The Mariposa War, Chapter 1: The Widower

This is Part 1 of a 10-part series of posts entitled, The Mariposa War.
To read the next post of this series, CLICK THIS LINK.
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The Widower

James Savage had no idea he would soon become a king and conqueror. And he could not imagine that he would also take credit for discovering one of the wonders of the world. A wonder that we now know as Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Valley was a mystery in 1846, known only to Indians until after California achieved statehood.

It was April, 1846, when this future king boarded a wagon with his wife and child, shook the reins, and headed West for the Mexican state of Alta California.

Savage was born in 1817, in a part of the Illinois territory that was German and Dutch immigrant country. He was a bright young man while growing up, and charismatic, and possessed an uncanny aptitude for learning languages.

At a very young age, he surprised adults by learning to speak fluently, the German and Dutch of his immigrant neighbors. And it was this knack for quickly picking up on other languages that would play a key role in his coronation as king.

Yosemite Valley was formed a million years ago by glaciers, including a giant, 4,000 foot high glacier, that carved out the valley’s distinctive U-shape.

The journey from Independence, Missouri to California was long and treacherous in those days. Many pioneers perished along the trail, and Savage’s wife and child joined the statistics. Sadly, by the time the future king arrived at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, in October of 1846, he was a childless widower.

And he arrived during the middle of a war. The Mexican War was raging, and the U.S. military needed help in the conquest of California. So James enlisted, joining Captain John Fremont’s battalion. But three months later, in January of 1847, the war in California ended with the Treaty of Cahuenga. By April, James Savage had mustered out, and was ready to do his own conquering of this new addition to the United States.

I wrote about the conquest of California a few years ago, in a series of posts entitled, Conquering California. If you wish to read this series, please click this link.

Glaciers sliced away vertical blocks of granite, leaving hanging valleys that gushed precipitous waterfalls, such as Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America, with a cumulative vertical drop of 2,425 feet.

He drifted around, as unmarried men are wont to do, and ended up living with a tribe of Indians in the San Joaquin Valley, about 100 miles or so southeast of Sacramento. These were the mighty Tularenos.

At this time, the Native American population in California approximately equaled that of the non-natives, at about 100,000 each. Disease and genocide would soon reduce the natives’ numbers, but for now the Indians were holding their own.

And so was the environment, as most of California was unspoiled by the growth and “progress” that would later befoul its coastlines, Central Valley, and Sierra Nevada mountains. The air was clean, the rivers ran free and full, and the mountains offered secret hideaways, such as Yosemite Valley, that were known only to the natives.

California was a wilderness paradise in 1847. This is how the Merced River, with El Capitan on the left, and Bridalveil Falls on the right, likely appeared even back then.

But there was a history of friction between the natives and their invaders, dating back to the 1760’s, when Spanish missionaries first arrived on their soil and began changing their way of life. And so Savage was regarded with a bit of wariness and distrust, when he first became a guest of the Tulareno tribe.

But Savage’s natural charm, and aptitude for learning languages, saved the day. He quickly adopted the mixed Spanish and native tongue of the Tularenos, and won their admiration and respect for this. He was a likable and diplomatic man, and was also friendly and sympathetic toward these Indians, to the point where they began treating him as one of their own.

El Capitan, or “The Chief.” This block of granite lifts 3,000 feet from the valley floor. It’s steep, sheer cliffs are attributed to the granite being relatively free from joints. This makes it resistive to the grinding, crumbling effects of glaciers, as well as to the probing fingers and toes of free-climbing adventurers.

35 replies »

  1. Sad story about his wife and daughter! I hope he has some happiness coming for him. Glad the Indians accepted him. He was fluent in Dutch, but probably not Pa Dutch. 🙂

    Great pictures, especially the waterfall!

    Liked by 1 person

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