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The True Story of How Art Saved Yosemite Valley

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Carleton Watkins, 'Yosemite Falls. Instantaneous view. Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Co., Cal.,' about 1874.  (Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Weston J. and Mary M. Naef)

The history of Yosemite Valley is long and storied, complete with the eradication of the grizzly bear population, adventurous entrepreneurs, violently displaced native peoples and the bizarre Bracebridge Dinner — an annual Christmas pageant staged since 1927 that transforms the picturesque Ahwahnee hotel into an old English manor filled with food, song and dance.

Less known within these colorful stories is the role visual artists have played in capturing and preserving the Yosemite Valley in the popular imagination, and ensuring its continued existence as a national park today.

Those dramatic, romantic, impossibly beautiful landscape paintings and faded sepia-toned photographs you breeze by in a museum actually helped shape public interest, presidential opinions — and, ultimately, legislature. While influencing federal environmental policy may not have been their original intent, these artists helped to change the course of American history.

Illustration of Yosemite Valley by Thomas Ayles, as it appeared in the first issue of 'Hutchings' California Magazine,' 1856.
Illustration of Yosemite Valley by Thomas Ayles, as it appeared in the first issue of ‘Hutchings’ California Magazine,’ 1856.

But let’s back up a bit. After Yosemite Valley’s “discovery” by the Joseph Walker Party in 1833 (Native Americans called the valley home for somewhere around 8,000 years prior), James Hutchings, a carpenter, aspiring gold miner and journalist, helped put the Valley on the map with his Hutchings’ California Magazine, published between 1856 and 1861. The first issue, a self-proclaimed “forty-eight pages of interesting reading matter, in double columns” also featured the very first illustrations of Yosemite Valley, rendered by another failed gold miner, Thomas Ayres.

Hutchings’ magazine turned Yosemite into a destination, bringing tourists and entrepreneurs of all kinds to the region. The stampede of visitors brought international fame to the landscape. But it also led to environmental degradation. While today the idea of preserving a  remarkable landscape seems like second nature, back then it was wholly new. What force could possibly be strong enough to save Yosemite Valley?


Enter plans for the United States’ first proto-state park. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act. The act aimed to preserve the valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias for “public use, resort and recreation… inalienable for all time” under the stewardship of the state of California.

What helped convince Lincoln, immersed in the bloody depths of the Civil War, to recognize Yosemite as a landscape worth protecting? The answer is photographs. In 1861, San Francisco-based photographer Carleton Watkins (yet another once-hopeful gold miner) loaded up a team of mules and nearly a ton of photographic equipment to document the rugged beauty of the Sierra Nevada on 18-by-22-inch glass-plate negatives.

Watkins’ photographs were exhibited in New York in 1862, where it is believed Lincoln saw them. Those visuals, combined with urging from California Senator John Conness (himself urged by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and Mariposa Grove “discoverer” Galen Clark) helped move the act from paper to reality.

Carleton Watkins, 'Mariposa Grove. Galen Clark,' 1861.
Carleton Watkins, ‘Mariposa Grove. Galen Clark,’ 1861. (Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

While the Yosemite Grant Act protected the valley and the sequoias, outside those bounds the surrounding landscape suffered in the ensuing decades, mostly from the effects of sheep grazing. Environmentalist John Muir, who first visited Yosemite in 1868, likened the bleating beasts to “hoofed locusts.” Through Muir’s additional lobbying, magazine articles and an ensuing public outcry, the surrounding area came under federal protection in 1890.

But it wasn’t until 1906 that President Theodore Roosevelt merged the state and federal lands into one giant preserve and Yosemite National Park, as we know it today, came into being. Once again, what helped shape this decision? Art!

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, 1903.
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, 1903. (Courtesy: Library of Congress)

Unlike Lincoln, Roosevelt had the opportunity to visit Yosemite himself in 1903, spending four days climbing Overhanging Rock, camping in the snow and gallivanting around with Muir.

Thomas Hill, 'Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Valley,' 1892.
Thomas Hill, ‘Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Valley,’ 1892. (Courtesy: Oakland Museum of California)

It was on this trip that Roosevelt visited the studio of landscape artist Thomas Hill and left with a painting of Bridalveil Fall. Hill at that point was an elderly painter-in-residence in the valley, but his first trip to Yosemite in 1865 (with Carleton Watkins) began a lifelong obsession with the scenery of the Sierra Nevada. Even while studying abroad in France, Hill painted scenes of Yosemite Valley.

And artists’ influence on Yosemite isn’t an isolated occurrence. History would repeat itself nearly half a century later in 1936, when photographer Ansel Adams (along with Muir’s Sierra Club) advocated Congress for the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.

In the minds of many, there’s still plenty of land worth sheltering from mining, commercial logging and other man-made disasters. A current endeavor, the Sierra National Monument Project, even seeks to connect Yosemite with Kings Canyon through a vast stretch of protected forest.

So next time you spot a Thomas Hill painting at the Oakland Museum of California or glimpse some Carleton Watkins stereoscopes at Stanford’s Cantor Center for the Arts, don’t just breeze by. Doff your cap — bonus points for a stovepipe hat — and say thanks, guys. Thanks for saving Yosemite Valley from the sheep.


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