The Mariposa War, Chapter 3: War Begins

This is Part 3 of a 10-part series of posts entitled, The Mariposa War.
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To read the next post of this series, CLICK THIS LINK.
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War Begins

In May of 1850, the Mariposa War broke out. Chief Tenaya led a party of warriors in an attack against Savage’s trading post. This business operation had been built about 15 miles from the Gold Rush town of Mariposa.

Mariposa means “butterfly,” in Spanish. This area was named “Las Mariposas” by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga in 1806, after the many beautiful, macrolepidoptera he encountered here. Even today, Mariposa holds an annual butterfly festival to commemorate the Monarch butterflies that frequent the Yosemite region.

Mariposa is the southernmost Gold Rush town in California. It’s located at the southern terminus of the mother lode that attracted prospectors the world over, back in the mid-1800s. It’s also known as the mother of counties, but not due to the mother lode.

A mother county is one which has splintered multiple times, forming spin-off counties. Mariposa began as the state’s largest county, encompassing one-fifth of California, and included what are now 11 other spin-off counties. These counties are Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern, and parts of San Benito, Mono, Inyo, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties.

The hostilities with the Indians took place within the confines of this gigantic county, and hence this conflict received the name, Mariposa War.

617 foot high, Bridalveil Falls. Yosemite Valley is famous for its high concentration of waterfalls in a small area. They flow the heaviest during the snowmelt season of April, May, and June. But many dry up during the summer and fall, disappointing visitors during the busiest time of the tourist season. Bridalveil Falls, however, flows year-round.

This war that Tenaya’s attack touched off would determine the fate of King James’ kingdom, as well as that of many tribes in the gold mining country of California’s Sierra Nevadas.

Savage and his subjects successfully repulsed the attack, sending Chief Tenaya into retreat. They then pursued the Ahwahnechees up the Merced River, until they neared Yosemite Valley, which this magnificent river flows through.

Further ahead of Savage, and above the main portion of Yosemite Valley, lies Vernal Falls, a 317 foot waterfall. Vernal Falls is about a half-mile downstream from 594 foot tall, Nevada Falls. Both of these cataracts, and the rapids between them, drop the Merced River from an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, down to about 4,700 feet.

Many historians have said that nobody of European descent had ever laid eyes upon Yosemite Valley before. But some historians disagree. In 1833, a mountain man named Joseph Walker led the first party of Americans to ever cross the Sierra Nevadas, and enter California’s Central Valley. It’s thought that he might have traveled through Tioga Pass on his return trip, and spotted the valley from afar, at Olmstead Point.

If so, then he could not have helped but notice the north side of Half Dome, which is one of the most impressive blocks of granite in the world. Yet Walker made no mention of Half Dome, or of any of the other incredible and memorable features of the Yosemite Valley, in his log of his travels. So it’s debatable that he was the first European to discover it.

Half Dome sports the highest point of geological features immediately surrounding Yosemite Valley, at 8,846 feet. It rises 4,737 feet above the valley floor. Its towering height makes it visible from outside the valley, but only at certain strategic vantages, such as Olmstead Point on Tioga Road, or Half Dome Viewpoint on Big Oak Flat Road.

But now, in May of 1850, King James Savage was on the cusp of making one of the most notable discoveries in the world. Yet it was not to be. As he chased Chief Tenaya’s warriors through the Merced Gorge, his Indian subjects hesitated. They warned him to pursue no further. They explained that the valley they were about to enter offered perfect conditions for setting up an ambush.

The Merced Gorge during a rainstorm. Had Savage traveled just a few miles further up this rugged gorge, he would have first been greeted by the magnificent sights of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls. And possibly the terrifying sight of Chief Tenaya’s warriors, surrounding him in an ambush.

King Savage wisely took their word for it, without seeing the valley for himself. He relented and returned to his trading post. He felt wary about a future attack, though, and decided to abandon this trading post and relocate his business to a safer location at Mariposa Creek, close to the town of Mariposa.

20 replies »

  1. I love butterflies. We have gone to a couple butterfly houses where they can all fly around you. But seeing them in the Yosemite Valley would be even better and seeing BridalVeil Falls! Great pics!
    Smart move of Savage to listen and back off, if he hadn’t that may have been the last that we heard of him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. thanks for the new word – macrolepidoptera.

    Given what I had learned about Savage up to this point, he did not impress me as someone who would take suggestions. So I was pleasantly surprised to read that he did listen to the Indians.

    And some impressive nature out in that part of the country…

    Liked by 2 people

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