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The Making of Yosemite

James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of America’s Most Popular National Park

Jen A. Huntley

New in Paperback: February 2014
xiv, 232 pages, 17 photographs, 6 x 9
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1967-2, $19.95

Also available in cloth:
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1805-7, $34.95

Book cover imageLeader of the first tourist expedition into Yosemite in 1855, James Mason Hutchings became a tireless promoter of the valley—and of himself. Seeking to create an alternative to California’s Gold Rush social chaos, Hutchings whetted the public enthusiasm for this unspoiled land by mass producing a lithograph of Yosemite Falls, while his Hutchings’ California Magazine beat the drum for tourism. But because of his later legal imbroglios over the park, Hutchings was effectively written out of its history, and today he is largely viewed as an opportunist who made a career out of exploiting Yosemite.

Now Jen Huntley removes the tarnish from Hutchings’s image. She portrays him instead as a “connector” who brought artists to Yosemite and Yosemite to Americans, and uses his career as a lens through which to view the contests and debates surrounding the creation of Yosemite, and, by extension, America’s emerging ethic of land conservation. Blending environmental and cultural history, she tracks Hutchings’s professional trajectory amidst significant changes in nineteenth-century America, from technological advances in printing to the growth of tourism, from the birth of modern environmental movements to battles over public lands.

Huntley uses Hutchings’s legal battles with the government over ownership of land in the Yosemite Valley to analyze larger battles over public land management and national identity. She also explores the role of urban San Francisco in designating Yosemite a public park, shows how the Civil War transformed Yosemite from a regional icon to a national symbol of post-war redemption, and takes a closer look at Hutchings’s relationship with John Muir. The Making of Yosemite sheds light on the role of power, class dynamics, and the late-century ideal of individualism in the shaping of modern America’s sacred landscapes.

Hutchings emerges here as a visionary communicator who cleverly tapped into midcentury Americans’ attitudes toward spectacular scenery to create a sense of place-based identity in the American Far West. Huntley’s revisionist approach rediscovers Hutchings as a key player in the histories of American media, tourism, and environmentalism, and suggests new terrain for scholars to consider in writing the histories of our national parks, conservation, and land policy.

“Huntley concludes the book with a brief, yet poignant discussion of the complex historical relationship between entrepreneurs and the creation of sacred places such as Yosemite. By restoring Hutchings’s place in Yosemite’s creation, Huntley argues the modern environmental
understandings of nature too often obscure the role of boosters, and more broadly capitalism, in the production of landscape. In this manner, The Making of Yosemite joins a growing number of works underlining the complex connections between wilderness preservation and consumerism in American history, and perhaps, as she suggests, offers a more complete understanding of our relationship with Yosemite today.”—Environmental History

“Huntley has written a provocate work. She has taken on the myth that Yosemite Valley was set aside by noble ‘gentlemen‘ and administered by selfless commissioners who opposed selfishness, greed, and exploitation of the environment. She has proven that it was not that simple.”—Oregon Historical Quarterly

“An important examination of the role Hutchings played in not only the promotion but also the establishment and preservation of Yosemite National Park.”—Historian

“A worthwhile biography of the late nineteenth-century publisher, hotelier, and businessman James Mason Hutchings and his contribution to the early history of Yosemite National Park. Hutley situates her task as moving beyond the traditional image of Hutchings as 'the selfish, narrow-sighted businessman' that attempted to hamper the public preservation of Yosemite with his private land claims. She instead reveals a complicated individual who strove to combine the promotion of nature withi its preservation. . . . Throughout the book, Hutnley does well to promote Yosemite . . . She shows how Yosemite became a next stage for the Golden State following the gold rush—a new cultural symbol for San Francisco and later a beacon for the nation as a whole. . . . The Making of Yosemite provides great insight into early promotions of California and the fashioning of park imagery. Huntley successfully recasts Hutchings in the historical narrative, revealing interesting inconsistencies in the historical record as well as challenging convetnional notions of binaries (such as nature versus culture, business versus environment.) The book is beautifully written, reflective, and nuanced. While some may take issue with the closing comments that business and environment can sit comfortabaly together . . . a valuable addition to California history.”—Journal of American History

“Fills a hole in the literature about Yosemite and the national parks in general. . . . Reminds us that few characters are unblemished villains or saints: we all live in a complex world, with competing, diverse motives. Hutchings, like Muir, was one such person.”—Montana The Magazine of Western History

“Environmental historian Huntley puts Yosemite pioneer hosteler James Hutchings in a broad perspective. . . . Recommended. All levels/libraries.”—Choice

“Hutchings’s career, Huntley argues in her persuasive new book, ‘illustrates the way that the Yosemite Grant [later park] and the environmental conservation movement it launched were integrally connected to and interdependent upon the consumer tourism that would be his bread and butter.’ Hutchings’ actions on the ground and in print made it possible for such well-heeled visitors as Alice Van Schaack to revel in this remote playground; and, ever since, for millions of others to hike its trails, scale Half Dome, or bed down in Camp Curry. . . . So why is Hutchings so little known today? Why is Huntley's penetrating examination of his life and career the first full-length treatment of an individual who did so much to bring Yosemite to light? Now you can thank John Muir.”—Char Miller in “The Back Forty,” on KCET.org

“A remarkable, exciting, and thought-provoking study that reinterprets the history of Yosemite National Park specifically and the history of the national parks and conservation generally. It is packed with stunning insights, revelations, and arguments that Huntley presents with great intellectual sophistication and in clear, vigorous, and in places lyrical prose. It will compel scholars to revise how they think, teach, and write about national parks, conservation, and land policy, and will be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate courses in environmental and Western history.”—Mark Fiege, author of Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West

JEN A. HUNTLEY, environmental historian of the Sierra Nevada and Pacific Rim, is assistant professor of Humanities at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. She also works as a guest curator for the California Historical Society, public speaker, freelance writer, and Education for Sustainability consultant.

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