More than a century and a half ago, Major James D. Savage, the man who led the Mariposa Battalion in the Indian War of 1851 and the discoverer of Yosemite Valley, was killed in a brawl on the Kings River. Today he lies in his grave up on a lonely hill overlooking Hensley Lake. Although it has been a long time since he passed from the scene, he is far from forgotten. Maj. Savage is apt to cause as much controversy today as he ever did when he was alive, and most of the fuss centers on how he treated the Native Americans of this area.
Many of the modern tales about Jim Savage have been written in the wind. Most of them are legend — the product of someone’s fanciful imagination. Recently, however, researchers into Savage’s life have stumbled upon a source that promises to provide some new insights into the man. Two descendants of Savage’s brother, Morgan, have surfaced. One is a schoolteacher in Sacramento and the other lives in New Hampshire. Together these two women have supplied the Madera County Historical Society with a treasure trove of information relating to Savage’s life. One such document is a newspaper article from 1928. It is a published interview with a Mrs. Seton Porter who lived in Savage’s hometown in Illinois.
Porter, 98 years old at the time, wrote that the Jim Savage she knew “was smart as a whip, shrewd, and apt in picking up languages, such as German and French — for both were spoken where he was living.” She said that Jim Savage was “vigorous and strong, had blue eyes and a magnificent physique, loved all kinds of sports engaged in his day, was tactful, likable, and interesting.”
“Sometimes,” she said, “Jim would come to church, but, oh, he was such a wag of a youth. More often than not, he would remain outside, and when he knew time had come for prayer, he’d flick the knees of his horse and make him kneel too and then wink at us inside. We couldn’t laugh of course, but we always watched for this trick of Jim’s. He got such a lot of fun out of doing it.” ...