History and Culture

How Yosemite Came to Be

Pull back the curtains of history from the Miwok people to the establishment of the national park.

Long before Yosemite’s beauty captivated the nation’s imagination, the Miwok people had been living for more than 4,000 years in what would become the national park. When gold was discovered in 1849 in the Sierra Nevada, thousands of miners flooded the area. Conflicts between Miwoks and miners escalated before a volunteer battalion in 1851 tragically burned Miwok villages, destroying food supplies and running Miwok families out of the valley. It’s a history with a present-day legacy we have not fully reconciled as a country. 

Group of Miwok in council by Cedar bark structure in Yosemite Valley near the Merced River where Yosemite Lodge now stands.
Group of Miwok in council by a cedar bark structure near the Merced River where Yosemite Lodge now standsPublic Domain

Thirteen years later, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant into law in 1864, giving the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees to the state of California. (This happened eight years before the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, America’s oldest national park.) Galen Clark was appointed Yosemite’s first Guardian, a position held for most of the next 35 years.

But state protection of Yosemite Valley and the giant sequoia grove was not enough for conservationist John Muir. In 1868, Muir walked from San Francisco Bay to the Yosemite Valley. Inspired by the natural beauty he found there, Muir soon started writing about Yosemite in magazines and newspapers that reached audiences across the USA.

Muir also wanted to spread the word about the destruction of Yosemite’s ecosystem that he was witnessing. Despite the park’s protected status, he saw meadows being devastated by grazing livestock (which he called “hooved locusts”), especially in the high country. He also saw widespread deforestation caused by timber logging operations.

John Muir
John MuirPublic Domain

Muir’s writing and his own personal passion for Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada helped spur a national conservation movement. Muir even escorted groups of influential people on guided trips into Yosemite and the surrounding Sierra Nevada to expound upon the importance of preserving nature. On one trip to Tuolumne Meadows, Muir together with Robert Underwood, editor of Century Magazine, came up with the idea to launch a campaign to make Yosemite a national park.

Their dream came true in 1890, when the land around Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias became part of Yosemite National Park. Congress also authorized the creation of Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park (now part of Kings Canyon National Park) to preserve the giant sequoia forests found farther in the Sierra Nevada. The U.S Cavalry assumed jurisdiction of the new national park lands (learn more about the buffalo soldiers who served in the Sierra Nevada here).

Boardwalk trail though the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
Boardwalk trail though the Mariposa Grove of Giant SequoiasGrant Ordelheide

But exploitation of the new national park’s resources was still rampant, and the Yosemite Valley itself was still under state control. When Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip in Yosemite in 1903, he was able to convince the president of the importance of preserving more of the Sierra Nevada as federal land. Yosemite National Park as we know it today took shape in 1906, when Roosevelt took back control of Yosemite Valley from the state of California and protected the entire region as Yosemite National Park.

President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and John Muir (right) at Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley.
President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and John Muir (right) at Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley.Public Domain

There’s another legacy in Yosemite, and it was sparked by an unusual sight tucked in the northwest corner that less than 1 percent of all Yosemite visitors see. Amid towering granite domes lies the 8-mile-long Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. It’s liquid gold, supplying more than 2.4 million San Francisco area residents with water.

Hiking on the shoreline of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Hiking on the shoreline of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy ReservoirDepositphotos

But it also ignited one of the first national conversations on valuing wilderness over development in the early 1900s. John Muir and others argued a San Francisco water source should be built outside the park. In 1913 Congress approved the dam construction. Muir died a year later of pneumonia, but the loss of Hetch Hetchy Valley echoed profoundly in his heart. Today, if you visit the Hetch Hetchy area in Yosemite, you’ll feel the same wonder Muir felt more than 100 years ago, even with the reservoir. Away from the crowds, it’s the park’s best kept-secret.