James Mason Hutchings: 1824-1902

James Hutchings was kind of like the “Where’s Waldo” of Yosemite. If you look in on Yosemite in 1856, you’ll see James Hutchings leading one of the first tours of Yosemite. If you look in around April of 1864, you’ll see him opening “Hutchings House” and becoming an Inn Keeper. In the 1870s, you will find him being evicted from his Hotel after loosing a court battle with the Supreme Court.  In the 1880’s he served as Park Superintendent for a time. In the 1890s you might find him leading tours around the valley.

Though hardly in the forefront, historically speaking[i] he did seem to pop up throughout the last half of the 19th century intertwined with more prominent figures.He was just one of many Inn Keepers in the park and then only for about 10 years. He published a number of his own articles about Yosemite in his California Magazine, but then, also published articles about Yosemite written by others. John Muir out shined him on this front, publishing more than 6 articles read not only in California, but all over the country and the world. Hutchings also wrote a book, In the Heart of the Sierras that was well received. But books on Yosemite were also published by Lafayette Bunnell, Josiah D. Whitney and John Muir (who wrote 6 of them). Hutchings was just one of many Yosemite tour guides. Though he was the park Guardian, he only lasted about four years and was canned because of his constant bickering with the Commissioners. But he was, probably, Yosemite’s biggest fan and, as it happens, adversary and may have done more than any other person to promote Yosemite in California.

James HutchingsHe was born February 20, 1824[ii] in Towcester, Northamptonshire, England. He was schooled in literature, history and the sciences and, at the age of 17, took up the family trade of carpentry. He was intrigued by a showing of an American Indian Exhibition in 1844 which instilled a yearning for travel and adventure. In 1848, he traveled to New York and after a few months, he relocated to New Orleans where he took on as a newspaper correspondent. It was there he heard of the California Gold Rush and so moved there to find his fortune. It is unclear how well he did with that adventure, some say he failed miserably others say he did well, but lost it all in a bank failure. In any case, the venture was short lived and he took on as columnist/editor with the Placerville Herald

Almost by accident, Hutchings discovered he had a marketable talent in writing. As a deeply religious man, he was appalled at the paper’s and other institution’s operating on Sunday. He wrote a column underscoring his disdain that read like the 10 commandments and it was received with wild enthusiasm. So he then wrote a column called “The Miner’s Ten Commandments.” It was so popular that he created a newsletter of the column and it sold over 100,000 copies within the next year.

This is when he decided to create California Magazine to expound on the wonders of California. He went out to search for material, financing his way with his newsletters. In the process, he led the first documented tourist party to Yosemite in July of 1855[iii]. He had read about the valley from an account by Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion that entered the valley in 1851. He led a party of 4 (Walter Millard, Alexander Stair, Thomas Ayres and himself) plus guides, whom he found along the way (with an exhaustive, and at times, fruitless search). Thomas Ayres, an illustrator, was hired to draw pictures of their trip.

They left San Francisco on June 27th, 1855 sailing to Sacramento on the Martin White. His goal was to visit a number of places; Yosemite was only one of them which, according to Bunnell, had a 1000 foot waterfall (Boy! Was he in for a surprise!) At the end of the trip, on a stop in Mariposa, Hutchings wrote an account of the trip for the local paper and later published the story in California Magazine. The newspaper account is what Galen Clark read that prompted him to visit the Valley in the following month.

Hutchings frequented the valley often. He had a strong desire to stay in the valley year-round, but needed to convince himself that it was feasible. The concern was that if the Valley, now known to have cliffs over 3000 feet high, was half filled with snow (1500 feet) during the winter months, then it wouldn’t do. He could find no one that had been in the valley during the winter. By this time the Valley Indians had left the valley and become absorbed into other tribes. I believe he thought that the discovery of the valley took place in May of 1851 not March, so consulting Bunnell as to the severity of winter wasn’t a consideration[iv]. Determined to see for himself if he could live in the valley year round, he persuaded James Lamon (the first to build a cabin in the valley, but not until sometime later) and Galen Clark both of whom, by this time, lived at Clark’s Station (now Wawona or Big Trees) to help him to carve out a trail to the Valley in March of 1862. Both Clark and Lamon gave up part way along because of heavy snows. They felt it was more prudent to wait for spring. However, Hutchings’ purpose was to see if the valley could be habitable during the winter months. If he waited until spring, it would be another year before his question could be answered. So he forged on and made it.

Convinced he, and his family, could live there year round, Hutchings began working on plans to secure property (the then “Upper House”) and homesteading 160 acres, but it wasn’t until April 1864 that all the “mechanics” of the purchase was in place. By this time, both he and James Lamon had homesteaded property in the valley.

Tree RoomHe changed the name of Upper House to Hutchings House. It was by most standards a pretty primitive establishment. The “rooms” weren’t so much rooms as they were cubicles separated muslin sheets. The original building was put up with lumber hand hewn for dead fall around the valley. New lumber was difficult to acquire.

James as the proprietor waited tables, tended bar, regaled the patrons with stories of Yosemite while his wife, Elvira, and mother-in-law, Florantha Sproat, ran the kitchen. His daughter, Florence, was the first white born in the valley (in 1864) and grew to be quite a flamboyant youngster around the valley. Actually, she was a tomboy and adept at the reins of a horse. It wasn’t uncommon for her to meet incoming stages on horseback standing the horse up on its hind legs and, with a flourish, wave her hat in the air in greeting. Her younger sister, Gertrude (called “Cosie”) was born in 1867. Hutchings son, William, was born in 1869 with a spine deformity which limited his activities.

Remains of Big Tree of "The Big Tree Room"

Remains of Big Tree of
“The Big Tree Room”

Since there was no sawmill in the valley, Hutchings bought one and had its parts packed in on mules. Hutchings didn’t have much luck figuring out how to get it functional. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, he had hired John Muir to put it together and run his saw mill. He was then able to upgrade the hotel by putting in rooms and selling lumber to other establishments in the valley. For a year and a half, Muir worked for Hutchings, not only running the saw mill, but also building the Rock and River Cottages as well as the “Big Tree Room” built around a living tree. Though the hotel and Big Tree Room are gone, the tree still remains standing, though it died in 2006. The park service recently cut it down to 30 feet to avoid the possibility of it falling across the road.

Muir spent a lot of time with the young Cosie and Mrs. Hutchings. There is not a hint of any improprieties between them, though it is not clear how convinced Mr. Hutchings was of their innocence. The Muir-Hutchings relationship was short lived and ended in July of 1871. Muir complained that Hutchings was vain and shallow and never dealt with him fairly. Hutchings was apparently taken aback by Muir’s increasing popularity from his articles on the valley and, it is speculated, that jealousy of that popularity was compounded by his own assessment that he, Hutchings, had been THE authority well before Muir ever set foot in the valley. It is also possible, he was concerned over the growing relationship Muir seemed to be having with his daughter and wife[v]. These bitter feelings followed both of them for years; Hutchings carried them the rest of his life. Hutchings, never even mentioned Muir by name in his book, In the Heart of the Sierras. He does refer to “a good practical sawyer” who is taken to mean John Muir.[vi] But Hutchings takes credit for the technical problems that Muir solved concerning the saw mill.

There is no question that Hutchings loved the Valley, was quite knowledgeable about it and worked hard to make improvements. His love of the park often times overtook his attention to the details of inn keeping. It was not uncommon for him to leave one table for more water and get distracted into a discussion on the geology of the park at another table.

However, as for the rules of the park, specifically, the revoked right to own property within the park, he largely ignored them. Once California took possession of the Yosemite Grant in 1866, they declared that private property could not be held within the park and when confronted by Hutchings’ refusal to hand over the property, they took out a lawsuit against him (as a test case) to evict him in 1867.  Hutchings countered and took legal action that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In 1874, the court ruled against him and was, effectively, evicted from the property. There is a difference of opinion on what actually happened next. In his book, The Heart of the Sierras he claimed the commissioners didn’t even give him the opportunity to lease back and continue operating (and living in) the Hutchings House.[vii] But others say, he didn’t even try to get it back.[viii] Whatever the truth, the fact is that the lease was awarded to George Coulter and AJ Murphy, who, as it happens, were the ONLY bidders for the lease.

Hutchings, along with the family moved back to San Francisco, finally, late in 1875. Hutchings’ wife became increasingly despondent and eventually moved out and filed for devoice. Interestingly, the children stayed with their grandmother, Mrs Sproat with Hutchings. Elvira would see the children only at church on Sundays and, occasionally, when she visited her mother. Hutchings started a tourist agency taking people to Yosemite and giving lectures on the park and its environs. After a growing relationship of three years, he married Augusta Ladd Sweetland in 1879.

After the outster of Hutchings and other land claimants in Yosemite, the Commissioners grew under increasingly vociferous attack. These attacks were not limited to the commission, but also of the concessionaires and even some of the legislators. Finally, the legislature voted to dissolve the current board, appointing a new set of commissioners and in 1880 they appointed, guess who, James Mason Hutchings as the new guardian!

Hutchings, his new wife, his children and, surprise, surprise, his previous mother-in-law, Mrs Sproat all came back to the valley. Hutchings secured his old place from J.K. Barnard who was running Hutchings House as “Barnard House”. Hutchings did well as a guardian. He abolished tolls on all roads and trails within the Grant. He was helpful to the visitors and gave lectures on the various features of the park.

But life was not all sunshine and daisies. The year 1881 was particular hard on him. First of all, a dear friend of Florence’s and the niece of his friend John K Barnard, Effie Crippen, died from an accident at Mirror Lake[ix]. She passed August 31, 1881. Floy, as Florence, his daughter, was often called, sang at Effie’s funeral. Then, less than a month later, Floy, herself was killed by a falling rocks while she and friends were ascending up the Ledge Trail to Glacier Point[x]. Then, within six weeks, his second wife, Augusta Ladd Sweetland Hutchings, died of a lung hemorrhage, November 6, 1881.

In spite of his popularity with the public, he was difficult to get along with when it came to the commissioners and the local trades people. Finally, in 1884, he was replaced as guardian. The board replaced him with a series of others until Galen Clark was reinstated in 1889.

Hutchings move back to San Francisco where he picked up his touring business and began writing again. In 1886, he published his book, In the Heart of the Sierras. Not to be alone too long, Hutchings married for a third time, probably around 1892 to Emily Ann Edmunds. She was an English woman, daughter of a minister and whom he met while she was on vacation from London in Yosemite.

In the late 1800s, Hutchings took on as the “mine host” at the Calaveras Big Tree Grove Hotel. He worked it for about 3 years when he decided to retire. Late in October of 1902, he and Emily were headed to Yosemite for a short vacation before heading to San Francisco. On the Big Oak Flat Road, near the valley (El Capitan was already in view), one of the horses bolted. In the race down the hill, with Hutching trying to regain control of the team, Emily was thrown clear and a few moments later, Hutchings was tossed, headfirst, into a pile of rocks. Emily, suffering only minor cuts and bruises reached her husband and he said, “I am very much hurt.” Within 5 minutes, he passed away in her arms, mid afternoon, October 31, 1902. He was 78 years old. He was buried with his second wife and eldest daughter at the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery, November 2, 1902.

James Mason Hutchings was certainly well known in the valley, but he didn’t stand out in any extraordinary way. Yes, he was an Inn Keeper, but only for about 10 years. JJ Cook ran Black’s Hotel, Stoneman House and the Sentinel Hotel from the 1870s until his death in the early 1900s. Frederick Liedig ran a hotel for 18 years. He was a tour guide off and on over the years, but so were countless others, including Galen Clark. And, true, he was the Park Guardian and even spearheaded the move to buy up toll roads to give visitors free access to the park, he only lasted 4 years and was canned at the end of it.

There is no question that Hutchings loved the park, but he was not a vanguard of Yosemite’s rise, though he was there and an enthusiastic supporter. Others were more on the forefront of Yosemite’s coming into being as a resort and park. It was Galen Clark who, with John Conness, supplied the main impetus for the Yosemite Grant to California. But it was Hutchings documentation of his July 1855 visit that inspired Galen Clark to visit and settle there in the first place. Accordingly, one of his best “claims to fame” was his writings which brought Yosemite to the hearts and minds for the people of California before anyone else. However, it was John Muir that got the hearts and mind of the world on to Yosemite. So, once again, Hutchings runs as “second fiddle.”

James Mason Hutchings was the proverbial, “Jack of all trades, but Master of none.” Very few people had fingers in as many of the “pies of Yosemite” as Hutchings. For these endeavors, he deserves to be remembered.


[i] Except for a short stint as Park Guardian between 1880 and 1884 interrupting Galen Clark’s tenure.

[ii] Or 1818 or 1820 depending on who you read. It is 1818 on his tombstone. A letter to Yosemite National Park from the Society of California Pioneers dated September 6, 1941 quotes its own book as saying “1824” while the book, itself, says 1820. A letter from Gertrude “Cosie” Hutchings Mill, Hutchings’ daughter says “1820” All sources say February 20. However, an inscription in his book In the Heart of the Sierra Hutchings wrote, “The older I grow – I am now in my 67th year…” The inscription was dated August 28, 1890. This suggests that on his birthday that year, he turned 66 and was currently in his “67th year.”  That places his Year of Birth as 1824.

[iii] The first “tour” of the valley was conducted a year earlier by Robert Bruce Lamon (older brother of Yosemite Pioneer, James Lamon), but there is no known written record of journey.

[iv] Hutchings states in In the Heart of the Sierras Chapter 3, section titled The Yo Semite Valley First Seen by White Men that the date of the venture into the valley was May 5th or 6th and then, in a footnote, says that Bunnell’s statement that it was in March was incorrect. Well, he was wrong. The date was corroborated by a diary entry of Pvt Robert Eccleston, who was a member of the Battalion. Hutchings’ references were of the later visit to the valley in order to re-capture Chief Teneya. This correction to the correction is noted by Daniel E Anderson as an editor’s note in In the Heart of the Sierras digital copy as made available online at www.Yosemite.ca.us.

[v] See Editor’s note on In the Heart of the Sierras James Mason Hutchings, 1888, Chapter 10, “Eureka” from the digital copy as made available online at www.Yosemite.ca.us by Daniel E. Anderson where he speculated that other than Hutchings concern over Muir’s popularity that it might be “…because of  Hutchings’ wife’s attraction to Muir….”

[vi] In the Heart of the Sierras James Mason Hutchings, 1888, Chapter 10, section “Eureka” digital copy as made available online at www.Yosemite.ca.us by Daniel E. Anderson

[vii] In the Heart of the Sierras James Mason Hutchings, 1888, Chapter 11 digital copy as made available online at www.Yosemite.ca.us by Daniel E. Anderson

[viii] Yosemite’s Yesterdays, Volume II Hank Johnston, Flying Spur Press, 1991, Chapter II, Page 23. “…[he] refused to pay rent equal to the fair interest on the $24,000 that had been awarded for the property…”

[ix] She had stepped on a broken bottle cutting an artery in her foot. Too much blood was lost for her to be saved (according to Guide to the Yosemite Cemetery by Hank Johnston and Martha Lee, Yosemite Association, 1997

[x] Ironically, (or is it, “tragically”? Well it is interesting.) The Ledge Trail was one that Hutchings, himself, blazed some years earlier. It has since been closed as “too dangerous”