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Not even death could keep ‘good’ man down

December 5, 2018

Madera County Historical Society
Jim Savage’s monument marks his second grave. The mountain adventurer moved twice more before he finally settled in peace at Hensley Lake.

Major James Savage was a mover; he was on the road for most of his 35 years. From New York to Illinois and then to California, Savage never rested in one place too long. He kept moving even after he was shot and killed.


Savage’s family migrated to Illinois in 1822, when he was just five years old. In 1846, with his wife and daughter, he joined an emigrant wagon train bound for California. Once in the Golden State, his multitudinous interests made him a local legend.


Jim Savage served with John C. Fremont’s California Battalion in the Mexican War. Afterward he worked for John Sutter in Sacramento. He assisted James Marshall in constructing the sawmill where gold was discovered in January of 1848, and then he hit the Mother Lode.


As was the case with many during the California Gold Rush, Savage found that there was more to be gained from mining the miners than from mining the mines. He established a trading post on the Tuolumne River and carried on some trading activities in Jamestown. Little by little, his commercial enterprises and a certain restlessness moved him southward until he found himself on the banks of the Fresno River.


In a spot approximately four miles from present-day Coarsegold, Savage set up a trading post. His customers were Native Americans as well as newcomers to the land of Ophir. He learned several dialects of the local Indian language, and having been widowed on the overland journey to California, took several Indian wives. Business was booming, and Savage was content, but there was trouble in paradise.


The malaise began in 1850 with a confrontation between Indians and Whites — a conflict history has dubbed the “Mariposa Indian War.” It might very well have been named the “Madera Indian War,” because most of the hostilities took place in what is now Madera County.


It all began with an attack on Savage’s Fresno River trading post by the Indians. Three of his employees were killed, and retribution came quickly. The governor of California authorized the organization of a force of 100 men to punish the Natives, and Savage was elected Major of the battalion.


The war lasted six months, with most of the action taking place along the Fresno River. One sortie, however, took Savage and his men east in pursuit of the Yosemite Indians. As a result, on March 27, 1851, Savage “discovered” the Yosemite Valley.


By May, the Indians had been pacified, a peace treaty was signed, and Savage resumed his business activities, but this time he moved his post further downstream to a spot which is approximately 15 miles from present-day Madera. Once more he established a thriving business on the Fresno River. At about the same time, he opened another trading post on the Kings River.


It has been said that Savage’s “popularity and prosperity” led to jealousy among  some of his white neighbors. Apparently Major Walter H. Harvey, who was Savage’s partner in the newly opened Kings River store, was one of them. It seems Harvey was disgruntled with Savage because of the latter’s sympathy for the Indians in a land dispute that had developed in the vicinity.


Stories ran rampant. It was rumored that Harvey had issued a warning to Savage not to show his face at the Kings River Indian Reservation while he was there. Savage, upon learning of the challenge, answered instinctively and suddenly appeared on the scene.


On the morning of Aug. 16, 1852, Savage confronted Harvey and demanded an apology. Harvey refused, and the two men began to scuffle. Savage lost his pistol, and before he could recover it, Harvey had shot him five times. Savage died almost instantly and they buried him on the Kings River site, but he had a long way to go before his dust would settle peacefully in one place.


In 1855, Dr. Lewis Leach, Savage’s partner in the Fresno River store, decided his remains belonged there, so they exhumed Savage’s body and moved it to that place, adjacent to the store. The doctor ordered a 10-foot shaft of Connecticut granite and had it brought around the Horn and erected on the Fresno River in memory of his friend.


For more than 100 years, Savage lay undisturbed in his second grave, then someone decided to build a dam on the Fresno River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted with Maderans Ralph Baraldi and Alan Brown to exhume Savage’s remains and move them to a place that would be safe from the waters that would inundate the area with the completion of Hidden Dam and creation of Hensley Lake.


Armed with shovels, Baraldi and Brown went solemnly to their task. Gently they removed Savage and placed his remains in a “bone box.” Then they reburied him on higher ground at a site just south of Road 600. They moved the granite marker to the new site, but it was not to remain there for long. Jim Savage was not yet at his final resting place.


Vandals began to attack the monument, so once more a new home had to be found for Savage. This time he was taken to the Buck Ridge Day Use area of Hensley Lake. For the fourth time, his remains were committed to the soil, and that is where he is today.


A few years ago, Baraldi took me to visit Savage. As we stood there looking out from the vantage point offered from the present gravesite, Baraldi was struck by the historical significance of which he had been a part.


He had helped rescue the remains of Major James D. Savage, discoverer of the Yosemite Valley, pre-gold rush pioneer and early entrepreneur. He had assisted in preserving tangible evidence of an important piece of Madera County’s past.


Ralph Baraldi is gone now. I wish I could thank him once more for the excellent field trip we took and for the legacy he helped save.


One does not take such things lightly.

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