Category Archives: National Parks

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Mariposa Indian War

This is the ninth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. In my last post, I wrote about the Carmel Mission. This week, I turn to the Mariposa Indian War, one of all-too-many tragic engagements between white Americans and the native tribes in the American West.

Among the sources I cite at the conclusion of New Garden are Barrett and Gifford’s Indian Life of the Yosemite Region, Miwok Material Culture (republished by Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Association); Sarah Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush; H.W. Brands’ The Age of Gold; and Lafayette Bunnell’s Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851.

I employed these sources when I adapted Bunnell’s account to the story. Jack Grier, New Garden’s main character, heads up a Gold Rush trading company, Sierra Dry Goods. Jack becomes a captain in the state militia organized to punish the local tribes after two of his men are killed at one of his trading posts. In actuality, the tribes attacked the trading post of another supplier, Jim Savage. I have modeled Jack’s role after that of Captain John Boling, who served under Savage. I deviate from Bunnell’s account where necessary to bring interest to the story.

First, I give the reader an understanding of the native tribes’ presence in the Sierra Nevada long before the California Gold Rush, in a chapter captioned “Two Hundred Generations” (pp. 115-116).

Twenty-seven thousand years ago, their ancestors crossed the Bering Strait land bridge to Alaska. Twelve thousand years ago, their ancestors migrated to California and lived primarily along the coast and southern California. Five thousand years ago, their ancestors migrated inland.

By 1849, more than two hundred generations of Miwoks and Yokuts had lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The men had hunted deer, bear, and smaller game. They had fished the Sierra’s rivers. The women had experimented with native plants and made use of their properties for both food and medicine.


More than two hundred generations of Miwoks and Yokuts had lived in harmony with the land. They had no need to plant crops. They lived in the world’s most abundant garden, which only required harvesting.

By 1848, smallpox and other diseases brought by the Spanish had cut California’s native population in half, from 300,000 to 150,000. Two years after the discovery of gold, the state’s native population fell another 50,000. By 1851, the white miners’ destruction of forests and game threatened the survival of the Sierra Nevada tribes. After an Indian raid on one of Savage’s trading posts, the whites used the attack as an excuse for driving the tribes out of the mountains to a reservation in Fresno.

The war was more of a “herding” or gathering of the tribes, with limited armed engagements. The tribes included the Ahwahnechee, whose members consisted of a mix of the Miwoks of the Western Sierra and the Monos of the Eastern Sierra. As the “war” neared its end, two soldiers murdered the son of Ahwahnechee Chief Tenaya. Bunnell recounts Chief Tenaya’s reaction. I have replicated Bunnell’s account on pages 124-125 of New Garden, except to expand on it (in italicized language) to provide for a dramatic impact on Jack’s life (expanded later in the story):

Kill me, Captain. Yes, kill me, as you killed my son; as you would kill my people if they were to come to you! You would kill my race if you had the power. *** [W]hen I am dead I will call to my people to come to you, I will call louder than you have heard me call; that they shall hear me in their sleep, and come to avenge the death of their chief and his son. Yes, sir, American, my spirit will make trouble for you and your people, as you have caused trouble to me and my people. May you grieve the death of your son as I shall grieve the death of my mine.

The Mariposa Battalion ultimately succeeds in removing the local tribes to a reservation, but Tenaya’s curse haunts Jack later in the story.

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).


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The National Park Service Turns 100

If you watched the 2016 Rose Bowl Parade, you know the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The participants included Yosemite Park Rangers on horseback and documentary film maker Ken Burns as the Parade’s Grand Marshal. One of the rangers celebrated his 50th year as a seasonal ranger last year (more on that later).

The National Park Service’s story is an evolutionary tale. As our European cousins criticized the carnival-like atmosphere of Niagara Falls in the early 1800’s, United States citizens struggled with how to care for the continent’s many natural wonders that indigenous tribes had somehow managed not to spoil despite living here for millennia.

A few prominent Californians helped to plant the seed when they lobbied to set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees (giant Sequoias) for the benefit and enjoyment of the public. President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, granting California responsibility for maintaining those scenic wonders.

The Yosemite Grant was followed eight years later with the establishment of the country’s first national park, Yellowstone. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation adding Sequoia, General Grant, and an expanded Yosemite to America’s collection of national parks. More national parks and national monuments (the latter established by executive order, bypassing any resistance in Congress) would follow.

While the country was working out this new idea of wilderness preservation, someone had to protect national park land. Where there was no protection, there was vandalism, poaching, and sheepherding. There has always been tension between those who wish to preserve America’s treasures and those who wish to use federal lands for private gain – agriculture, mining, and lumber. For several decades, the United States Army played the role of protector.

Early in the twentieth century, Stephen Mather (who made his millions promoting Borax products), Horace Albright, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Horace McFarland campaigned for the creation of a federal bureau to manage the National Parks. Their efforts bore fruit when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Act (and also know as the Organic Act of 1916) into law on August 25, 1916. The law mandated that the National Park Service “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife [within the parks, monuments, and preserves]” while at the same time providing for current and future generations’ enjoyment of these national treasures. If you have visited a national park on a busy summer day, you understand that conservation and public enjoyment sometimes come into conflict.

As new national parks and monuments have been added and as the number of visitors has grown, the NPS has had to evolve to meet new challenges. The rangers are responsible for fire protection, search and rescue, and law enforcement, as well as the responsibilities we more often associate with them – public education about geology, flora, and fauna; protecting visitors and wildlife from each other; managing campgrounds; providing visitors information about hiking trails and climbing routes. Rangers who were once Jacks and Jills of all trades are now more specialized.

Back to that 50-year seasonal ranger I mentioned earlier (I will use only his first name, Fred.). This past summer, I had the privilege of serving as a volunteer in Yosemite National Park. While there, I met a number of the Rangers. Nothing is more iconic than a ranger on horseback. On one sunny afternoon, a family that included a very young Junior Ranger visited one of the volunteer locations, Parsons Lodge, in Tuolumne Meadows. The young boy was excited about almost everything, including a toad that had managed to hop on a window shutter and a marmot on a nearby stack of rocks. But the Junior Ranger’s really big moment came when Ranger Fred rode up the trail on his horse King. The child was truly star struck as Ranger Fred took ten minutes to engage the Junior Ranger. I’m sure the child will enjoy that memory for quite some time.

Whatever your favorite national park or monument – I have a hard time choosing among Yosemite, Glacier, Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon, and Yorktown, just to name a few – take a few minutes to talk to a ranger. They are often overworked and frequently underpaid. But I’ve never seen one out of sorts with a visitor. Thank the ranger for his or her service. We are privileged to have so many dedicated men and women to enhance our enjoyment of America’s treasures.



  • Farabee, Charles R. National Park Ranger: An American Icon. Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart, 2003.
  • National Park Service History Program (various articles).




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YOSEMITE SUMMER: A Pleasant Day at Parsons Lodge

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

July 7, 2015

View east from Parsons Lodge

View east from Parsons Lodge

Only nine more days before I leave for home. Today, I headed to Parsons Lodge, a very pleasant stone and lodgepole pine structure built by the Sierra Club in 1915 near Soda Springs. However, the number of visitors is usually small compared to the other volunteer stations, so the day sometimes drags there.

Today was quite different. With almost 200 visitors, I found myself answering questions almost all day long. Visitors included a family from Charlotte, NC. It’s always good to see people who remind me of home. I encountered my first visitors from Israel and South Africa. They were a pleasant treat.

The highlight of the day came with a family that included a very young Junior Ranger. He was excited about almost everything, including a toad that had managed to hop on a window shutter and a marmot on a nearby stack of rocks. But the young Ranger’s really big moment came when a Ranger (Fred) rode up the trail on his horse King. The child was truly star struck as Ranger Fred took 10 minutes to engage the young Ranger. I’m sure the child will enjoy the memory for quite some time.

Another view from Parsons Lodge

Another view from Parsons Lodge

After closing up shop, I returned to the campground where four of us decided to head to the Lee Vining Mobil for dinner. As we shared our fare, we all commented on how rapidly our service is coming to a close. While we will miss each other, I think all of us are ready to return to our homes.

Another day in Tuolumne. The temperatures are dropping, with highs in the 60’s today and lows in the 30’s expected tonight. It’s now time to bundle up, slip into the sleeping bag, and hope to ward off the chill. The time here has been wonderful, but I look forward to returning to the comforts of home.

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This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

July 6

Yesterday, after completing the 15-mile Clouds Rest hike, I thought I had the biggest news of the day. Not so.

Susan, a volunteer who has hiked most of Yosemite’s trails, wanted a new challenge. She got one. She had driven down Tioga Road to 395 South and then on a 4-mile rough road to hike the June Lake North Loop. Eager to begin her new adventure, she hit the car lock button on the driver’s side door, hopped out, and shut the door. As the door left her finger tips, she suddenly realized she had left her car keys (along with all the important personal possessions she had brought to Yosemite) INSIDE THE CAR. Her new-found adventure proved to be trying to restore the status quo rather than striking out on a new trail.

Susan walked 15 minutes up the trail and met two women, a mother and her daughter, coming off the trail. The women kindly offered to take Susan to the June Lakes Shell station. When Susan got there, she was told the Lee Vining Shell would have to help. That station offers AAA towing service.

When the tow truck arrived, the employee drove Susan to her car. The employee made a valiant effort, but he was unable to open the car. Susan would have to contact Lexus for information on how to access her car.

"Social hour" at the Mobil

“Social hour” at the Mobil

Meanwhile, the employee kindly took Susan to the Lee Vining Mobil, where she expected volunteers to come for dinner. She could catch a ride with them, she said. They always had dinner there every Sunday night. Well, almost every Sunday night. Not this Sunday night.

She then tried phoning two of the volunteers. Good luck with that. Cell phone service in Tuolumne Meadows is spotty at best. Time to put out the hitchhiker’s thumb. Humbled by multiple drivers avoiding eye contact with her, Susan finally caught a ride with the fifth prospect. About 6:30, she dejectedly hobbled into camp with her story.

Her fellow campers’ suggestions focused primarily on breaking one of the windows to gain access. Ultimately, everyone agreed she should try to reach Lexus for assistance. All of us thought she might have to have the car towed to Bishop, CA, or Reno, NV.

Fun times and a rainbow at the Mobil

Fun times and a rainbow at the Mobil

After numerous efforts to reach Lexus, she finally reached a representative who told her she might be able to open the car trunk by pushing a button on the rear bumper. If that did not work, the Reno Lexus dealership, 120 miles away, would have to retrieve the car.

With our fingers crossed, I drove Susan and Woodlee to the Lee Vining Mobil. There, we checked e-mails and cell phone messages before heading to the June Lakes trailhead. Down 395 we went until Susan directed me to the side road leading to the trailhead. I maintained a speed of about 8 mph over the rough road. I did not dare drive any faster.

After about 25 minutes, we finally reached Susan’s car. She approached the rear bumper with a hope and a prayer and VOILA!, the trunk opened. She now had access to all that the day before meant so little to her but now restored her to ready access to the modern world – car keys, credit cards, cash, and prescription medicine.

From there, we hurried back (well, after getting off the 8mph road) to Lee Vining for a celebratory lunch. All was well.

The remainder of the day was pretty uneventful. But restoring Susan’s peace of mind, and her car with the worldly possessions all of us have come to rely on, made for a great day. It’s the type of event that builds cohesion in this talented group of volunteers.

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YOSEMITE SUMMER: Then Came the Belgians

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

July 1, 2015

Only two weeks remain before I leave the park. Back to Olmsted Point today. I never know whether I’ll freeze or fry. This morning, brisk breezes brought a chill to the air so I found myself wearing my parka the entire shift.

Hikers on the Half Dome cables came in greater numbers than normal. A large group must have camped in Little Yosemite Valley the previous night to get a three-hour head start on hikers starting from Happy Isles in [Big] Yosemite Valley. It was fortuitous because dark clouds threatened early. It’s not wise to cling on to steel cables for dear life if an electrical storm threatens.

I got the usual “oh” or laughter whenever a visitor using the telescope honed in on the hikers climbing the cables.

Hikers on Half Dome cables (earlier year)

Hikers on Half Dome cables (earlier year)

I’ve learned that foreign visitors not fluent in English are reluctant to approach the telescope.

I’ve spoken with many visitors from Belgium. [Are there any remaining at home to tend to the chocolate shops?] They largely speak our language very well and are very courteous. Today, I spoke with five Belgians who were very interested in the local sights, but also took great interest in me – we spoke for about 15 minutes and they seemed reluctant to leave. I finally moved on to other visitors, but the Belgians left me with good feelings about their country. We Americans would do well to emulate their conduct.

We had an afternoon shower around 3pm and an evening thunderstorm just after 9pm. I’m glad the evening storm held off until I returned to my tent from a Ranger campfire program about global warming and its direct effects on the Sierra Nevada. Once again, my REI Kingdom 4 has weathered the storms.

Visitors taking photos at Lower Yosemite Falls

Visitors taking photos at Lower Yosemite Falls

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This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

iPhone pictures 215This being my last day off before returning to my volunteer stations, I wanted to get in a decent hike. Several years ago, I had tried this hike but found my navigational skills were not up to the challenge. I inferred from several conversations that a fellow volunteer, Cyndi, knew the trail.

We arrived at the trailhead (across Tioga Road from Murphy Creek parking and picnic tables) around 9:30 a.m. It turns out Cyndi had not hiked the trail previously so the question was whether two heads are better than one.

Two Park Rangers were at the trailhead. They had been hiking the area the past several days to make sure campers had their Wilderness permits and otherwise were complying with Park regulations. We asked whether the lakes were “buggy.” “Very much so,” responded one ranger. “The lakes are surrounded by vegetation. That, combined with the water, makes for an ideal mosquito habitat.”

Despite the warning, we proceeded with our 5-6 mile hike. Much of the trail was obvious, but midway through we saw no evidence of cairns (stacks of rocks used as trail markers). After fumbling around for a half hour or so, we finally found a few cairns and soon thereafter stopped at several beautiful but buggy lakes. After taking a dozen photos or so, we headed back to Tioga Road. We had better luck on the return trip, carefully watching for cairns until we reached the well-established first half of the trail.

Tenaya Lake early morning

Tenaya Lake early morning

Not satisfied with the exercise provided by the hike, Cyndi decided to swim across and back Tenaya Lake (from the Murphy Creek picnic area), a total distance of one mile. I was content to finish my lunch. Afterwards I spoke with several Canadian visitors who were traveling the United States without any set time schedule. They already had seen many U.S. national parks and were on their way to seeing more. All Americans should be so lucky.

Late afternoon found Tuolumne Meadows hit with a heavy thunderstorm. Once more, my REI Kingdom 4 met the challenge, making me a happy camper.

Not wishing to remain in our now very wet campground, four of us accepted our youngest volunteer’s (Cassie) invitation to ride with her to Lee Vining for dinner at the Mobil. I had already eaten, but looked forward to their company. We discussed a variety of topics. I mentioned my recent exploratory visit to Tioga Pass Resort (TPR). Our team leader, Woodlee, had mentioned his upcoming birthday and his wish for a pie from the resort, which has an on-site baker. Upon my inquiry to the cashier, she said the pie sells for $7.25 per slice. She had to check with the baker about the price of a whole pie. After making the inquiry, she informed me that each pie is cut into eight slices. TPR would give a one-slice discount, selling an entire pie for a bargain price of $50.75 plus tax, for a total of over $56.00! It looks like Woodlee will be disappointed.

Our return trip to our campground allowed a glimpse of a full moon, lighting up much of our surroundings. We remained quietly respectful of the magnificent scene, mountains and meadows bathed in the moonlight, leading us back to our summer home.

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This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Sunday, June 28

Half Dome from Glacier Point

Half Dome from Glacier Point

This was the first of three days off (in a 3 days on, 3 days off schedule). I headed to Glacier Point after dropping off a fellow volunteer at Olmsted Point. Storm clouds dominated the sky, with showers in the forecast. Early morning temperatures hit 50 degrees, unseasonably mild.

After a two-hour drive, I hit Glacier Point Road around 11am. I stopped at a meadow blanketed with wildflowers and took lots of pictures. I proceeded to Washburn Point, which overlooks Half Dome, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall. Both falls are flowing at probably half the normal flow rate for this time of year, which means hikers on the Mist Trail will actually walk through a genuine mist rather than heavy showers. The clouds grew darker as I took more photos.

iPhone pictures 138

Columbine in meadow on Glacier Point Road

I drove to Glacier Point. Rush hour at noon. I had no luck finding a parking spot. After leaving the parking lot I parked at a pullover to get a Half Dome “road hazard” shot – the granite monolith fills the windshield past a road that drops off into oblivion.

Having no luck at Glacier Point, I drove west down Glacier Point Road to the Sentinel Dome trail. I took more wildflower photos as well as shots of Yosemite Falls – fast drying up, but an afternoon shower delays that unhappy event. The rain became heavy ten minutes before I reached my car, but I had dressed for it – a light parka and nylon shorts. Time to make the 2+ hour drive to Tuolumne Meadows.

I reached the Dog Lake parking lot at 3:45. It’s one of few spots with reliable cell phone reception. I called my brother Bob to catch up on recent news. I made it back to my campsite at 4:30 just in time to join four fellow volunteers for a drive to our favorite eating spot, the Mobil station in Lee Vining. Cassie drove. Her parents and sister met us at the Mobil when we arrived. All of us shared an outdoor table. We continued eating through a brief shower. Neither food nor diners were the worse for wear.

Sunset photo from Lembert Dome

Sunset photo from Lembert Dome

On the return drive to Tuolumne Meadows, one volunteer suggested stopping at Lembert Dome for sunset photos. The cloud formations and setting sun made for spectacular photos. This proved to be the highlight of a very good day. The showers have knocked down some of the pine pollen and lowered the temperatures. I expect a cooler night, more seasonable, with lows in the 30’s. Time to bundle up!

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