Five Thousand Years in the Valley

(Eighth in a series of stories supplementing the upcoming public television documentary)

Paiute Indians of the Hetch Hetchy Valley

It is believed that beginning as early as 2500 B. C., the Tuolumne Meadows remained largely undisturbed, serving as the summer gathering spot of the south Sierra Miwok Indians and the east Sierra Mono Indians.

Each summer the Miwok would travel to the meadows from places such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley areas to escape the heat and engage in trade with the Mono tribes.  The Mono traveled from the Great Basin area and areas around the Sierra Nevada.  The Miwok’s big trade item was the acorn from the black oak tree, an important food not found in Mono territory.  They would trade for salt mined from Mono Lake, obsidian volcanic rock, used to make arrowheads and dried fly larvae that they sprinkled with salt and ate like peanuts.MiWok Women c. 1900

But as pioneers and prospectors moved into California, it also served as a place of refuge for Indian tribes.  Over time, the Indian population disappeared as prospectors arrived in mass for an opportunity to strike gold.  Some prospectors died with their pick axe in hand determined to find gold or die trying.  Others found it easy to mine gold from the pockets of the gold miners and went into business selling food, clothing and supplies to the settlers.

One of these enterprising men was Cyril Smith.  Cyril and his brothers had braved the Isthmus of Panama to reach gold country.  The hours were long, and the work was dangerous.  The brothers decided it had to be a better way to make their fortune.  They became sheep ranchers selling the meat and wool to miners.  It was a prosperous venture from the start.  It did not require great amounts of land because the meadows where federal land.  Everyone had access and ranchers would let their sheep graze freely all summer before bringing them down in the fall.

But once this area became part of the National Parks in October 1890, ranchers were no longer allowed to freely graze and becoming unprofitable to some ranchers.  They began selling to Cyril Smith because he had cash to buy them out quickly.  In the end he owned the whole of Hetch Hetchy Valley buying it up at about $1.25 an acre.

Years later, the City of San Francisco in a desperate search to find access to an unlimited source of fresh drinking water for its growing population, set their sights on the area and wanted to acquire the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.  In 1899 they purchased the land from Cyril Smith’s son for $150 an acre.  A neat little profit of nearly $149 an acre.  Cyril Smith’s business success and that of his son, lives on in the Valley.  His grandchildren founded U.C. Merced in his memory. After the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed the worker camps that once surrounded Lake Eleanor were designated as a family camp area and Camp Mather was born.

Today the Hetch Hetchy valley is a significant part of San Francisco’s survival.  Where it was once a source of relief from the heat, trade, and refuge for the Miwok who traveled up to the Sierras, it is now a source of water from the wilderness to the people of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Coming Spring 2018
Water From The Wilderness: From Hetch Hetchy To San Francisco Bay
Produced by Jim Yager Media


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