Op-Ed: The armed theft of John Muir’s Yosemite
To grow up in a California family like mine — backpacking and beachcombing, sympathetic to social justice and environmental causes — is to grow up eternally grateful to John Muir, California’s secular patron saint of wilderness worship and outdoor adventure.
Muir was born in Scotland in 1838, and he died 101 years ago today, on Christmas Eve, in Los Angeles. In between he helped his violently abusive father hack a farm out of old-growth Wisconsin forest, walked through the American South after the Civil War, and wound up in Yosemite, where he emerged as a preacher for the saving power of nature.
In my own childhood, with my parents, I spent weekends hiking over wind-swept headlands to Muir Beach, near Muir Woods National Monument. Summer days passed in streams and meadows in Yosemite, where Muir worked in a hotel as a young man, wore wildflowers in his shirt buttonhole, courted married women and, later, advocated for the creation of national parks.
And yet I do not know how to square my love for this landscape with the bloody imperial conquest of Yosemite — and of California, more broadly — in the decades before Muir arrived.
The story goes more or less like this: Before Europeans got to North America, California was the most densely settled place north of Mexico, with an estimated 300,000 inhabitants. Yosemite Valley itself had a permanent year-round population numbering in the thousands; Tenaya Lake, at 8,150 feet above sea level, was their summer village.
A plague swept through Yosemite in the early 19th century, probably introduced to California by Spanish soldiers. The survivors abandoned Yosemite, but years later, under a leader named Tenaya, they recolonized their homeland. This community was thriving when, in 1851, a group of heavily armed foreigners calling itself the Mariposa Battalion rode into Yosemite Valley with the intent of killing or incarcerating everyone who lived there.
This was standard operating procedure. The Gold Rush was bringing hundreds of thousands of foreign prospectors, most of whom — to borrow a phrase from Ta-Nehisi Coates — believed themselves to be white. They trespassed in nations up and down the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, among a diverse range of peoples whom the prospectors considered members of another homogenous race, which they called Indian.
The California Legislature did not recognize Indian land claims; Indian property was free for the taking and Indian bodies were free for the killing. The first American governor of California, Peter Burnett, openly advocated for Indian extermination. State and town governments offered cash rewards for evidence of the killings — scalps and severed heads. The federal government tried to slow the genocide by negotiating treaties and creating reservations, but the state refused to ratify these treaties and, as a result, thousands of Californians who were not killed were incarcerated.
This is not a secret or contested history. In Yosemite in 1851, Tenaya knew what the Mariposa Battalion was about. He and his people ran for their lives. Soldiers set fire to homes and food stores, then caught Tenaya’s youngest son and executed him. They captured Tenaya and dragged him over to see his beloved child bleed out on the valley floor. Those soldiers then led Tenaya on a leash, like a dog, up to the lakeside summer village where the battalion captured his extended family.
Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the battalion, later wrote about the “discovery” of Yosemite. He claimed to have proposed, on the spot, naming the lake Tenaya “because it was upon the shores of the lake that we had found his people, who would never return to it to live.”
Muir experienced Yosemite as God’s empty paradise only because armed men stole the land by violence 17 years before his 1868 arrival.
Tenaya himself was visibly disturbed by Bunnell’s idea, because the lake already had a name: Py-we-ack, meaning River of Glistening Stones. But existing names were meaningless to the invaders. “Tenaya Lake” wasn’t offered as an honorific; it was a celebration of a successful imperial campaign.
Muir was not personally responsible for this, any more than you and I are, although if you put a number on that responsibility it’s probably not zero. Muir was depressingly conventional on matters of race, afflicted with a garden-variety Victorian white supremacism. But he was an otherwise harmless and decent man; my point is really just that Muir experienced Yosemite as God’s empty paradise only because armed men stole the land by violence 17 years before he arrived in 1868.
Twenty years later, the western frontier closed and Americans discovered a passion for the preservation of wilderness. To some degree, it was a passion for a fantasy that had justified conquest in the first place, a fantasy of an uninhabited North America, free for the taking. As Mark David Spence documents in a book about the making of the national parks, ancient communities were often evicted to make reality conform to that fantasy — a process that continued in Yosemite until 1969, when the National Park Service destroyed the last of the Yosemite “Indian villages.”
I don’t know exactly what to do with all of this, because I remain deeply grateful for the existence of Yosemite National Park, the John Muir Wilderness, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and all the other protected wild lands and open spaces throughout our beautiful state. I use these public lands at every opportunity, and in our hard economic times, when the notion of a decent middle-class lifestyle feels archaic, I think of urban greenbelts and rocky point breaks and forest campgrounds as the least elitist and most democratic of American institutions, a modern miracle vital to the health of the planet and our collective sanity.
I think I would have liked Muir. I certainly applaud the cultures of both wilderness conservation and outdoor hedonism he helped create. Once Muir found himself in the Sierra, after all, he was mostly chasing a good time: climbing a tall tree during a windstorm just to feel it sway; crawling behind Yosemite Falls at night just to see the moon through all that spray. Hikers, surfers, skiers, anybody who loves to picnic in a pretty place — we’re all playing Muir’s game.
I do not wish for anything more grand out of my remaining time on Earth. There is not a resort hotel on this planet that I find half as alluring as a day under the Sierra sky. Looking down from the summit, and knowing that descendants of the people who summered here are my fellow Californians — entitled, in other words, to live in a place that does not vacillate between denying and celebrating the violent conquest of their ancestors — I couldn’t help but wonder whether it’s time to change the name of that lake back to the one preferred by Tenaya himself, Py-we-ack.
I admit that’s not much of a fix, but it might be a step in an honest direction.
Daniel Duane is writing a book about the cultural history of the Sierra Nevada.
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