Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
This is a view of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park, in California.

Native History: Yosemite National Park Created on Native Homelands

Christina Rose

This Date in Native History: On October 1, 1890, Congress set aside 1,500 square miles to create the first national park—Yosemite National Park—in the United States. While many celebrated the preservation of such a poetically beautiful landscape, known for it’s soaring granite cliffs and many cascading waterfalls, the joy may have come too late for the Ahwaheechee who once called Yosemite home.

There may be no sadder tale to tell than that of the greedy hordes who came to California in search of gold. Gold miners, settlers, and U.S. troops destroyed the lives of more than 120,000 people and confiscated their homelands for.

The legacy of the miners lives on in undrinkable and unfishable waters, in leaking mercury that will continue unabated for 3,000 years, in the quiet dignity of those who had already suffered at the hands of the Spanish Missionaries and miraculously survived. However, extermination and slavery came to California again through the gold rush.

In 1850, the Natives of Yosemite were beginning to resist the massive influx of miners whose activities made it difficult to maintain the lives they had led for thousands of years.

A miner by the name of James D. Savage tried to maintain his personal peace and safety by marrying a woman from each of the 12 neighboring tribes. But he was no friend to the tribes. Known to receive foods for the Natives from the U.S. government, he would sell the food to miners. He was also known to cheat Natives who brought gold to sell, offering a pound of sugar for a pound of gold. When his duplicitous nature was revealed, his wives were taken back by their people and tensions increased.

As other traders saw their stores burned, Savage became fearful and joined the Mariposa Battalion, a force of over 200 men sent to remove the Natives from their homelands.

As Major Savage, he led the “ruthless campaign” which only lasted a year, but after the capture of Chief Teneya, the Yosemite Natives were forced to leave their mountains for a reservation on the flat plains of the San Joaquin River. For more than a decade, California’s miners wreaked a barroom brawl of wanton slaughter, rape, torture, and starvation of Native people, all of which was condoned by the outer communities.

Tales of cheating Natives out gold were numerous. If a Native found a strike, he would be forcibly removed by the miners. “We told ‘em the gold was stuff to whitewash houses with, and give ‘em a handkerchief for a tin-cup full,” a white woman recalled of the first Gold Rush in 1848.

By 1852, the situation was completely out of control, and even after Savage tried to speak up to protect the Natives already relocated to reservations, he was unable to stop a competing trader, Walter Harvey, from killing and or wounding 27—that was just the beginning.

This is not what the harbor looked like prior to the Gold Rush.

In 1860, a man named Captain Jarboe killed 300 Achomawi in the most brutal attacks imaginable on men, women, children and babies, and then demanded payment from the government, some of which he received.

Newspaper clippings from a single week in 1861 expose genocide in full throttle.

On February 4, 1861, The Sacramento Daily Union ran the headline, “Indenturing Indians—A Nice System of Slavery.” It was actually a letter from a well-meaning citizen who said these Indians had surrendered and been trained for work by the government. Yet, the court allowed local farmers to take them as farm workers, simply because they could. The lack of humanity is seen even in the names of the Natives listed by the court, including Jackass and Number Two. At least half of them where between 12 and 20 years old and their sentence servants was 35 years.

On February 7, 1861, a story titled “Hunting Indians” reports the successful killing of several Indians by U.S. troops.

On February 9, 1861: “A Large Haul” is reported by The Weekly Humboldt Times: “We learn that about a week ago thirty-nine diggers were killed by the settlers on the main Eel River,” after Indians had ransacked and destroyed their home, vacated for the winter. “They report having found the band that committed the damage and killed the above number of bucks.”

After a starving band killed three cattle, The Weekly Humboldt Times reported on February 9, 1861, “On Monday a party of seven men took their trail and came up on the Indians...they fired on them and then made a splendid charge down a steep hill, completely routing the Indians, leaving 13 dead on the spot. They also took one gun, two axes, and a great number of other articles from the Indians, and burned the remains of their provisions. The party arrived home safe and sound, without receiving a scratch, but being pretty well used up.”

Just a week earlier, the same newspaper reported, “All Indian men taken in battle shall be hung at once, the women and children to be humanely treated.”

Before 1848, 150,000 Natives lived well throughout California. By 1870, it is believed there were only about 30,000 left. More than half had died of diseases, while the rest suffered every atrocity imaginable, including massacres and forced marched relocations. Parents were forced to bring their daughter to miners for sex or be hung to die over an open fire. Approximately 4,000 children were sold into slavery. Between 1851 and 1863, $1 million in bounties had been paid for the scalps and heads of Natives by the State of California.

Besides the loss of human life, the attack on Mother Earth was no less tragic. “It is as if a wondrous battle raged, in which the combatants were man and earth. Myriad’s of swarthy, bearded, dust-covered men are piercing into the grim old mountains, ripping them open, thrusting murderous holes through their naked bodies; piling up engines to cut out their vital arteries; stamping and crushing up with the infernal machines their disemboweled fragments, and holding fiendish revels amid the chaos of destruction,” J. Ross Browne, a visitor to the mines, reported.

In 1855, tourists began arriving by stagecoach and by 1864 the Yosemite Valley was widely inhabited by whites. Tourism flourished, due to the book, Discovery of the Yosemite, by Lafayette Bunnell, who had fought in the Mariposa Battalion.

In 1864, Yosemite was the first territory ever designated for preservation—the grant was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, but in 1889, John Muir, a preservationist of the time, became concerned with the damage sheep grazing was causing the valley and petitioned congress to establish the area as a national park. In 1890, 1,500 acres was set aside by Congress.

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