Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Naming Yosemite

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Naming Yosemite

Article excerpt

The assigning of names is the beginning of nation building.

David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars (2000)

It may be among the most oft-told campfire stories in American history: 27 March 1851, members of the Mariposa Battalion, camped near what would become known as Bridalveil Fall, to discuss what name they should give the valley that they have "discovered." When one young man, Lafayette Houghton Bunnell (1824-1903), suggests the name "yosemite," he has no idea what the word means, only that it is often used to describe the local Indians. The group votes its assent, and the valley becomes Yosemite. After the name has been adopted, Major James Savage, who understood and spoke several native languages, translates "yosemite" as "a full-grown grizzly bear" (Bunnell 63).

More than one hundred years go by before the name is translated correctly. Working in the 1960s with native speakers, linguist Sylvia Broadbent was the first to translate "yosemite" correctly as "some of them are killers" (Solnit 319). (1) Confusion seems to arise from the different Miwok dialects, the southern Sierra Miwok differing considerably from the northern and central Miwok dialects that Savage understood. The latter's word for grizzly bear sounds much like the former's word for killers. Scholars today believe that "killers" was used by the mostly Miwok groups west of the valley to refer to the distrusted Paiutes in the mixed valley group. The valley group called itself "Ahwahneechee" and the valley "Ahwahnee."

Despite the growing scholarly consensus about the word's meaning, Savage's mistranslation abides. To this day, Bunnell's written account, Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 Which Led to That Event, remains the overwhelmingly dominant narrative about Yosemite. The popular text went through four editions between 1880 and 1911, the last published posthumously. Since then, Bunnell's story of the naming of Yosemite, including the mistranslation, has been quoted and paraphrased unquestioningly by scores of guidebook and popular-history writers.

On a practical level, Bunnell's story endures because it remains the only first-person account of the Mariposa Battalion's campaign in Yosemite. But I wish to suggest another reason for its popularity: his version persists because, simply put, it accords with what Americans want to believe about their history. It fits neatly into and reinforces our culture's metanarrative of westward expansion: civilization transforming a savage wilderness along a continually westward-advancing frontier in fulfillment of a nation-building Manifest Destiny.

Bunnell's tenure with the Mariposa Battalion and his subsequent rendering of those experiences spanned a series of events deeply threatening to citizens' conceptions of themselves and the nation. The Mexican War (during which Bunnell served as a hospital steward) led to the annexation of huge expanses of land. Soon thereafter the nation faced a fratricidal Civil War. (Bunnell enlisted as a hospital steward and later served as an assistant surgeon for the Union.) While the final Indian wars and removals were fought on the Great Plains, the transcontinental railroad was completed, marking the nation as a continental power. A central question for the nation during the second half of the nineteenth century became: who or what should be included in the category of "American"? To whom should citizenship be extended? Emancipated blacks? Assimilated Indians? Former Mexican citizens?

These concerns were particularly pronounced in California. Early European and Anglo-American visitors and settlers described California Indians as extremely primitive, barely above the level of beasts. This dehumanizing rhetoric reached its height during the Gold Rush. Statehood and the enormous demographic shifts wrought by the Gold Rush altered Hispanic patterns of land use and labor in California and changed Indian/ white relations. …

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