Public land, private settlers, and The Yosemite Valley Case of 1872

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Author: Paul Kens
Date: Annual 2009
Publisher: California Supreme Court Historical Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,172 words
Lexile Measure: 1470L

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In a 2009 documentary film, Director Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan describe the National Parks as "America's Best Idea." (1) Although they may be right, the establishment of the national parks has not been without controversy. This article is about the creation of one of America's first national parks, the Yosemite National Park in California. More specifically, it is about a controversy that arose when plans for the park came into conflict with claims of pioneers who had already settled in the Yosemite Valley. One of those settlers, James Mason Hutchings, persistently resisted California's efforts to have him removed from the land he had claimed. Hutchings's legal battle with the state eventually reached the United States Supreme Court in the 1872 case called The Yosemite Valley Case. (2)

In today's thinking, Hutchings's battle to retain his land may appear to be a greedy campaign to exploit a national treasure. (3) However, a closer look at The Yosemite Valley Case reveals that the conflict was much more complicated. Usually overlooked is that Hutchings's legal battle was also woven into a question of how the vast wealth of the West would be distributed. Most accounts in the press of Hutchings's battle focused on the hope of preserving the wonders of Yosemite. But the stakes were different in the courts, where the issues involved the future of the homestead movement and land reform--the idea that the public domain should be distributed in small plots to "actual settlers" who would live on the land and cultivate it.

James Mason Hutchings, an English cabinetmaker, came to California in the Gold Rush. Like many pioneer Californians, he was a frustrated gold miner, aspiring entrepreneur, and something of an adventurer. In 1855 he set off on an adventure that would shape his destiny. Guided by two Yosemite Indians, Hutchings took a small expedition, including artist Thomas A. Ayres, to the relatively unexplored Yosemite Valley. In 1855, after returning from his expedition, Hutchings published his experience, along with Ayres's drawings, in the Mariposa Gazette and the San Francisco Daily California Chronicle. He later included it in the inaugural edition of Hutchings' California Magazine. In his own words, he hoped "to portray its [Yosemite's] beautiful scenery and curiosities; to speak of its mineral and agricultural products; to tell of its wonderful resources and commercial advantages; and to give utterance to the inner life and experience of its people." (4)

Hutchings was not the first white man to visit the valley, nor was his group even the first tourist party. Yosemite was discovered by a loosely organized army of whites who set out on a campaign against local Indians, and a man named James C. Lamon led the first tourist party into the valley. Nevertheless, Hutchings was the earliest and one of the most vocal advocates of the beauty of Yosemite, and he and Lamon were among the original white settlers of the valley. (5)

Believing that the Yosemite Valley lay within the public domain of the United States,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A225794142