Discovery of the Yosemite by Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, MD. High Sierra Classics Series, Yosemite Association, 1990, 315 pages, $9.95
Yosemite valley was discovered on March 27, 1851 when 58 members of the Mariposa Battalion, a voluntary military force, engaged in a punitive expedition against the local Indians. Fortunately the battalion included Lafayette Bunnell, a young man of twenty-seven, who left a written record of events which occurred: a book entitled Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 Which Led to that Event. Although not published until 1880, this book remains as the only eyewitness account of these significant events in Yosemite’s human history. Why did Bunnell write of Yosemite? It seems that most of the 58 men and officers were essentially illiterate and were preoccupied with the business of Resolving the Indian problem, and returning to gold prospecting. In fact one later said, "If I had known that the valley was going to be so famous, I’d have looked at it." Bunnell recognized the "supreme grandeur" of the valley at first view: "...the clouds...partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains," he wrote. "This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being,and I found my eyes in tears with emotion."
Lafayette Houghton Bunnell was born in Rochester, New York, in 1824, and moved with his physician father and family to Detroit when he was eight. In this small French village, Lafayette spent his youth in close company with Chippewa Indians, learning their language and ways. Because of family financial reverses, he was forced to leave school and go to work in a drug store. At age 16, much against his will, he went into his father’s office to study medicine. After two years of clinics, demonstrations, and reading, he left to join an older brother on the Wisconsin frontier in the fishing and lumbering trades.
In 1844 Bunnell returned to medicine, apprenticed to a physician in Detroit. His studies were again interrupted, this time by the Mexican War of 1846. The following year he became captivated by the news of the discovery of gold in California and set out to Mariposa in search of adventure and wealth. In 1851 he joined other miners in the Mariposa Battalion, serving the entire six months that the troop was active. Although listed as a $4-a-day private, he received additional compensation for being an interpreter and for his medical services. Because of his medical experience and services he was often called "Doc" by the members of his battalion and in fact by 1864 he received an honorary medical degree. He was conferred the degree of Doctor of Medicine by the La Crosse Medical College of La Crosse, Wisconsin on October 20, 1864. This small school founded by five area physicians never enrolled any students, but did issue three honorary degrees during its 17 year existence: first to a pharmacist, second to an attorney who obtained the school charter, and third to Lafayette H Bunnell, who was eligible for promotion to assistant surgeon with the Wisconsin Infantry Volunteers, but could not qualify without a diploma.
After the war, Bunnell settled in Homer, Minnesota, practiced medicine to a limited extent, drew two war pensions, and was a student of botany and science. Bunnell published the first edition of his masterwork, Discovery of the Yosemite which sold well enough to merit a revised edition which was undated and a third edition published in 1892. The book was out of print for most of this century until the Yosemite Association reprinted the current edition.
The twenty two chapters of this book detail the events leading to the discovery of Yosemite Park, the war and war stories around the campsite, the battalion’s narrow escape, and how the peace was won. It also details points of interest, the first women in Yosemite, the first homes, the big trees, the roads, accommodations, the Chapel and Sunday School, big farms and great resources. Some of these items are still relevant for those who spend a full week or two exploring the marvels of nature in the Park.
In 1925, near the eastern edge of Bridalveil meadow, the California Medical Association affixed a plaque to a large boulder which is still there and reads in part... "He proposed the name of Yosemite and was the first to proclaim its beauty and wonders to the world."