Savage Landmark

 James D. Savage – 1817-1852

James D. Savage Drawn by Lloyd D . Moore, Ranger Naturalist

James D. Savage
Drawn by Lloyd D . Moore, Ranger Naturalist

James D. Savage is clearly an important personage in Yosemite History. It is disappointing and somewhat surprising, that more is not known or documented about this man. It may well be that there is, indeed, more information available, but just so obscure as to not be readily accessible. And, to be completely honest, it may be that I am the one who has yet to find all the material that is available. Fortunately, I don’t have the requirement in this blog to be the “end-all, be-all” of historical completeness. This is a “living document” and it is designed to be updated from time to time and/or amended. But this iteration is the best I’ve been able to glean so far and much of it came to me just recently.

The majority of the data I have on James D. Savage comes, predominately, from four sources. 1) Discovery of the Yosemite by Lafayette H. Bunnell, 1892, who was a member of the Mariposa Battalion credited with being among the first westerners in “Discovering” the Valley. Included in this book are copies of letters to and from the Governors of the, then, new state of California. (2) 100 Years in Yosemite: The Story of a Great Park and Its Friends by Carl Russell, a National Park Service Naturalist, from 1947 2nd Edition. (3) Big Jim Savage: Blonde King of the Indians and Discoverer of Yosemite by Ben T Traywick, 1972. There are others that were of varying assistance but they relied heavily on Bunnell’s account and were so abbreviated, that the information was spotty, misleading or flat out wrong. (4) Most recently and article by James O’Meara The White Medicine-Man published in “The Californian” 1882 and reprinted more recently in Yosemite Notes Volume 30, Nos. 11 and 12.

James was born some time around 1817 in Cayuga County, New York as one of six children. At about the age of 5 the family moved to Jackson, Morgan County, Illinois and in 1838 the family moved again, this time to Princeton, Bureau County, Illinois. James was very adept at languages and picked up German and French quite easily because both languages were spoken there.

James with his wife and daughter and James’ brother, Morgan, headed West to California in 1846 as many did who were caught in the “California Fever” of the forties (the discovery of gold in January 1848, made the interest in California even more feverish). James’ wife and daughter did not survive the trip.

Upon arriving in California, Savage fought under John C Fremont in the Mexican War and was with him in both Oregon and California campaigns. After the war (and before the discovery of gold), Savage went south and settled with the Indians of the southern San Joaquin valley. With his aptitude for languages, it was not long before he became quite fluent with the languages of the various tribes and because of his charm and, by most accounts, stunning Savage Landmarkgood looks, Savage became quite influential with the tribes, leading them into battle with their enemies among the mountain tribes. He was even elected chief among many of the tribes and took, some say as many as, twelve squaws as wives (though the number was probably only 5, who were daughters of chiefs. He also had several Indians working as servants), all of whom were happy to be of service to him.

With the discovery of gold, Savage moved to the foothills of Mariposa and though he did well as a miner, he found it much more profitable to run a trading post and have his servants work the mines. He established a trading post at the junction of South Fork of the Merced River and main river (along what is now California Highway 140)[1]. As typical with “trading posts” during the gold rush (and, today, somewhat with “convenience” stores everywhere), the prices were inordinately high. But unlike what you may remember from school, the miners knew they weren’t paying just for goods, but also the convenience of not leaving their claims unattended for long periods of time. The local Indians were also happy to work Savages’ mines for the few provisions he provided as they felt it was more than fair to exchange the “glitter”, for which they had no use and was very prevalent, for goods they did need or want. The respect and admiration of Savage continued and grew with the local Native Americans in Mariposa, just as he had managed down south.

According to James O’Meara’s article, it wasn’t just Savage’s charm and he adeptness with the languages, he also instilled in them, quite literally, the fear of God. Savage had at his disposal a Galvanic Battery of sufficient charge to give someone a respectable jolt. With the battery hidden under is Grizzly Cub skins, which he adorned, and accompanies with his guttural chants and mystical manners would summon arcs and sparks, dazzling his band of Native Americans. One such brave was the son of one of the chiefs who had been taken by missionaries of the Santa Barbara Mission. However after about two or three years of education, he escaped and made it back to the tribe. Because of this education, the young brave was able to see beyond many of Savage’s actions and marvels more so than any of the other tribes people. This was creating a problem with Savage’s status. At one point when the young brave actually challenged Savage, he was able to “mystically”, of course, zap him with a respectable charge from his hidden battery. It was so severe, Savage actually feared he killed the you brave as did the rest of the tribe. He was beginning to warn the others that they, too, could feel his wrath, when he noticed slight indications the brave was “coming to.” Never to let a learning opportunity slip by, Savage once again went into his “medicine-man” chants and some added rituals. He rubbed the arms and legs of the seemingly deceased brave and blew air into his mouth and eventually sat him up, revived. The young brave and the rest of the tribe respecting Savage’s power over life AND death never again challenged his authority.

However, things began to change in 1850. By this time, the miners were everywhere. They hunted the bear and deer, chopped down trees and were polluting the rivers, killing the fish. The minors were depleting the resources depended upon by the 200 members residing in the valley and thousands of Miwoks in the foothills.

South Side of Fresno Crossing -- Savage's third Trading Post

South Side of Fresno Crossing — Savage’s third Trading Post

A couple of his squaws warned Savage that some tribes, particularly those in the “secret” valley, were upset and planned raids on the miners and on Savage’s trading post. Savage shared the concern with other miners and traders, but they didn’t feel the threat was credible, or involved their property. In May of 1850 the “Yosemites” lead by Chief Tenaya attacked Savage’s Trading post, but Savage and some of his Native American miners were able to run them off. Savage pursued them up the Merced River for quite a ways, but when they came to a gorge (near what was very close the valley entrance), he couldn’t see how he could be successful against the Indian’s obvious strategic advantage. For this reason, he closed his trading post and opened a new one a bit south of the township of Mariposa near Mariposa Creek[2]. Shortly there after, he opened a third store just off the Fresno River at what is now marked as Fresno Crossing[3]. The picture shows a possible site of that trading post from the overpass of the Fresno River at Fresno Crossing.

By December (1850), Savage continued to hear rumblings, so he planned a trip to “the bay”, primarily to put some of his gold into safe keeping (600 pounds worth!). He took with him two of his wives and a Miwok Chief called Jose Juarez. It was common for many Native Americans to adopt Spanish Names, especially those brought up by the Missionaries, as Jose was. Savage chose him because he was just a bit suspicious of his continuing loyalties and wanted to show him the number of whites that were available to the miners, should a war break out. Upon their return, Savage received word that various tribes were milling about the Fresno River store, so Savage and Juarez set out for that store immediately.

James Savage tried to calm the tribes by explaining that repercussions from attacks would be far reaching and that even though the Natives had many tribes, the whites were of one BIG tribe against whom they would not have a chance. He called on Jose to verify that from what he saw on the trip from which they had just returned. But Jose saw it differently. He admitted that there were many whites, but they were from a wide variety of “tribes” each with their own way of living and, he speculated, they would not fight with or for the miners. In fact, he witnessed that once the miners that were visiting San Francisco finished their business and would partake of the “strong water” (whiskey), they would be turned away angrily with sticks (referring to the policeman).

There was some additional “back and forth” but the writing was on the wall. Savage, again, went back to town to drum up additional support and, again, to warn his confederates of a pending problem. Once again, it was not treated with much concern. They just did not believe with Savage’s influence and actual family ties with many of the tribes, there was any way they would be attacked and as long as Savage was around, neither would any of the other miners.

They were wrong.

Both of Savage’s stores were attacked, pillaged and burned. Almost everyone from both stores were killed, brutally. Some were skinned while still alive and others stripped of their clothing and shot repeatedly with arrows…one body was found with twenty arrows sticking in him. One person did escape, narrowly, from the Fresno River store and he sounded the alarm to Savage. At about the same time, or shortly thereafter, his Mariposa Creek Store was attacked, plundered and burned. All there were killed. And another attack occurred at “Four Creeks” in what appeared to start off as an unrelated “passage tax” perpetrated by the Kahweahs tribe. After some bartering on what would be an accepted tribute for crossing their territory, the Kahweahs, reluctanly, left, muttering, but returned with a larger portion of the tribe, attacked and killed the travelers. One escaped, but not without injury to his arm which was subsequently amputated.

The local sheriff and other citizens appealed to the Governor of California for their defense. Raids on the populous continued to an almost routine cadence. A spontaneous, haphazard troop was gathered, without adequate supplies and almost totally without organization to go rout out the Indians. This skirmish on January 11, 1851 did nothing except scatter the tribes and left the settlers with one killed and several wounded, one seriously.

Some of the troops went back to Mariposa carrying the wounded. Of the rest, a more organized force was put together. Among them and those that joined in later were Captain Kuykendall (who was later part of the Mariposa Battalion) and James D. Savage (who would command it). They leisurely followed the tribes (estimated at about 500 and composed of, among others, the Chowchilla, Nootchu, Pohonochee, Kahweah and Yosemite tribes). The leader of the tribes was Jose Rey (known also as King Joseph).

It is said that many of the raids and even the initial attacks were about plundering the goods of the miners and settlers. This is misleading. Though it is true much pillage and plundering did occur, it was not the motivation; it was merely the sustaining force that kept the attacks going. As with the warring in our own western civilization, the motivation for the wars were about territory or to right a wrong experienced by the leaders or nations involved. But to sustain the war required some form of “payment” to soldiers to motivate them and that was usually the plunder or the “spoils of the war”. It was no different here. Though it was the encroachment of miners on Tenaya’s territory that motivated him to attack Savage’s Trading Post, it was the spoils of the attack that supplied much of the motivation of his braves to partake in the attack. Indeed, it may well have been the sole motivation for some of the raids on the settlers.

It wasn’t long before the troops caught up with the renegades. It was late in the day. A scouting party was sent out to see what the positions were and how to plan an attack. The scouts were not seen by the tribes until their return to their camp. During the night, the troops were taunted about their latest defeat and the tribes boasted of their robberies and raids they had performed. They even called out Savage by name.

Once the numbers and position of the tribes’ camp was determined, the troop planned to attack the following morning. They successfully surprised them, burned the village and the tribes scattered into the foothills. It was then decided to go back to Mariposa rather than pursued them into the foothills.

Shortly after returning, the Governor had responded to their request and authorized the formation of a Battalion in Mariposa, the officers to be selected and chosen among themselves. The Governor had also notified the US Indian Commissioners of the situation. His concern was two fold. First, he hoped to get US Army troops or, at least, financing from the Government. But secondly, and somewhat surprising, he wanted to avoid a widening rift between the settlers and the locals. By most accounts, for almost all of the history with the whites (whether Mexicans or the Americans), the Indians for the most part, were peaceful. Very few even owned weapons other than a bow and arrow, which they used for hunting and hardly any of them, had mules or horses[4]. It was hoped by getting the US Indian Commissioner involved, that a peace could be found that would allow co-existence of the settlers and natives after the war.

The Commander, with a rank of Major was to be James Savage. Initially, it was for 100 men, but was later revised to 200. Just before leaving to seek out Tenaya’s tribe, the US Indian Commissioners arrived from Washington with new marching orders. They were to seek out Tenaya’s Tribe and any others they could find and get them to accept a treaty where they would be relocated to a reservation (near the Fresno River) and be supplied all that they needed to sustain themselves and their culture. They were not to engage them unless absolutely necessary.

Shortly after leaving Mariposa, the Battalion happened across the Nootchu “Ranchera”, surprising both Nootchu’s and the Battalion. They immediately surrendered and accepted the treaty. Savage didn’t want to lead 200 men into the valley while taking “in tow” the captives, so he split the group up by setting up foot races to select 100 of the strongest of his men. He then sent runners (with his own and Nootchu scouts) to the valley to request Tenaya and his band come out peaceably. After a few days, Tenaya appeared in camp alone saying that his braves would be coming out shortly.

After a few days, Savage decided to go in after them with Tenaya leading the way. Prior to reaching the valley, they came across the band coming up from the valley. After some discussion, Tenaya followed his own tribe back to the Nootchu camp, escorted by Captain Boling’s company of the Battalion as guards. The rest of the Battalion went into the valley to search for others. They entered the valley on March 25, 1851[5]. While Savage’s team scouted the Valley (fruitlessly), Tenaya, his band of Yosemities, and the Nootchu captives had all escaped into the foothills while being left unguarded one night.

It may seem, in this abbreviated account, that Captain Boling was derelict in his duties allowing the captives to go unguarded. No one was more certain of this than Boling, himself. The captives…all of them…were actually looking forward to the reservation, payments for their lands, the gifts and the security the treaty offered. The troops and the captives had been getting along famously. The officers and men of the Mariposa Battalion were completely shocked and blind sided by this. It was a complete mystery. If it weren’t for their obvious excitement about the reservation, of course, the band would have been guarded. But even so, the Battalion might have expected that some may try to escape — but every man, woman and child? Something was amiss. In investigating the situation, it was discovered that during the night, scouts from the Chow-Chilla tribe had come in telling them that the Commissioners plan to kill them all to avoid payment for their lands. So they all fled in fear for their lives. This was discovered by one of the guides who was able to track down most them and bring them back (Tenaya and his band remained at large).

When this was discovered, Savage proposed to the Commissioners, that a large enough force be organized to track down the Chowchillas. Left to their own devices, they could undermine the whole treaty organization. The commissioners agreed. Savage was put in charge commanding Captain Boling and Dill. But after a short time, Savage was summoned to return to the settlement. His efforts were better utilized by the US Indian Commissioners in the organization of the reservation and communicating with the captives. After an arduous campaign, the Chowchillas were subdued. The search and eventual capture of Tenaya and his band was under the “watch” of Captain Boling.

James Savage Grave Site at Henley Recreation Area

James Savage Grave Site at Henley Recreation Area

Savage was still involved with Indian Affairs as the Indian War came to a close and the Mariposa Battalion was “mustered out.” But the close of the war didn’t close the issue of settler and Indian unrest. Though skirmishes continued, the war was over and what remained was more like lawlessness than tribal uprisings. There was plenty of blame to go around on both sides. A number of issues are important in this final chapter of Major Savage’s life. However, his involvement with Yosemite was now over. There were two reservations created, one was on the Fresno River, near Savage’s Trading Post and the other set up at Kings River. The King’s River reservation was located on very desirable farming land, coveted by many of the ranchers. Also, Chief Tenaya was granted his request to return to the Yosemite Valley under certain restrictions (which it is said that he followed), but also, some of his band, the Yosemites, ran away from the reservation and began causing trouble. A new county, Tulare, had been established from the southern part of Mariposa County. Some of the “shady” ranchers arranged to get themselves elected to significant positions in the new county government.

One of those elected, Walter T. Harvey, to the post of Judge, was also very interested in the land on the King’s River Reservation. He and others believed that it was inappropriate for the federal government to give away land that belonged to the state. In anticipation of a legal battle (and because he thought he could get away with it), Harvey and others decided to “Squat” on part of the reservation. The reservation was vast. It was not possible to go “around” the reservation to get to the other side, it had to be traversed and the Indians allowed this, but, squatting was not allowed.

According to the peace treaty, the Indians owned the land by themselves and no one else. In a confrontation with Harvey and his squatters on the subject, a fight broke out and several Indians were killed. Their chief, Pasquale, went to Savage to explain their trouble with Harvey and his people. Savage, though no longer associated with the Commissioners or Indian Agency, was still very interested in their affairs. He was trying to make a living trading with natives from both the Fresno Reservation as well as King’s River.

Pooles Ferry Marker in Reedly, California

Pooles Ferry Marker in Reedly, California

August 16, 1852 was Savage’s last day. There is no question that he was killed by Walter Harvey. It happened near Pooles Ferry, close the Kings River Reservation. But what actually happened is a bit foggy. The following is an account of the events I have compiled from various sources mentioned already.

Savage let it be known that he would not tolerate infringement on the Indian rights, calling Harvey a coward and a murderer. Harvey called out Savage saying that he, Savage, was afraid to meet him face-to-face and if he did, he, Harvey, would kill him. When Savage heard this, he immediately mounted his horse and road over to the agency to have it out with Harvey.

A verbal altercation quickly turned physical. Several times, Savage had knocked Harvey to the ground. On the last time, while he was bent over Harvey, Savage’s pistol fell from his waistband unbeknownst to him. Harvey’s friend picked it up. As Harvey got up, he noticed the gun in his friend’s hand and asked, “Is that my pistol you have?” and was answered, “No. This belongs to Major Savage.”

Without hesitation, Harvey drew his own gun and fired at Savage, with a fatal shot that entered in his chest and exited by his hip. Savage went for his own gun, and failing to find it, went after Harvey unarmed and died before he hit the ground. Harvey then fired twice more into Savage’s body and once through the head. He then ran from the store.

Harvey was questioned about the killing. Records of a trial have been lost.[6] Harvey was not held accountable for the killing, he became a successful politician, but, according to Lafayette Bunnell, “…the ghost of Major Savage seemed to have haunted him, for ever after, he was nervous and irritable and finally died of paralysis….”[7]

I am suspicious about the account of how what happened did happen for a number of reasons. First of all, it reads like a dime novel. Secondly, there seems to be some non sequiturs. When Harvey saw the gun in his friend’s hand why would he ask if it belonged to himself? He obviously was wearing his own gun. Why would Savage, who just heard that someone else had his gun look for his own? If this all went down as a justified shooting, who was it that reported THIS story such that it did NOT make it into the public record, thereby convicting Harvey? I don’t know. But, hopefully, I will eventually find out.

Major Savage is now buried at Hensley Recreational Area[8]. His grave was relocated there from Fresno Crossing in 1973. Savage was originally buried, near where he fell at Poole’s Ferry, at what is now Reedley, CA and then the grave was moved to Fresno Crossing (west of Coarsegold) in 1855 near the site of his third trading post.


Much of this narrative comes from information provided by Layayette Bunnell’s book just sited. Some of the details came from Big Jim Savage, Blonde King of the Indians and Discoverer of Yosemite by Ben T. Traywick, self published in 1972. Also, of note, is the work of Carl Russell, a Naturalist who worked for the National Park Service and published 100 Years in Yosemite, (1947, 2nd Ed, Berkeley, University of California Press). And finally, James O’Meara’s The White Medicine-Man published in “The Californian” 1882 and reprinted in Yosemite Notes Volume 30 (1951), Nos. 11 and 12.  [9]


[1] This marker is on private property which has no relation to Savages’ trading post. The buildings here are either residences or vacation rentals. Only the location and the marker are relevant even though one of the buildings looks like a restored log cabin. The marker reads,”Site of Savage’s Trading Post. Here in 1849 James D. Savage established a store built of logs. He engaged in trading and mining and married several squaws for protection and influence. In Spring of 1850, fearing Indian depredations, he moved to Mariposa Creek. In December, his store and others were pillaged and burned and a real war began. A volunteer Battalion was formed and Savage was elected Major. In pursuit of the most warlike tribe, their secret hideout, Yosemite Valley, was discovered and the war brought to a quiet end.

“Major Savage was killed by a political opponent, August, 1852. Several years later one of his widows guided John Hite, a poor prospector, a few miles up this south fork to discover a gold mine that made him a millionaire.”

[2] I have checked with locals in Mariposa and consulted a map from the early 1890s and compared locations with “Google Earth” and I can find no trace of the second trading post. But I haven’t done a ground search and have other resources to check.

[3] This is according to his grave marker now located at Henley Recreation Area

[4] Some had horses, but they were more like cattle, in that they had them for sustenance

[5] Bunnell, in his book Discovery of The Yosemite said the date was March 21st. But his book was published in the 1890s and his memory may be faulty on that. In his article published in 1859 for James Hutchings’ California Magazine he just said “March, ‘51”. A number of other sources reported it to be March 27th, others say the 25th, and another says March 23rd. I now believe that the 25th is the correct date.

[6] Big Jim Savage, Blond King of the Indians and Discoverer of Yosemite, Ben T Traywick, 1972, Chapter 14 as digitized at

[7] Discovery of The Yosemite Lafayette H. Bunnell, 1892. Chapter 17 as transcribed and digitized by Daniel E Anderson at

[8] There are four granite markers at the site that read as follows,





[9] As transcribed and digitized by Daniel E Anderson at


January 21, 2016. Updated to use my photos of Pooles Ferry and Savage Gravesite. Also I added a photo of the area at Fresno Crossing that shows where Savage’s third Trading Post may have been located. If this is the site of the trading post, it would also be the site of the James Savage’s grave site after being moved from Pooles Ferry in 1855.