The Mariposa War, Chapter 7: Yosemite

This is Part 7 of a 10-part series of posts entitled, The Mariposa War.
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Chief Tenaya met with Savage the next day and accepted the terms of the treaty. He also told the major that his tribe would soon be arriving at Wawona, to surrender. But after a few days of waiting, the tribe still hadn’t arrived. So on March 27th, Major Savage set out for the Yosemite Valley, to find them.

About halfway there, he encountered 72 Ahwahnechees, mostly consisting of women and children. Their chief told him that the rest of the Ahwahnechees had fled east to Mono Lake. Savage didn’t believe him, so he continued on, arriving at his destination in the late afternoon.

The view that met Major James Savage and his detachment, on this March 27, 1851, marked the first time that European-Americans were known to have laid eyes upon this, one of the most dazzling and celebrated landscapes in the world. The Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View, at the west end of the valley. This is where Savage and his men could have first caught sight of this eye-popping fastness that harbored Chief Tenaya’s tribe.

They had only arrived at the rim of the valley, but no doubt they were stunned by the monstrous granite escarpments, meltwater plunging down waterfalls, and broad, green meadows that characterized the seven-square miles of heaven lying below them. But they had arrived with a purpose, to search out Indians, and had no time to take extensive notes detailing the beauty they beheld. They only described it as an Indian stronghold.

The wild, torn terrain of Cathedral Rocks, around Bridalveil Falls, exemplifies the formidable challenge Savage faced, trying to locate fugitive Indians in the Yosemite Valley.

Savage and his expedition entered the valley the next morning. They encountered smoldering campfires that had recently been deserted. But they found no natives within the valley. They then explored branches of the valley, but again came up empty-handed, with the exception of one elderly Indian woman.

Tenaya Canyon allows escape out of Yosemite Valley, for those who know the terrain.
Dr. Lafayette Bunnell

While this was going on, they began naming the prominent geological features that surrounded them. One member of the expedition, who was instrumental in dreaming up many of the names, was a doctor named Lafayette Bunnell. Dr. Bunnell had come to California a few years earlier, in search for gold. Shortly after he arrived it’s likely he caught a glimpse of Half Dome. He recorded this sighting in his book, Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 Which Led to That Event, as follows:

During the winter of 1849–50, while ascending the old Bear Valley trail from Ridley’s ferry, on the Merced river, my attention was attracted to the stupendous rocky peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. In the distance an immense cliff loomed, apparently to the summit of the mountains. Although familiar with nature in her wildest moods, I looked upon this awe-inspiring column with wonder and admiration. … Whenever an opportunity afforded, I made inquiries concerning the scenery of that locality. But few of the miners had noticed any of its special peculiarities.

Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, from his book, Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 Which Led to That Event.

Dr. Bunnell suggested that the valley itself be named Yosemite, which was what they called the Ahwahnechees. A vote was taken, and it was agreed.

The east end of Yosemite Valley, from Glacier Point. Indian Canyon is at the far left, and North Dome and Basket Dome are at the top middle, with the Royal Arches below North Dome. Tenaya Canyon proceeds up the right, between North Dome and the slopes of Half Dome.

33 replies »

  1. Looking at historical accounts of the Sierras, it becomes clear that what awed most of the people who documented the range wasn’t the beauty of the place. Indeed, photos often proudly depict epic destruction. The new White settlers were awed not so much by beauty as by the degree of material wealth exploitable from forests, watersheds and mineral deposits. There was often great pride shown in photos of the lumbermen, miners and engineers as they stood upon what were essentially ruins… felled monster Sequoias and redwoods and logging trains through stripped forests, flumes and water monitors washing away the mountainsides, and dammed and diverted rivers and lakes. It was magnificent in terms of its usefulness to “civilization”.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think that was the prevailing attitude back then, and unfortunately, much was lost as a result. It’s a good thing not everyone thought that way, or Yosemite and what remained of the Sequoias would have never been preserved.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. The place looks and sounds stupendous. I know a place can be marred by what the white settlers think the place has to offer, and they take but I hope it’s not soon to be marred by a great loss of blood too.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Unfortunately, there already has been some bloodshed. And apart from this war, the Indians of California were targeted for genocide. At one time, the State of California paid a bounty for Indian scalps. Many Indians were legally murdered over the first 10 or 15 years of statehood.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Sadly, a good friend has a two-inch thick book filled with literally hundreds of documented cases of Native deaths in California at the hands of White settlers or government militias sent in to “pacify” the indigenous populations. Some of them document one or two deaths, some very large groups. The local history on this side of the Sierras isn’t much better. I don’t have any wishful images of the “noble savage”, but it’s pretty clear that most (though not all) of the Whites who migrated onto the lands considered themselves well superior to the people and the cultures they encountered here. Fremont wrote about shooting the first few Paiute whom they encountered from each of the local tribes, merely to make the point that they could kill them at a distance. Even John Muir didn’t have much regard for them.

        Liked by 3 people

        • So sad! Frustrating how we can think of ourselves being so much better than others.
          That doesn’t paint a good light on John Muir. Like Tippy said, kind of tarnishes my image of him now.

          Liked by 3 people

          • Wish I could tell you which books… not among his popularized publications, and I read them back in high school. But I was surprised at his portrayals, particularly of the Paiute whom he characterized as thieves and pests, though he didn’t advocate for their murders. To be fair, there were (and remain) criticisms of Native American culture from within. In particular with regard to local history, Sarah Winnemucca leveled much criticism upon her own tribe (particularly the men). And depending upon the individual, I know local Washoe who view the history of the White-run tribal school as either an example of being offered an opportunity, or merely as genocide.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Sounds about right. I think it’s inaccurate to paint Indians, or any other ethnic group, with a broad brush. To paint them all as noble savages, or as thieves and pests, is inaccurate on both counts. Each Indian develops their own character in their own way, just like the rest of us.

              Liked by 2 people

  3. Its sad that they were so intent on destroying the Indians that they couldn’t appreciate the beauty that surrounded them!
    At least Dr. Bunnell was smarter!
    I didn’t realize Yosemite was named after the Indians. You are a fountain of interesting history.

    Liked by 3 people

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