The Making of Yosemite

James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of America's Most Popular Park

Jen A. Huntley

Leader of the first tourist expedition into Yosemite in 1855, James Mason Hutchings became a tireless promoter of the valley—and of himself. Seeking to create an alternative to California's Gold Rush social chaos, Hutchings whetted the public enthusiasm for this unspoiled land by mass producing a lithograph of Yosemite Falls, while his Hutchings' California Magazine beat the drum for tourism. But because of his later legal imbroglios over the park, Hutchings was effectively written out of its history, and today he is largely viewed as an opportunist who made a career out of exploiting Yosemite.

Now Jen Huntley removes the tarnish from Hutchings's image. She portrays him instead as a "connector" who brought artists to Yosemite and Yosemite to Americans, and uses his career as a lens through which to view the contests and debates surrounding the creation of Yosemite, and, by extension, America's emerging ethic of land conservation. Blending environmental and cultural history, she tracks Hutchings's professional trajectory amidst significant changes in nineteenth-century America, from technological advances in printing to the growth of tourism, from the birth of modern environmental movements to battles over public lands.

“Ambitiously tying East to West, The Making of Yosemite is among the more significant of recent books examining the overlapping histories of the American West and the Civil War. . . .[the] powerful merit of this book is Huntley’s suggestive finding that the object of Hutching’s eye and mind, if not western nature writ large, might be redemptive and rejuvenating in the processes of post-Civil War national healing.

—Pacific Historical Review

“Huntley concludes the book with a brief, yet poignant discussion of the complex historical relationship between entrepreneurs and the creation of sacred places such as Yosemite. By restoring Hutchings’s place in Yosemites creation, Huntley argues the modern environmental understandings of nature too often obscure the role of boosters, and more broadly capitalism, in the production of landscape. In this manner, The Making of Yosemite joins a growing number of works underlining the complex connections between wilderness preservation and consumerism in American history, and perhaps, as she suggests, offers a more complete understanding of our relationship with Yosemite today.”

Environmental History
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Huntley uses Hutchings's legal battles with the government over ownership of land in the Yosemite Valley to analyze larger battles over public land management and national identity. She also explores the role of urban San Francisco in designating Yosemite a public park, shows how the Civil War transformed Yosemite from a regional icon to a national symbol of post-war redemption, and takes a closer look at Hutchings's relationship with John Muir. Making Yosemite sheds light on the role of power, class dynamics, and the late-century ideal of individualism in the shaping of modern America's sacred landscapes.

Hutchings emerges here as a visionary communicator who cleverly tapped into midcentury Americans' attitudes toward spectacular scenery to create a sense of place-based identity in the American Far West. Huntley's revisionist approach rediscovers Hutchings as a key player in the histories of American media, tourism, and environmentalism, and suggests new terrain for scholars to consider in writing the histories of our national parks, conservation, and land policy.

About the Author

Jen A. Huntley is an environmental historian of the Sierra Nevada and Pacific Rim. She taught humanities and history courses for ten years at the University of Nevada, Reno, designed the interdisciplinary University of Nevada Academy for the Environment, and was UNAE Associate Director for Education and Outreach until 2010.