California State Military Department
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Preserving California's Military Heritage
California and the Indian Wars:
Mariposa Indian War, 1850-1851
by Warren A. Beck and Ynez D. Hasse

The Mariposa Indian War was the most famed Indian encounter with miners in the southern Sierra region and also led to the discovery of Yosemite Valley. In 1849, as gold seekers invaded the country immediately west of the present Yosemite National Park they found one of the more densely populated Indian areas of the state. This was a region where acorns were abundant and game was plentiful below the winter snow line. Unfortunately, gold was also easily found along the numerous mountain strearns. At first the Indians (mainly Mono Piutes) welcomed the white man and the goods which could be obtained by trade, but resentment grew as virtually every valley was taken over by the newcomers.

To a certain extent, the story of this clash between Indian and white is the saga of James D. Savage, one of the most remarkable of the many characters of the Gold Rush era. A tall blue-eyed blonde who always wore red shirts to better impress the Indians, Savage had been a Bear Flagger, a one-time Sutter employee, and the one who was reported to have excited San Franciscans by hauling a barrel of gold dust through a hotel lobby. Establishing trading posts on the Fresno River and Mariposa Creek, he reportedly traded to the Indians "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." Something of a linguist, Savage quickly learned most of the Indian tongues. He further ingratiated himself by taking wives from several different tribes (one authority said thirty-three!). It is hard to determine if the initial Indian attack was directed against Savage or against whites in general.

Through his wives Savage learned of a planned Indian uprising in September, 1850, but other whites did not take the warning seriously. In December, Savage's Trading Post was destroyed at Fresno Crossing, and three of his men killed. A force under Sheriff James Burney clashed indcisively with the Indians on January 11, 1851. An appeal to the Governor for help led to the organization of the Mariposa Battalion under "Major" James D. Savage, with three companies led by Captain John J. Kuykendall, Captain John Boling, and Captain William Dill. Kuykendall's company went southward to the King and upper Kaweah while the other two companies, in three campaigns, followed the Indians into the mountains.

The Mariposa Battalion was forced to wait before attacking the Indians while. a federal Indian commission, composed of Redick McKee, George W. Barbour, and Oliver M. Wozencraft, sought a peaceful solution. On March 19, 1851, the Commissioners signed a treaty at Camp Fremont with six tribes. However, the Yosemites (Miwok) and Chowchillas (Yokut) were absent, so the campaign against them began on March 19. The companies of Boling and Dill moved against the Yosemites, and discovered their valley on March 27. However, the battalion was forced to march in 3- to 5-foot snow drifts and in rain and sleet and found few Indians. The second campaign began on April 13, against the Chowchillas, and destroyed Indian food stores, but again the natives were able to elude their pursuers. However, the death of their chief induced the Chowchillas to surrender and accept reservation stattus. When the Yosemites refused to come to Camp Barbour and make peace, the third campaign launched against them, but with no more success than the others. However, as in all Indian wars the result was foreordained; the Yosemites were captured at Lake Tenaija (or Tenaya, named for their chief) on May 22, and forced to accept reservation life.


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To learn more about California History, we suggest reading
 
Historical Atlas of California
by Warren A. Beck and Ynez D. Hasse
Paperback, Published by the University Of Oklahoma Press 1975
A good basic book in California history. An outstanding collection of maps of maps tracing the routes of early Spanish and Mexican explorers, early Indian wars, the Bear Flag revolt, and other items of interest to California historians.
 

This page was reprinted with permission from Historical Atlas of California, published in 1975 by the University Of Oklahoma Press

 

Updated 18 May 2008


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