Ahwanee and the Dawn of Yosemite
The land that became Yosemite National Park began its journey to magnificence about 65 million years ago when the granite core of the Sierra Nevada mountain range became exposed, though the mountains were still quite small. About 25 million years ago, these lowlands began to elevate, growing to the heights we know today.
About 2-3 million years ago, global temperatures dropped, and glaciers began to form on the raised land. The freezing and later melting of these glaciers modified the landscape and created many of Yosemite National Park’s most famous landforms.
About 3,000-4,000 years ago, Indigenous people began living in the area. These peoples named the land “Ahwanee,” meaning “gaping, mouth-like place,” and named themselves Ahwahneechees. Seven Indigenous nations, tribes, and groups have ancestral connections to the land: Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, Bishop Paiute Tribe, Bridgeport Indian Colony, Mono Lake Kutzadikaa, North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California, Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, and the Tuolomne Band of Me-Wuk Indians. Without a written record, it can be difficult to know the exact nature of the historical connections each of these groups have with the land and with the Ahwaneechee identity.
About 170 years ago, white United States citizens entered the area for the first time when a state-sponsored militia pursued a group of Ahwahneechees and began a year-long campaign to remove Ahwaneechees from their ancestral homeland through violence and intimidation. The men in the militia refused to use the name Ahwahnee to refer to the land and instead gave it the name Yosemite (a corruption of the southern Miwok word for “bear” or “killer”) and claimed the land as their own.
About 115 years ago, the United States declared the land Yosemite National Park.
As we look at Thomas Hill’s artwork of Yosemite, created about 150 years ago, we look back at parts of this 65-million-year history.
Note: Miwok, Me-Wuk, and Miwuk are all correct spellings.
A Land of Inspiration
Thomas Hill was one of many artists drawn to Ahwanee (Yosemite) as a source of inspiration. Hill and many of his peers painting Yosemite were affiliated with the Hudson River School. The Hudson River school was a 19th century artistic movement that emphasized idealized depictions of nature. Hudson River School artists sometimes created entire artworks en plein air (outside in nature), but their typical method was to use oil paints to sketch detailed landscapes en plein air then return to their studios to create larger, complicated paintings based on their sketches.
While Hill was affiliated with, and influenced by, the Hudson River School, he did not follow all of the movement’s principles. Hill strove to create an atmospheric effect with his landscapes of Yosemite. He wanted to convey the grand and sublime (emotional) impact that Yosemite can have on visitors. In this desire, he was aligned with the movement. However, Hill did not take creative liberties with his compositions. He did not attempt to create an idealized landscape. Instead, he attempted to use his art to recreate the awe-inspiring landscape as authentically as possible.
One way in which Hill achieved this was in his depiction of light within Yosemite. Because of the valley’s geological features, sunlight disperses itself to create a haze of shadows and glows. Strong rays of light beaming in a single direction are uncommon in the valley and, thus, are uncommon in Hill’s paintings. While the painting’s haze may appear to give the paintings an ethereal or unreal quality, the truth is that the haze accurately depicts Yosemite’s geological features and the effect these have on the light in the valley.
Painting a Place, Creating a National Identity
When the Civil War ended in 1865, it left a bitterly divided nation in its wake. In the post-war Reconstruction period, Americans drew on the natural landscapes of the states and territories west of the Mississippi River to create and nurture a cohesive national identity. Where their European counterparts had grand cathedrals, the United States saw itself as having grand geological monuments. These grand geological monuments became a source of national pride and national identity. This emerging American narrative erased the many Indigenous peoples who had known these places for millennia.
The defining mountain range of the East Coast, the Appalachians, is approximately 270 million years old. This is over 200 million years older than the Sierra Nevadas. The Appalachians are ancient, and they have diminished in size over their expansive lifetime. The relative youth of the Sierra Nevadas provided geologic features at a scale never before encountered by Americans who resided east of the Mississippi river. For these Americans, artworks like Hill’s provided the first glimpse of the new national landscape. These Americans were fascinated by the scale of trees, rock formations, waterfalls, and mountains that was represented in the artworks. Artists like Hill were held in high regard. They were respected for their ability to see the beauty and grandeur of the landscape and for helping others encounter the landscape through their artworks.
Lithographs, like the one pictured above, allowed Hill to expand the reach and influence of his artwork in building a national identity. The “discovery” of Yosemite by Americans, and its growth as a tourist and artist attraction beginning in the 1850s, coincided with development of faster and cheaper lithographic printing techniques. Copies of the grand-scale paintings produced by Hill were sold as lithographs for a fraction of the cost of a painting. This lithograph is faded, likely because it hung on someone’s wall for many years.
Into the 21st century, Hill’s artwork continues to shape the collective national identity of the United States. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural Senate luncheon, he gave his speech in front of one of Hill’s depictions of Yosemite. Like several of his predecessors, including Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., Obama used 19th century Western iconography as a symbol of his vision for the nation.
Compare, Contrast, and Connect
Use the image slider along with the questions and prompts below to compare, contrast, and connect with two of Hill's Yosemite artworks.
Questions & Prompts
Compare and contrast these two artworks. What details did Hill include in both landscapes? What details are unique to only one of the landscapes? How do these unique details change your experience as a viewer?
Strawberrying by Asher Brown Durand is an example of a quintessential Hudson River School landscape. Durand was one of the founders of the movement. In what ways is Hill’s Yosemite painting similar to Strawberrying? In what ways is it different?
Extend your comparison: Compare and contrast the lithograph with a version held by Yosemite National Park.
What can you learn about Ahwahnee (Yosemite) from looking at these artworks? Cite specific details within the artwork that help build that knowledge.
What questions about Ahwahnee (Yosemite) do these artworks provoke for you? Cite specific details within the artwork that spark your curiosity.
Share Your Favorite Place
Create a visual landscape to share your favorite place. What do you want people to know about the place?
Think of your favorite place. Try playing music that reminds you of that place or sit in quiet reflection. Imagine what it feels like to be there: What can you see? What can you smell? Taste? Hear? Touch?
Create a landscape painting to help convey the experience of being there to a viewer.
Extension: Write guidelines for tourists visiting your favorite place. How do you want people to conduct themselves?
References and Resources
Clark, Sandra. n.d. “Birth of the Mountains.” US Geological Survey. Accessed February 7, 2022. https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/birth/birth.pdf.
Indigenous Geotags. 2018. “Yosemite National Park Is Ahwahneechee Land.” March 10, 2018. https://www.indigenousgeotags.com/new-blog/yosemite.
Kuykendall, Ralph. n.d. “Early History of Yosemite Valley: The Masterpiece of Nature’s Handiwork.” National Park Service. Last updated December 9, 2011. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/yose/kuykendall/sec.htm.
Madley, Benjamin. 2016. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
National Park Service. 2018. “Yosemite: Their Lifeways.” Last modified November 17, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/their-lifeways.htm.
———. 2021. “Yosemite: Geology.” Last modified November 23, 2021. Accessed February 7, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/nature/geology.htm.
Ogden, Kate Nearpass. 2015. Yosemite. London, UK : Reaktion Books.
Rainey, Sue. 1994. Creating Picturesque America: Monument to the Natural and Cultural Landscape. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Robertson, David. 1984. West of Eden: A History of the Art and Literature of Yosemite. Berkeley, CA: Yosemite Natural History Association, Wilderness Press.
United States Senate. n.d. “2009 Inaugural Luncheon.” https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/common/image_collection/2009_inauguration_luncheon.htm.