On this day, 30 June, in 1864, American President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act. The Act gave the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California, ‘upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation’. Today, more than 4 million people visit the site every year, which has become both a national park and World Heritage Site. We have rambled through the pages of The British Newspaper Archive to see what we can find out about this magnificent site.
To search the newspapers, we used simply Yosemite or Yosemite Valley, instead of Yosemite National Park. The site did not become a national park until America’s National Park Service was created in 1916.
On 5 October 1861, The Enniscorthy News, and County of Wexford Advertiser printed a letter from a Manchester gentleman who described his trip to ‘Yo-Semite Valley, California’ in July 1861. To begin his letter, he wrote
‘If this letter did justice to the valley in which it is written it would be the grandest piece of composition in the world’.
His nine-day journey on horseback was filled with incredible sites of hidden lakes in caves and dramatic waterfalls. In order to illustrate the size of the waterfalls, he compared them to well-known London landmarks: ‘There are at the head of the valley two domes. The one on the north is as perfect a dome as that of St Paul’s Cathedral, only that it is 4,000 feet above the valley, which to the top of the cross on St Paul’s from Ludgate Hill is 400 feet, – this is to say, that the granite dome which God has put here is precisely ten times as high as Sir Christopher Wren’s.’
In 1872, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph published a narrative by Grace Greenwood, the first female writer for The New York Times. Greenwood’s article depicts the majestic and imposing Sequoia Gigantean trees, the rough and steep foot trails, and a chasm of swirling, wrestling waters. Greenwood’s narrative and use of language transport the reader into the valley.
‘There were arched and pillared rocks, so massive, so immense, it seemed they might have formed the foundation walls of a continent; and domes so vast, they seemed like young worlds, rounding out of chaos’.
Greenwood described her first night in the valley as a strange and sombre delight.
‘The sky was clouded – it seemed to me the stars drew back from the abyss. It was filled with night and sound. I could not see the mighty rocks that walled us in, but a sense of their shadow was upon me’.
For over a century, Yosemite has attracted those who love wilderness and the outdoors. One of America’s most passionate outdoorsmen was President Theodore Roosevelt. In this image from the Illustrated London News, President Roosevelt is captured at Glacier Point in Yosemite, enjoying three days in the wilderness as a holiday during his presidency. Modern American presidents’ holidays look vastly different.
We have read many beautiful descriptions about exploring Yosemite, but was it always safe to travel through the wilderness? Many reported spotting grizzly bears, but this report identified another type of danger – highwaymen. On 21 July 1906, the Penny Illustrated Paper reported that a highwayman was arrested in the Yosemite Valley. He had robbed five tourist stage coaches in a row containing seventy-five people. He wore a black mask and a long linen duster over his clothes. All five coaches were travelling together, keeping a distance of about a quarter mile between them to avoid dust on the passengers. When the highwayman stopped each coach, he forced one of its passengers to search the others for personal belongings. He also stole the express safe. After each raid, which only lasted minutes, he sent the coach on its way and waited until the next arrived. No details were given about the capture of the highwayman.
Illustrations and photographs
We have found multiple images and photographs of the incredible Yosemite Valley in the newspapers. This image of Glacier Point in Yosemite comes from The Sphere. It demonstrates the amount of snow the valley can get in the winter months.
In 1937, Britannia and Eve published a five-page feature on ‘Nature’s Fairest Valley’ written by Harold J Shepstone who described the valley as ‘Awe-inspiring to the most seasoned traveller’. He also expressed that within the valley
‘there pervades a strong feeling of the eternal wherever you wander in its enchanting glades’.
This illustration from the Illustrated London News helps us to appreciate the sheer size of the Sequoia tree as it depicts a man on horseback able to walk inside a fallen one.