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Style Magazine

James Mason Hutchings: Part Two

Jul 30, 2012 05:00AM ● By Style

Photos by Carleton Watkins, courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photography Division.

The summer of 1855 found James Mason Hutchings leading a party of three into the Sierra to show them a gorge that supposedly had a waterfall worth seeing.

Unfamiliar with the new territory and unsure exactly which way to travel, they stopped 40 miles short of their destination. The travelers from Placerville stopped in the well-settled town of Mariposa to obtain directions, but no one there could help. After much delay, Hutchings managed to find two knowledgeable Indians whom he hired to guide his small group. After four days of hard traveling, they reached the Yosemite Valley and became the first party to enter it as tourists.

Enhanced by the splendor and utter solitude, Hutchings and his party camped in the valley for a week. Thomas A. Ayers, the artist in the group, painted and sketched a number of scenes, including Bridal Veil Falls and Inspiration Point. Hutchings, a tireless climber, scaled El Capitan and later noted his surprise at finding the mountain’s green top to be wide-spread trees and not moss.

Returning to Mariposa, Hutchings wrote an account of his visit; the editor of the Gazette published the piece with the vigilant remark that, “If the sublime character of the scenery be not exaggerated, it would draw from all parts of the world, tourists to visit it.” Other newspapers and publications copied this first description of Yosemite and Hutchings later wrote a fuller version in his Illustrated California Monthly, which he began publishing in 1856. Through his magazine, Hutchings brought Yosemite’s grandeur to the American public and in turn, opened a hotel to cater to those who came to see the marvels.


After Congress set aside the Valley in 1864, however, Hutchings refused to acknowledge the public’s ownership of Yosemite, challenging it all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the Court ruled against him and other settlers’ rights to private ownership, the State of California voted to compensate them for their losses. Of the $60,000 issued by the State in 1874, Hutchings received $24,000. While an impressive figure for the time, the payment fell short of the $41,000 Hutchings had already invested over his 12 years in Yosemite. Nonetheless, Hutchings remained in Yosemite even after he relinquished his claim.

 Visitors arrived in increasing numbers to discover Yosemite’s splendid “beauties of nature.” They came on horseback, down frighteningly steep trails; one look at the chasm caused many tourists to turn back.

The mild-mannered man from Hangtown was appointed Guardian of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in 1880. By then, family groups arrived at Yosemite in canvas-top wagons and Hutchings helped them set up camp. He also lectured and led hiking and climbing expeditions.
The zeal of John Muir and the Sierra Club brought inevitable changes to Yosemite. In 1890 it became a national park, and Hutchings and other early settlers lost their holdings. The towering Muir, once a sheepherder for Hutchings, displaced him as the genius loci of Yosemite. Hutchings moved on to Calaveras Big Trees and then to San Francisco.

Hutchings died on November 1, 1902 after being thrown from a wagon in San Francisco. His remains were brought to the Big Trees Room at his old hotel in Yosemite, then under the ownership of John Barnard. According to his wife, Emily, he was laid to rest “surrounded by nature in her most glorious garb, and under the peaks and domes he had loved so well and had explored so fearlessly.”