As we celebrate 150 years of protecting Yosemite National Park, we have to look closer at how it became ours in the first place.
The name itself — Yosemite — is a slur. It is a Miwok word that means “Those Who Kill.” Sometimes it’s translated as “Some of Them Are Killers,” and it refers to the Ahwanhee people who’d lived in the valley for centuries before the US government ordered its evacuation and later created a national recreation area under the Yosemite Grant Act. But the people who lived there weren’t killers. They just lived in a valley that our government wanted to use for entertaining dignitaries.
That is the untold story of Yosemite National Park.
The complex Mariposa War was brewing outside of the Ahwahnee Valley. “Ahwahnee” refers to the shape of Yosemite Valley, which was thought to look like a gaping mouth. The valley was well concealed and difficult to access, which kept it fortified to some degree. The relevant part of the Mariposa conflict was complicated because it involved tensions between the Indians and the miners, but it also aggravated tensions between the people in the valley and other tribes in the area. There were Miwok who worked with the miners who clearly had a beef with the Ahwahnee — and those Miwok told the white folks that the Ahwahnee were “Yosemite” — killers.
The US-led Mariposa Battalion discovered glacier-carved Yosemite Valley during a rather complex exchange of hostilities over Gold Rush mining in the area outside the valley. Some of the Ahwahnee people vandalized the gold mines, and the battalion discovered the valley when they went to retaliate.
A lot of the Ahwahnee’s story is lost — at least it is not adequately told. But it is clear that the Americans who found the valley thought it was exquisitely beautiful. They reported their discovery to the US government, and were soon ordered to remove the people from the valley and take possession of the land.
The men from the Mariposa Battalion made great fun of the name Yosemite. It caught on and became a battle cry. The soldiers screamed Yo! Yo-semite!!! as they invaded the valley and removed the people who lived there. The surviving Ahwahnee were relocated to a prisoner of war camp near Fresno.
The Mariposa Battalion reportedly burned villages in the valley and confiscated the Ahwahnee’s food supplies when the army received orders to remove the people living in the valley:
During the fervor of the California Gold Rush in 1851, the valley was slated to be cleared by the United States Army, resulting in a conflict with the tribe. Chief Tenaya put up a resistance and the fight culminated into the Mariposa Wars. The Native Americans eventually relented, were captured, and relocated to a reservation, thus ending the tribal habitation of Yosemite Valley and ushering in the era of the settler.
Detailed accounts of how the Ahwahnee people were relocated are hard to find, although their recalcitrant leader Tenaya, whose namesake is Tenaya Lake, gets some bad press for not wanting to live at the Fresno reservation. He also gets mixed into the war history for fleeing with “his band” to other parts of California. One thing seems likely, though: he eventually surrendered to US forces to save the people who followed him from extermination.
There are several accounts from an interview with a survivor of the Ahwahnee evacuation, Maria Lebrado. Those accounts were not without author bias, though. Mrs. H. J. Taylor writes about her with genuine affection in a series of essays, but the account is more about Mrs. Taylor’s experience of Maria than Maria’s life experience. Historian Carl Parcher Russell cites his interview with her when he writes in One Hundred Years in Yosemite about Major James D. Savage:
In 1928 it was my privilege to interview Maria Lebrado, one of the last members of the Yosemite tribe who experienced subjection by the whites. I eagerly sought ethnological and historical data which was forthcoming in gratifying abundance. Purposely I had avoided questioning the aging squaw about Major Savage; but presently she asked, in jumbled English and Spanish, if I knew about the “Captain” of the white soldiers. She called him ‘Chowwis,’ and described him as a blonde chief whose light hair fell upon his shoulders and whose beard hung halfway to his waist. She has been much impressed by his commanding blue eyes and declared that his shirts were always red. To this member of the mountain tribe of Yosemite the Major was recalled as something of a thorn in her flesh. That he was a beloved leader of the foothill tribes she agreed, but hastened to explain that those Indians, too, were enemies of her people. Maria is the only person I have met who had seen Savage.
From this we get some of the complexity of the conflict, but we also see that Maria’s story is undertold. Her people are called Yosemite — a vicious slur — and she is an aging s#### whose memory was fixed on Major Savage’s long blond hair and commanding blue eyes. “Thorn in her flesh” undersells being torn from her home and held in an internment camp.
History was written by the winners.
One thing is is clear: Yosemite National Park was born from a massive relocation of the people who’d lived in the valley for countless years. When you visit, you can see the grinding stones that remain. The granite is still stained by the fires that cooked their food and kept them warm.
Go there and look. Many of those places are right in the tourist section of the valley. Go with your eyes open.
At the Visitor’s Center, the history begins with, “After the valley was evacuated…” There isn’t a lot about what happened to the original people living there, but if you go to the bookstore attached to the center, you can find bits and snatches about this park’s hostile origins.