“No Right in the Landscape”: White Wilderness and the Survival of Native Space in Yosemite National Park

If we truly want to honor the wild, parks such as Yosemite cannot be a peaceful escape from history. They must instead be a head-on collision with it.

In 1969, during what National Park Service officials described as a fire department training session, fifteen homes burned down in Yosemite National Park.1 They were the homes of Miwok and Paiute National Park Service employees, and their ancestors had called the Yosemite region home for thousands of years. Half a century after the fire in 1969, the village and a ceremonial roundhouse have been reconstructed as part of the Wahhoga Village Project.2 The project originated in 1977 when two individuals of the Southern Sierra Miwok Nation, Jay and James Johnson—who trace their ancestry directly back to Yosemite Valley—requested that their homes be rebuilt. Construction was delayed until 2011, due in large part to the fact that the tribe is not federally recognized. “When you’re not federally recognized, you have to tiptoe because they can throw you out just like that,” the Miwok elder Les James told the Fresno Bee. “So we took baby steps, if you will, and that’s how we got here.”3

Perhaps another reason for the delay in construction was this: a tribal presence in the park complicates popular understandings of Yosemite National Park as wilderness. As William Cronon has observed in a landmark essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” there is no such thing as an untouched and unpeopled wilderness devoid of human involvement. Popular American understandings of the wild come from the Romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Romantic thinkers believed that God could be rediscovered by returning to the wild.4 Yet, building on Cronon’s insight, we might also observe that the creation of national parks in the United States did not simply establish boundaries protecting a pristine wilderness; instead it created the wilderness, oftentimes by dispossessing the people who call the places suddenly redefined as “wild” home.5

The dispossession in Yosemite began with gold rush invaders in the mid-nineteenth century, leading up to what is frequently referred to as the Mariposa War, and continued until the fire of 1969. The so-called Mariposa War was actually a process of state-designed and state-funded genocide, which historian Benjamin Madley refers to as a “killing machine” in his 2009 work An American Genocide.6 The Mariposa Battalion, at its largest consisting of 560 vigilantes, acted as the key player in this “killing machine” in the Yosemite region, murdering at least seventy-three American Indians.7 In June 1851, six tribes signed the Camp Freemont treaty, but a campaign against the Ahwahnechee, who were absent when the treaty was signed, began.8 The Ahwahnechee, however, managed against the odds to disrupt these genocidal campaigns, and a small band would remain living in Yosemite until the fire in 1969.

Maps created by scholars studying the “discovery” of Yosemite in 1851 provide an indication of the ways white settlers may have experienced the landscape then, and how different it was then from what visitors experience today. These early maps of Yosemite’s “discovery” contain few geographical landmarks; they are focused instead on the events of the Mariposa “War.” In 1864 President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, placing Yosemite Valley under the possession of the state of California and thereby defining it as wilderness deserving protection. Yosemite became a national park in 1906. In 1916 the National Park Service was founded, and Yosemite was incorporated into what would become one of America’s most treasured collections of public lands.9

If we compare the maps of Yosemite created by the National Park Service to the earlier maps from the time period of “discovery,” we can see that colonizers’ understandings of unpeopled wilderness in fact relied on human transformations of the land. Yosemite had to be manipulated in order to be accessible to tourists, which meant repackaging the landscape as “safe” by rendering it fully subject to state control. The Master Plan of Yosemite National Park (1987) includes hotels, roads, ranger stations, fire lookouts, and historic and archaeological districts, and it includes English names for every geological feature of significance. Even as Ahwahnechee people continued to live and work in the park, their presence was purposefully erased from the present and confined to the archaeological record.10

In the 1920s, National Park Service officials proposed the creation of an “Indian village” where the Ahwahnechee would live on display as a spectacle for tourists. More importantly, however, the National Park Service wanted full control over who lived in the village and how they would live there. To white Americans at the time, an aesthetically pleasing “Indian village” meant constructing uniform cabins and conducting a survey that would determine who was deemed Native enough to live in them. Native residents of the state-made village were expected to pay rent to and work for the National Park Service, and the moment they failed to do either would result in their eviction from their homes. Those remaining in the Yosemite community moved into the rustic cabins by 1935, and by 1938 there were fifteen cabins housing fifty-seven people. The village would be occupied for forty years.

Photograph of replica Ahwahneechee roundhouse built in the 1930’s in Yosemite National Park. Image by Wayne Hseigh from flickr.com

Until the fire in the 1970s, Yosemite was never uninhabited by Native peoples. The officials who ran Yosemite National Park recognized the reality of indigenous occupancy, and the village they constructed was a conscious attempt to blend the people into the landscape, dealing with the “Indian problem” in a way that pleased the visitors but did not require military force.  Yet the Ahwahnechee continued to be seen as unnatural to the park; the conservationist John Muir once wrote that they “had no right in the landscape,” though the park was named for the word the Mariposa Battalion used to refer to the Ahwahnechee, Yosemite.11

According to L. H. Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion who kept a detailed journal in this period of dispossession, the name Yosemite was chosen by the vigilantes during the Battalion campaign.12 After debating a series of biblical and foreign names, the members came to a decision. The name was unanimously decided, that is, by the colonizers of the 19th Battalion. Regardless of his hostile mission, Bunnell “could not see any necessity for going to a foreign country for a name for American scenery—the grandest that had ever yet been looked upon,” and thus Yosemite was chosen. This name would eventually embed itself in American popular culture, coming to be associated with rock climbing rather than the people after whom it is named.

Being something of an ethnocentric ethnographer, Bunnell hoped to tell the story of the Yosemite and of Yosemite, yet he failed to situate himself in the narrative. He was operating under the Romantic understanding of wilderness, and so Yosemite evoked “religious emotions or thoughts” through its “mysterious power.”13 As Bunnell mused over the spiritual effects of Yosemite Valley, he created a conception of wilderness distinctly separate from the tribe the Battalion operated under orders to forcibly remove. In other words, Bunnell offers us a glimpse into the origins of Yosemite National Park as visitors now know it: an escape into the wild.

Throughout these formative years of Yosemite National Park, wilderness was created as something to be consumed, and it continues to be consumed by visitors today with little recognition of the foundational violence that provides for their enjoyment. “Learning to honor the wild,” Cronon observed in 1996, “means never imagining that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history.”14 If we truly want to honor the “wild,” parks such as Yosemite cannot be a peaceful escape from history. They must instead be a head-on collision with it.


Grace Gregory is a graduate student in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (anthropology concentration) at the University of Chicago. Her research is situated around national parks as tools of settler colonialism; particularly the ways in which archaeology contributes to these destructive processes. She once gave herself a stick and poke tattoo of an alien.

  1. TheFresYES, “I Walk My Path – Helen Coats,” August 7, 2008, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JggvenDPcuc&feature=youtu.be.
  2. “Build a Traditional Roundhouse at Wahhoga Village – 2017,” Yosemite Conservancy, accessed May 24, 2019, https://www.yosemiteconservancy.org/cultural-historic/build-a-traditional-roundhouse-wahhoga-village-2017.
  3. Carmen George, “Decades After It Was Destroyed, Yosemite’s Last Native American Village Is Returning,” Fresno Bee, Dec. 15, 2017, https://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/carmen-george/article190018864.html.
  4. William Cronon, “Lecture #7: Mountain Gloom, Mountain Glory: Sublime and Picturesque,” last modified September 25, 2017, https://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_handout_07_mountain_gloom_and_glory.html.
  5. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1966): 7–28; Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  6. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
  7. Madley, An American Genocide, 189–90.
  8. Warren A. Beck and Ynez D. Haase, Historical Atlas of California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974), 55.
  9. Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness, 30, 43, 46.
  10. Elizabeth Godfrey, “Yosemite Indians Yesterday and Today,” Yosemite Nature Notes 20, no. 7 (1941): 51.
  11. Beck and Haase, Historical Atlas of California, 55.
  12. Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, Discovery of The Yosemite: The Indian War of 1851, Which Led to That Event (New York: Fleming H. Revel, 1892).
  13. Bunnell, Discovery of Yosemite, 42.
  14. Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 7.