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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar

Exploring the Passes

With the expeditions of Frémont, there ended the first phase of the history of Sierra exploration, Immigration was on in real earnest and explorations were now directed more towards determining the best routes than discovering new ones. In 1844 the first wagons were brought across the Sierra by the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party. 24 Before the way could be made clear for the great tide of settlers, the tragedy of the Donner party took place and many another party crossed with terrible hardship. James P. Beckwourth claimed to have discovered the pass at the head of the Feather River, now used by the Western Pacific Railroad. 25 Other pioneers of the northern counties will have to be neglected as out of the immediate field of this narrative.

In 1853, in the military appropriation act of March 3, Congress directed that explorations and surveys be made “to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi river to the Pacific Ocean.” Orders were issued by the Secretary of War directing Lieutenant Robert S. Williamson of the topographical corps “to examine the passes of the Sierra Nevada leading from the San Joaquin and Tulare valleys, and subsequently explore the country to the southeast of the Tulare lakes.” Williamson, in the summer of 1853, skirted the foothills from the Tuolumne in the Kern and examined the region of Walker’s Pass 26 In the following year Lieutenant Edward G. Beckwith explored the routes north of the main Sierra Nevada into the upper Sacramento Valley.

The official surveys under the War Department neglected or postponed consideration of the central routes in the effort to avoid the snows of the Sierra passes. The people of California, however, were not content to give up so easily and from 1851 until the Central Pacific Railroad was actually begun, there were ceaseless endeavors to find the best grade, first for a wagon road, and then for a railroad. About 1851 a Major Ebbetts prospected a pass which for a time bore his name. 27 In 1853 Ebbetts was again exploring for a pass in that vicinity, accompanied by George H. Goddard, a civil engineer. This was probably the same trip on which Goddard was with Lieutenant Moore— presumably the officer mentioned by Bunnell leading a punitive expedition to Yosemite in 1852.

In 1855, the legislature of California authorized an investigation of the most practical wagon route across the Sierra, but failed to make an appropriation to carry on the survey. Nevertheless, under the energetic insistence of S. H. Marlette, Surveyor General, several parties took the field under voluntary subscription and a road was located along the South Fork of American River by Slippery Ford. George H. Goddard and Sherman Day made the principal survey and on this occasion Goddard ascertained that the boundary angle between California and the then territory of Utah was situated in Lake Tahoe and not in Carson Valley. 28 Goddard prepared a map of the region drawn from all the material then available and from his own observations, and it was recommended to the legislature in 1856 by Marlette that this map be purchased. No appropriation was made and the map was later sold to the Wheeler Survey, but has since disappeared. 29 A general map of the State of California was prepared by Goddard and published in 1857 by Britton and Rey; and it was in recognition of this map that members of the Whitney Survey in 1864 bestowed the name of Goddard upon one of the highest mountains in the Sierra. 30

The main outlines of the Sierra Nevada were well known by 1850 and from this time on the history of the range must be divided into three sections: (1) the development of practicable transportation routes across the mountains; (2) the history of the foothill country, which is largely a history of mining, lumbering and ranching; and (3) the history of the High Sierra and its great scenic canyons. It is only with the last phase that we will continue to deal. Leaving out of considerations as belonging more to the first two classifications the region lying north of the Tuolumne, I will here consider only the history of that region lying between the main immigrant routes and the southern extremity of the Sierra at Walker Pass. It is extraordinary how little was known of this magnificent region of the High Sierra until comparatively recent years. A few of its most striking features, such as Yosemite Valley and the Big Trees and later Mount Whitney, received a great deal of publicity, but for the most part the country was long unmapped and practically unknown save to a few prospectors and to sheep-herders.

24 Bancroft: California, IV, pp. 445-447.

25 The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, by T. D. Bonner, 1856, new edition 1892, pp. 423-432.

26 Pacific Railroad Reports, V, part 1, pp. 12-18; part 2, pp. 11-27.

27 Annual Report of the Surveyor-General of the State of California, 1856, p. 101; Whitney Survey: Geology, 1865, p. 446.

28 Surveyor-General’s Report, 1856.

29 Surveyor-General’s Report, 1856; U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Report for 1900, Appendix 3, p, 272.

30 Whitney Survey: Geology, 1865, p. 382.

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