This glorious landscape had an ignoble history. The first white visitors were vigilantes from the so-called Mariposa Battalion, who were paid by the California government to stop Indian raids on trading posts. They rode into Yosemite in 1851 and 1852 in pursuit of the Ahwahneechee, a branch of the southern Miwok. Some Indians were killed and their village was burned. The survivors were driven from the valley and returned later only in small, heartbroken bands. The vigilantes brought back stories of a breathtaking seven-mile-long gorge framed by monumental cliffs, now known as El Capitan and Half Dome, and filled with serene meadows and spectacular waterfalls.
The first tourists began arriving in Yosemite a few years later, and by the early 1860s, a steady trickle of them, most from San Francisco, 200 miles away, was turning up in summer. Traveling for several days by train, stagecoach and horseback, they would reach Mariposa Grove, a stand of some 200 ancient giant sequoias, where they would rest before embarking on an arduous descent via 26 switchbacks into the valley. Once there, many did not stray far from the few rustic inns, but others would camp out in the forests, eating oatcakes and drinking tea, hiking to mountain vistas such as Glacier Point, reading poetry around campfires and yodeling across moonlit lakes. By 1864, a group of Californians, aware of what had happened to Niagara Falls, successfully lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to sign a law granting the roughly seven square miles of the valley and Mariposa Grove to the state "for public use, resort and recreation"—some of the first land in history set aside for its natural beauty.
Thus, when Muir came to Yosemite in 1868, he found several dozen year-round residents living in the valley—even an apple orchard. Because of a gap in his journals, we know little about that first visit except that it lasted about ten days. He returned to the coast to find work, promising himself to return.
It would take him over a year to do so. In June 1869, Muir signed on as a shepherd to take a flock of 2,000 sheep to Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, an adventure he later recounted in one of his most appealing books, My First Summer in the Sierra. Muir came to despise his "hoofed locusts" for tearing up the grass and devouring wildflowers. But he discovered a dazzling new world. He made dozens of forays into the mountains, including the first ascent of the 10,911-foot granite spire of Cathedral Peak, with nothing but a notebook tied to his rope belt and lumps of hard bread in his coat pockets. By fall 1869, Muir had decided to stay full time in the valley, which he regarded as "nature's landscape garden, at once beautiful and sublime." He built and ran a sawmill for James Hutchings, proprietor of the Hutchings House hotel, and, in November 1869, constructed his fern-filled cabin by Yosemite Creek. Muir lived there for 11 months, guiding hotel guests on hikes and cutting timber for walls to replace bedsheets hung as "guest room" partitions. Muir's letters and journals find him spending hour after hour simply marveling at the beauty around him. "I am feasting in the Lord's mountain house," he wrote his lifelong Wisconsin friend and mentor Jeanne Carr, "and what pen may write my blessings?" But he missed his family and friends. "I find no human sympathy," he wrote at one low ebb, "and I hunger."
We have a vivid picture of Muir at this time thanks to Theresa Yelverton, a.k.a. Viscountess Avonmore, a British writer who arrived in Yosemite as a 33-year-old tourist in the spring of 1870. Carr had told her to seek out Muir as a guide and the pair became friends. She recorded her first impressions of him in the novel Zanita: A Tale of the Yo-Semite, a thinly veiled memoir in which Muir is called Kenmuir. He was dressed, she wrote, in "tattered trousers, the waist eked out with a grass band" and held up by "hay-rope suspenders," with "a long flowering sedge rush stuck in the solitary button-hole of his shirt, the sleeves of which were ragged and forlorn." But Yelverton also noted his "bright, intelligent face...and his open blue eyes of honest questioning," which she felt "might have stood as a portrait of the angel Raphael." On their many rambles, she came also to marvel at Muir's energy and charisma: muscular and agile, with a "joyous, ringing laugh," he leapt from boulder to boulder like a mountain goat, rhapsodizing about the wonders of God.
"These are the Lord's fountains," Kenmuir pronounces before one waterfall. "These are the reservoirs whence He pours his floods to cheer the earth, to refresh man and beast, to lave every sedge and tiny moss." When a storm sends trees thundering to the earth around them, Kenmuir is driven to ecstasy: "O, this is grand! This is magnificent! Listen to the voice of the Lord; how he speaks in the sublimity of his power and glory!" The other settlers, she writes, regarded him as slightly mad—"a born fool" who "loafs around this here valley gatherin' stocks and stones."
Muir left Yosemite abruptly in late 1870; some scholars suspect he was fleeing the romantic interest of Lady Yelverton, who had long been separated from a caddish husband. A short time later, in January 1871, Muir returned to Yosemite, where he would spend the next 22 months—his longest stint. On Sunday excursions away from the sawmill, he made detailed studies of the valley's geology, plants and animals, including the water ouzel, or dipper, a songbird that dives into swift streams in search of insects. He camped out on high ledges where he was doused by freezing waterfalls, lowered himself by ropes into "the womb" of a remote glacier and once "rode" an avalanche down a canyon. ("Elijah's flight in a chariot of fire could hardly have been more gloriously exciting," he said of the experience.)
This refreshingly reckless manner, as if he were drunk on nature, is what many fans like to remember about him today. "There has never been a wilderness advocate with the kind of hands-on experience of Muir," says Lee Stetson, editor of an anthology of Muir's outdoor adventure writing and an actor who has portrayed him in one-man shows in Yosemite for the past 25 years. "People tend to think of him as a remote philosopher-king, but there's probably not a single part of this park that he didn't visit himself." Not surprisingly, Native Americans, whom Muir regarded as "dirty," tend to be less enthusiastic about him. "I think Muir has been given entirely too much credit," says Yosemite park ranger Ben Cunningham-Summerfield, a member of the Maidu tribe of Northern California.