Native American Indians lived in Yosemite some 4,000 years before the Spanish occupied California and before the California Gold Rush. The Indians were known as the Miwoks–you’ll see this word spelled in various ways. Each is correct because the Miwoks had no written language of their own. They established permanent villages near the Merced River and at least 40 camps all over Yosemite Valley. The Miwoks were hunters and traders. They were also seed and plant gatherers. There is some evidence of a “fatal black sickness” or a plague that struck these residents at the beginning of the 18th century. Reportedly, the few survivors left Yosemite and moved to the Eastern Sierra where they were assimilated by other tribes including the Mono Paiutes. One of the offspring of the original Yosemite Miwoks was Tenaya who had heard stories of the incredible beauty and bounty of the Yosemite Valley. Late in life, he visited the former homeland of his tribe. The stories of beauty and bounty were confirmed and he and some 300 other Indians resettled in Yosemite Valley where he became Chief. These Indians lived in harmony until the Gold Rush when territorial feuds between white settlers and native Americans broke out. Following Chief Tenaya’s death in 1853, the remaining Yosemite Indians dispersed and Yosemite Valley became a white man’s settlement.
Yosemite Valley was first sighted by non-Indians in 1833 by Joseph Rutherford Walker and his group of explorers. Twenty years later, a militia organized to kill Indians entered Yosemite Valley. Soon word spread of the grandeur. Reading about this wonderland in San Francisco newspapers, James Mason Hutchings organized the first tourist party in 1855. Artist Thomas Ayres was on that trip and his sketches helped spread the word all the more. At first, tourists arrived on foot and on horseback. Wagon roads came next. Hutchings operated the first hotel and became Yosemite’s first publicist and entrepreneur.
Alas though, there was also a cry that Yosemite’s wonders should be preserved. Pioneer conservationists Frederick Law Olmsted (the landscape architect who later designed New York City’s Central Park) and I.W. Raymond petitioned Congress for a bill to preserve Yosemite. Such a bill was passed with then President Abraham Lincoln signing the legislation on June 30, 1864. History has since told us this was a landmark event. Never before had any government anywhere set aside a parcel of land for its natural beauty to be preserved for public use for all time. Yosemite had become the first national park in the world! It has also served as a model for the development of other parks and led to what we know today as the National Park Service. Years later, naturalist John Muir and others led the effort to create Yosemite National Park. Such a law establishing the park was enacted on October 1, 1890.