David A. Smith, Historian
The Burdick Military History Project
San Jose State University
The military involvement with the Yosemite
area began with the discovery of the Yosemite Valley. Though
there are several distinct geological formations located in the
Yosemite region, the valley is the most unique and predominant
landmark. The first white Americans to gain a glimpse of the
Valley were the members of an exploring expedition struggling
to traverse the Sierra Nevada Mountains during October of 1833.
The overall expeditionary force was led by an officer of the
United States Army, Captain Benjamin Louis De Bonneville, who
chose an experienced scout, Joseph Reddford Walker, to lead a
detachment of men from the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific Ocean.
Ultimately, Walker passed through the Yosemite region on his
way to the coast.
Benjamin de Bonneville was born in France on 13 April 1796. His
father was an outspoken political journalist who was forced into
exile by Napoleon, arriving with his family in the United States
during 1803. Entering west Point Military Academy in 1815, Benjamin
de Bonneville received a degree in engineering and spent his
first ten years of military service supervising the construction
of roadways throughout the United States. In 1831, then Captain
Bonneville requested a leave of absence in order to lead an expedition
to collect geographical and mill data, along with practicing
beaver trapping, in the region west of the Rocky Mountains. Some
historians such as Hiram M. Chittenden and H. H. Bancroft believe
that Bonneville's reasons for beginning such an expedition were
entirely commercial in nature, yet the Department of War left
Captain Bonneville explicit instructions on how his leave was
to be spent. The government specifically emphasized collecting
data concerning "the nature and character of the several
tribes of Indians inhabiting" the region which was to be
explored ("the Rocky Mountains and beyond"). In particular,
the Army wanted more information on Indian warfare, asking Captain
Bonneville to observe
. . the number of warriors that may
be in each tribe or nation that you may meet with; their alliances
with other tribes, and their relative position as to a state
of peace or war, and whether their friendly or warlike dispositions
toward each other are recent or of a long standing.
He was further requested to note the Indians'
. . . manner of making war; of the
mode of subsisting themselves during a state of war, and a state
of peace; their arms, and the effect of them; whether they act
on foot or on horseback; detailing the discipline and maneuvers
of the war parties: the power of their horses, size, and general
description . . . .
In light of these instructions, it is apparent that while Captain
Bonneville did intend to do some trapping and trading during
his travels, the major purpose of the expedition was the collection
of intelligence. His commercial activities which helped him finance
the expedition and the hiring of civilians to help him carry
out his plans gave Captain Bonneville an almost "covert"
element to utilize in his operation.
Early in 1831, a man named Joseph Walker stopped at Fort Gibson,
in Oklahoma Territory, where Captain Bonneville was stationed
with the 7th New York Infantry, "B" Company. Walker
had earned a reputation for being an explorer, mountain man,
and an individual who had pursued many occupations in his life.
On this occasion, Walker was on a return trip from Texas where
he had been involved in horse trading. In a chance meeting at
the fort, Captain Bonneville became impressed with Walker; he
explained to Walker his proposed expedition, its purpose, and
asked Walker if he might be interested in acting as his chief
scout and second in command. Walker agreed and left for Fort
Osage, Missouri, where it had been agreed that Walker would organize
and begin the expedition.
Joseph Walker was born on 13 December 1798, in Roane County,
Tennessee. In 1818, he moved to the extreme western boundary
of Missouri, along the Missouri River, where he rented government
land near Fort Osage in order to farm. He also traded with local
Indians and served as county sheriff. Walker left Missouri in
1820 for the New Mexico area where he had hoped to trap beaver.
Unfortunately, he was accused of spying for the United States
and taken into custody by the Spanish authorities, but was later
released under the promise that he would help the Spanish fight
their war against the Pawnees. After cooperating with the Spanish,
Walker returned to the Fort Osage area.
When Walker returned to his home at Fort Osage after the encounter
with Captain Bonneville, he began to take the necessary steps
to assemble the expedition. There was the hiring of personnel,
the ordering of supplies, and the acquisition of equipment including
the twenty wagons in which the supplies would be transported.
By the time Bonneville arrived, Walker was already deeply engaged
in the manning and outfitting of the expedition. On 1 May 1832,
the expedition left Fort Osage with 110 men. Their journey took
them through the Kansas plains, up the Platte River to the Sweetwater
River, and through South Pass into the Green River country where
they established a stockade on the Green River, five miles above
the mouth of Horse Creek. The location was ill-suited for a commercial
operation because it was so far north on the Green River that
it was impractical to man during half the year due to heavy snowfall.
However unsuitable the location was for commercial use, it was
situated perfectly for military purposes guarding the approaches
to South and Union Passes, the Snake and Bear Rivers, Jackson
Hole, the Great Salt Lake, and Blackfoot Territory. For observation,
the fort was ideally located.
After attending a rendezvous of mountain men on the Green River
in early July of 1833, Captain Bonneville decided to split his
command. He ordered experienced trapper Michael Sylvester Cerré
back to St. Louis with the 4,000 pounds of beaver pelts that
they had collected over the past year, and a large package of
intelligence information which had been collected during the
same time. Bonneville then traveled south with Walker and about
a hundred men to the Great Salt Lake where he instructed Walker
to head west ". . . through unknown country towards the
Pacific, and . . . he should return to the Great S. L. the following
summer." The remaining company, numbering an estimated forty
members, struck a course towards the Pacific Northwest where
Bonneville investigated the Oregon area for the level of British
Before leaving for the Northwest, Captain Bonneville gave each
man under Walker's command four horses, blankets, ammunition,
trade goods, and a small supply of food. It was with these provisions
that Walker and fifty-eight men set out from the Great Salt Lake's
northern shore in August of 1833. Walker's party kept the lake's
shoreline in sight until they reached its western shore, then
traveled westward to the Humboldt River, south to Humboldt Lake,
and then continued southwest through the Nevada Sinks, reaching
the Sierra Nevada Mountains in early October.
It is at this point in retracing the route of the Walker party
that the two surviving narratives chronicling the journey became
important in establishing the party's claim to having been the
first white Americans to view the Yosemite Valley. These accounts
were written by Zenas Leonard and George Nidever, that of the
former being a journal and the latter being a memoir. It is from
these works that one can attempt to determine accurately Walker's
route through the Yosemite region. Leonard mentions in his journal
that in early October, the party camped
. . on the margin of a lake formed
by a river which heads into this mountain. This lake . . . has
no outlet for water, except that which sinks into the ground.
The water in the lake is similar to lie, and tastes like pearlash.
. . . There is also a great quantity of pumice stone floating
on the surface of the water, and shore is covered with them.
The route of approach to the mountains,
this description, no doubt, is of Mono Lake which is located
just east of Yosemite National Park's present day boundary. Pinpointing
the location of the group is important because it is from this
position that Walker sent groups of men to explore possible routes
across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to search for game to
replenish their rapidly diminishing supplies. It was on one such
search that a trail was discovered leading to a high pass. It
appeared well used, and from the description given, it appears
to have been the infamous Mono Trail which led up Bloody Canyon
and through Mono Pass. It took Walker and his men two days to
reach the pass where they camped without fodder for their horses
and in deep snow. After suffering a night in the intense cold,
the party began to make their way slowly westward. In order to
make their way through high snow drifts, Walker would send alternating
bands of men whose job it was to create a passable trail for
the horses. Progress was slow, and the lack of food exacerbated
growing tensions between some of the party members and Walker.
At one point Walker found "that some of our men had become
almost unmanageable, and were desirous of turning back and retracing
our steps to the Buffalo Country!" To insure that the restless
members of his crew would not desert, Walker took away their
horses and ammunition, and then slaughtered two horses to curb
the party's intense hunger.
Walker had barely entered the Yosemite region, yet in a few days
travel he had lost the original trail and found himself and his
party relying on horsemeat for subsistence. In an attempt to
gain a better view of the terrain which lay before him, Walker
moved his path of travel from the valleys to the ridges which
rose above them. Still proceeding with great difficulty due to
the terrain and the deep snow, the party continued its westward
trek, "scarcely stopping in our journey to view an occasional
specimen of the wonders of nature's handiwork." As they
continued their journey, they began to encounter a series of
small streams which served as a watershed for larger streams
emptying into what came to be known as the Yosemite Valley. In
his journal, Leonard describes it thusly:
the precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high.
Some of the men thought that if we could succeed in descending
one of the precipices to the bottom, we might thus work our way
to the valley below, but on making several attempts we found
it utterly impossible for a man to descent, to say nothing of
Unable to reach the valley's floor to follow the Merced River
to the San Joaquin Valley, Walker led his party westward, between
the valley and the Tuolumne River. It is because they were unable
to descend to the valley that a second major discovery was made--the
Sequoia gigantea. Leonard duly noted the discovery of these trees,
describing them as measuring "from sixteen to eighteen fathom
round the trunk and at the height of a man's head to the ground."
Walker's men had undoubtedly stumbled upon either the Tuolumne
Grove or Merced Grove of "Big Trees" located just northwest
of the Yosemite Valley. Eventually, the party reached the San
Joaquin Valley on or about 31 October 1833, having spent nearly
seventeen days in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the process,
they had lost twenty-four horses, seventeen of which were shot
for food. Though the crossing proved difficult, there seems to
have been, within the party, a level of satisfaction. This satisfaction
came from the experience of the physical act of crossing, and
of the discovery of "many natural curiosities."
Encamped at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills at the Merced
River, Walker's force paused to recover from their crossing,
replenish their food supply, and do some trapping. Walker also
engaged in some trading with the native Yokuts. While traversing
the Sierra's, the party had only seen one Indian, and on that
occasion it was but a brief glimpse. The Indians of the Yosemite
are, the Ahwahneechees, were apparently aware of Walker's presence
in the region. Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion
during the Mariposa War and an early Yosemite pioneer, recorded
in his book, Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of
1851 Which Led to That Event, that the leader of the Ahwahneechees
knew of a "small party of white men who crossed the
mountains to the north of the valley. Adhering to their practice
of wintering in the valley and other more clement areas than
the high country, these Indians managed to avoid contact with
the Walker party. Walker and his men did not make contact with
Indians until after his descent from the mountains. In trading
with the Yokuts, Walker gained five more horses for his force,
and after a brief rest, the party concentrated on completing
its journey to the coast.
The horses that Walker received from the Indians were marked
with Spanish brands. This led Walker to believe that they were
very close to the Pacific Ocean. The party continued its westward
push to the coast by following the San Joaquin River to the Delta,
and thus to the San Francisco Bar area. After marching around
the perimeter of the bay and crossing the coastal mountain range,
the company reached the Pacific Ocean near Half Moon Bay on 20
November 1833. The next day, Walker decided to send search parties
out to try to make contact with a Spanish settlement if one could
be located. Although they only encountered signs of the Spanish
presence, they were able to make contact with a Boston trading
ship name the Lagoda.
The captain, John Bradshaw, informed Walker
of the nearest coastal settlements, but recommended that they
first travel to the rancho of Scots immigrant John Gilroy which
was located near present day Gilroy in south Santa Clara County.
Bradshaw felt that the Spanish would be more receptive to the
party if they make their approach to the capital cautiously;
Walker agreed and heeded the advice. The party traversed the
Santa Cruz Mountains and descended into the Santa Clara Valley
where they were welcomed at the rancho on 24 November 1833. The
company halted for a few days and then began its slow advance
on Upper California's capital at Monterey. On or about 1 December,
Walker gained permission to remain in California from Governor
Jose Figeroa, and with this concession, the party settled in
for the winter. During their winter stay in California, Walker
and his men hunted and traded for food to supply them on their
return trip. Walker also bought several horses and cattle. Some
of the men engaged in trapping after permission was granted by
the governor; others took to capturing wild horses. The party's
brief stay was peaceful and, for the most part, uneventful.
On 14 February 1834, the party resumed its odyssey and left the
Monterey area for its rendezvous with Captain Bonneville. Walker
left with 52 men (George Nidever and five others had decided
to stay in California), 315 horses, 50 cattle, and 30 dogs. This
time he decided to take a southern route and try to avoid another
crossing of the Sierra Nevada. The first crossing had been too
costly for the expedition since they lost twenty-four horses
in the attempt, seventeen of them for food. The party spent the
spring in the San Joaquin Valley, then crossed the Sierra Nevada
Mountains at what is now known as Walker Pass and headed north
through the Owens Valley. Upon their emergence from the Owens
Valley, they pushed northeast through the Sinks of Nevada in
the hope of finding the route that they had followed on their
westward trek. In the Nevada Desert, they faced tremendous hardships.
There was little vegetation suitable for the stock, a lack of
wood for fires, and very little, if any, water. Moccasins were
cut from dying cattle to save already injured hooves of the horses
from further deterioration. They finally became hopelessly lost
in the Great Basin Wastelands, and being without water, desperately
tried to satisfy their thirsts with the blood of dead cattle
and horses. At the climax of their sufferings, Walker discovered
both a small stream and their track from the previous crossing,
but not before he had lost seventy-five animals from want of
After locating the Humboldt River, Walker led his party north
to the Snake River where they met with Captain Bonneville on
12 July 1834. Almost immediately Bonneville again decided to
split his command, and on 30 July sent Cerré back to St.
Louis with forty-five men, more pelts, and more intelligence
information, Walker to the Bighorn River with fifty-five men
to trap beaver, and himself to the headwaters of the Columbia
River with fifty men to concentrate on the commercial aspect
of his venture. Later, Captain Bonneville met Walker at the mouth
of Popoasia Creek on the Bighorn River on 10 June 1835, where
it was decided that Walker should spend another year trapping
with fifty-nine men before returning to Missouri. Collecting
those who wished to return, Bonneville led the party back to
Missouri where they arrived at Independence on 29 August 1835;
they had been absent four years, four months, and five days.
According to the instructions issued prior to Captain Bonneville's
excursion, he was ordered to return to Fort Gibson in October
of 1833. His tardiness prompted a reprimand from his superiors,
but President Andrew Jackson was impressed by the intelligence
reports Captain Bonneville had sent to Washington and he had
Congress reinstate Bonneville to his old command. Still, the
Army never forgave his violation of a direct order, and sent
from one undesirable assignment to another
until the end of his career. Captain Benjamin de Bonneville died
at Fort Smith, Arkansas, on 12 June 1878.
Joseph Walker finished his assignment
and then went on to join John C. Frémont's 1845-46 expedition
to California after being hired as Frémont's chief scout.
Walker served with the Army in the war against Mexico in California,
and remained in California until his death on 27 October 1876.
The expedition led by Captain Bonneville, in retrospect, has
earned the right to be noted for three key elements--the way
in which the expedition was organized and the reasons for its
initiation; its contribution in terms of providing information
on geography, Indians, and the British presence; and Walker's
discoveries in California. The first element, the way in which
the expedition developed, is important because it must not be
seen as a precedent, but as a continuation of the policy of the
United States Government. America, still unable, or unwilling,
to support exploratory and intelligence gathering missions financially,
depended upon "spies" like Lieutenant Zebulon Pike,
John C. Frémont, and Captain Benjamin de Bonneville in
order to exert American influence and perform "covert"
operations in the west. Their contributions in collecting data
in the far west later became crucial for the expansion of the
United States. Captain Bonneville, himself, regained his military
stature with his detailed accounts of geographical features,
reports on the Indians of the west, and reconnaissance material
concerning the British presence in Oregon and Washington. These
first two elements are similar in that they strongly suggest
that despite comments of some historians, the expedition was
of a military nature, a point which is important if one is to
consider the expedition as being a part of Yosemite's military
The third element, Walker's discoveries in California, is the
most important of the three for the purpose of this study. Captain
Bonneville must be seen as responsible for directing Walker to
the Pacific Ocean since without this mandate, the discovery of
the Yosemite Valley and the immediate region would not have occurred.
Unfortunately, the discovery went unrecognized by the public.
Only Walkers discovery of Walker's Pass, which greatly
aided in the establishment of a transcontinental route suitable
for wagon travel, achieved immediate recognition. For this and
other such discoveries, both Walker and Bonneville would find
themselves among an elite group of individuals who were responsible
for the opening of the West to American expansion.
However, even though the Yosemite region
and its inhabitants remained "undiscovered" for nearly
two decades following Walker's discovery, the spirit of Manifest
Destiny and the discovery of gold in California in 1848 would
bring about a sudden swell in population that made it inevitable
that the valley would again be "discovered."
Cleland, Robert Glass. Pathfinders. Edited
by John Russell McCarthy. Los Angeles: Powell Publishing Company,
Goetzman, William H. Exploration and Empire.
New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
Irving, Washington. The Adventures of
Captain Bonneville. Edited by Robert A. Rees and Alan Sandy.
Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Leonard, Zenas. Narrative of the Adventures
of Zenas Leonard, a Native of Clearfield County, Pa., etc., edited
by John C. Ewers under the title Adventures of Zenas Leonard,
Fur Trader. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.
Nidever, George. The Life and Adventures
of George Nidever (1802-1883). Edited by William Henry Ellison.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937.
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