John Muir, and a Story of Yosemite
On a chilly night in 1903, two men sat before a crackling campfire in the Bridal Veil Meadow of Yosemite Park. The stars shone down on them, and the surrounding pine trees whistled in the night breeze. The sound of waterfalls soothed their tired minds. One of these men was John Muir, a famous mountaineer and naturalist. The other was President Theodore Roosevelt.
The story of this famous camping trip started in 1868, when a young John Muir first set eyes on the Yosemite Valley. He fast fell in love with the splendid rock formations, beautiful flowers, and charming wildlife. He wrote – “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life… their feet among beautiful groves and meadows, their brows in the sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their feet, bathed in floods of water…. myriads of small winged creatures – birds, bees, butterflies – give glad animation…as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confining communion with her.”
Muir wasn’t the only one captivated by the great Yosemite. Its beauty has drawn people for centuries. Historians place the first residents there over three thousand years ago. These were the local Indian tribes, the Ahwahneechee (“dwellers in Ahwahnee” – the original name for the area). They lived primarily off acorns that grew in the forests, and they burned the Valley floor every year to maintain the oak population and other plant life. As with most Native Americans, their culture got wiped out by outside influence. In this case, wars and a mortal “black sickness” (historians suggest smallpox or measles), drove them from the area.
For years after that, the Valley lay silent. Superstitious fear kept other tribes away, so it’s beauty remained unseen and unheard until 1852, when white man entered the Yosemite Valley. Miners got the first look (and credit for calling it “Yosemite”), but a war party headed by Captain John Boling put Yosemite on the map. While fighting Indians in the area, he regaled local newspapers with accounts of the land’s unspoiled beauty, especially Yosemite Falls. These publications came to the attention of a wildlife photographer named J.M. Hutchings, and he and his party became the first “tourists” to Yosemite Valley in 1855.
Once Hutchings released his photos, the flood gates opened and the tourists came in. Through them, local mountain men found a thriving business. The first settlements around Yosemite popped up in 1856, a hotel becoming the first permanent building. Yosemite resident Galen Clark added a slew of other attractions. On top of building Clark’s Ranch, he also gets credit for discovering the giant Sequoia grove and the Mariposa. Then he built the famous Wawona Hotel, which still stands today. It has housed many distinguished guests including Presidents Grant, Hayes, and Roosevelt.
Along with presidents, famous naturalists and explorers also began streaming through Yosemite Valley, and they quickly recognized its worth – a precious, unspoiled piece of nature that needed preserved. In the early 1860s, advocates appealed to Lincoln to protect Yosemite from private settlement. In 1864, Lincoln took his eyes off the Civil War long enough to cede Yosemite Valley to the state of California for preservation. And so, Yosemite Valley State Park was born.
It wasn’t long after this that John Muir arrived. When he did, the park got its most ardent protector. Muir spent months examining the biological and geological treasures, and became one of the leading experts on its features. His published works on Yosemite gained him a national audience. He rubbed elbows in congress, and helped them create Yosemite grants. He also encouraged them to turn Yosemite into a National Park – forever securing it from the developer’s wrecking ball. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in…” he wrote. “Nevertheless… they [natural places] have always been subject to attack by despoiling gain seekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to senators…”
Indeed, Yosemite had attracted some troublemakers. One of the biggest was sheep herders, who grazed their stock on Yosemite’s heights, leaving them vulnerable to landslides and ruin. Poachers had also found the park, and they got busy ravaging the precious wildlife.
In 1890, heeding the plea of Muir and other prominent figures, Congress designated parts of Yosemite a National Park and turned it over the United States Army. It was a big step, but Muir wouldn’t rest until the entire area fell under the safe protection of National Park status, especially the parts still owned by California. On that chilly night in 1903, he found a willing audience in Theodore Roosevelt. Not just for the rest of Yosemite, but also for priceless wilderness across the country.
That camping trip between two men, each prominent figures humbled by nature, eventually led to the Yosemite Recession Bill of 1906. This ceded all the Yosemite land still owned by California to the United States. Roosevelt didn’t stop there either. During his time as President, he signed into law five national parks, along with over a hundred National Forests and countless wildlife refuges.
Today, Yosemite Valley National Park remains one of the most popular tourist spots in the country. In the fall of 2013, I became just one in over a century and a half worth of visitors. For four days, my husband and I hiked the beautiful trails, took in the magnificent rock structures, and beheld the rushing waterfalls. Even California’s historic drought did not rob Yosemite of its beauty.
There is a magic about Yosemite that cannot be captured with a pen and paper. Standing in a place with such history and beauty is powerful. Despite many famous spots such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half-Dome, my favorite was a tiny meadow with only a small wooden sign. It read – “On this site President Theodore Roosevelt sat beside a campfire with John Muir on May 17, 1903 and talked forest good. Muir urged the president to work for preservation of priceless remnants of America’s wilderness. At this spot one of our country’s foremost conservationists received great inspiration.”
Such a small meadow – yet it spawned a huge notion. Humans need unspoiled, natural beauty to survive. It is the fresh air that rejuvenates our souls, and reminds us of the mighty splendor of our precious Earth. This is an irreplaceable and priceless treasure, and it should never be taken away. I could almost hear John Muir whispering to me as I stood in that place where he made his plea. “Welcome to beautiful Yosemite,” he said. “But proceed with care.”
“The National Parks” – K. Burns
Yosemite Valley National Park
“The Yosemite” – J. Muir
“Yellowstone & Yosemite: History of America’s most Famous National Parks” – Charles River Editors
The Sierra Club – http://www.sierraclub.org
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on Yosemite, please visit my photo gallery.