Cloud's Rest Yosemite News Mt. Whitney
    "Conserving John Muir's Wilderness in the Range of Light"
       Founded 1962
  Yosemite News Sections
Front Page

The Ahwahnee

Artist Palettes
Human History
Indian Legends

Natural History
Master Plan

Media & Bookstore
The Naturalist
Park & Local Cams
Pioneer Cemetery
Road Conditions
Search Site

Reader's Mail
Vistas & Views

Weather Conditions
Yosemite Guide
Advertise With Us


Top Stories
Yosemite Park
National Parks
Sierra Nevada
Sierra Club
Park Service

Valley Press Media Network
Bulldog News
California Star
Clovis Free Press
Daily Republican
Fresno Republican
Mother Wired
Reagan Library
Tower District News

Hitch Hiker's Web Guide
Yosemite Bookstore

Ahwahnee Hotel
Auto House of Clovis
Aluisi Real Estate
Cerro Negro Music
Clovis Planetarium
Irene's Cafe Dining
Your Fresno Broker
Fresno Investment RE
Majestic Pawn
Onomuse Productions
PC Paramedics
Presentations Inc.
Roger Rocka's
The 2nd Space
Tower 2000 Jukebox
Conserve Wetlands

    [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Friday, February 1, 2002
Indian Country
Free Land For The Taking!
By Yosemite News Staff Writers

Watkins' painting of  an 1840's Yosemite Valley

    YOSEMITE VALLEY -- Two hundred years ago today, the United States, British Canada, Oregon Country, Mexico, the Texas Republic—all encircled a vast and mysterious land, the subject of much speculation and not much careful thought.
     Call it Indian Territory for now, for it contained survivors of the displaced, decimated eastern tribes and the great unmolested, unsuspecting Ahwahneeche Miwok people of Yosemite Valley, and the the great Nation of the Plains Indians.
     As limitations to American growth, man's treaties had already proved to be the expedient instruments that they were intended to be by the enforcing party.
     But nature, the other great limitation, was not as malleable to national destiny, or so at least it seemed in 1844 as America stood on the astern bank of the Missouri River and looked across to a hallucination known Thomas Jefferson, who knew much, was ignorant about most of the territory he purchased unseen in 1803 at a bargain-basement price.
     The few settlements of the Louisiana Territory, he reported to Congress, "were separated from each other by immense and trackless deserts." Three years after this hearsay, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis returned from their examination of the country; they had found the plains to be simply dry and barren, though not desertlike.
     In that year, however, young Lieutenant Zeb Pike traveled the Far West and returned with the most fanciful impressions. "This area in time might become as celebrated as the African deserts," he wrote of the territory sitting between the meridian of the great bend of the Missouri and the Rockies.
     "In various places [there were] tracts of many leagues, where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful forms of the ocean's rolling wave, and on which not a spear of vegetable matter existed." Pike's visions of sand dunes, pathless wastes, and sterile soils were reported, widely read, and faithfully believed by geographers.
     The myth became innocently embellished by subsequent visitors, especially those in the party of Major Stephen H. Long, who traversed the whole area in 1820. It was reported to be "an unfit residence for any but a nomad population ... forever [to] remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, and the jackall."
     Twenty-four years later the Santa Fe trader Josiah Gregg issued his Commerce on the Prairies, a book based on extensive experience on the plains. "These steppes," he wrote, "seem only fitted for the haunts of the mustang, the buffalo, the antelope, and their migratory lord, the Prairie Indian."
     Soon young Francis Parkman would see sand dunes along the Platte River, in his imagination extending this "bare, trackless waste" for hundreds of miles. Thus the future states of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado existed in the American minds of 1844 in hopelessness and sterility—fitting continental leavings for the aborigines.
     Little as the Great American Desert interested politicians and pioneers alike, temptations lay on its western and southern frontiers. As Asa Whitney composed his Pacific railroad memorial in the closing months of 1844, the upstate New York countryside rumbled with political activity, as was true all over the nation, with much attention being paid to the issue of expansion.
     Six months earlier in Baltimore the convened national Democratic Party plodded through seven deadlocked ballots before finally rejecting its obvious choice, Martin Van Buren. As former senator, governor, secretary of state, vice president, and president, Van Buren had, by 1844, served his country perhaps too well, but his failure this time around had less to do with his shopworn self than with his disinclination to invite war by annexing new territory—a position that was then at distinct variance with prevailing sentiments.
     Two canvasses later the Democrats acclaimed a dark horse, James Knox Polk. He had twice failed to be re-elected governor of Tennessee, but when he appeared in Baltimore, his proprietary urges toward hitherto disputed lands plainly in sight, Polk prevailed. In the ensuing presidential contest the opposing Whig party could muster little more than the slogan "Who is James K. Polk?" for their own candidate, Henry Clay, who was otherwise silent on the great issue of the day.
     That issue lay at the heart of the Democratic platform, but more important, it had already been accepted as a fait accompli by most Americans: the annexation of those title-clouded expanses known as Texas and Oregon—Mexico and England be damned. Exactly a decade had passed since our neighbor to the south had reopened its Texas lands to American immigration after some years of nervous border restriction.
     Likewise, it had been ten years since the first Methodist missionaries had drifted to the bank of the Willamette River in Oregon Country, seeking Flatheads with a hankering for the Good Book (there were none). The latter territory had an agreeable climate and an excess of lush farmlands, and though it was jointly occupied with Britain there were relatively few British. Oregon's emptiness beckoned.
     So did the equally virginal lands of Texas. By 1836, the number of American settlers in Texas had grown to nearly thirty thousand—ten times the resident Mexican population and more than enough to enforce a nascent Republic of Texas only weeks after the tragedies at the Alamo and at Goliad. President Andrew Jackson, in formally recognizing Texas sovereignty in March 1837, had less influence on encouraging further settlement than did the other great event of that season, which overshadowed it. The Panic of 1837 sent thousands of bankrupt and debt-ridden farmers of the Mississippi River valley flooding into Texas to join those who had preceded them.
     Others, their hopes dashed no less by the deepening depression, began to weigh the odds of the longer, more hazardous route to Oregon, across the Great American Desert. By 1839 some five hundred Americans had sunk their plow blades in the Willamette bottomland and a new destination had entered the dreams of would-be migrants: Mexican California.
     Texas fever! Oregon fever! California fever! Rare was the American newspaper or magazine that did not carry a rhapsodic letter from a newly arrived settler in those and subsequent years. Farmers seemed to be spending as much time urging their fellow Americans to join them in paradise as they did in raising crops—that is, when they were not deluging Washington with petitions urging annexation. If for many the lure of a new purchase on life was balanced by the numerous threats to life during the overland journey, news from those who had survived the ordeal was persuasive.
     Especially so were reports of the Bidwell-Bartleson party, which in the summer of 1841 followed the West's lure from Missouri, eventually splitting into two groups which attained Oregon and California after much hardship.
     Then, in 1843, young Lieutenant John Charles Frémont issued a report on his army exploration of the Oregon Trail from the Mississippi River through the South Pass and into the Wind River range of the Rockies. Published obligingly by the government, the path-follower's book was an instant success, with its descriptions and maps both a Bible and a Baedeker for thousands of potential imigrants.
     And when the Democrats rallied behind James Knox Polk, with Texas and Oregon (and—who knows—California) at the forefront of their minds, the expansionist party prevailed, albeit narrowly, in the electoral college. Those faraway settlements seemed at once closer and more alluring.
     Meanwhile, an obscure merchant, recently returned from China, signed his name to a document which was handed to an upstate New York legislator, the Honorable Zadock Pratt of Prattsville, who packed it away for his trip to Washington and the second session of the Twenty-eighth Congress.
     The iron horse would soon be on its way.

        [Editor's Note: For completion of this story, the writers consulted the works of David Haward Bain titled Empire Express Building the First Trans - continental Railroad (1999), published by Viking Penguin Group.]


Letter to the Editor

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Nature Notes
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."
     -- John Muir, 1901

We Salute America's Vets
San Joaquin Valley
National Cemetery

Yosemite Poster circa 1925

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Enter a word
or phrase

Fire Safety Reminder
Smokey the Bear - click here
Smokey says,
"Only YOU can prevent forest fires!"
Suite 101 Top 5 Web Site    

Copyright 1962, 2004 by Yosemite News -
All rights reserved. Disclaim