Little Ahwahnee and the Miwok Indians

Little Ahwahnee InnThe Little Ahwahnee is an inn situated in the mountains surrounding Yosemite Valley in a minutely small town that boasts a population of 59 and goes by the name of Fish Camp. 

It has a general store and a lake and that’s all. The neighborhood though; it’s gorgeous. Serene, peaceful, and if you need it there’s a spa across the street at the Tenaya Lodge. Get those hiking or skiing aches and pains massaged right out!

The Little Ahwahnee is a place I would comfortably recommend. The owners, although timid at first, soon came around and ensured a memorable stay with friendly conversation, an evening fire, and a full cooked breakfast when you woke.

But it’s the name Ahwahnee and the history of these people who command at least a basic understanding for anyone traveling in the area. There are a couple of versions of the story but the one I outline below appears to be agreed upon by most.

Native Americans lived in North America thousands of years before the white settlers ever arrived. They banded themselves together into tribes. Each having its own way of living and surviving; making each tribe unique.

The Yosemite Indians belonged to a group known as the Miwok.

Yosemite was a name given to this tribe by the white newcomers but the actual origin of the name is complicated. It is thought to derive from one of two sources. Uzumati which means “grizzly bear” or the more menacing possibility Yos.s.e’meti which means “those who kill”.

History tells us that the Yosemite people were referred to as killers by the surrounding tribes because they feared them. Led by Chief Tenaya, the Yosemite Indians were composed mostly of renegades; united in a cause to retake a land once lost to disease by generations previous. This is the Valley.

The older legends speak of a band of people being led by the Great Spirit. These natives spoke the Miwok language and settled into the “Ah-wah-nee”, which means “deep, grassy valley.” Some say it means “place of the gaping mouth.” Either way, the tribe took on the name of the valley in which they settled. 

The Ahwahneechees easily lived off the land in the Ahwahnee Valley. The streams were full of trout, and the forests provided bear, deer, and elk meat. The trees and bushes gave them acorns, pine nuts, fruits, and berries.


Around 1800, a mysterious disease forced them to leave their villages in the Ahwahnee Valley. The valley remained empty for many decades. Several generations passed before a band of about two hundred Indians, led by the young Chief Tenaya, decided to move back.

Once again, the Ahwahneechee tribe lived well.

The discovery of gold in 1848 in the nearby mountains brought thousands of gold seekers. They scattered out among the hills churning up the land and streams in their search for gold. Those that followed brought great herds of cattle that used up the acorns and grasses along the way. The Ahwahnees’ food became depleted so they moved quickly to find new sources.

As they moved higher into the mountains their supplies dwindled. They began to prey upon the cattle and horses that belonged to the gold seekers. They raided settlements for food and were met with guns and resentment. As the violence grew, so did the fear instilled in those men seeking their fortunes in gold.

Eventually a group called “Commissioners” was sent from Washington, D.C. to the town of Mariposa. Their mission was to try to subdue the “Yosemite” Indians.

In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion was organized. They elected a local trader named James D. Savage as leader.  He had a personal grudge against the Yosemite tribe because several of his supply stores had been attacked, destroyed, and the men in charge murdered. He is reported to have said, “If I ever have a chance, I will smoke out the Yosemite from their holes.”

The world of the Ahwahnee was closing in but worse was in store.

Slave Traffic and Disease

The Ahwahneechees: A Story of the Yosemite Indians (1966) by John W. Bingaman

On October 2, 1854, the “Alta California” published an article in which it was stated that abducting Indian children had become quite a common practice. Many children belonging to some of the Indian tribes in the northern part of the State were stolen, and were taken to the southern part of the State, and there sold.

On May 23, 1857, the Butte County Record noted the presence in Chico of a Mexican, “who has been in the habit of stealing Indian children and selling them to Mexican rancheros in southern California.”

Accounts from Petaluma Journal, and Marysville Appeal, of December 6, 1861, contained the following. “It is from these mountain tribes that white settlers draw their supplies of kipnapped children, educated as servants, and women for purposes of labor, and of lust. It is notorious that there are parties in the northern counties of this state, whose sole occupation has been to steal young children, and squaws from the poor Diggers, who inhabit the mountains, and disposed of them at handsome prices to the settlers, who being in the majority of cases unmarried but good at housekeeping, willingly pay fifty or sixty dollars for young Digger to cook and wait upon them, or a hundred dollars or a likely young girl.”

Kidnaping went on as late as 1861 and 1864. There were reports of up to two hundred and fifty kidnapings in 1862. The practice began about 1852, and continued at least till 1867. It was during these fifteen years, perhaps between three and four thousand children were stolen. This estimate would not include squaws taken for concubinage or adults for field labor.

The effect on the Indians of this peculiarly Yankee kidnaping industry was exasperating to the highest degree. It was not only an irritant which drove some of them to physical and violent retaliation; it intensified and prolonged their aversion to the type of labor in which the kidnaped persons were employed.

The most dominant diseases were syphilis, tuberculosis, and dysenteries. Most Indian deaths were due to these.

Syphilis appeared in upper California certainly within the first decade of settlement. The conventional story attributed its introduction to the de Anza expedition to Los Angeles in 1777. Thus Miguel and Zalvidea state that this putrid and contagious disease had its beginning with the time Don Juan Bautista de Anza stopped at the Mission San Gabriel with his expedition.

The very first expeditions were characterized by disorderly conduct with the Indian women on the part of the soldiers.

Epidemics were reported early in 1800 of pneumonia, diphtheria, measles, consumption, dysentery, and diarrhoea. Syphilis was reported in 1807. Smallpox was reported in 1833.

Sweeping epidemics of 1830 – 1840, and all sorts of diseases became established among the central California tribes. Losses from these epidemics from 1838 to 1848 may be up to 5,000 deaths. These occurred in the six tribes, Pomo, Wappo, Wintun, Maidu, Miwok, and Yokuts. Neglecting entirely possible mortality, even from syphilis, prior to 1830, it has been estimated that 4,500 perished in the 1833 pandemic, 2,000 in the smallpox scourge of 1837, and 5,000 from endemic. illness and secondary epidemics up to 1848. This gives a total of 11,500. The estimated aboriginal population of the six tribes would be about 58,900.

So white man’s diseases and habits took untold count of these six Indian Tribes, and surely left a black mark in the annals of the history of our State.

For more historical information please visit this site Yosemite and the Ahwaneechees

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32 thoughts on “Little Ahwahnee and the Miwok Indians

  1. While the site is well put together , the information regarding Yosemite’s people being Miwok are false.
    As with this site, most of the American Indian pictures you see here and in Yosemite of its native people are Paiutes and not Miwok; the myth of the Yosemite Miwok is just that and its unfortunate, the NPS Of Yosemite a (Government Agency), would like to claim this. .
    While we have approached the NPS to challenge there claims in regards to their historically information they refuse to address our concerns that we have presented to them along with documentation that refutes or calls into question there information they have been presenting to the general public.

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  2. What a fascinating place to visit and then find out it’s sad story. Mankind is responsible for the extinction of so many cultures, people and animals. We still haven’t learnt from it.

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  3. This is why we should travel. If you hadn’t gone there and found this charming little Fish Camp, then how would you (and consequently we) have ever heard this story? I hate to think about these things being forgotten to history…

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  4. The treatment of the Native Americans by settlers is such a shameful part of our history. The greedy men who ran out West for the gold rush were evil, taking whatever they could in any way they wanted. They had laws or respect for anything other than money. I find it difficult reading stories about the plight of the Native American because I know none of the stories have a positive outcome. I know two things about the Ahwahnee Hotel. One is that it’s haunted, by the former owner. I think it’s a “must stay” for people who want a special Halloween experience. And the hotel was used as inspiration for the movie, The Shining.”

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    1. You are right Pamela, very few stories involving native Americans from that era turn out to be “feel good” ones. The Ahwahnee Hotel is indeed in the valley and may well be haunted but the one used in the Shining is actually the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park Colorado.

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  5. Oh, that’s fascinating and dreadful at the same time. Native Americans have suffered so much, and are still so badly treated by contemporary society. We have all kinds of non-profit organizations helping out in the third world, when we really need to address some of our issues here at home. Thanks for this – sad as it may be.

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  6. It is a tragedy what occurred to the Native Americans during this time. This legacy of destruction was common at the time, slavery was going full speed in the United States, and so there was little or no acknowledgement of the treatment of the Native Americans. However, the expansion and Manifest Destiny, also contributed to this. Citizens back East, believed that the United States should expand all the way to the West Coast; unfortunately this meant taking the lands of the Native Americans, and removing them from it.

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  7. Love the story and learning about indigenous peoples and I’ve added Little Ahwahnee to my trip list for later this year. Sadly the experiences of native Americans is not a shining moment in our history, but then these are far from an isolated events. We have our own tragic stats where I live in the Islands, also the result of the white settler’s influence. In 1778 there were between 600,000 and a million native Hawaiians and by 1922 there were less than 24,000 remaining and of course it’s lower than that now.

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  8. I’m familiar with the area, well not Fish Camp, but not with these sad facts about Little Ahwahnee and the Miwok Indians. I despise what we white folks have done to so many other groups of people and kidnapping and enslaving are rampant in our history. Introducing our diseases was another terrible result. You present all of this in a very readable way.

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    1. Thanks Beth. I think it is important to remember also that even though examples of white people’s brutality on other races are easy to find, this is really a disturbing trait of mankind. Examples of slavery, incarceration, decimation, and disease introduction can be found among races the world over..starting from earliest recorded history. It is a sad fact.

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  9. It is really sad to read this story about indian tribes.
    The crimes that started in 1800 have still not ended, shows we have not done any progress in the matter;
    as could not stop kidnapping etc.
    Many tribes disappeared from the earth due to many diseases.
    Thanks for sharing this story of ahwahneechee and yosemites

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  10. What a sad abuse of people. When I read stories like this and compare it to today – as to what is happening in the Middle East – we really haven’t learned much, have we? You could take this story and plop it right down there and things would look exactly the same, with the same brutality. But as you said, it does make for interesting reading and the photos you found were wonderful.

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  11. I never knew that Yosemite means “those who kill”. Very interesting. I also never heard of Indian children being stolen and sold as slaves. How horrible. It is amazing what some people have to endure during their lifetime. The native Americans rarely get their story told so thank you for relaying a piece of it.

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  12. What a sad story about the Ahwahneechee. I’ve only recently learned about the de Anza expedition. There was information on it in museums I visited in Yuma and Tubac, Arizona. But none of what I read there mentioned the diseases the expedition brought to the Indians.

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  13. A peaceful place with a turbulent history. When I was doing a series of posts on the history of vacation I ran into sources that cited the Mariposa Batallion as having “discovered” Yosemite. What a joke! The arrogance of the white man.

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  14. Just recently, you posted about Kiwi birds after I had been researching them and now you have posted on the history of the Ahwahnee Indians which I was also just researching as I have been working on my short Yosemite memoir. I’m such a nerdy student that I love it when I stumble across connected info this way 🙂

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    1. I saw on your website you have a duo of books related to the Yosemite. I to thought that a very cool coincidence. I must also be a nerd 🙂

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  15. Hi Tim,
    Thank you for sharing the history behind Little Ahwahnee and the Miwok Indians.
    All that from a quaint little place. I love the rugged wilderness and the spectacular beauty of Yosemite. We were there a couple of years ago and just reading this story makes me want to return. 🙂 As I read, I can also envision the narration as a documentary or as a film. Thanks again Tim. I really enjoyed this. Have a great week!
    Bill

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  16. What a fascinating post Tim and what an appalling practise the kidnapping was. I didn’t realise it was as widespread as Sonoma County – where I currently live – which I’m assuming it was if it was in the Petaluma paper. I’m always fascinated by my local history, as well as First nation History, depressing as it can be, Thanks for doing the research Much appreciated.

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    1. So much of local and international history around colonization is more often than not, sad, although very interesting as you can attest.

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  17. Fascinating and I love the pictures. It’s very interesting to know that history. I think I mentioned in my comments on last week’s post that we spend some time in Yosemite this past summer. Absolutely gorgeous and peaceful. Can’t wait to go back, armed with this new information. Will do a bit more exploring next time!

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  18. Sad to hear this but I just learnt a bit more about the people here..was planning to go there but it snowed so heavily that we had to change our plans

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  19. What a horrible legacy for both the Yosemite and the settlers who followed. I wonder if we have learned any lessons since that time. Thanks for sharing the history, sad to say I was unaware of it until now.

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