Yosemite National Park
History of Yosemite
Although Yosemite's history as a national park goes back more than 100 years, its geologic history is timeless. Glaciation is one of the many geologic forces at work shaping the Yosemite landscape.
The human history of Yosemite is no less fascinating. From American Indians to European-American explorers and entrepreneurs to the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Cavalry, there's a story in every corner of the park.
The People of Yosemite
Yosemite Valley's first residents were American Indians who inhabited the region perhaps as long as 6,000 years ago. By the time Euro-Americans entered the Yosemite area in the mid-19th century, the Valley was inhabited by peoples who called Yosemite Valley, "Ahwahnee," which loosely translates into "Place of a Gaping Mouth." The Indians of Yosemite Valley called themselves the "Ahwahneechee." They harvested black oak acorns, hunted and fished, and traded these and other items native to Yosemite Valley, with the Mono Lake Paiute people for obsidian, rabbit skins and pine nuts.
Few non-Indians knew of the existence of Yosemite Valley prior to 1851. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848 brought thousands of gold seekers to the area. By 1851, the continued theft of Indian lands and murder of native people resulted in the Mariposa Indian War. On March 27, 1851, in an attempt to subdue a group of Indian people, the state-sanctioned Mariposa Battalion entered Yosemite Valley. They became the first group of non-Indians to record their entry into the Valley.
Word of Yosemite's beauty gradually spread, and in 1855, the first party of tourists arrived. Nine years later, in the middle of the Civil War, a group of influential Californians persuaded Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to grant Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state as the country's first public preserve.
National Park Status
The drive for federal protection of the Yosemite region began shortly after the first non-Indian settlers arrived and before conservationist John Muir first visited in 1868.
Abraham Lincoln provided this protection when he signed the Yosemite Grant on June 30, 1864. This grant is considered the foundation upon which national and state parks were later established. The grant deeded Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees to the state of California. However, no such protection existed for the vast wilderness surrounding the Valley and sequoia grove.
In 1889, John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, the influential editor of Century Magazine, found the high country overrun with flocks of domestic sheep. Muir wrote of the devastation that these "hoofed locusts" wrought upon the land as early as 1869. The sheep not only voraciously consumed meadows and wildflowers, but also destroyed the soul of the land. As they camped together in Tuolumne Meadows, Muir urged Johnson to do something about it. Johnson responded by using his influence on key citizens and politicians back east to help preserve the region. Johnson's resolve became as strong as Muir's. Together, they planned a campaign to make the high country surrounding Yosemite Valley into a national park.
While Johnson lobbied for the park, Muir spoke and wrote eloquently of the need for legislation to designate the land for a national park, as was done when Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. Remarkably, their efforts were rewarded in just one year. On October 1, 1890, the U.S. Congress set aside more than 1,500 square miles of "reserved forest lands" soon to be known as Yosemite National Park. It included the area surrounding Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. However, it took a meeting between President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in 1903, and the effective lobbying of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman, to have Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove ceded from the state of California's control and included with Yosemite National Park in 1906. Following this victory, Muir did not cease battles of preservation in Yosemite. Muir and others launched a national campaign to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed and used as a reservoir for San Francisco. This battle was lost, but it served to awaken the nation to the idea of preservation of wilderness for wilderness' sake.
For Preservation & Enjoyment
In the early part of the 20th century, the park was under the watch of the U.S. Army's 24th Mounted Infantry and the 9th Cavalry, also known as "Buffalo Soldiers." In the absence of a National Park Service—which wasn't created until 1916—these African American men were charged with the protection of the newly formed Yosemite National Park.
News of Yosemite Valley's wonders spread, bringing with it tourists and the need to accommodate them. Thus, hotels were built. Crops were planted and livestock grazed in Valley meadows. People camped wherever they could lay a drop cloth. In the 1920s, "nature guides" were hired to help educate visitors about the park's special values and the Field School for Natural History was established to train future interpreters.
Over the years, many things have changed in the park—except for its popularity. Annual visitation reached a peak of over 4 million in the mid 1990s. Today, the hardworking staff of the National Park Service—along with its park partners and legions of volunteers—continues to meet the challenge of protecting Yosemite's unique natural and cultural treasures for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.
The Rocks of Yosemite
It's not difficult to see the story of Yosemite's geologic past—it is written on the sheer granite walls of Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy; it is seen on the polished domes and jagged peaks of the high country; and it is hidden in glacially scoured lakes. Here are some of the geologic features you may notice around the park:
Layers of Rock: While traveling into the park, did you notice cross-sections of large granite layers seemingly cut into the side of the road Yosemite's granite continues to expand along joints or fractures in the rock due to internal pressure within the earth's crust. This process—known as exfoliation—causes slabs of granite to "peel" off, like layers of an onion. This natural process continues to shape the landscape of Yosemite and rockfalls are common in most areas of the park.
Hanging Valleys: The glaciers acted like giant bulldozers, plowing and plucking rocks from the surrounding cliff walls. Where streams once flowed into the Valley, the glaciers left behind dramatic precipices, known as "hanging valleys." This is particularly noticeable at Bridalveil Fall and Yosemite Falls in Yosemite Valley, and in Hetch Hetchy.
Roche Moutonnée (sheep rock): These asymmetrical outcroppings of rock resemble sheep feeding in a meadow. The gentle, sloping ridge follows the direction from which the glacier came. An example of this type of formation is Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows.
Glacial Polish and Striations: The shiny, flat surface of some rocks is the handiwork of glaciers that polished them centuries ago. Sand and other small abrasives that pressed against the granite under the weight of the glaciers cut distinct striations, or scratch marks, on the rocks, which indicate the direction the glaciers were moving. Examples of glacial polish can be seen on the domes surrounding Tenaya Lake.
Dikes: Some rock faces show long white lines that are so neat and straight that they resemble street lines. These are rocks rich in feldspar and quartz, which, in their fluid state, oozed up through a crack in the rock and solidified millions of years ago.