jim’s rifle and its wonderful echo figured, approached the sublime. When he described how it died away in a distant cañon and then came rolling out with renewed volume, or, as he had it, “big as pounds of wool,” Connor, a one-eyed genius, the wag of the party, gave utterance to a prolonged whistle. A significant gesture from Jim, and he subsided with the remark: “Boys, I wish I had been with you.”

The episode of kindling the fire was done in pantomime with great dramatic effect, and after an interchange of good-humored comments, the mules were repacked and the march resumed.

The intervening distance to the South Fork was made and the river crossed early in the forenoon. Then a camp was selected, and as one of the articles of agreement upon starting out was, “Never get into a hurry,” it was determined to stop here over night. Besides rest and recuperation, which were needed by at least two of us, an inducement was offered in the shape of angling—for the stream seemed to be speckled with mountain trout. The record made by the fishermen, however, was not of a character to entitle it to special notice; hence, with the simple statement that we had trout for supper, the subject is dismissed. Next day saw us rested and refreshed, and on our way to the Valley.

Tourists who roll over the road in coaches by the easy grades of the present day, or who, even at an earlier date, made the trip on horseback by trail, after some improvements had been begun, can hardly realize the difficulties which were ambushed along the route when men had to pick their way through a rough, mountainous region, where there was only here and there a trace of a trail. An Indian trail does not amount to much even when it is at its best, and as this one had been unused for several years, it took pretty good engineering to get over some of the rough places with a couple of pack-mules.

As we were leaving the South Fork, we were passed by a mounted party from Mariposa. We repassed them at Alder Creek, where they had halted for lunch, an example which we followed, giving our animals, as well as ourselves, a breathing spell. It was nearly sunset before we reached what is now termed “Inspiration Point.” Here we had our first view of Yosemite. There it lay before us in all its beauty, an oasis walled in by towering cliffs; a virgin meadow threaded by a silvery stream and girdled with a zone of granite an emerald in a setting of gray. It was a grand view, worth the whole journey; and we would have liked to linger and watch it fade away through the hazy twilight till it was lost in the somber uniformity of night, but we had no time to lose. “It’s about four miles to the foot of this little hill,” said Haughton, “and it will be as much as we can do to make it before dark. We must repack and cinch those mules for keeps. From here to the foot of the hill, though not exactly dangerous, is liable to be troublesome in the night time. In fact, it’s safe to say it’s the roughest you ever saw.”

“All ready,” sang out one of the boys who had been attending to the packing; “roll ahead,” and down, down, we slid, and scrambled, and tumbled—men and mules managing to keep their feet most of the tinme—now and then dislodging great masses of loose rock, which rolled and rattled like a young avalanche.

“Let the mules go ahead,” said one.

“Put Jim’s dog in the lead; he’s the boss path-finder,” said Hugh.

“Look out there!” cried the long-legged boy in the rear, who had turned loose a four hundred pound bowlder, which went bounding down the mountain, just ahead of the leading mule.

“None of that foolishness,” came from the front. “One more shot of that sort, and some man will lose a mule, and like enough we’ll have to pack a boy with blankets and things.”

Thus we floundered and rattled along in cheerful humor. Our animals kept their feet without a slip, and no casualty of a serious nature occurred. The previous season had been one of general drought, and this was the driest month in the year, so there was no trouble in finding a convenient ford. We crossed near the foot of the mountain. As we neared the river there was a whir-r-r of many wings. “Grouse! hundreds of them!” gleefully ejaculated several of the party in chorus. “We’ll get out early and pay our respects to them.”

We made our camp temporarily on the north side of the river, at the lower end of the valley, just below the base of the grand old cliff now known as Tutockanulah and El Capitan. Then, around the cheerful fire, we went over the experiences of the day and laid our plans for the immediate future. The first item of these was to select another camping ground further up the valley—“a nice, smooth spot,” said Haughton, “dry, and with plenty of shade—wood, water, and grass close at hand, and much more convenient as a point of departure for our future explorations,” he added.

How still it was! Only the least bit of a breeze stirring tree leaves and whispering in the tree tops. A gentle, soft murmuring rose and fell with the variable wind.

“That comes,” said Haughton, “from a waterfall on a stream the other side of the river—a tributary of the Merced. At this low stage of water its volume is very small, and it breaks into a cloud of spray long before it gets to the bed of the stream below.” We had no names for the different falls at that time, but this one described by our guide and afterwards visited by us was the Bridal Veil, otherwise known as the Pohono, or “Spirit of the Evil Wind “—a dreadful name to attach to a waterfall that never did anybody any harm.

Haughton next entertained us with a graphic account of the Boling Expedition, of the scouts in search of the Indians, up through the Cañon of Pyweah, and of the capture of their rancheria about ten miles above Mirror Lake, on the shore of Lake Tenieya. In time the conversation flagged. The camp fire flickered. At our feet murmured the Merced. Behind us frowned the Tutockanulah, great shadows flitting across his grizzled front as he seemed meditating upon the propriety of toppling over and engulfing us. A solemn rest pervaded the atmosphere.

“Peace breathes along the shade
  Of every hill,
The tree-tops of the glade
  Are hushed and still,
All woodland murmurs cease
The birds to rest within the brake are gone.”

The valley slept.

Next morning, soon as it was fairly light, the cheerful crack of the rifle awoke the slumbering echoes. Four of the best shots had been detailed to replenish the commissary supplies, and in about half an hour they came in loaded with mountain grouse.

“Looks like you had good luck.”

“Struck a perfect streak.”

“Did any of’em get away?”

These were among the congratulatory greetings, to which the response was that the woods were full of them; there were plenty left; that they were fat as butter balls. The prospect of fresh meat in unlimited quantities was encouraging. “Broil the youngest for breakfast and save the others for a grand stew,” was the order of the chef de cuisine— while we all volunteered in dressing the birds.

After breakfast we moved camp, and drove our stakes three or four miles further up the valley, on the north side of the river nearly opposite the Yosemite Fall. This became our permanent headquarters, and was made the point of departure for all our exploration in and about the valley.

Our first excursion was up the Cañon of Pyweah to Mirror Lake. Pohono, or the Bridal Veil, came in for a share of our attention. As surmised by Haughton, it was only a wreath of spray, which hung pendant and gracefully swinging with the breeze. The great Yosemite Fall was a thing of the past. It had left its impress on the naked rocks in a broad stain, but a meager, trickling, straggling stream, lazily crawling down the face of the seamed cliff, and wiggling among the jagged rocks below, was all that was left of the grand fall, which, with its roaring and thundering, strikes terror to the soul of the tourist who ventures near it during the spring or earlier summer months.

Perilous attempts to penetrate the forbidding looking cañons were made. Usually one man was left to “keep camp”—sometimes two. This meant to go a fishing, and have dinner well under way before the rest of the party returned.

One evening, after a series of dare-devil escapades for no particular purpose, except to demonstrate how near a man can come to breaking his neck and miss it, some one suggested an expedition up the main river, above the valley. Haughton was appealed to for information. He favored the proposition, and said he would cheerfully make one of the party. As for information he had none to give; neither he nor any of the Boling Expedition ever dreamed of attempting it. They came on business—not to see sights or explore for new fields of wonder. Their mission was hunting Indians. They tracked their game up the Pyweah Cañon to their rancheria, where they captured them. As to the main river above the valley, he had taken a peep at it. There was no sign of a trail. It was a deep, rough cañon, filled with immense bowlders, through which the river seethed and roared with a deafening sound, and there had never been seen a foot-print of white man or Indian in that direction. The cañon was considered impassable.

There was a chorus of voices in response.

“That’s the word.”

“Say it again.”

” Just what we are hunting.”

“We want something rough.”

“We’ll tackle that cañon in the morning.”

“An early start, now.”

It was so ordered. “With the first streak of daylight you’ll hear me crow,” was Connor’s little speech as he rolled himself in his blankets. Next morning we were up and alive, pursuant to programme. Everybody seemed anxious to get ahead.

Three of us—Milton J. Mann, G. C. Pearson, and the writer of this sketch—lingered to arrange the camp fixtures, for everybody was going up the cañon. When we came to the South Cañon, or Taloolweack, our friends were far in advance of us. We could hear them up the cañon shouting, their voices mingling with the roar of the waters. A brief consultation, and we came to the resolve to diverge from the main river and try to effect an ascent between that stream and the cañon. It looked like a perilous undertaking, and there were some doubts as to the result; nevertheless, the conclusion was to see how far we could go. Away up, up, far above us, skirting the base of what seemed to be a perpendicular cliff, there was a narrow belt of timber. That meant a plateau or strip of land comparatively level. If we could only reach that, it was reasonable to suppose that we could get around the face of the cliff. “Then we will see sights,” was the expression of one of the trio. What we expected to discover somewhere up the main stream was a lake or per haps a succession of lakes—such having been the result of the explorations up the Pyweah Cañon, and mountain lakes being not unfrequently noted as a feature of the sources of mountain streams.

But to reach the plateau—that was the problem. It was a fearful climb. Over and under and around masses of immense rocks, jumping across chasms at imminent risk of life and limb, keeping a bright lookout for soft places to fall, as well as for the best way to circumvent the next obstacle, after about three hours wrestling, “catch as catch can,” with that grim old mountain side, we reached the timber. Here, as we had surmised, was enough of level ground for a foothold, and here we took a rest, little dreaming of the magnificent scene in store for us when we rounded the base of the cliff.

In Pearson’s letter, to which reference has heretofore been made, the writer expresses his sentiments upon the subject in these words:

“That first view of the glorious scene, as it burst upon us when we raised our heads above the rim of rock, cannot be described and can never be forgotten. It was so entirely unexpected, so utterly different from what we had looked for, that we were spellbound—completely overwhelmed with awe. We stood motionless and mute—the first of civilized men to view nature’s wildest mood, modeled by the Creator’s hand from rugged mountain sides.”

The oft-quoted phrase, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” was never more fully realized. The picture is photographed on the tablets of my memory in indelible colors, and is as fresh and bright to-day as was the first impression twenty-nine years ago. To the tourist who beholds it for the first time, the Nevada Fall, with its weird surroundings, is a view of rare and picturesque beauty and grandeur. The rugged cliffs, the summits fringed with stunted pine and juniper, bounding the cañon on the southern side, the “Cap of Liberty” standing like a huge sentinel overlooking the scene at the north, the foaming caldron at the foot of the fall, the rapids below, the flume where the stream glides noiselessly but with lightning speed over its polished granite bed, making the preparatory run for its plunge over the Vernal Fall, form a combination of rare effects, leaving upon the mind an impression that years cannot efface. But the tourist is in a measure prepared. He has seen the engravings and photographic views, and read descriptions written by visitors who have preceded him. To us it was the opening of a sealed volume. Long we lingered and admiringly gazed upon the grand panorama, till the descending sun admonished us that we had no time to lose in making our way campward.

Our companions arrived long ahead of us. “Supper is waiting,” announced the chief cook: “ten minutes later and you would have fared badly; for we are hungry as wolves.”

“Reckon you’ve been loafing,” chimed in another. “You should have been with us. We struck a fall away up at the head of the cañon, about four hundred feet high.”

“Have you? We see your little, old four hundred-foot fall and go you four hundred better”—and then we proceeded to describe our trip, and the discovery which was its result.

The boys wouldn’t have it. None of them were professional sports, but they would hazard a little on a horse race, a turkey shooting, or a friendly game of “draw”—filling the elegant definition of the term “gambler” as given by one of the fraternity, viz.: “A gentleman who backs his opinion with coin.” Connor was the most voluble. He got excited over it, and made several rash propositions.

“Tell me,” said he, “that you went further up the cañon than we did? We went till we butted up against a perpendicular wall which a wildcat couldn’t scale. The whole Merced River falls over it. Why, a bird couldn’t fly beyond where we went. Of course, you think you have been further up the river, but you are just a little bit dizzy. I’ll go you a small wad of gold dust that the fall you have found is the same as ours.”

Connor was gently admonished to keep his money—to win it was like finding it in the road—nay, worse; it would be downright robbery—but to make the thing interesting we would wager a good supper—best we could get in camp, with the “trimmings” —upon our return home, that we had been higher up the cañon, and that our fall beat theirs in altitude. It was further agreed that one of us should accompany the party as guide.

“Better take along a rope—it might help you over the steep places,” was a portion of our advice, adding by way of caution to “hide it away from Connor” when they returned, for “he would feel so mean that he would want to hang himself.”

To Pearson, who was ambitious to show off his qualities as a mountain guide, was delegated the leadership—an arrangement which was mutually satisfactory—“Milt” agreeing with me that a day’s rest would be soothing and healthful. Besides, we had laid a plan involving a deep strategy to capture some of of those immense trout, of which we had occasional glimpses, lying under the bank, but which were too old and cunning to be beguiled with the devices of hook and line.

The plan was carried out, on both sides, to a successful issue. On our part, we secured two of the largest trout ever caught in the valley, and had them nicely dressed, ready for the fry-pan, when our companions returned, which was about sunset. Soon as they came within hailing distance, their cheerful voices rang out (Connor’s above all the rest), “We give it up!” They were in ecstacies, and grew eloquent in praise of the falls and scenery, at the same time paying us many compliments.

A courier was dispatched to notify the Mariposa party of our discovery. It was a surprise to them, but they had made their arrangements to leave for home early the next morning. They regretted the necessity, but business arrangements compelled their departure. We fell heir to about half a sack of flour — a dispensation of Providence which gave us a day or two more in the mountains.

We were not idle. One day was devoted to another visit to the Nevada Fall, our explorations this time being extended above the fall into the valley, now known as the “Little Yosemite,” and including a climb to the summit of the Cap of Liberty. Rude drawings were made of points of especial prominence and interest. Our evenings were pleasant and sociable. Around the cheerful camp-fire we discussed the grandeur of our surroundings and the possibilities of the future. It was unanimously agreed that for beauty and sublimity of scenery the valley was without a peer: as people from all parts of the world visited Niagara Falls, and our own countrymen made the European tour for the special purpose of viewing the wonders of the Alps, why should not this wonder-land attract thousands from the Atlantic States and Europe, when its fame should become world-wide? An improved trail was suggested, and various places along the route, where steep and abrupt pitches could be avoided and an easy grade substituted, were mapped out and theoretically surveyed.

These subjects were argued at length, and particularly during the evening of our last day in the valley, when the discussion ran on till after midnight. Even the feasibility of a wagon road was suggested, and the construction of a railroad was vaguely hinted at as one of the possibilities of the far-away future—sometime in the next century. “We will none of us live to see that,” despairingly remarked one fellow; “nor is it likely that this place will become much of a resort during our life-time.”

There was a division of sentiment on this point, some even proposing to give practical testimony of their faith by making an actual settlement in the valley and surveying a route for a road. A stringency in the money market alone prevented the beginning of these measures; but as it was, this agitation bore its legitimate fruit and led up to practical results. The Mann Brothers, erratic in some respects, were energetic and enthusiastic. The following year they went to work to construct a trail, which, in its grade, was a vast improvement on the original, and a comparatively safe route for saddle and pack animals.

During the same season they employed a French artist by the name of Claveau to make sketches of the valley, and paint a panorama embracing the points of greatest interest. They paid him by the month at an exorbitant rate. He was a fraud, and humbugged them—dawdling away his time for the best part of a year, and giving them, instead of a panorama, a series of wretched daubs. They traveled with it to some extent, but the enterprise proved unremunerative, and wound up in a vexatious lawsuit. As to what became of the painting, there is no information at hand. It went out of sight in some mysterious way.

The trail was a little premature, and when its proprietors applied to the Board of Supervisors for a license to collect tolls, it would have been surprising if the enterprise had not been anathematized by some of the intelligent sovereigns as a “monopoly.” It is perfectly proper and legitimate for anybody to curse a monopoly unless he is in with it. However, the trail never paid its original proprietors, who were good, big-hearted fellows, and had some excellent ideas of the future of the valley, but lacked a knowledge of the commercial world and were unschooled in business. Their efforts were well meant, as were those of others of their contemporaries, who urged upon the good people of Mariposa the necessity of constructing a wagon road to Yosemite.

Nevertheless, all these incidents which had their origin in the Sherlock Expedition became factors in bringing this wonder-land to the notice of the outside world, and opening up highways over which the modern tourist can travel with comfort and ease.

A residence of twenty years in Mariposa has given me opportunities of frequent visits to this beautiful valley, which have been improved to the fullest extent, and on several occasions extended to the high Sierras, above and beyond, under circumstances differing very materially from those of the expedition herein outlined. Hence, the improvements in traveling facilities and local accommodations which have opened the gates of this mountain paradise to the outside world are the more fully appreciated; and the day when the iron horse shall be heard snorting and whistling through the cañon of the Merced is looked for as an event of the not distant future. Yet a tinge of sadness comes over me as I travel along the new paths amid the old scenes. The river still meanders its serpentine course, glittering with its ancient radiance as it kisses the sunlight. The majestic water-falls bound from their giddy heights, mocking the thunder in their reckless plunge. The rugged peaks and beetling cliffs, their summits touching the clouds, stand grim and defiant against the march of civilization. But the bed of the valley itself has been roughly handled by the agencies of Nature and Art. The floods have done their work, even to the extent of sweeping away a grove of trees whereon were carved the names of several American citizens—pioneer Californians. Immense slides, avalanches of debris from the mountain sides, have buried many acres of what was once fresh, verdant meadow. Man has not been idle. Dynamite has played its part, and trails have been blasted out, enabling the “Tenderfoot” to reach points once deemed inaccessible to anything but a mountain sheep. The dust of rattling coaches offends the nostrils. The toll-gatherer confronts the wayfaring man, and the camper is abridged of his former vested rights, looked upon as an interloper, and suspected of being “an awful mean man.” Hotels, in some of their features vieing with the more pretentious metropolitan palaces, have multiplied on a scale commensurate with the demands of the traveling public. Healthy, able-bodied tourists, invalid tourists, lame tourists, fat women tourists, tourists of both sexes, all ages, and diversified nationalities, make elaborate annual pilgrim ages to this Pacific Coast Mecca. They bring with them valises, bandboxes, miscellaneous packages, and the traditional horror of the mountain stage driver, the Saratoga trunk. The guide is not insulted if a voluntary contribution is tendered him for extra attention, and the aproned flunkey extends an itching palm for bacscheesh, as a reward for ordinary civility, with a coolness and nonchalance which would do credit to one of the regular army at Niagara Falls. The trout decline to be caught except by Indians; and the grouse, in disgust, have fled over the mountains, or scattered among the junipers and dwarfed pines of the higher ranges.

“There is but one Yosemite!” exclaims an enraptured tourist, as he staggers at description in the shadow of its grandeur. There never will be another as it was when there was no print of hoof nor trace of moccasin track within its lonely precincts. Its pristine loveliness is a thing of the past, with the voices which awoke musical responses from its cliffs and cañons nearly thirty years ago living only in the chambers of memory. “The boys” of that period—my companions—where are they?

I bear with me a picture of them grouped together on the homeward march, as we turned to take a parting look at the valley, and another of a jolly, sociable reunion upon our return to the old camp. It was our last assemblage. Soon thereafter our paths diverged; further and further we drifted apart. Some have gone over to the “silent majority.” The echoes of their voices have died away beyond the hill-tops. Will they some time come rolling down with renewed volume, like the echo so graphically described by my old friend Hugh?

James H. Lawrence.

About the Author, James H. Lawrence

James Henry Lawrence was born circa 1931, probably in Massachussetts. When a boy he served in the Mexican War, then came to California in 1849. He settled in Mariposa, California and was a lawyer, leader in the Democratic party, and pioneer newspaperman, as editor and owner of the Mariposa Free Press. Mr. Lawrence represented Mariposa, Stanislaus, and Merced counties from 1867 to 1871 as state senator.

In 1865 Lawrence was tried for shooting Chris Wilson, but was acquited as justifiable homocide. A newspaper article at the time stringly differs with that opinion, however, and says the shooting was unprovoked, although angry words were exchanged between them. There appears to have been a strong dislike between the two men and both men were reportedly often drunk.

Mr. Lawrence married Mary V. Tingley, daughter of Judge Tingley of San Francisco, June 1870, and they had one daughter, Constance Violet Lawrence. Mary was born circa 1851. He “became dissipated” and deserted his wife and daughter. Mary divorced him in 1898. In 1901 he was “in a state of mental collapse” and contacted his ex-wife. She forgave him, remarried, and took him to McNutt hospital. He lived a short time longer then died August 3, 1901 at the McNutt hospital.


Bibliographical Information

James Henry Lawrence, “Discovery of the Nevada Fall,” Overland Monthly, vol. 4 (2nd series), no. 22 (October 1884), pp. 360-371.

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