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The man who discovered Yosemite

Madera County Historical Society

This obelisk marked the grave of Jim Savage. It also marked the location of Savage’s Fresno River trading post. Note the lumber flume in the background.


Over a century and a half ago, one of Madera County’s most colorful pioneers was killed in a brawl on the Kings River. Today, his grave lies up on a lonely hill overlooking Hensley Lake, and although it has been a long time since he passed from the scene, he is far from forgotten. Maj. James D. 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 who discovered Yosemite Valley. Two descendants of Jim 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 this writer 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 Jim Savage’s hometown in Illinois.

Mrs. 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.”

Mrs. Porter said that Savage stood out in her mind as a “wild and dashing young man, the kind that never refused a dare. Even though to go through with it made him ill, he would see it through. Upon one occasion soon after my father and brothers had piled high in the corner of our yard some watermelons, Jim rode up and asked if he might have one. Upon being told to help himself, he broke and devoured it all upon the spot, to the great amazement of my ten years.”

“Once, at Easter, he was dared to suck a dozen eggs. This he immediately accomplished, but just as quickly he relieved himself, and laughingly rode away.”

In the Spring of 1846, Jim Savage set out for California with his wife, Eliza, and brother, Morgan R. Savage. Mrs. Porter reportedly saw them off.

The Savage descendants, in addition to the Porter interview, also supplied a copy of a letter written by William Boggs, who traveled with the Savages on their trek west. Boggs gives this account of Eliza Savage’s death.

“Savage and his wife remained with our wagons as he was short of provisions. My father, having an extra supply, furnished them with flour and bacon. Savage’s wife was in a delicate condition and near confinement. And our little party was compelled to lay by a day or two at a small lake in the high of the Sierras, where it was exceedingly cold of nights. Some snow had fallen; there was no grass and mountains of rocks stood all around. Mrs. Jim Savage had given birth to a girl baby and was doing well, but undertook to get out of the wagon while she was confined and exposed herself to the cold air and died next day from the effects of the sudden cold. We had much difficulty in finding a place to dig a grave, it was rocky all around, but finally found a small flat where we could dig a shallow grave. We carried her remains about a quarter of a mile up a rocky ravine through brush and shrub to this grave. We had to use the sideboard of a wagon to carry the corpse on, wrapped in a sheet without any coffin. We laid the body in this shallow grave lined with the evergreen bows of the cypress tree and covered it over with the same material and filled in the dirt and rock on top. Jim Savage mourned and howled like a wolf.”

Savage finally made it to California. He fought with John C. Fremont’s California Battalion and worked for John Sutter on the sawmill that eventually yielded the first specks of color that set off the California gold rush. In time, he set up a trading post on the Fresno River in what is now Madera County, and led the Mariposa Battalion against the Indians in the war of 1851. The next year he was shot by Major Walter Harvey on the Kings River and was buried in four different graves before he was interred in a permanent resting place in the Buck Ridge day use area.

Over the past 170 years, the Savage legend has grown in quantum leaps. Unbelievable stories abound about this mountain man of Madera County. Most of them, however, are embellished, third and fourth hand accounts. It’s refreshing to learn some aspects of Savage’s private life from those who knew him personally.

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