June 20, 2012





Yosemite is the penultimate stop in our Great Circle of National Parks grand tour that we began on August 4, 2010.  It is fitting that our closing fireworks takes place where the National Park story begins.  And for that story we can thank Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, for their book has been our sourcebook.


Yosemite’s story really begins with Dr. Lafayette Bunnell in one of the earliest expeditions (1851) into this then all but unknown valley.  He was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he named the valley.  Wrongly, it turns out.  In his ignorance of the Native American Indians who lived here, he mistakenly named it Yosemite Valley.  Turns out that Yosemite translates as “Killers” . . . “People who should be feared.”  It should have been called “Ahwahnee Valley,” so named by the  Ahwahnee Indians who referred to themselves as the “Ahwahneechies.”  Translated, “Ahwahnee” means “The Place of the Gaping Mouth” (Duncan and Burns, p. 2).


Word spread, and photographers (the profession then in its infancy) and artists such as that great romantic landscapist, Albert Bierstadt (who came here and painted such magnificent canvasses in 1862 that he was paid a then unheard of $25,000 for one of his Yosemite paintings) packed into the valley to see if it was all legend attributed to it.


In 1864, John Conners (junior senator from the very young state of California) did an almost unbelievable thing: In the midst of the bloodiest war in American history (with more casualties than in all the rest of America’s wars combined) Conners stood up on May 17, 1864 in the Senate Chamber and introduced a bill to preserve this little-known valley.  A proposal that was unprecedented in human history: to “set aside a large tract (some 60 square miles) of natural scenery for the future enjoyment of everyone.”  The bill included both Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees (Sequoia).  The concept for the bill had originated with Captain Israel Ward Raymond.  Such a proposal seemingly made little sense in light of Americans’ well-known propensity to trash all itsnatural wonders.  They’d already all but ruined Niagara Falls with cheap commercialism.  Almost unbelievably—no small thanks to Conners’ assurance that the land was completely worthless and wouldn’t cost the country a dime—, the bill sailed through; and on June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln “signed a law to preserve forever a beautiful valley and a grove of trees that he had never seen thousands of miles away.” (This section, Duncan and Burns, 8-13).


Unwisely, it turns out, the bill mandated turning the park over to the State of California to administer, which resulted in half a century of fierce and unrelenting warfare between the forces of those who sought to preserve the park in its pristine state and those who sought to commercialize it, log it, mine it, and do all they could to destroy it.  It proved to be one of the bitterest wars the West has ever known (matched only by the battle to preserve the Grand Canyon of the Colorado).


The unenviable job of actually protecting the park fell on the shoulders of 52-year-old Galen Clark, who’d proved himself to be a failure at most everything else he’d ever tried to do.  California appointed him the first guardian of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove for the munificent figure of $500 a year.   Out of that, he was to pay all his living expenses, maintain all roads and bridges, supervise all those who set up businesses, hotels, etc., and, not incidentally, prevent the tourists from destroying the park!  An almost impossible challenge.  Even at that, the State of California withheld his wages for four years!  Just as bad, there was the self-appointed ruler of the park, James Mason Hutchins (a man who’d done much to publicize the park).  Hutchins had no intention of surrendering authority over the park to Clark or the State.  In fact, Hutchins decided to construct a sawmill in the park and wasn’t about to be stopped by anyone!  But he needed a reliable man to construct the sawmill and run it.


Enter a wandering sheepherder from Scotland.  Born in Dunbar, Scotland, and growing up in Wisconsin, he was raised by a harsh tyrannical father, an itinerant Presbyterian minister, who forced his son to memorize the Bible—and beat him repeatedly to keep him at it.  After escaping from his father, uncertain as to his future, he walked a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico, then came west. Seeking the wildest place he could find, he was steered into sheepherding in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  And so it came to pass that, in the fall of 1869, this 31-year-old walked into the Yosemite Valley to apply for the job of sawmill builder and manager.


His name was John Muir (Duncan and Burns, 15-17).




Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting information. I have visited this park a number of times, and I marvel at its incredible beauties. I am so happy that legislation was enacted in 1864 to preserve this magnificent park.

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