The Mariposa War
Chapter 7: Yosemite
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the latest installation of my 10-part series, The Mariposa War. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 8: Chasing Chief Tenaya . Click here to read the last installation. Click here to start at the beginning.