Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

The Man Who Invented Yosemite (Hint: It's not John Muir)

Image from "A Familiar Letter from a Daughter to Her Mother" (1871) by Alice Ives Van Schaack | Image:

Only a couple of thousand tourists trekked into Yosemite in 1871, yet they knew what they were coming to see; the sites they visited were predetermined and their responses to them were pre-felt. The magnificent valley may have been well off the beaten path but its falls and domes and meadows were already "sites."

That's why these intrepid travelers had taken the trouble, and in the early 1870s it took some doing, to work their way up and over the rugged western slope of the Sierras and into what already had become a totemic terrain.

Alice Van Schaack was one of these pilgrims: when the 27-year-old New Yorker arrived late that July, and caught her first glimpse of the valley below, she gave voice to a set of emotions that others before her (and many since) have expressed: drinking in the "wonderfully lovely scene," she later wrote her family, was a celestial experience: "heaven itself could not have been much lovelier."

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She had no reason to change her mind during her brief four-day stay. Hitting all the hot spots - Bridal Veil, "now a mere ribbon, while the Ribbon Fall itself is only observable by the dark outline its waters have left on the rock;" Yosemite Falls (which were dry); and Mirror Lake, "which we crossed in a leaky boat, and then waited patiently until its surface was undisturbed by a ripple, when we were rewarded by two perfect dissolving views of the North and South Domes."

About the slow-running falls, Nevada and Vernal, she wrote: although "we saw [them] at an unfavorable season, there was, however, a sufficient volume of water to give us pleasure, and I enjoyed watching the spray as it was blown down the stream. We then went on foot down a shorter trail...and had a fine view of the Vernal Fall from below. If you notice a lack of adjectives, please remember...I exhausted my stack in the valley."

Title Page for Van Schaak's published letter | Image: Courtesy Special Collections, Honnold Library/Claremont CollegesAs for the obligatory late-night observation of a moon rise, Alice waxed pious: "I shall never forget it, or indeed anything of interest connected with our trip; it was pure, unalloyed pleasure, such as we rarely taste in this life, but, I trust, may ever be ours in the world to come."

Her sentimental responses to her high-country adventure were heart-felt, if platitudinous. The religious origins of some of them are easy enough to discern, like Alice's sanctimonious remark after touring the Calaveras Grove (now Calaveras Big Trees State Park): "As I stood in the[ir] shadow...and thought of the many generations that had passed away during their existence, for a moment I felt insignificant in comparison, until I remembered that I am immortal, and they are not." She was saved.

Less obvious is why she thought Yosemite would be a salve, why she wanted to travel so far to encounter its exotic beauties. Thank not John Muir (who was in the valley when Alice was there, but they did not meet); his first published testimonial to Yosemite's grandeur would not appear until December 1871, five months later.

Rather, Alice's guide was the intrepid James Mason Hutchings, who ran the hotel in which she and her party stayed (among its other guest were feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton); he proved an amiable and attentive guide, leading them from one stellar location to another, educating them about their unique features, historic significance, and moral import (the latter of which, as you will have noticed, particularly attracted Alice).

She had met him in her family's parlor back in upstate New York, or at least she was introduced there to his literary persona: her family owned a copy of his guidebook, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (1862). Its recommendations for which routes to travel to the valley, like its step-by-step choreography of the touristic experience once there, were followed to the letter.

Even Alice's post-Yosemite correspondence, that her brother would publish as A Familiar Letter from a Daughter to Her Mother (1871), in which she recounted Hutchings' daily presence in the group's activities, contained references to the hotelier's writings so that her correspondents could follow her journey in their mind's eye: "As you will see by referring to the map, page 111, Hutchings' Yo-Semite Guide Book, we took the Coulterville trail, following the left bank of the crystal waters of the Merced. It is well named, for mercy is ever pure."

Thousands of other visitors - and the many more who only traveled to the Sierra in their imaginations - were as indebted to Hutchings' literal and figurative framing of this remarkable landscape. That's why historian Jen Huntley is convinced that he is the first architect of its tourism industry. He made Yosemite, Yosemite.

It's more precise to say he fabricated a certain version of Yosemite. Although much better known for his lengthy, and ultimately unsuccessful, court battle with the U.S. government to retain his claims to the land on which his hotel was constructed, it was Hutchings' construction of another sort that opened the way for the creation of the national park. Because for him "there was no contradiction in the idea that one could simultaneously feel a deep, spiritual connection to a place and seek to make a living in and from that place," Hutchings first mapped out the intersection of conservationism and consumerism.

Book cover for "The Making of Yosemite: James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of America's Most Popular National Park" by Jen Huntley
His career, Huntley argues in her persuasive new book, "illustrates the way that the Yosemite Grant [later park] and the environmental conservation movement it launched were integrally connected to and interdependent upon the consumer tourism that would be his bread and butter." Hutchings' actions on the ground and in print made it possible for such well-heeled visitors as Alice Van Schaack to revel in this remote playground; and, ever since, for millions of others to hike its trails, scale Half Dome, or bed down in Camp Curry.

So why is Hutchings so little known today? Why is Huntley's penetrating examination of his life and career the first full-length treatment of an individual who did so much to bring Yosemite to light? Now you can thank John Muir.

Muir had managed Hutchings' hotel for several years, and apparently was intimate enough with his employer's wife, Elvira, that her love for Muir ended her marriage with Hutchings. Yet it was not this emotional tangle that was responsible for Muir's eclipse of his one-time boss. Instead Muir's ascendance in American environmental culture was a consequence of his celebration of the ecstatic, his assertion that it was in nature, and nature alone, that Americans (and a lot of others) would be reborn.

Their spiritual renewal would come through direct contact with the glacier-carved Range of Light, a divine sanctuary that Muir believed only could be appreciated through individual tests of will.

His "wilderness was a much more immersive experience for those who would adopt it," Huntley notes, "replacing the act of viewing and 'reading' landscape scenery for its 'intrinsic' messages with the act of toiling in high mountain places to cultivate a relationship with the sacred...."

Seeking higher ground was also a way to shed the grinding materialism of industrial society. "Muir taught generations of readers to seek solitude in Nature," Hutchings' biographer affirms, and "to understand wilderness not only as separate from but morally...superior to 'base' human activity."

There's nothing so modern as Muir's anti-modernism.

Nothing may be more damaging, too. Huntley, for instance, makes a strong case for critiquing Muir's articulation of a binary world in which the human is inimical to the natural - and employs Hutchings as her foil.

To do so, she makes extensive use of historian William B. Cronon's insights, laid out in his now-iconic essay, "The Trouble With Wilderness": Muir's call of the wild, for all its archetypal import, offers a "flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature." As such, Cronon concludes, "wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism."

And illustration from "Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California" (1862) by James M. Hutchings | Photo:

By contrast, Hutchings may offer an antidote for what ails us (and the planet). While he "lived and worked in Yosemite," Huntley writes, "he strove to weave together his sense of Yosemite's sacred value with a daily life built on local resources." In seeking to educate his readers about nature's sublime values and make a decent living at the same time, he adopted a small-is-beautiful approach that speaks volumes to this climate-changed era.

"If we are to imagine our own sustainable future," Huntley writes, the critical first step will be to find "a way to marry our aesthetic and spiritual appreciation for the value of nature with our need to flourish."

Achieving that difficult balance requires a searching, inward look, not unlike that moment when Alice van Schaak gazed upon Mirror Lake - "the most exquisite sight, I think, we saw in our wanderings."

As its waters stilled, and the trees above, which formed "a fringe of living green," swam into view, she recalled "the Claude Lorraine glass, Mr. [George W.] King, the artist," had shown her the day before. Peering into its solid dark convex form, and the diminished scale it produced, Alice glimpsed her proper place in the landscape.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues.


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About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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