Category: History

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.

The Mariposa War, Chapter 6: The Treaty Strategy

This is Part 6 of a 10-part series of posts entitled, The Mariposa War.
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The Treaty Strategy

On January 17, 1851, Savage and Burney’s expedition encountered a village of 500 Indians from various tribes, including Ahwahnechee, Chookchancies, Chowchillas, Honahchee, Kahwah, Nootchu, and Potoencie. They managed to avoid detection, and this allowed them to employ the element of surprise. They spent the night planning an attack, and the next morning put the plan into action.

The settlers charged the village, set fire to shelters, and then gunned down Indians as they attempted to fight back or escape. But maybe they should have gotten some sleep before they made this attack plan, because the fires they set to the shelters proved something of a miscalculation. The smoke gave most of the Indians enough cover to escape unharmed. However 24 of them were killed. There was no loss of life for their white attackers.

The expedition might have pursued the escaping Indians, but the fires they set in the village got out of control and ignited the surrounding forest. This conflagration forced them to retreat back to Mariposa.

Hetch Hetchy is a valley along the Tuolumne River, that lies about 17 miles northwest of Yosemite Valley. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, this valley became a major battleground between environmentalists, led by John Muir, against the government. San Francisco wanted to damn Hetch Hetchy, and use it as a water source. But Muir considered this valley to be as beautiful as Yosemite Valley, and fought back.

By February, a federal force and a state militia got involved in the hostilities. Their strategy was laid out by a Colonel J. Neely Johnson. Johnson took charge. He gathered the forces together and instructed them that their objective was to induce as many tribes as possible to sign a treaty to live on a reservation. Those tribes not agreeing to sign such a treaty would be subdued by force.

He also reminded everyone that they were trespassers on Indian lands, and that because of this it was imperative to be as sympathetic as possible to the foe they were about to fight.

Wapama Falls. Hetch Hetchy is part of Yosemite National Park, so an act of Congress was required to construct a damn. Muir battled hard against it, but lost in 1913 when Congress passed, and President Wilson signed, the Raker Act. John Muir considered this his biggest disappointment in his life, and wrote to a friend, “. . . it’s hard to bear. The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart.” Muir died one year later, at age 76.

Treaty councils began in March, and by the end of the month more than 16 tribes had signed agreements with the federal government. These treaties promised them reservation land along the San Joaquin River, in California’s very fertile San Joaquin Valley. By the time all was said and done, more than 8 million acres of land was promised to various tribes, along with substantial monetary aid for establishing farms and ranches. And they were promised that they would retain hunting and gathering rights in their traditional homelands.

In 1923, the O’Shaughnessy Damn was completed, and this beautiful gem of a valley was flooded. Today, Hetch Hetchy supplies San Francisco with 80% of its water.

Meanwhile former king, James Savage, was commissioned as a Major, to lead an expedition against those tribes that refused to sign a treaty. His Mariposa Battalion marched to the Wawona area, about a dozen miles south of Yosemite Valley. On March 24, 1851, they encountered a Nootchus village, and forced their surrender. Major Savage then sent an Indian runner to Chief Tenaya of the Ahwahnechees (aka Yosemites), offering a treaty, and explaining the treaty’s guarantees.

Artist Albert Bierstadt’s version of Hetch Hetchy Valley, as it appeared in 1870. Before the damn.

The Mariposa War, Chapter 5: War Council

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War Council

King James called for a council of tribal leaders at his Mariposa Creek trading post. Then, mustering all his charisma, diplomatic skills, and fluency with their language, he revealed that he knew of their plans to drive out the white settlers, mining in the foothills.

He begged them to abandon these plans, arguing that there were too many white men to fight, and that the white man possessed too much firepower. He warned that they would be wiped out if they made war.

After this speech, he invited Chief Juarez to confirm what he had just said, by telling the leaders what he had witnessed of the white man’s strength while visiting San Francisco. But he didn’t realize that Juarez’ pride was still stinging from being slapped around by his king.

Chief Juarez stepped up and delivered these words:

Our brother has told his Indian relatives much that is true. We have seen many white people. The white men are very numerous. But they are white men of many tribes. They are not like the tribe that digs gold in the mountains. They will not help the gold diggers if the Indians make war against them. The white tribe will not go to war with the Indians in the mountains. They cannot bring their big ships and their big guns to us. We have no reason to fear them. They will not injure us.

Savage realized his miscalculation, and desperately launched a counterargument. But it was no use. The natives were determined to fight. Soon all of Savage’s subjects disappeared from his trading post, to join their tribe in the war effort. The king had lost his kingdom, and would reign no more over the Tularenos.

Cathedral Rocks, East. Cathedral Rocks guard Bridalveil Falls on the east and west. They tower 2,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, and are considered by some to be more beautiful than El Capitan.

It’s human nature for both sides to exaggerate in political arguments, while the truth is located somewhere in the middle. Savage had argued that if they went to war, they would be wiped out by the white man. Chief Juarez had argued that the white tribe in San Francisco would not go to war against the Indians in the mountains. But neither argument was completely accurate, nor completely inaccurate.

Cathedral Rocks, West. The high rock at the left, that appears to be falling into the valley, is known as Leaning Tower. It’s popular with rock climbers, and is a 700-foot, 3-day climb.

The Indians committed the first massacre, killing three men at Savage’s Mariposa Creek trading post. The sheriff of Mariposa, James Burney, responded by organizing an expedition against the Indians, led by the former king, as their guide.

On January 11, 1851, this expedition located a force of 400 Indians on the side of a mountain, near present-day Oakhurst, California. But they lost the element of surprise, and the Indians overpowered them with their arrows and bullets. The expedition retreated, but then Burney rallied his men and launched a counterattack that forced the Indians to scatter.

Burney’s men managed to eke out a small victory, with only two of his troops killed, and four wounded. Meanwhile, about 40 Indians had been killed.

The expedition returned to Mariposa, where a request was sent for state and federal aid. But the citizens of Mariposa were impatient, so while they waited for help, Savage and Burney recruited a force of 164 miners and settlers to hunt down and attack renegade Indians.

Cathedral Rocks, East, during tempestuous weather. Yosemite Valley experiences mild winters, while its surrounding peaks bear the brunt of storms. The valley floor averages 36 inches of rain per year, while higher elevations average 50 inches. On the valley floor, the average January high is 47F, and the average July high is 90F.

The Mariposa War, Chapter 4: Slapped By a King

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Slapped By a King

Peace prevailed over his kingdom, and it seemed to Savage as if he could relax, settle down, and continue making a ton of money off the Gold Rush. But in the fall of 1850, one of the king’s wives shattered his fool’s paradise with a terrifying warning. She informed him that a great Indian uprising was being planned, led by Chief Tenaya.

Tenaya had formed an alliance with other tribes in the region, and was conspiring with them to drive the white man out of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. They resented the encroachment of these white invaders who sought gold, and wanted to take back their territory for themselves.

Apparently, the Mariposa War had only been in a lull.

Glacier Point is a popular viewpoint that forms part of the south wall of Yosemite Valley. It rises to an elevation of 7,214 feet, and 3,200 feet above the valley. About a million years ago, glacial ice overtopped this block of granite by about 400 feet.

King Savage wanted to avoid any more war. It was bad for business. He also feared that his own tribe would ally itself with Chief Tenaya. So he decided to take the Tulareno’s chief, Jose Juarez, on a field trip. They traveled to the city of San Francisco, which Chief Juarez had never seen before. He wanted to impress upon him just how futile it was to wage war upon the white man.

He led the chief to military installations, and pointed out all the ships, cannons, ammunition, and soldiers that were at the white man’s disposal. He pointed out the large population in this great city. And he tried to explain that to wage war on all these people, with all their weaponry, would be an act of suicide.

View of Yosemite Valley and beyond, from atop Glacier Point. Yosemite Falls is at the far left, and Mt. Hoffman, North Dome, and the Royal Arches are at the far right. Yosemite National Park is located in California’s central Sierra Nevadas. It covers 1,189 square miles, and is roughly the size of Rhode Island. It ranges in elevation from 2,127 to 13,114 feet. Yosemite Village, near the highest section of Yosemite Valley, resides at 3,999 feet.

But Chief Juarez was not much interested in these things. Instead, that pervasive poison that has brought down many a human being, both red and white, and all other colors, took hold of the chief. He found firewater, got drunk as a skunk, and remained so throughout most of this tour.

This left Savage seething. One day he got into a heated argument with the chief, over his drunkenness, and in his frustration he lost his temper. He slapped the chief around, to try to knock some sense into him. But this backfired. It left the proud chief feeling humiliated, and it was a humiliation he would not forget.

Half Dome from Glacier Point. This dome is actually a narrow granite ridge, and its name results from an optical illusion. Glaciers sliced away only about 10% to 20% of its northwest-facing side, so it might be better labeled “90% Dome.”

They stayed in Frisco long enough to celebrate California’s recent admission into the Union, and then returned to Savage’s Mariposa Creek trading post. But on the way home, news reached Savage of increasing tensions and hostilities throughout his kingdom.

Some Indians were requiring immigrants to pay them for passage through their territory. Others had apparently murdered a white man. And a rumor reached Savage of a massing of warriors. Savage knew he had to act quick, before hostilities boiled over.

Half Dome after a Spring snowstorm. Yosemite has a few small glaciers remaining from the last Ice Age, but they’re rapidly disappearing, due to climate change.

The Mariposa War, Chapter 3: War Begins

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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.

The Mariposa War, Chapter 2: El Rey Tulareno

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El Rey Tulareno

Life with the Tularenos was working out well. Only a few months after being accepted by their tribe, James Savage once again became a family man. And then twice again and more so. That’s because he managed to marry several daughters of tribal leaders. And this won him political clout among the Tularenos. In fact, many of the Indians began calling him El Rey Huero, or The Blonde King.

But Savage would have none of this name. Instead, he brazenly instructed them to call him, El Rey Tulareno, which meant, King of the Tularenos. And they obediently complied. And this is how John Savage, recent immigrant from Illinois, became a king in California.

El Capitan is a loose translation of the Miwok word “Totokanula,” which means “Chief.” It attracts climbers from all over the world, over 30 of whom have fallen to their deaths since 1905. The Dawn Wall, subject of an eponymous 2017 documentary, is partially covered by the right branch in the foreground. Before the documentary, it was considered impossible to free-climb.

Now it was time for conquest. He organized his new subjects into an army, and waged war on neighboring tribes. The Tularenos fought bravely, and met with victory after victory, carving out a larger and larger kingdom for King James Savage.

In March of 1848, news broke that gold had been discovered in the nearby Sierra Nevadas. This was local news, for the time being, but King Savage realized he had to act quickly before word got out and the whole world descended upon his kingdom. Soon he staked some claims on the Tuolumne River, and organized 500 of his Indian subjects to work his placer mines. Then he established a trading post, to take advantage of newly arriving miners stricken with gold fever.

The Tuolumne River (pronounced Tu-ALL-uh-mee), where King Savage made a fortune in gold, with the help of his subjects.

His subjects found gold for him, and between the lucrative trading post, and all the gold the Indians dredged up, King James became a very wealthy man. In return, he rewarded his subjects with whiskey, beads, blankets, and other inexpensive items that sparked their fancy.

However, all successful kings and conquerors eventually meet their match, which was a lesson James Savage soon learned. Although he was rich, he wanted more, so he decided to expand his kingdom and his operations by establishing a trading post to the south, on the Merced River. But there was a problem with this. He hadn’t counted on the Ahwahnechees.

The Merced River, named by Spanish explorers after Our Lady of Mercy. Its headwaters are in the high Sierras, and it’s the main watercourse that drains Yosemite Valley. It eventually empties into the San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley. This waterway was one of the southernmost rivers in North America to host chinook salmon, until dams blocked their migration in the late-19th century.

The Ahwahnechees were a mixed tribe of 200 Monos, Paiutes, Miwoks, and other local Indians, who had recently settled on the Merced River, about 25 miles upstream of Savage’s new trading post. In fact, they had settled in Yosemite Valley itself. Their name for the valley was, “Ahwahnee,” which means, “Big Mouth.”

But the white man, as well as neighboring tribes, called the Ahwahnechees, the “Yosemites,” which is a corruption of the word, “Uzumati.” This is a Miwok term meaning, “they are killers.” These “killers” were led by Chief Tenaya, and he saw the new trading post downstream from his valley as an encroachment upon his tribe’s territory.

North Dome and the Washington Column guard the entrance to Tenaya Canyon. Exfoliation, not glaciers, created the rounded granite domes commonly found in Yosemite National Park. Water freezing in cracks, expands the granite, forcing it to break off. As it exfoliates and slides away, it scours the surface of the underlying rock, filing it down at the edges and thus rounding it into a dome shape over millions of years.

The Mariposa War, Chapter 1: The Widower

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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.

Harrison Colds

Painting of William Henry Harrison, also known as “Old Tippecanoe.” Hmm, that name sounds familiar.

On this day in history, 180 years ago, the greatest president our country has ever had, died in office. William Henry Harrison (aka “Old Tippecanoe”) was our 9th president, and our first to perish before completing his elected term.

I believe he was our greatest president because he only served in office for one month, so he had no time to get anything accomplished. Thus, he left our country alone, and didn’t mess anything up.

I have the highest admiration for anyone who fails to accomplish anything significant. And so I regard President Tippecanoe as an exemplum, a role model, that I encourage everyone to follow. I say, be like Old Tippecanoe and you won’t mess with anyone’s lives, and you can die peacefully, having been harmless to our world.

I rate the severity of common colds on a scale of 1 to 10. But there’s another designation, that goes off the charts. I call them Harrison colds. President Harrison caught a cold on March 26th, 1841, and died nine days later, on April 4th. That’s one whopper of a cold.

It’s a popular myth that Harrison caught his deadly cold on his Inauguration Day. No, all he caught was hell from his audience, for giving a long speech during foul weather. He delivered the longest inaugural address in American history. It took him nearly two hours, heroically standing in a cold rain without an overcoat or hat, to tell the American people about all the things he planned to do as president.

He didn’t catch a cold from this, as one might expect, and as many have assumed. But it does illustrate his intentions to screw around with everyone. I think his untimely death saved his soul.

After assuming office, he met with throngs of White House visitors, to the point where he complained in a letter dated March 10th, “I am so much harassed by the multitude that call upon me that I can give no proper attention to any business of my own.” Perhaps this is another reason he didn’t accomplish anything. He was too busy schmoozing with the public, to attend to matters of the nation.

He also called Congress into a special session, to deal with a problem he couldn’t handle himself. The federal government was running out of money, and he hadn’t the slightest clue what to do about it. I guess the concept of borrowing against future generations hadn’t been invented yet.

Calling this special session is considered to be his only official act of consequence. He made the call on March 17th, 9 days before catching his cold, but the special session wasn’t scheduled to begin until May 31st, nearly two months after he died. So I give Harrison the benefit of the doubt, and don’t count this as an accomplishment.

On March 26th he caught his deadly cold. I’ll bet he contracted it from one of his unwanted guests. And the fucking intruder probably wasn’t wearing a face mask, or practicing social distancing. May his soul be condemned to rot in hell forever!

This cold was a doozy. It rapidly progressed into pneumonia and pleurisy. Our sniffling, sniveling, snotty president sought a nice, quiet place to rest and recover, but his many visitors rudely occupied all available space in the White House.

Then his doctors made his condition worse by prescribing unhelpful and dangerous treatments such as opium, castor oil, leeches, and snakeweed (a tranquilizing herb). He went over the edge and died on April 4th, 1841, having accomplished absolutely nothing of consequence, with or without his cold.

Except one thing. His death sparked a brief constitutional crisis over the title of his successor, Vice-President John Tyler.

Many politicians, including Tyler’s own Cabinet, thought he should be called “Vice-President acting President.” Tyler would have none of it, and insisted upon being called “President.” He won. Tyler was a forceful asshole, and didn’t take shit from anyone. Perhaps that’s how he was able to complete his predecessor’s term of office without catching a Harrison cold.

Too bad for Tyler. He learned nothing from the man he succeeded.

Chapter 13: Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

The forecast had called for mild, clement weather, with temperatures in the 70’s for the Amargosa Valley. But then a strong, Mojave breeze seized the region. The November wind was howling nearly gale force when I arrived at Ash Meadows. It would continue this way all day, and the temperature would never rise above 67.

But I wasn’t going to let that deter me. I surveyed the blowing dust ahead, steeled my determination, and pressed the gas. Within a hundred yards, my car left the pavement and vibrated over a dirt road, toward the Visitors Center about a mile away.

It’s a national wildlife refuge, not a national park (except the 40 acres around Devils Hole), so I didn’t expect amenities like paved roads, food kiosks, or public transportation. Nor did I want those things. They attract crowds, and I hate crowds when I’m trying to enjoy nature.

Although it’s a wildlife “refuge,” hunting is allowed, ironically. At Ash Meadows you can deploy a shotgun and bird dog to bag quail, geese, ducks, coots, moorhen, snipe, dove, cottontail, jackrabbits, and jackalopes. But at least no fishing is allowed, so the fish have a true refuge here, safe from humans.

The Visitors Center surprised me. It was a huge, modern building, and promised things like maps, souvenir shopping, and public restrooms. But it was closed, due to Covid. But that was okay, because I had procured a map at a rack near the entrance. And I have little use for souvenirs.

Behind the Visitors Center was a boardwalk, leading toward a patch of green in the distance. The wind flung my hat off, and I had to chase it down. I waved a white flag of surrender to the breeze and walked my hat back to my car for safekeeping. Then off to the boardwalk I returned, struggling against the near-gale, with bald pate exposed to the skin-cancerous sun.

The Visitors Center in the distance, with the boardwalk and alkali meadow in the foreground.

This was the Crystal Spring hike. A 0.9 mile loop, according to the sign. During the first of this walk I was surrounded by a low-shrubbed, beige desert, sprinkled with salt. An informational sign revealed that this was a rare alkali meadow, due to the presence of salts. As such, it was a unique kind of meadow that harbored rare plants.

It’s one of the starkest sort of landscapes you might ever witness. Takes a bit of getting used to, to find the beauty in it. But it’s there. After all, how often do you see a white-covered landscape, where the white is salt, and not snow?

Beyond the alkali meadow lies Crystal Spring. According to the informational sign, the bottom of the spring is 15 feet deep, and every minute, 2,800 gallons of fresh water flows into this spring from the earth below. It comes from limestone bedrock, that has been collecting water for thousands of years, in an aquifer. “Fossil water,” they call it, due to its age. The water is 87 degrees, year-round. The Amargosa pupfish swims in this water, having evolved and adapted to the unusually warm temperature.

Crystal Spring.

There were informational signs at every one of the three featured hikes at this refuge, by the way. The signs were well-maintained and educated the visitor about this unusual environ. All three hikes are short boardwalk strolls, and make for easy walking. And the boardwalks were in good repair. In fact I was impressed with how well-maintained I found nearly everything at Ash Meadows. And there were pit-toilet style restrooms available at every trailhead (Except the Visitors Center, which likely has more modern restrooms. However, like I said, it was closed).

Crystal Spring overflows into a creek that eventually trickles into the Crystal Reservoir. This is a man-made reservoir, constructed by farmers back in the 1960s. It makes for a surprisingly large lake that visitors are allowed to swim, and even boat on. But today there were no boats, due to the high winds and swollen waves sweeping over the water’s surface.

Crystal Reservoir.

I made it back to my car without blowing away, and proceeded to Devils Hole. This was a 3.6 mile drive from the Visitors Center, over a fairly bumpy dirt road. Devils Hole is both impressive and a letdown. It’s a short, five-minute walk from where you park, but you can’t go down into the hole itself and get close to the water.

The water is where the famous and extremely rare Devils Hole pupfish reside. Tourists can’t be trusted to get near that water, or who knows what foreign objects they might throw in there, that would disturb the fish. So you are relegated to an observation platform, high above and away from the Devils Hole opening, with a cage-like structure that prevents any tossing of anything into the home of the pupfish.

Devils Hole, through the cage. Notice the devil horns that form the top of the pool of water?

You can’t see any pupfish from that distance, unless maybe with binoculars. Which I did not bring. Nor can you hear them barking, if indeed pupfish bark. But I did feel amazed, knowing I was staring at a hole in the ground that had been there for 60,000 years, and where one of the world’s rarest fish evolved. How that resilient fish managed to stick it out in this confined, isolated hole in the ground for this long, is truly one of the wonders of this world.

My next stop was a four-mile drive to Point of Rocks. This is a 2/3 mile boardwalk hike that leads to Kings Pool. Kings Pool is another warm, artesian spring. In ancient times, natives believed this body of water possessed special powers, and they gathered here for celebrations and other solemn occasions.

The waters of Kings Pool are crystal clear, with a hint of turquoise. The contrast of this pool, against the surrounding barren desert, is stark. Like Crystal Pool, Kings Pool overflows into a stream that meanders away toward Carson Slough.

The turquoise waters of Kings Pool are thought to possess special powers.

I could tell just by casual observation that one hell of a lot of restoration work had been completed at Ash Meadows, over the past 36 years that it has been a national wildlife refuge. But much more work remains. The Carson Slough is still mostly straight, due to the modifications made by Spring Meadows, Inc. Restoring it to its former, windy, twisty watercourse where it can create the kind of swampland that once attracted large flocks of migratory birds, remains a project for the future.

If such restoration was left to nature, it would take many thousands of years. The human hand destroyed this watercourse, so the human hand must be employed to bring it back to its former self in any of our lifetimes.

But there was one restoration project that had been completed, that I wanted to see next. And that was Jack Longstreet’s restored cabin. It had been destroyed by a flash flood in 1984. But fortunately, there were enough extant photos of it that it was able to be restored, in 2006, to look very much like Longstreet’s original design.

The drive to his cabin and Longstreet Spring was 3.4 miles, one-way, from the Visitors Center. The road was bumpy and I dared not damage the suspension of my precious car by driving faster than 10 to 15 miles per hour, even though the speed limit sign allowed 35 mph.

I parked at the trailhead, and only had to walk about 3 minutes to reach the cabin and spring. Visitors can step inside and get the same view through the door and windows that ol’ Jack must have enjoyed more than a century ago.

A view of the Funeral Mountains, that Jack Longstreet enjoyed, through his cabin window.

One bonus to my excursion this day, was that there was hardly anybody else at Ash Meadows. This must have been due to a number of factors including: Hardly anybody knows about this wildlife refuge; it was the middle of the week; the wind was blowing hard as a cheap whore; and Covid. I met nobody on the trails, and only passed by three vehicles on the dirt roads, the entire time I was there.

I spent about six hours at Ash Meadows, enjoying the hikes and scenery, in spite of the powerful, cool wind. Once I exited and found paved road, the drive back to Longstreet Casino was an easy 10 minutes. But by the time I got back I had a splitting headache, probably from the effects of both the wind, and my frickin’ heart rhythm going out of whack, due to all my physical activity.

But it was worth it. I love nature, and I’ve fallen in love with Ash Meadows. I only hope this beautiful jewel of the desert will soon be completely restored to all of its former glory.

The migratory birds are anxiously waiting.

This has been the final installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Thanks for reading! Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

Chapter 12: New City

In 1980, Spring Meadows, Inc sold their water rights and land in Ash Meadows to Preferred Equities, Inc (PEI). The good news about this was that PEI planned to put a stop to all the agriculture that had so extensively damaged this wetland. But the bad news came when PEI announced a development project, called New City. The plan was to build a small city on top of Ash Meadows.

Environmentalists were aghast. This was the largest oasis in the Mojave Desert, and now it was going to be destroyed completely. They immediately established a Nature Conservancy, and fought back to preserve Ash Meadows, so it could be restored to its natural state.

But the executives of PEI seemed determined. They launched a public relations campaign, promoting the proposed development. They spelled out all the practical reasons why this New City would be so beneficial to the Amargosa Valley.

Why, it would bring good-paying jobs to the area. And they pointed out that where water is, life is. It would be a retirement community, where folks who had worked hard all their lives could live the good life, until the end of their lives, in a desert paradise with a warm, sunny climate.

There would be houses, golf courses, shopping centers, paved streets, and sidewalks for exercising the legs. Every house would have a well-watered, beautiful green lawn. And there would be enough water for swimming pools in every backyard, and an artificial lake for fishing and boating.

The vision of PEI was similar to the vision of those who transformed California’s arid Coachella Valley into the verdant country club cities of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert.

Their vision of New City gave little consideration to all the many unique species of plants and animals at Ash Meadows, that would very likely go extinct. Because that would be impractical. The practical thing was what all that water could do for human beans.

But the newly-established Nature Conservancy pushed back. They pressed the government to stop the development. And a legal war ensued.

PEI began its tractor work, in spite of the public outcry. They sent in bulldozers, and managed to clear some of the land for new roads and buildings. But that was about as far as they got. As the legal battles heated up, further development was halted.

Finally a reprieve came for all the wildlife in Ash Meadows, and all the people who love nature. In 1984, the U.S. government negotiated the purchase of Ash Meadows from PEI. It was to become a national wildlife refuge.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the final installation, entitled, Chapter 13: Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.


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