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Miwok natives from the western Sierra Nevada foothills and Paiutes from the east side of the mountains were the first to visit the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Hetch Hetchy was the location of late summer and fall encampments for the purpose of gathering food for the winter. Black oaks that dotted the valley floor supplied acorns for meal. A variety of berries, roots and seeds were gathered (the name Hetch Hetchy is a Miwok word for a type of grass in the valley from which seed was harvested1). And deer came down into the valley in large numbers as the acorns began to fall. Despite incursions by white Americans, Indian use of the valley in this manner continued into the 20th century.
White miners and settlers began to move into the region with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The first known European American visit to Hetch Hetchy was by Joseph Screech and his brother in 1850. Screech reported that:
Use of the valley by non native Californians was largely in the form of summer pasture for sheep into the 1890s. John Muir, whose own experience in the Sierras began as a shepherd, noted that:
Sheep are driven into Hetch Hetchy every spring, about the same time that a nearly equal number of tourists are driven into Yosemite; another coincident which is remarkably suggestive.3
When the U.S. Calvary was given responsibility for protecting the new Yosemite National Park beginning in 1891 Hetch Hetchy became a gateway out of the Sierras as troopers would escort shepherds in one direction and their sheep in another across the mountains.
Tourist travel to Hetch Hetchy was limited because of the isolation of the valley. Impressions, though, by those who did visit were vivid as this passage from an 1887 letter by John Wells suggests:
John Muir's impression of the Hetch Hetchy Valley was formed early in his history in the Sierras as he recounts in this passage from a 1908 Sierra Club Bulletin::
There is indication that in addition to annual visits by sheep and tourists that the valley was surveyed as early as the late 1850s for use as a water source by the Tuolumne Valley Water Company.6 Interest in Hetch Hetchy's potential as a reservoir grew quickly among hydraulic miners in the Sierra foothills, farmers in California's Sacramento Valley and cities in the central part of the state. Interest by the city of San Francisco was first expressed in 1882.
San Francisco's water was supplied primarily by Spring Valley Water, a private company whose investors included some of California's wealthiest bankers and railroad owners. The return on their investment was substantial as was the friction generated between the company and San Francisco city government. Multiple efforts by the city to buy out Spring Valley failed. Pressure on San Francisco to manage its own water system came to a head with the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. Damage from the earthquake was substantial, but damage from the fire was catastrophic. Blame was heaped on Spring Valley. In 1901, five years prior to the earthquake, the Roosevelt administration had denied San Francisco's application for a permit to dam Hetch Hetchy. In 1908, despite a new administration and approval from a sympathetic Secretary of Interior, San Francisco's permit was denied by Congress. However, a carefully orchestrated lobbying campaign in 1913 playing on public sympathy resulting from the earthquake and on Progressive political thought that emphasized public ownership of utilities finally won approval for San Francisco to dam the valley.7
1) Dispute over native American use of Hetch Hetchy Valley prior to 1850 is ongoing bewteen Miwok and Paiute natives. Search for both Miwok and Paiute discussions of Hetch Hetchy and describe the argument over the claims of each tribe.
2) Explain what John Muir meant in his comment about sheep in Hetch Hetchy and tourists in Yosemite Valley.
3) Do some research into what happened to San Francisco's water system as a result of the earthquake in 1906 and describe what the effect of the earthquake was.
image from Eadweard Muybridge., "Piute Chief's Lodge," The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley, #1574 available at Calisphere.
1Francis Farquhar , Place Names of the High Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1926) as found at the Yosemite Online Library
2Charles Frederick Hoffmann , Notes on Hetch-Hetchy Valley, Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco: California, 1868), series 1, 3:5, pp. 368-370 as found at the Yosemite Online Library.
3John Muir, "The Hetch Hetchy Valley," Boston Weekly Transcript, March 25, 1873 as found at the Yosemite Online Library.
4John Wells, "Letter to Charles Stoddard, Summer, 1887," in Charles Stoddard, Beyond the Rockies; a spring journey in California: The Hetch Hetchy Valley (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1894.), pp. 138-140 as found at the Library of Congress American Memory Collection
5John Muir "The Hetch Hetchy Valley," Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. VI, No. 4, January, 1908 as found at the Yosemite Online Library.
6Carlo M.D. Ferrari, ed., Gold Spring Diary: The Journal of John Jolly (Sonora, California: The Tuolomne County Historical Society, 1966), pp. 70-71 as found at Yosemite Mono Lake Paiute Native American History
7Robert W. Righter, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).