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The Ahwahneechees: A Story of the Yosemite Indians (1966) by John W. Bingaman



Mary Lebrado
— The Last Survivor
Mary Lebrado — The Last Survivor

The beginnings of human life in the Yosemite Valley are shrouded in inpenetrable mystery. As we seek to trace back the history of the people who were occupying the region when white men entered its fastness, we come almost immediately into the realm of myth and legend, from which it is impossible to extract any element of attested fact. But from the Indian legends, filtered through the imagination of the white folk, we can draw out a fairly consistent story which, in the absence of authentic history, may serve as an introduction.

From time immemorial there had dwelt in the fair Valley of Ahwahnee the powerful tribe of the Ahwahneechees. To this place they believed the Great Spirit had led them from their original home in the far distant west. In their new, high walled home the Ahwahneechees were secure from attack, and their warlike prowess made them feared and respected by all the other tribes of the mountains. But at length an evil time came upon them, wars and a fearful pestilence decimated the tribe. The Valley was held to be accursed, and the feeble remnants of its inhabitants fled to their neighbors or to the wild tribes across the mountains. For many years the Valley was deserted.

But a certain noble youth of the tribe, who had gone among the Monos, married a maiden of that tribe, and to this pair a son was born, who was named Teneiya. Now Teneiya, when he had grown to man’s estate, remembered what he had heard about the home of his fathers. So he gathered together the remnants of the tribe, and returned with them to the valley of Ahwahnee; and they prospered, and once more became powerful.

One day it happened that a young brave, going to the Lake of the Sleeping Water to spear fish, was met by a monster grizzly bear, and a terrific battle ensued, from which the Indian emerged victorious, though grievously wounded.

After this the young chief was called Yosemite, or the large grizzly bear, and finally the name came to be applied to the whole tribe. [Editor’s note: For the correct origin of the word Yosemite see “Origin of the Word Yosemite.”—DEA]

Thus far the legend. But with Teneiya we come to a historical personage, the last chief of the Yosemites. He was ruling over the tribe. when the white men came to the Valley.

When asked about the name Yosemite he is reported to have said that when he was a young chief this name had been selected for the tribe, because they occupied the mountains and valleys which were the favorite resort of the grizzly bear, and because those neighboring Indians who had bestowed it were afraid of the grizzlies, and feared his band.

Ethnologically the natives of the Yosemite Valley belonged to the Mariposa dialect group of the southern Sierra Miwok Indians, and the ethnologists assure us that the Indian name for the valley was, and still is Awani (Ahwahnee), which was the name of the principal village in the valley, and by extension, the name of the people also. The ending, tei or chee, signifying location or origin, is sometimes added to Awani or Ahwahnee, when speaking of the people. The name Yosemite is simply a corruption of the term which the southern Miwoks applied to any species of bear, and particularly to the grizzly, and was given to the valley, as we shall see, because the white people who first came in contact with its native inhabitants called them Yosemites.

Teneiya was recognized by the Mono tribe as one of their numbers, as he was born and lived among them until his ambition made him a leader, and founder of the Pai-ute colony in Ahwahnee. His history and warlike exploits formed a part of the traditionary lore of the Monos. They were proud of his success, and boasted of his descent from their tribe, although Teneiya himself claimed that his father was a Chief of the independent Yosemite people, whose ancestors were of a different tribe. Teneiya had, by his cunning and sagacity in managing the deserters from other tribes who had sought his protection, maintained a reputation as a chief whose leadership was never disputed by his followers, and who was the envy of the leaders of other tribes. After his subjugation by the whites, he was deserted by his followers, and his supremacy was no longer acknowledged by the neighboring tribes, who had feared rather than respected him, or the people of his band.

Many years ago the old chief said, "The Ahwahneechees had been a large and powerful tribe, but by means of wars, and fatal black sickness, nearly all had been destroyed, and the survivors of the band fled from the valley, and joined other tribes."

For years afterwards this locality was uninhabited, but finally Teneiya, who as mentioned, claimed to be descended from an Ahwahneechee chief, left the Monos where he had been born and brought up, and gathering some of his father’s old tribe around him, visited the valley, and claimed it as the birthright of his people. He then became the founder of a new tribe or band, which received the name "Yosemite."


The discovery of gold, February 2, 1848, by James Marshall, near Coloma on the American River, brought a stampede of gold seekers to California, and there came about a great change with the Indians. A serious situation was thrust upon the Indian tribes in and about Yosemite Valley, when, on the discovery of gold, miners by the thousands flocked into California. Miners staked their claims on the Indian’s territory, cut his acorn trees for fuel, hunted his game for food, destroyed his bulbous roots in digging for gold, invaded his family, and taking young Indian women, willing or not, for servants and wives.

Suffering from loss of food and territory the Indians made raids on the whites, taking what they could from the trading posts, stealing horses, burning houses, even murdering, then fleeing to the mountains. A deadly hate was engendered. The Indian would drive the last miner from his territory. The whites determined to subjugate the Indians, and kill all of them if necessary.

INDIAN WAR OF 1850 - 1851

When the white men flocked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in search of gold, it was not long before difficulties arose with the Indians. What happened here was the same thing that had happened everywhere on the frontier, the red man had to give way to the white; but he did not do so without a struggle. This struggle, it is true, was short, since the California Indians were not capable of maintaining a long contest. The war in the Mariposa country was only one episode in the red man’s fight which we need to consider in this connection.

In the beginning of 1850, James D. Savage had a trading post and mining camp on the Merced River some 20 miles below the Yosemite Valley, which at that time was known to only a few whites. During the spring of that year Indians supposedly belonging to the tribe known as the Yosemites made an attack on this post. They were driven off, but Savage thought it best to abandon the place and remove his store to Mariposa Creek. He also established a branch post on the Fresno River.

Savage had several Indian wives, and obtained a really remarkable influence over the Indian tribes with which he was connected. But there were malcontents among them, and the tribes in the mountains were suspicious and easily incited to acts of hostility.

On December 17, 1850, Savage’s Indians deserted the Mariposa camp, and on the same or the following day his post on the Fresno was attacked, and two of the three men there present were killed. Several other similar outrages occurred Soon thereafter, which started the beginning of a general Indian war.


Under these circumstances the white settlers took prompt action to protect themselves. Under the leadership of Sheriff James Burney and James D. Savage, a volunteer company was formed, January 6, 1851, with Burney in command. This force had several indecisive skirmishes with the Indians. Meanwhile, the governor had been appealed to, and he immediat[e]ly authorized Sheriff Burney to call out 200 militiamen, and organize a battalion for service as the emergency might demand.

Under this authorization the Mariposa Battalion was formed, February 10, at Savage’s partially ruined store on Mariposa Creek. Savage was elected major, Burney having declined to be a candidate for the position. Three companies were organized under command of Captains John J. Kuykendall, John Bowling, and William Dill. Headquarters were established on Mariposa Creek, and here the battalion was drilled in preparation for the campaign, and occasional scouting forays were made into the enemy’s country.


At the same time that Governor McDougal issued his order for the calling out of the militia he appealed for cooperation to the United States Indian Commissioners, McKee, Barbour, and Wozencraft, who had just arrived in California with instructions to make treaties with the Indian tribes. It was agreed that the commissioners would go at once to the affected region and endeavor to treat with the hostile tribes. If negotiations failed, force would be used to bring the Indians to terms.

The commissioners arrived at the Mariposa camp about the 1st of March, and immediately sent out runners inviting the various tribes to come in and have a talk. A meeting was arranged for the 9th of March, and on the 19th, a treaty was made with six tribes, which were at once removed to a reservation between the Merced and the Tuolumne rivers. The commissioners then went on to talk with the tribes south of the Merced River and left part of the volunteer battalion to deal with the Indians who had refused to -enter into the treaty.

Among the tribes which had agreed to come in to talk with the commissioners was one which the latter called the "Yosemetos," and which Adam Johnson, the Indian agent, refers to as the "Yosemite." This tribe had failed to appear, and reports brought in by friendly Indians indicated that they had no intention of coming in. It was, therefore, deemed necessary to send a military force after them.

On the evening of March 19, Major Savage set out with the companies of Captains Bowling and Dill. On the morning of the 22nd, a Nuchu rancheria on the South Fork of the Merced River was surprised and captured without a fight. At this point a camp was established, and messengers were sent ahead to the Yosemites with a request that they come into camp. Next day the old chief Teneiya came in alone, and after an interview with Savage promised that if allowed to return to his people he would bring them in. He was allowed to go. The next day he came back and said his people would soon come to camp. The day passed and no Indians appeared. Major Savage, growing impatient, set out on the morning of March 25, with a part of his command, taking the old chief along with him as guide. After a little while they met a company of seventy-two Indians on the trail, and Teneiya said that these were all of his people except some who had gone over the mountains, Savage replied, "There are but few of your people here, your tribe is large, I am going to your village to see your people, who will not come with you. They will come with me if I find them. "


Teneiya was allowed to go to the camp on the South Fork with his people, but Savage took one of his young braves as a guide, and continued his march toward the north. Within a short time the company came to old Inspiration Point, and the full view of the valley was presented to their gaze. It must be confessed, however, that the scenic wonder of the valley made very slight impression on these rough men of action, and without much ado they hastened down the trail and camped for the night on the south side of the Merced River, a little below El Capitan. The day of Savage’s discovery was March 25, 1851.

As the tired campaigners sat about the camp fire that night the events of the day were passed in review, and the question arose of giving a name to the valley which they had found. Dr. L. H. Bunnell, upon whom the scenes and events of this campaign made a deeper impression than upon any of the others, suggested the appropriateness of naming it after the aborigines who dwelt there. The suggestion was agreed to after some good natured banter, and since the white men called these Indians Yosemites the name Yosemite was given to the valley, rather than the more melodious Indian name Awani (Ahwahnee) which already belonged to it.

The next day was spent in a search of the valley, but no Indians were found save an ancient squaw who was too old and decrepit to make her escape. The villages had been deserted. Much corn, nuts, seeds, and grass were stored in caches. The valley was thoroughly explored by the volunteers. The search proved fruitless, and as the supplies were running low, it was decided to abandon the chase, and return to the camp on the South Fork.

From there the Indians who had been gathered together were started toward the commissioners camp on the Fresno River, but before they arrived at their destination the negligence of the guard permitted them to escape, and they returned to their mountain home. On the 29th of April, the commissioners made a treaty with 16 tribes of Indians, and placed them on a reservation.


A second expedition against the Yosemites was sent out to bring the Old Chief to terms. May 1851, when this expedition entered the valley, it was seen that a few huts had been rebuilt, and there was evidence that Indians had been living in them, though not one was to be found. At length, five Indians were discovered among rocks and trees, but these were soon captured.

Three of these Indians were sons of Chief Teneiya, the other two were young braves. One of the sons was sent to tell Teneiya that he and his people would be safe if they would come in and make peace with the white men. Teneiya refused to come in, he insisted on staying in the mountains. But soon the scouts brought Teneiya in, where he learned of the death of his sons, who were shot by the soldiers for trying to escape. Some days later Teneiya attempted to escape but was caught before he plunged into the river. Angry, he cried out to the Captain, "Kill me, yes kill me, as you killed my people."

With several scouts, and Teneiya as guide, the Captain went in search of the Yosemites who he knew were not far away. When well up Tenaya Canyon, one of the scouts pointed to a cloud of smoke, which revealed an Indian Village about two miles away on the banks of a beautiful lake. The inhabitants were soon captured; thirty-five were taken prisoners, all of whom belonged to Teneiya’s family, among them his four squaws. They had fled to the mountains without food or clothing, and were worn out. They had hoped to go to the Monos. As the Soldiers left the lake they named it "Lake Tenaya" though the Chief protested, "It has a name, we call it Py-we-ack, or Lake of the Shining Rocks." And from here the captives were taken to the Fresno Reservation, where they arrived about June 10, 1851.

Teneiya and his people soon tired of the reservation and restrictions. All that had made life interesting and joyous was gone, and they longed for the mountain huts without walls, and their former freedom to hunt food. Life was humiliating to the old chief, and after a few months. he begged to return to his territory, and gave his pledge. He was allowed to go and take his family with him. With this remnant Teneiya returned to his beloved and secluded home, Ahwahnee.


On May 20, 1852, a party of eight prospectors started from Coarse Gold Gulch on a trip to the upper waters of the Merced River. They had just entered the Yosemite Valley when they were set upon by a band of Indians, and two of them, named Rose and Shurborn, were killed, and a third badly wounded. The others got away, and after enduring great hardships arrived again at Coarse Gold Gulch on the 2nd of June. The same day about 30 or 40 miners set out to punish the treacherous Yosemites. This party found and buried the bodies of the murdered men, but were compelled to return without punishing the perpetrators of the deed.

The commander at Fort Miller having been informed of these events, sent a detachment of regular soldiers under Lieut. Moore, with scouts and guides, at once into the mountains. On arriving in the Yosemite Valley this expedition surprised and captured five Indians wearing or carrying clothing belonging to the murdered men. They were summarily shot. The remainder of the Yosemites with their old chief Teneiya made their escape, and fled over the mountains into the Mono country. The soldiers pursued but were unable to catch any of them. The party lost a few horses, killed by the Indians. They explored the region about Mono Lake, discovered some gold deposits, and then returned to the fort on the San Joaquin by a route that led south of the Yosemite Valley. This expedition was made in June and July 1852.


Teneiya and his little band stayed with the Monos until the autumn of 1853, when they returned to Yosemite Valley. They built their huts in the east end of the Valley. They obtained acorns from the oak trees, and hunted game; it was a good life in the secluded valley of Ahwahnee.

The Piutes and Monos had made successful raids on ranches and had captured a number of horses. Several of Teneiya’s men went on a foraging expedition, and knowing it was safer to rob their allies than risk a raid on the whites, they succeeded in stealing a few horses from the Monos. In the Valley they felt secure, and after a few days had a feast of horse flesh. The Indians gorged themselves, and on crammed stomachs, slept soundly. The Monos, revengeful and warlike, pounced upon them, and before they could rally for the fight they dealt blows of death to the Yosemites, whom they had so recently fed and sheltered. The young chief of the Monos hurled a rock at old chief Teneiya whose skull was crushed by the blow. More rocks were hurled, and the last chief of the Yosemites lay stoned to death in his Ahwahnee. All but eight of Teneiya’s young braves were killed. These made their escape through the canyon below. The women and children were made captives, and taken across the mountains. The once powerful cunning tribe of the Yosemite Indians was all but wiped out. Teneiya was the last chief of his people. He was killed by the chief of the Monos in retribution for a crime against the Mono’s hospitality.

Teneiya’s band was attached to this valley as a home. The instinctive attraction that an Indian has for his place of nativity is incomprehensible; it is more than a religious sentiment, it is a passion. Here they lived as in an earthly paradise, engaged in a grand hunt or festival, offered up religious sacrifices, and awakened the valley with echoes of their vociferous orations.


When we look back over the spectacle of Indian annihilation, the ruthless advance of the frontier crushing out the lives of Indians on every hand, though sacrificing a lot of white blood to achieve this end, we are moved to ask; "Did the Indians live in vain? Was all that they did, struggled for, fought for, for ten thousand years to be obliterated in three centuries,? Was it misplaced charity on the part of the victors to put their helpless victims on reservations, to be wasted by disease, hunger, and poverty, and later do everything possible to keep them alive merely to live as minorities in our midst?"

These and many other questions may rise to disturb our peace of mind, but there are no satisfactory answers. We can, however, look at the record to see what the Indian achieved, and what the world took from him without giving much in return.

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