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Scott Stine's A Way Across the Mountain: Joseph Walker's 1833 Trans-Sierran Passage and the Myth of Yosemite's Discovery, published by Arthur H. Clark, San Francisco, and the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, is now available.

From publisher's blurb: Following Walker's death in 1876, an alluring tale arose concerning his trans-Sierran route. In the course of the crossing, goes the story, Walker found himself on the northern rim of Yosemite Valley at the plungepoint of North America's tallest waterfall, staring into the most awesome mountain chasm on the continent. Over the decades since then, this time-honored tale has hardened to folklore. Dozens of historical works have construed it as a towering moment in the opening of the West.
But in fact this tale of Yosemite's discovery has no basis or support in firsthand accounts of the 1833 Sierran crossing. Moreover, there is much in those accounts that contradicts Yosemite lore, and much that points to a trans-Sierran route well north of Yosemite Valley...

It's an Earthshaker!

Frémont and Joseph Rutherford Walker

Frémont, morally and physically, was the most complete coward I ever knew. I would call him a woman, if it were not casting an unmerited reproach on the sex.
Joseph Rutherford [Reddeford*] Walker.

Frémont had met, and hired Joe Walker on his 2nd Expedition in 1844. In his 1845 Report to Congress, Frémont wrote that Joe Walker was...

...a man possessing great and intimate knowledge of the Indians, with an extraordinary firmness and decision of character...a western men, animated with the spirit of exploratory enterprise which characterizes that people...has more knowledge of these parts than any man I know...celebrated as one of the best and bravest leaders who have ever been in the country.


This pass, reported to be good, was discovered by Mr. Joseph Walker, of whom I have already spoken, and whose name it might therefore appropriately bear.

Frémont not only named the pass after Joseph Walker, but also the Walker River and Walker Lake.

And of Walker on his 3rd expedition, Frémont wrote.

November 1845: I now divided the party, giving to Mr. [Edward] Kern [topographer] the charge of the main body to follow down and survey the Humboldt River and its valley to the termination in what was called "the sink."...Thence to continue on along the eastern foot of the Sierra to a lake which I have given the name of Walker, who was to be his guide on this survey. I had engaged Mr. Walker for guide in this part of the region to be explored, with which, and the southern part of the California Mountain he was well acquainted.

It was actually Theodore Talbot who was put in command of the southern division; Edward Kern was the topographer; and Joseph Walker was the hired guide.

So, why would Joe Walker have such a contrary opinion of Frémont?
Other vetran mountain men associated with Frémont's expeditions did not share Walker's opinion:

Allan Nevins, DeWitt Clinton professor of history, Columbia University: "Professional assiduity, unusual self-control, readiness to endure any amount of monotonous hard work, deprivation, and exhaustion--these were traits of Frémont that we should not allow his many adventures, and the picturesqueness of the scenes in which he moved to obscure. It is significant that Carson, like that other expert frontiersman Alex Godey, regarded him with deferential respect. To both he was as efficient a man of action as they could desire--and in addition a scientist."

Kit Carson wrote of Frémont in his memoirs, "I was with Frémont from 1842 to 1847. The hardships through which we passed I find it impossible to describe, and the credit which he deserves I am incapable of doing him justice in writing. I can never forget his treatment of me when in his employ and how cheerfully he suffered with his men while undergoing the severest hardships. His perseverance and willingness to participate in all that was undertaken, no matter whether the duty was rough or easy, is the main cause of his success. And I say without fear of contradiction, that none but him could have surmounted and succeeded through as many difficult services as his was."

Alex Godey wrote, "Frémont, more than any man I ever knew, possessed the respect and admiration of his men; he ever lived on terms of familiarity with them. Yet never did commander possess more complete control. I never knew him to have any difficulties with his men; disturbances were a stranger to his camp. He had a manner and a bearing toward his men which admitted of none of these petty altercations, or more serious occurrences, which are so common among parties beset with hardship and dangers."

Soloman Nunes Carvalho, 5th expedition photographer: "Just after breakfast one of the Delawares gave a loud whoop, and pointed to the burning prairie before us, where to our great joy we saw Col. Frémont, followed by an immense man, who proved to be the doctor, on an immense mule, and the Indian chief and his servant galloping through the blazing element in the direction of our camp. Instantly, with one accord, all the men discharged their rifles in a volley. No father who had been absent from his children could have been received with more enthusiasm and real joy."

Alpheus H. Favor, in Old Bill Williams, suggests that Joe Walker left the Frémont's 3rd expedition because he was upset after Frémont had "declared his intention of disregarding the the orders of the California (Mexican) authorities to leave the district." But this sort of righteous indignation would have been unlikely in a man who had made a career of defying authority.

Douglas S. Watson, in West Wind: The Life Story of Joseph Reddeford Walker, says that at Gabilan Peak. near San Luis Bautista, "Walker lost faith, the faith he had built up in the days he had been so closely associated with Frémont. If this was the way a leader of the armed survey crew was going to act when he had his hand ready to close over the treasure, Joe Walker was through."

Dale Walker, in Bear Flag Rising, wrote that Joe Walker, "a faithful Frémont man up to the Hawks Peak incident, wanted a fight, and was so disgusted at the turn of events that he quit the expedition."

Tom Chaffin, Frémont's most recent biographer, says in Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the Course of American Empire, "Disgusted with what he regarded as Frémont's cowardice in abandoning [Gabilan Peak], Walker, a man with a long-standing taste for voilent scrapes, had quit and gone south."

Which brings us to it:
What was the Gabilán (Gavilán, Hawks) Peak incident?

"Facts more terrible than thunder! Lightning, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions! Hear! Hear! Great news! War! Capt. Frémont of the United States Topographical Corps with sixty or more mounted riflemen has fortified himself on the heights between San Juan and Don Joaquin Gomez' rancho..."
Capt. Weber to John Marsh

In short, an opera buffa affair that occurred near Mission San Juan Bautista. It began on March 5th, 1846 when, after having given consent for Capt. Frémont's topographical expedition to recruit his animals in California, General José Castro changed his mind and ordered Frémont out of the district. Frémont was insulted, and refusing to be driven out, removed to a defensible mountain top, raised the American Flag, and grumbled. Castro, with 400 troops and cannon paraded around the mission for three days and issued bombastic proclamations. On the third day, the flagpole fell down, and Frémont came down from the mountain, camped a couple of miles from Castro, and the next day crossed over Pacheco Pass into the San Joaquin Valley.

The United States was close to war with Mexico over Texas, and the Polk administration planned to take California as well, but Frémont's orders, as captain of a survey expedition, did not include the actual starting of hostilities against a foreign government--in spite of pleas and promises of support from settlers. Alcalde Walter Colton at Monterey, blamed the affair on the nonmilitary constituency of the survey party and it's hangers-on: "a class of persons who have drifted over the mountains into this country from the borders of some of our western states. It is a prime feature in their policy to keep in advance of law and order, and to migrate as often as these trench on their irresponsible privileges."

Frémont later said:

Knowing well the views of the cabinet, and satisfied that it was a great national measure to unite California to us as a sister State, by a voluntary expression of the popular will, I had in all my marches through the country, and in, all my intercourse with the people, acted invariably in strict accordance with this impression, to which I was naturally farther led by my own feelings. I had kept my troops under steady restraint and discipline, and never permitted to them a wanton outrage, or any avoidable destruction of property or life...I could have gone back, alone and unarmed, upon the trail of my march, trusting to life and bread to those alone among whom I had marched as conquerer." Frémont at his court martial in 1847

go More about locating the Gabilan Peak site (which actually lies outside of Frémont Peak State Park which commemorates the event in 1846).

Note: The above map was generated from USGS DEM file of the 7.5' San Juan Bautista quadrangle using MacDEM and POV-Ray

Frémont has been condemned as a filibuster by historians Herbert Howe Bancroft, Josiah Royce, and others, for not quitting the district immediately. Instead, after leaving San Juan, and still grumbling, he moved his survey slowly--a few miles a day--up the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. Stopping for a week at Peter Lassen's ranch on Deer Creek, he made important astronomical observations on which the 1848 Frémont Preuss map of the West were based. These longitude determinations also corrected errors of 10-30 miles in the coastal charts of California by Vancouver and Wilkes, which had been blamed for the recent loss of a whaler on the coast.

He continued his survey north as far as Klamath Lake, where, a month later, he was overtaken by marine Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, sent from Washington by President Polk to find him. Gillespie, traveling in disguise, was carrying "secret orders" to Frémont. Just what those orders were, no one will ever know.

Captain Frémont [of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers] having been sent originally on a peaceful [exploring] mission to the West by way of the Rocky Mountains, it had become necessary to give him warning of the new state of affairs and the designs of the President [Polk]...The officer [Gillespie] who had charge of the dispatches from the Secretary of the Navy to Commodore Sloat [at Mazatlan], and who had purposely been made acquainted with their import, made his way to Captain Frémont...Being absolved from any duty as an explorer, Captain Frémont was left to his duty as an officer in the service of the United States, with the further authoritative knowledge that the government intended to take California.
Hon. George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy.

It should be noted here that, while Frémont held the rank of Captain (by double brevet) in the United States Corps of Topographical Engineers, the men of the company were civilians--hired as guides, voyageurs, and hunters.

Frémont returned to the Sacramento Valley immediately and got things going in the Bear Flag Revolt at Sonoma. The war had, by then, started in Texas. He resigned his commission with the army, and was commissioned Major by Commodore Robert F. Fighting Bob Stockton of the U. S. Navy, and was ordered to form a battalion of mounted riflemen to complement Stockton's naval forces. The men of his expedition, and most American immigrants enlisted. A few months later the Mexican troops capitulated to, now, Col. Frémont at Couenga, (The Capitulation of Cahuenga) bringing the territory of California into the Union.

There lay the pieces on the great chessboard before me with which the game for an empire had been played…I was but a pawn, and like a pawn I had been pushed forward to the front at the opening of the game. Frémont

But, by then, Joseph Walker was long gone. Walker had already been on his own way to California when Frémont encountered and hired him to guide a contingent of his survey party down the Humboldt River while Frémont explored though central Nevada, and then, after a short rendezvous at Walker Lake, to guide them south to Walker Pass, while Frémont crossed Truckee Pass. After Walker left Frémont at Gabilan Peak, he traveled on to Los Angeles with his nephew Frank McClellen. In the late spring they arrived in Taos driving a herd of over 500 horses.

Joseph Walker's first foray into California in 1833 was as leader of a trapping and trading venture as part of Bonneville's expedition. He had not been directed to travel to the Pacific: his orders had been to explore and trap the area around the Great Salt Lake--Mexican Territory until 1848, and part of California until the Sierra Nevada range was established as the eastern boundary between the to-be State of California and Utah Territory in 1849.

Washington Irving, in his account of Capt. Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville's expedition, describes it thus:

To have this lake [Salt Lake] properly explored, and all its secrets revealed, was the grand scheme of the captain [Bonneville] for the present year...This momentous undertaking he confided to his lieutenant, Mr. Walker, in whose experience and ability he had great confidence.

He instructed him to keep along the shores of the lake, and trap in all the streams on his route; also to keep a journal, and minutely to record the events of his journey, and everything curious or interesting, making maps or charts of his route, and of the surrounding country...They had complete supplies for a year, and were to meet Captain Bonneville in the ensuing summer, in the valley of Bear River, the largest tributary of the Salt Lake, which was to be his point of general rendezvous.
Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville Digested From His Journal, 1837

Historian Alan Nevins notes, "[Walker] did almost everything else except that."

Frederick S. Dellenbaugh said "Walker and his forty men started July 24, 1833...and there pursued a career toward California which emulated the Forty Thieves in the stirring story of Ali Baba."

"Joe Walker with his forty land pirates" was the descriptive used by Alpheus H. Favor (the group included the master horse thieves "Old Bill" Williams and Joe Meek).

After traveling down the Mary's [Humboldt] River and crossing the Sierra Nevada, the Walker enterprise devolved into a grand debauch of drinking, bear-baiting, and gambling at Monterey. Joe Meek, a member of the expedition, described it as, Some punkin! Meek's relation of the route after leaving "Ogden's [Humboldt] River" included "Pyramid Lake" and "Trucker's [Truckee] River," but he was relating this many years later, after these names had been applied to maps. Pyramid was certainly not the "swampy" lake Meek referred to. Frémont also confused the East Fork of the Carson River with the Truckee River--he called it the Salmon Trout River--in 1844. Meek's relation does not allude to Yosemite.

Irving continues:

Such are the scanty details of this most disgraceful [Walker] expedition; at least, such are all that Captain Bonneville had the patience to collect; for he was so deeply grieved by the failure of his plans, and so indignant at the atrocities related to him, that he turned, with disgust and horror, from the narrators.

The failure of this expedition was a blow to [Bonneville's] pride, and a still greater blow to his purse. The Great Salt Lake still remained unexplored; at the same time, the means which had been furnished so liberally to fit out this favorite expedition, had all been squandered at Monterey; and the peltries, also, which had been collected on the way. He would have but scanty returns, therefore, to make this year, to his associates in the United States; and there was great danger of their becoming disheartened, and abandoning the enterprise.
Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville Digested From His Journal, 1837

Favor, does, however, point out that "these lawless adventurers brought back information concerning the country beyond the Sierra, the people who inhabited the Pacific slope, and the resources of the country beyond the desert and of the Sierra."

One accomplishment of the Walker expedition that Bonneville did later acknowledge was the discovery of the nonexistence of the fabled Buenaventura River. But information gathered by early mountain and basin travelers (including also Peter Ogden and Jedediah Smith) did not circulate widely--as Strangelove remarks of the Doomsday Machine in the Kubrick classic, "What good is it if no one knows about it?"
It remained for Frémont to first scientifically explore the region. He and his cartographer, Charles Preuss, first documented and mapped the area of not only the Great Salt Lake, but described the entire drainage system of the geographical feature he coined as the Great Basin.

Joseph Walker has been credited as the first white man to see Yosemite Valley. The route and daily events of Walker's trip to California was recorded by the clerk of the expedition Zenas Leonard (see bibliography below). The route across the Sierra leading to this point of discovery has been a subject of debate over the years. A careful reading of the Leonard journal with regard to the miles traveled between dates, and the scenes recorded, make it highly unlikely that on his western descent from the mountains Walker ever saw, or was even near, Yosemite Valley. All of these proposed routes taking Walker to a view of Yosemite Valley, and to the Merced or Tuolumne Groves of the Sequoiadendron, have been developed since his late 19th Century credit as discoverer. They have, therefore, been developed by backtracking from that point of possible discovery. But these proposed routes all lead to an impossibly too distant (in miles per day) starting point south of where Walker left the Humboldt River. A reasonable starting point in considering the actual route of Walker's 1833 Sierra crossing is found in F. N. Fletcher's 1929 Early Nevada--the Period of Exploration. The descriptive parallels found in the record a similar crossing of the Sierra in 1841 of the Bartleson-Bidwell-(Chiles) Party, as published in John Bidwell's Echoes of the Past, are also interesting. See bibliography below.

go The actual route: one hundred and seventy-five years of lore and legend dispelled.

Did Joseph Walker ever actually make the statement that Frémont was morally and physically, the most complete coward I ever knew...I would call him a woman, if it were not casting an unmerited reproach on the sex?
Probably not; at least, not in so many words. Walker was not known for that sort of literary glibness, nor was he known as one to wax poetic.
Walker also never made the claim that he had been the first to see Yosemite Valley, or that he had camped there. These claims were all published posthumously, based on interviews supposedly made by the Napa County Reporter editor George W. Gift in 1875, when Joseph Walker was living at the Ygnacio Valley farm of his nephew James Walker. But, "the old chief was too feeble to talk much...and when he did talk his enunciation was labored and difficult." So these claims, like the Yosemite inscription on Walkers tombstone, can likely be attributed to James Walker.

I took this photograph of Joe Walker's grave and headstone at the old cemetery near Martinez, CA. Martinez is more famous as the birthplace of Joltin' Joe Dimagio. You have to collect the key to the gate from the downtown police station. The peaceful, oak-studded, cemetery overlooks the Bay of Suisun just inside the Strait of Carquinez, near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

You will note Camped at Yosemite, November 13, 1833 carved on the stone--a date by which the party had already arrived at the tidewater of the Pacific.

Note Aug. 2011: The actual Walker route will be revealed in A Way Across the Mountain: The 1833 Sierra Crossing of Joseph R. Walker by Scott Stine.

On the other side of the bay is the little-known historic site of the 1846 adobe of Lansford W. Hastings--Montezuma House.

*Joe Walker always signed his name "Joseph R. Walker."
The name Rutherford was an ancestral Walker family name--Reddeford likely represents Joe's Tennessee pronunciation of it.

Frémont meets the other Captain Walker

Wakara, Hawk of the Mountains
the Ute chief also called Walker, and Captain Walker

Frémont, May 20, 1844--We met a band of Utah Indians, headed by a well-known chief, who had obtained the American or English name of Walker, by which he is quoted and well known. They were all mounted, armed with rifles, and used their rifles well. The chief had a fusee, which he carried slung, in addition to his rifle. They were journeying slowly towards the Spanish trail, to levy their usual tribute upon the great California caravan. They were robbers of a higher order than those of the desert. They conducted their depredations with form, and under the color of trade and toll, for passing through their country. Instead of attacking and killing, they affect to purchase--taking the horses they like, and giving something nominal in return. The chief was quite civil to me. He was personally acquainted with his namesake, our guide [Joseph R. Walker], who made my name known to him. He knew of my expedition of 1842; and, as tokens of friendship, and proof that we had met, proposed an interchange of presents. We had no great store to choose out of; so he gave me a Mexican blanket, and I gave him a very fine one which I had obtained at Vancouver.

Wakara to Frémont, May 21, 1844--You are a chief, and I am one too. It would be bad if we should evaluate exactly the price of one or the other [gift]. You present me with yours, and I present you with mine. Fine.
As recorded in the diary of Charles Preuss.

May, 1848--It was not far from Little Salt Lake that we met the Eutah Indians. At this point, we found one of their principal chiefs, "Wacarra, "or Walker, as he is commonly called by the Americans. His encampment consisted of four lodges, inhabited by his wives, children, and a suite of inferior warriors and chiefs. This party was awaiting the coming of the great Spanish caravan, from whom they intended taking their yearly tribute which the tribe exact as the price of safe-conduct through their country.
George Douglas Brewerton, Overland with Kit Carson, 1848

1856--Frémont did not meet Wakara at Parowan on his fifth expedition in 1854, but his artist and daguerreotypist Soloman Nuñes Carvalho did:
"...[Wakara] told me of his interview with Col. Frémont, some years before, and showed me the place where Col. Frémont crossed the Seveir River, which was a short distance from where we crossed it. He remembered Col. Fremont, as the 'great Americats Chief.' While the men were constructing their raft, I occupied myself in making drawings of the surrounding country."
Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the West with Col. Frémont's Last Expedition, Derby & Jackson, New York, 1856.

We look forward to the publication of A Way Across the Mountain: The 1833 Sierran Crossing of Joseph R. Walker by Scott Stine--the definitive study of the actual Walker route replacing a century and three-quarters of lore and legend.

Scott Stine is a geomorphologist and paleoclimatologist in Geography and Environmental Studies at California State University, East Bay and is the author of two forthcoming books, A Way Across the Mountain: The 1833 Sierran Crossing of Joseph R. Walker, and The Once and Future Mono Basin: An Atlas Through Time.

Mono's Scientists, by Geoffery McQuilkin, Spring 2007.
"Professor Stine is still free-ranging in his inquiry into the landscape--in California and the Great Basin, as well as in Patagonia and Alaska. Some Mono work continues, leading to a much anticipated book on the history of the basin. His work on California's climate history and epic droughts has challenged thinking about the state's water resources. Recently he's taken up a new vein of inquiry: the history of exploration and discovery. A question turned to an inquiry and turned to an investigation, leading Stine to trace Joseph Walker's 1833 route across the Sierra--not through Yosemite, as the old campfire story had it, but rather through the Carson, Mokelumne, and Stanislaus drainages."

go Read more about this forthcoming publication.


  • Adler, Pat & Wheelock, Walt, Walker's R. R. Routes--1853, La Siesta Press, Glendale, 1965
  • Bailey, Paul, Walkara: Hawk of the Mountains, Los Angeles, 1954.
  • Bidwell, John, Echoes of the Past, R. R. Donelly & Sons Co., 1928.
  • Carson, Christopher, Kit Carson's Own Story of His Life, (as dictated to Col. and Mrs. D. C. Peters about 1856-57), Edited by Blanch C. Grant, Taos, N. M., 1926.
  • Chittenden, Hiram Martin., The American Fur Trade of the Far West, New York: Francis P. Harper, 1902 (Academic Reprints, 1954).
  • Cline, Gloria Griffin, Exploring the Great Basin, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1963 (and University of Nevada Press reprint 1988).
  • Dellenbaugh, Fredrick S., Breaking the Wilderness, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1905.
  • Ellison, William Henry, George Nidever, University of California, Berkeley, 1937.
  • Gilbert, Bil, Westering Man - The Life of Joseph Walker, Atheneum, New York, 1983. Favour, Alpheus, Old Bill Williams, Chapel Hill, University of Nort Carolina Press, 1936.
  • Ellison, William Henry, George Nidever, University of California, Berkeley, 1937.
  • Fletcher, F. N., Early Nevada--the Period of Exploration, 1776-1848, Reno, 1929.
  • Frémont, John Charles, Geographical Memoir Upon Upper California, Senate. 30th Congress, Misc. No.148, Wendell and Van Benthuysen, Washington, 1848. Contains the 1848 Frémont/Preuss map.
  • Frémont, John Charles, Memoirs of My Life, Belford, Clark & Company, Chicago, 1887.
  • Hawgood, John A., First and Last Council--Thomas Oliver Larkin and the Americanization of California, The Huntington Library, San Marino, 1962.
  • Holmes, Kenneth L., Ewing Young - Master Trapper, Binford's & Mort, Portland, 1967.
  • Irving, Washington, The Rocky Mountains or Scenes, Incidents and Adventures in the Far West; Digested from the Journal of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, of the Army of the United States, and Illustrated from Various Other Sources, Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837.
  • Kelsey, Rayner Wickersham, The United States Consulate in California, University of California, Berkeley, 1910.
  • Leonard, Zenas, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, Lakeside Press, Chicago, 1934.
  • Martin, Thomas S., With Frémont to California and the Southwest 1845-1849, Lewis Osborne, Ashland, 1975.
  • Miller, G. Andrew, Joseph R. Walker: California Expedition, 1833-34, Silver Spur Publishing, 2004.
  • Roberts, David, A Newer World: Kit Carson, John Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.
  • Swasey, W. F., The Early Days of California, Pacific Press Publishing Company. Oakland, 1891.
  • Rolle, Andrew, John Charles Frémont - Character as Destiny, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 1991.
  • Victor, Frances Fuller, The River of the West, Hartford Conn., 1870.
  • Walker, Dale, Bear Flag Rising, Forge, New York, 1999.
  • Watson, Douglas S., West Wind - the Life Story of Joseph Reddeford Walker, Percy H. Booth, Los Angeles, 1934.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham