The first view of Yosemite, by most accounts, was by the Mariposa Battalion, who on March 25, 1851 first entered the valley. U.S. History has chosen them as the Discoverers of Yosemite Valley. But did they actually make the first view of Yosemite? There are a couple stories that challenge that account.

NOTE: On July 5, 2020, I modified this article to include some documentation that casts doubt on the Abrams’ “sighting”.

The Walker Party

In 1833, Joseph Reddeford Walker led an expedition from Missouri looking for a path to California. The expedition was made popular in the accounts of Washington Irving in 1837 of Captain B.L.E. Bonneville’s Journal, in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. The expedition was actually chronicled by Zenas Leonard who had written a journal of the expedition as a member. Other members of the expedition also wrote of the incidents, in corroboration with Leonard. He wrote:

The Walker Party Passed the Valley Well Back From the Valley’s North Rim

Text Box: The Walker Party Passed the Valley Well Back 
From the Valley’s North Rim
We travelled, few miles every day, still up the top of the mountain, and our course continually obstructed with snow hills and rocks. Here we began to encounter in our path, many small streams which would shoot out from under these high snow-banks, and after running a short distance in deep chasms which they have through ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves, from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below.—Some of these precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high. Some of the men thought that if we could succeed in descending one of these precipices to the bottom, we might thus work our way into the valley below—but on making several attempts we found it liberty [literally?] impossible for a man to descend, to say nothing of our horses, We were then obliged to keep along the top of the dividing ridge between two of there [these?] chasms which accrued to land pretty near in the direction we were going— which was west,—in passing over the mountain, supposing it to me north and south. 

This, as cited in Exploration of the Sierra Nevada (1925) by Francis P. Farquhar.[1] At the time of this writing, it was speculated that “these precipices” was the creek feeding Yosemite Falls. However, most historians now believe they saw The Cascades, somewhat west of the valley, not Yosemite Creek.[2]

However, in Discovery of The Yosemite by Lafayette Bunnell, Chapter V[3], writes:

We were … assured by [Chief] Ten-ie-ya and others of his band, that this [ours] was the first visit ever made to this valley by white men. Ten-ie-ya said that a small party of white men once crossed the mountains on the North side, but were so guided as not to see it…Captain Joe Walker, for whom “Walker’s Pass” is named, told me that he once passed quite near the valley on one of his mountain trips; but that his Ute and Mono guides gave such a dismal account of the cañons of both [Merced and Tuolumne] rivers, that he kept his course near to the divide until reaching Bull Creek, … not seeing the valley proper….

A bit farther on, he writes:

Upon one occasion I told Capt. Walker that Ten-ie-ya had said that, “A small party of white men once crossed the mountains on the north side, but were so guided as not to see the valley proper.” With a smile the Captain said: “That was my party, but I was not deceived, for the lay of the land showed there was a valley below; but we had become nearly bare-footed, our animals poor, and ourselves on the verge of starvation, so we followed down the ridge to Bull Creek, where, killing a deer, we went into camp.”

So, given history’s assessment that none of the Walker party actually set eyes on the valley itself and Walker’s own statement that from the descriptions of the guides and their own urgency to find food, it is quite clear they group never gazed upon the valley, regardless how likely Walker figured there was one.

The Abrams Diary

View Depicted by Abrams

Another likely candidate is recounted in the diary William Penn Abrams. During October 1849, Abrams and his buddy U.N. Reamer, with whom he had traveled from the mid-west, were working for a Mr. Murphy as carpenters when they were sent to the Merced River to scout for possible mill sites. After returning, he made the entry in his journal about the encounter.  It appears that the date is when the entry was made, but without details of when the “discovery” of the valley occurred.

From the October 18, 1849 entry of the diary, Abrams writes:

Returned to S. F. after visit to Savage [that would be James D. Savage who would lead the Mariposa Battalion and discovered the Valley] property on Merced River, prospects none too good for a mill. Savage is a blasphemous fellow who has five squaws for wives for which he takes his authority from the Scriptures. While at Savage’s Reamer and I saw a grizzly bear tracks and went out to hunt him down getting lost in the mountains and not returning until the following evening, found our way to camp over an Indian trail that led past a valley enclosed by stupendous cliffs rising perhaps 3000 feet from their base and which gave us cause for wonder. Not far off a waterfall dropped from a cliff below three jagged peaks into the valley while farther beyond a rounded mountain stood, the valley wide of which looked as though it had been sliced with a knife as one would slice a loaf of bread and which Reamer and I called the Rock of Ages.

It is hard to image what they could possibly be describing had it not been the entrance to Yosemite Valley near Inspiration Point.

This diary entry was relayed to Weldon Fairbanks Heald, who wrote about it in the May, 1947 issue of the Sierra Club Bulletin. Heald was introduced to it (almost 100 years after the fact) by William C. Berry (of Glendale, California) who, at the time was working on a genealogy for the Abrams family. The diary was in the possession of Mrs. Frederick A. Frazier, of Los Angeles, and who was also the granddaughter of Abrams. Abrams had kept a journal of his travels from Missouri from 1849 to 1851.[4]

This event was notable enough to dedicate most of the entry into his journal about it, even though the point of the journey was to scout a mill site. Nevertheless, it wasn’t such a monumental event that it bid him to return. In fact, he moved on to Oregon within a month where he settled for the rest of his life.

Eldon Grupp, a collector of Yosemite artifacts and an historian sheds additional doubt on this “incident”. He says, in part:

My problem with the diary, … [is that it] has a gap in the middle where for a large number of pages Abrams makes no accounting and the pages are blank. Then, smack in the center of that otherwise empty section the Yosemite account appears all by itself. And to make matters worse, the remainder of the diary is written in ink, whereas the Yosemite account is written in pencil.

Eldon says that he personally inspected the actual diary and feels strongly that Abrams went back to the journal after the discovery of Yosemite was announced and added that entry in an attempt to credit himself and Reamer as the discoverers. One of the biggest suspects in the diary, he says, is the nearly accurate claim that the cliffs were 3,000 feet high. Nobody knew or speculated that the cliff’s height was anywhere near that high until after Josiah D. Whitney’s Geological Survey published as much in the late 1860s.[5]

Were There Others?

As we’ll see in a later post, Chief Tenaya was highly motivated to be aware of any encroachment on his valley. According to an old medicine man that accompanied Tenaya to reclaim the valley years before its discovery by the Mariposa Battalion, if the valley were visited by the “…horsemen of the lowlands…” his people would be scattered and valley would be lost.[6] The chief was well aware of the Walker Party, but as they didn’t come anywhere near the valley itself, he didn’t do anything about it. Further, he told the Battalion that they were, in fact, the first “…visit every made to this valley by white men….” Well, he may have missed Abrams and Reamer. If so, it makes me wonder if there were others that were missed. But then, if there were any others (Abrams included) that came near the valley which Tenaya did see would he have just turned them away? Or would they have been killed? He and his band did as much at Savage’s second and third trading post for merely encroaching on his territory. Wouldn’t he have done as much to anyone who entered it? And if so, would he relate that to Savage and the Battalion? At least, so far, history has said, “No.”

The “New Discoverer” of Yosemite?

In light of the suspicious nature of the Abrams Diary and certainly of Walker’s expedition, I no longer see a need to give credit for the Discovery of Yosemite or, at the very least, the first view to William Penn Abrams nor Walker. But, even if Abrams’ was a true account, or some other account materializes, should history take the “honor” from Savage and Mariposa Battalion and bestow it onto them? Probably not. Whoever they may be, they are just a ripple in time. Nothing related to Yosemite sprang from these encounter(s). The Mariposa Battalion actually changed the course of history. Aside from that, revelation of the Abrams’ event had been sequestered for nearly 100 years. In that time the history of Yosemite became embedded the Mariposa Battalion. It would serve no purpose to change it now, other than to add a footnote.

[1] Francis Peloubet Farquhar (1887 – 1974), “Exploration of the Sierra Nevada,” California Historical Society Quarterly, 4(1):3-58 (March 1925). No copyright. ISSN 0008-1175. Available on microfilm.. This article was also printed in book form, but copies are rare. Only 275 copies were reprinted from the original article. Tan wrapper (Cowan (II), p. 204). Digitized by Dan Anderson, October 2004, from a copy in the UCSD Library. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.   —Dan Anderson,

[2] See Editor’s Note in citation #4, below, by Dan Anderson,”… today historians generally believe the Walker party looked down The Cascades, which are just west of Yosemite Valley, instead of Yosemite Valley itself.—dea”

[3] Lafayette Houghton Bunnell (1824 – 1903), Discovery of the Yosemite, and the Indian war of 1851, which led to that event 3d ed. (New York, Chicago, F. H. Revell company: 1892). LC Call Number F868.Y6 B9. 12+349 (359) pages. front. (port.) illus., plates, double map. 21 cm. Purple cloth boards with decorative cover and gilt lettering. Bibliographies: Currey & Kruska 27, Farquhar 15c, and Howes B954. The 1st edition was in 1880, but the 3rd edition, used here, has additions and corrects, some from Dr. Bunnell’s colleagues in the Batallion. The text and illustrations were digitized by The Library of Congress for American Memory. Digitized and corrected by Dan Anderson, 2004. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact. — Dan Anderson,

[4] “The Abrams Diary,” [William Penn Abrams Diary, October 18, 1849] “Notes and Correspondence” Sierra Club Bulletin 32(5):126-127 (May 1947) by Weldon Fairbanks Heald. Digitized by Dan Anderson, December 2004. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact.      —Dan Anderson,

[5] Eldon Grupp, Facebook Post in Yosemite History #910, “Discovering Yosemite”

[6] See entry 3, above, also in its Chapter V.