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

Joseph Walker

Reliable knowledge of the Sierra Nevada really begins with the expedition of Joseph Reddeford Walker in 1833, The results of Walker’s expedition became popularly known almost immediately afterwards through the publication in 1837 of Washington Irving’s account of the Bonneville expedition. 12 This was a very one-sided report and did not give to Walker the credit that was due him for a really remarkable achievement in exploration. Fortunately other accounts have been preserved and as they become better known, the fame of this remarkable pioneer will be greatly enhanced. Zenas Leonard, who acted as a clerk for the expedition, wrote a narrative which was published in 1839 in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, and reprinted in 1904 with annotations by Dr. W. F. Wagner. This narrative gives a circumstantial account by means of which we can trace closely the entire route. There is also in the Bancroft Library a manuscript dictated by George Nidever, a member of the party, which corroborates many of the incidents told by Leonard. To these may be added the story of Joseph L. Meek as told in Mrs. Victor’s “River of the West,” an account by Stephen Meek quoted by Bancroft, 13 and the testimony of men who knew Walker. 14

The Walker party, after coming down the valley of the Humboldt and passing south by Carson Lake, struck westward across the Sierra and reached the San Joaquin Valley early in November 1833. The variety of the sources of information and the importance of the expedition invite a more extended discussion of the route than is possible within the limits of this article. The party probably ascended the

Joseph R. Walker (1798-1876)


The account of his expedition of 1833 contains the earliest
description of Yosemite Valley and the Big Trees.

Courtesy of John M. Walker, Walnut Creek.

eastern flank of the Sierra by one of the southern tributaries of the East Walker River. Their experiences after crossing the summit of the pass indicate that they were lost for some days in a maze of lakes and mountains. 15 This description fits the character of the region near what is now known as Virginia Canyon. From here they would have crowd the Tuolumne, perhaps near Conness Creek. Passing Tenaya Lake, they probably followed the general course of the present Tioga road. This accords both with the topography of the mountains and with the statement in the San Jose Pioneer (September 1, 1877): “His first attempt to descend to the west was near the headwaters of the Tuolumne, which he found impossible, but on working a little to the southwest he struck the waters of the Merced and got into the Valley of the San Joaquin.”

There occurs in the Leonard narrative a most significant passage:

We travelled, few miles every day, still up the top of the mountain, and our course continually obstructed with snow hills and rocks. Here we began to encounter in our path, many small streams which would shoot out from under these high snow-banks, and after running a short distance in deep chasms which they have through ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves, from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below.—Some of these precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high. Some of the men thought that if we could succeed in descending one of these precipices to the bottom, we might thus work our way into the valley below—but on making several attempts we found it liberty impossible for a man to descend, to say nothing of our horses, We were then obliged to keep along the top of the dividing ridge between two of there chasms which accrued to land pretty near in the direction we were going— which was west,—in passing over the mountain, supposing it to me north and south. (p. 174.)

[Editor’s note: today historians generally believe the Walker party looked down The Cascades, which are just west of Yosemite Valley, instead of Yosemite Valley itself.—dea]

One can easily imagine some members of the party deviating to right or left in search of a route and coming out upon the brink of Yosemite Valley at the top of Yosemite Falls, and perhaps looking off into Hetch Hetchy Valley from the summit of Smith Peak. The party found its my down from the mountains into the lower canyon of the Tuolumne River, and thence passed on into the San Joaquin Valley.

Another passage in the Leonard narrative is of great interest:

In the last two days travelling we have found some trees of the Redwood species, incredibly large—some of which would measure from 16 to 18 fathom round the track at the height of a man’s head from the ground. (p. 180.)

The notes in the 1904 edition are misleading at this point, as the commentator evidently jumped to the conclusion that the big trees mentioned were those of the Mariposa Grove, perhaps not knowing that there were two small groves between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers. To my mind, there is not the slightest doubt that the reference is to the Tuolumne or Merced Grove and that this is the first published mention of the Big Trees of California.

The Walker party spent the first part of the winter at Monterey and in February 1834 started on the return journey. This time they crossed the Sierra further to the south, going up the Kern River and passing over what thereafter has been known as Walker’s Pass.

12 The Rocky Mountains: or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far Wast; Digested from the Journal of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, of the Army of the United States, and Illustrated from Various Other Sources, by Washington Irving, 2 volumes, Philadelphia, 1837, (Later editions under title of “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville”).

13 Bancroft: California III, p. 390.

14 Sonoma Democrat, November 25, 1876; San Jose Pioneer, September 1, 1877; Bancroft: Nevada, p. 44.

15 Leonard Narrative, 1904, p. 174.

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