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Discovery of the Sierra Nevada, Early Sierra and California History | High Sierra Backpacker

Discovery of the Sierra Nevada, Early Sierra and California History

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 06 March 2018


Discovery and Early Western History of the Sierra Nevada


Spanish California

The name "Sierra Nevada" was first used in 1776 to describe California's mountain range, the very same year the American Colonies declared their independence from England.

At the same time British colonists on the East Coast were rejecting the authority of the English King, the Spanish King was pushing his authority up the West Coast of the continent.

"In April 1776, Father Pedro Font, a Franciscan missionary attached to the Anza expedition, which had been sent north by the Spancih viceroy in Mexico to establish a colony in alta ("upper") California, stood on a hill near San Francisco Bay and beheld to the east "an immense treeless plain" and, many miles beyond, "una gran sierra nevada"-a great snow-covered mountain range. Four years earlier two Franciscan fathers attached to the Gaspar de Portola expedition, which discovered San Francisco Bay, had been the first Europeans to see this great sierra nevada, but Font was the first to show its location on a map and give it the name that has endured to this day."

This, the Spanish "System" was an imperial system, and its administration was carried out by the Catholic Church. The Spanish King's possesion of California, and Mexico, if that matters, was authorized and administered by the Pope.

Thus, the Spanish history in California was defined by the Mission system, and the missions stayed close to the Pacific coast in the interests of trade. Life in the mission system was not easy for either Indian subject or Spanish solider assigned there.

Spanish soliders convicted of abusing Indians were sentenced to "...spend the rest of their lives as citizens of California..." This must have pleased the Indians even less than the soliders.

A California historian characterized Mission California as a place where "...only those in the direst poverty were willing to go, and then only on the promise of the government ot outfit them completely...for years to come." Being assigned to serve extending the Spanish Empire north into California's harsh and remote environment was considered tanamount to punishment, without extensive government subsidy and a big piece of any profits generated. 

In 1785 an Indian participant in an unsuccessful attempt by Indians to burn the San Gabriel Mission explained her actions: "I hate the padres and all of you, for living here on my native soil, for tresspassing on the land of my forefathers."

Though the Spanish remained restricted to the coast line by the requirements of trade and communication, some little exploration of the inland areas in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada did occur.

Between 1805 and 1817 Spanish expeditions to what is now known as the Central Valley named the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. Changes were happening far from California that would determine its future. 

Little was known in remote California about Napoleon's capture of the Spanish Royal Family in 1807, nor even about the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1810 nor its end in 1820.

 Mexican California

After the Mexican Revolution split California off from the Spanish Crown, the Mexican period of California history would be dominated by the struggles between California Rancheros, the Catholic Church and its Missions, and the Mexican government. The prize was control of the agricultural productivity of the Missions.

The Rancheros capatilized on their independence, which was a measure of their distance from their opponents' seats of power in Mexico City and Rome. The Rancheros were able to preserve their independence while ignoring Mexican authority and continuing their encroachments on the authority and lands of the Missions. These constant struggles led to a considerable level of political instability during the Mexican era of California.

For the Indians these changes were superficial. The only difference for them was that their slave-status labor could be transferred from the Church Mission to the Ranchero, depending upon which side won the local power struggle between Mission, Mexico and Rancho.

All of the chaos of the Mexican era was still constrained to a narrow strip of land along the Pacific Coast, as it had been under the Spanish. The reasons were the same as in the Spanish Era: trade and supplies.

In 1845 California's population was around 7000 individuals of European or meztizo origins.

American Perspective on California

The Mexican Revolution of 1820 broke Spain's monopoly of trade over California. This event coincided with the expansion of the US population and production, specifically the mass production of shoes in Massachuttes.

Yankee ship captians bridged the distance between the ranchos and Missions of California that were overflowing with huge herds of cattle, and the factory-towns of Massachuttes that were hungering for shoe leather.

Out of this trade a classic book gives us a glimpse of the short-lived Mexican California in Two Years before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana. 

Dana, a Harvard graduate, spent two grueling years as a common seaman on a hide ship off the California Coast. Dana describes the tyranny, beauty, and unceasing boredom  that characterized life on a leather merchant ship off the coast of California during the early 19th century. He also paints a very unflatering picture of life in Mexican California.

Dana describes Mexican Californians as "...an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. Dana describes a culture where social class, weatlh, and political position are are strictly determined by race, much as in today's Mexico.

"Those who are of pure Spanish blood, having never intermarried with the aboriginies...form an upper class, intermarrying, and keeping up an exclusive system in every respect." At the bottom are the indians in a serfdom status.

"...each person's caste is decided by the quality of the blood, which shows itself, too plainly to be concealed, at first sight. Yet the least drop of Spanish Blood...is sufficient to raise one from the position of a serf,...and to call himself Espanol, and to hold property, if he can get any."


Trappers moved West across the Rockies hoping to exploit California's vast resources during the 1830s and 40s.

 The first trapping party to successfully cross the Sierra, and likely the first Westerners to see what would eventually become Yosemite National Park was Josheph Reddeford Walker's expedition in 1833. Historians speculate that the Walker party crossed the Sierra somewhere between the E Carson and Yosemite Valley, crossing the Sierra into either Yosemite or Hetch Hetchy Valley.

American Settlers

The first settlers to cross the Sierra Nevada was the Bidwell-Bartleson party in 1841. The first party to cross what would become known as the Donner Pass, and the first group to get wagons over the Sierra Nevada was the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party in 1844.

News of these successful expeditions over the Sierra Nevada Mountains began what would become an annual trans-continental migration of wagon-trains from the United States to California and Oregon.


Fremont's expedition of 1843 and 1844 to California signaled the rise of California on the American consciouness. In 1845 another Fremont expedition to California attempted to overthrow the Mexican government's thin authority in Alta California, and succeeded in destabalizing the situation enough to spark the Bear Flag Revolt.

In the meantime, the Texas situation was deterioriting. On May 13, 1846 the US declared war on Mexico. None of these confused circumstances with California would be clarified until the war ended on February 2, 1848 with the contiguous US taking on its present geographic limits.

This expansion released internal stresses which would lead directly to the Civil War.

The Gold Rush

 On January 24, 1848 at Coloma on the American River James Wilson Marshall discovered Gold. Marshall had been hired by John A. Sutter to build a sawmill.

On  May 12, 1848, after buying up every implement that could possibly be needed by incoming miners and shipping it to Sutter's settlement, Samuel Brannan ran down the streets of San Francisco shouting that gold had been discovered in the American River.

Brannan's shout would soon reverbrate around the world, beginning the gold rush. The irony is that the gold rush was over before most of the potiential miners even arrived. By the time most gold-seekers arrived in California Brannan had sold all of his shovels. But no matter; gold mining had moved from an activity pursued by individual miners to an industry dominated by large-cap industrial operations.

My family's ancestors moved to California from Germany in the early 1850s, opening a ranch in Napa to feed San Francisco's quickly swelliing population.

The Silver Boom: 1859-1864

Interesting and eccentric Eastern Sierra miners struck silver on Mount Davidson in 1857. In the words of a California historian, the Silver Boom was a time when "...the general tenor of their history...a fantistic narrative in which the dissolute, selfish, and dishonest aspects of human nature were all too apparent."

Mark Twain wrote extensively about the characters in, and the tenor of the times during the Silver Boom in his bundeling up of classic tales of the Wild West into Roughing it.

The Silver Boom collapsed in 1864 when the great bubble of mining stock speculation burst. Though the majority of the mines from this period were East of the Sierra across the Carson Valley in the Pine Nut Range, many mines and mining camps sprang up and closed down quickly up and down the flank of the Eastern Sierra.

Our hike down Summit City Creek on the Tahoe to Yosemite passes through the lost mining town site of Summit City, a silver mining camp from the 1860s.

The Modern Era Begins

The modern era began when John Muir first viewed the Sierra Nevada in April of 1868. From that time until his death he would participate in changing the perspective and use of natural resources from one of utiltiy to ethics and esthetics.

We still have not worked that one out. 



Quote from A Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide: The Sierra Nevada, Stepen Whitney, Sierra Club, 1979, p.12.

Quotes from California, an interpretive History, Rawls & Bean, McGraw-Hill, 7th ed. 1997, p.39 and 47. p. 70-71. p. 93.  p. 159.

Quotes from Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Mentor, 1964. p. 75 to 77.



High Sierra History & the Human Past


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