Meaning of the Name “Yosemite”

A group of some 200 miners called the Mariposa Battalion entered the Yosemite Valley on (March 27) 1851, hoping to drive out a tribe of Native Americans who lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and were threatening the miners’ claims to the land and its ore.

The group was led by John D. Savage, a New York native, who fought with John Fremont’s California battalion in the Mexican War. In 1848, Savage worked for John Sutter, aiding John Marshall in the construction of the mill at Coloma where Marshall subsequently first discovered gold.

For a time, Savage lived with the Indians of the San Joaquin Valley, learning their language and marrying the daughters of several influential chiefs.

Savage created a trading post on the South fork of the Merced River, employing Indians to mine gold for him, paying them for their gold with blankets, knives and other goods from his store.

“An ounce of gold [for] … five pounds of flour, or a pound of bacon, a shirt required five ounces, and a pair of boots or a hat brought a full pound of the precious metal,” says the California Military Museum in a monogram on the battalion “Major” Savage would eventually lead against local tribes.

In December 1850, Savage’s tradiing post at Fresno Crossing was destroyed and three of his employees killed.

The Mariposa Battlation, under Savage’s command, was composed of three companies. Before the battalion took to the field a federal Indian commission attempted to reach a peaceful solution. Six tribes signed a treaty and were sent to reservations.

The Miwok and Chowchillas didn’t sign. Two companies  followed the Miwok tribe, which the battalion members knew as the Yosemites, into their valley. The tribe’s chief was called Tenaya.

One battalion member, Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, kept a journal of his experiences, Discovery of the Yosemite, which he published in 1880.

Lafayette Bunnell, 1880

Bunnell was moved by the valley’s majesty, writing: “As I looked, a peculiar, exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.”

And, elsewhere: “My devout astonishment at the supreme grandeur of  the scenery by which I was surrounded, continued to engross my mind.”

In Chapter IV, Bunnell describes the actual naming, which occurred around a campfire with members of the battalion. El Capitan looked down on their site. Bridal Veil Falls “was being wafted in the breeze,” Bunnell wrote.  He suggested the valley needed a name. He wanted to give naming rights  to Tunnehill, a battalion member who had received a “baptism” in the valley by falling into the icy Merced River with his mule.

 “If whisky can be provided for such a ceremony, I shall be happy to participate,” Tunnehill replied. “But if it is to be another cold water affair, I have no desire to take a hand. I have done enough in that line for tonight.” 

Various names were suggested and discarded. Some romantic. Some foreign. Some religious. 

From the suggested names from Scripture, Bunnell “inferred that I was not the only one in whom religious emotions or thoughts had been aroused by the mysterious power of the surrounding scenery.” 

Dissatisfied with the suggestions offered, Bunnell says he remarked that ““an American name would be the most appropriate;”  and that he couldn’t “see any necessity for going to a foreign country for a name for American scenery—the grandest that had ever yet been looked upon.

“It would be better to give it an Indian name than to import a strange and inexpressive one,” he said, proposing to name the valley for the tribe occupying it.: “Yo-sem-i-ty.”

Such a name was ” suggestive, euphonious and certainly American.” And it would immortalize the “tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return.”

There was some objection from Tunnehill and others to use of an Indian name but Bunnell’s suggestion was put to a vote and Yo-sem-i-ty won. 

Bunnell was wrong about several facts.

The valley was not named after the tribe they were pursuing. The tribe who lived there, the Ahwahnechee, called valley Awooni, meaning “large mouth,” which Bunnell spelled “Ahwahnee.”

Bunnell also thought Yosemite meant “grizzly bear.”

Savage, who knew the Miwok language, likely confused Yosemite for ihumati or isumati, which do translate to grizzly bear.

Bunnell notes that while Savage was their best authority on the Miwok language, Savage admitted he had difficulty understanding Tenaya as he “appeared to speak a Pai-ute jargon.”

“Yosemite” was the name given the tribe living in the Ahwahnee Valley by the Miwoks in the region who feared them because they were composed from renegades from several tribes including the Pai-ute who were the Miwok’s enemies.

Translated, Yosemite means:

“Those who kill.”


Filed under: California History

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  1. I find this 1856 letter by James M. Hutchings to be the most definitive and convincing statement regarding the derivation of the name “Yosemite.” Have you seen it?

    “In the pleasing description of the Yo-Ham-i-te Valley in No. 6 of your paper, in a note by the writer some exception is taken to the name, wherein he says, it should be called Yosemity, or Little Bear; while Dr. Scott calls it Yo-Amit, and I call it Yo-Ham-i-te. Now all cannot be right. • I am desirous it should have its proper Indian name, whatever that may be. Last year, when we visited that Valley, finding no one could give us any information of the trail, we went 25 miles out of our way, to Mr. Hunt’s store, on the Frezno River, where the remaining Indians belonging to the Yo-Ham-i-te tribe reside; and by the kindness of Mr. Hunt we were provided with guides belonging to that tribe, and they invariably pronounced it Yo-Ham-i-tee. After we returned, and before publishing our description of it in my Magazine, I wrote to Mr. Hunt for the exact pronunciation of the word, and he very promptly sent me “Yo-Ham-i-te. and moreover, Mr. H. informed me that Major Savage–the first white man who ever entered that Valley, and who visited it several times–always called it by that name. • Mr. Riley, the compiler of the list of Indian words published in the Wide West, informed me that Ham-i-tee was the Indian name for rapids and waterfalls; and that Yo was large, grand, mighty–and thus those possibly were called by the Indians Yo-Ham-i-te. • Grizzly bear, in the Yo-Ham-i-te dialect, is called Oo-soo’-moo-te, and as they could be found almost anywhere, of all sizes, and such high waterfalls found only in that Valley, it seems to be very reasonable to conclude that Yo-Ham-i-te is most likely to be correct. • With respect, I remain yours, very truly, James M. Hutchings.” James M. Hutchings in California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences, September 12, 1856 in Sacramento Daily Union, September 17, 1856.

    Comment by Andrew Ward — 1.15.2013 @ 1:01 pm

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