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Yosemite Falls and meadow reflected in a seasonal pond, Yosemite National Park. Photo by QT Luong.

Yosemite National Park

Miwok Indians in front of Umacha teepee, Yosemite National Park, 1925 Add to Scrapbook

Miwok Indians in front of Umacha teepee, Yosemite National Park, 1925

For thousands of years, the Ahwaneechee Indians occupied the area we know today as Yosemite. In 1851, the first white men entered the Yosemite valley searching for Indians with the aim of driving them from their homeland. One of the men, a young doctor named Lafayette Bunnell, was struck by the astonishing beauty of the place. He named the area "Yosemite," mistakenly believing it to be the name of the tribe living there.

In 1855, a second group of white people led by James Mason Hutchings entered Yosemite Valley. Hutchings hoped to make a fortune by promoting California's scenic wonders and running a tourist hotel in the valley. In 1859, Hutchings returned to Yosemite with a photographer. News and images of the incomparable beauty of Yosemite quickly spread, bringing more tourists to the area.

Hutchings' Hotel, Yosemite National Park Add to Scrapbook

Hutchings' Hotel, Yosemite National Park

In those early days, visiting Yosemite required a two-day trip from San Francisco to the nearest town, followed by a grueling two- to three-day trek along rocky mountainsides either by foot or on horseback. Between 1855 and 1864, only 653 tourists made the arduous journey.

When Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City's Central Park, visited Yosemite, he wrote that it was "the greatest glory of nature... the union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty." There was a growing sense that the area needed to be legally protected if it was to survive through the ages.

The cavalry was given the task of protecting the national parks. Under Captain Charles Young, the first black man to be put in charge of a national park, soldiers built the first trail to Mount Whitney and erected protective fences around the big trees.

Senator John Conness Add to Scrapbook

Senator John Conness

Merced River and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, circa 1865, Carleton Watkins photograph Add to Scrapbook

Merced River and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, circa 1865, Carleton Watkins photograph

John Muir, circa 1860 Add to Scrapbook

John Muir, circa 1860

On May 17, 1864, Senator John Conness of California, acting at the urging of some of his constituents, introduced a bill to Congress that proposed something totally unprecedented in human history: setting aside a large tract of natural scenery for the future enjoyment of everyone. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress ceding the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California.

As a member of the board of commissioners appointed to oversee Yosemite, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote a detailed report about the future of the park. He called for strict regulations to protect the landscape from anything that would harm it and stressed the importance of making Yosemite accessible to everyone. But his recommendations were deemed too controversial to bring to the state legislature and his report was quietly suppressed.

Park pioneer Galen Clark was the unanimous choice to be given the job of protecting the new Yosemite Grant and Mariposa Grove. He had been lured to Yosemite by James Hutchings' lavish accounts and was the first white man to see the collection of giant sequoias that he named the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. Clark threw himself into the nearly impossible task of maintaining and protecting the park on only $500 a year.

In brazen defiance of the new law, Hutchings had quickly moved to expand his operations and exploit the valley. He already owned two hotels in Yosemite and soon began charging people for the privilege of seeing the park. He decided he needed a sawmill, and in the fall of 1869 he hired 31-year-old John Muir to run it. Muir would become an eloquent spokesman for the virtues of the park, and its fiercest protector. In 1873, Muir and Hutchings parted ways, with Muir moving to Oakland to write articles about Yosemite for various publications.

Clark continued to fight against James Hutchings, who was technically an illegal squatter in Yosemite. In 1875, after lengthy legal battles, Hutchings was evicted from his hotel and banished from the valley.

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Bank of America Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr Fund Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Park Foundation

National Park Foundation The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation The Pew Charitable TrustsGM

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

Florentine Films and WETA

 

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