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Read maps’ fine print to discover Sierra’s diverse history
By Matt Johanson

A map of the Sierra Nevada mountains reads like a fascinating history book. If you study one, you’ll read scores of names from European American men of the 19th Century, when the Gold Rush attracted them to California. Mountain names honor worthy figures like environmentalist John Muir and geologist Josiah Whitney, as well as more questionable choices like Confederate leader Jeff Davis. But this history book could use some updating because its emphasis on white men leads to the exclusion of nearly everyone else.

Only a few others have won recognition through landscape names but their stories prove the diversity of the region’s history. For example, settler Mary Austin moved to the town of Lone Pine in 1892, at first finding the Sierra’s jagged peaks quite intimidating. But the steep mountains grew on the future author, who hiked and camped among them many times during the 15 years she lived in their shadow.

Austin described the “thunder-splintered sierras” with reverence and awe: “When those glossy domes swim into the alpenglow, wet after rain, you conceive how long and imperturbable are the purposes of God.” Her sound advice to other prospective visitors still applies: “for seeing and understanding, the best time is when you have the longest leave to stay.”

Austin’s writing and activism promoted environmental protection, feminism and the rights of Native Americans. A mountain that honors her in Inyo National Forest is one of but a few Sierra Nevada peaks named after women.

African Americans claim even fewer Sierra place names, but their history is likewise significant. For example, Army troops known as Buffalo Soldiers played a key role in Sequoia National Park in the early 20th Century. Before thousands of climbers ascended Mount Whitney every year, Buffalo Soldiers reached the summit in 1903. While today’s climbers hike about 10 miles to top the peak, the soldiers trekked 75 rugged miles. They were the first African Americans to climb the state’s highest mountain, and they built the first trail to its summit.

Captain Charles Young described the scenery as the grandest he had seen.

“Indeed, a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains,” wrote Young.

Under Young’s command, Buffalo Soldiers protected Sequoia’s big trees, guarded against poachers, and built more road in one summer than other troops had in the previous three combined.

Young wrote of a future in which “overworked and weary citizens of the country can find rest” in the park “where wild scenic beauty cannot be surpassed.” The Buffalo Soldiers’ service helped made that vision a reality. A century after Young became the first African American national park superintendent, Sequoia named one of its magnificent trees for him.

Chinese Americans also played a key role in Sierra Nevada history, helping to construct buildings, roads and railroads. One who gained attention another way was Tie Sing, an immigrant who became a cook in Yosemite. Cartographers who explored and mapped the park counted on Sing to feed them on backcountry journeys. For 21 years, the affable cook amazed them with culinary offerings fit for the Ahwahnee dining room, like fresh sourdough bread, fried chicken and hot apple pie.

Described by admirers as “the gourmet chef of the Sierra,” Sing played a special role in U.S. environmental history. Conservationist Stephen Mather took a group of 30 key leaders on a 10-day hike through Sequoia National Park in 1915. Only Sing could produce field meals fine enough to match the High Sierra scenery, serving salad, biscuits, venison, steak and plum pudding with brandy sauce on white tablecloths. The cook even made them fortune cookies with such messages as “Long may you search the mountains.”

So enthused were the influential men that they coaxed Congress to create the National Park Service the following year. Today Sing Peak in Yosemite and climbers who ascend it annually highlight the Sierra history of Chinese Americans.

Tenaya Peak and other summits and landmarks honor Native Americans. The region’s first inhabitants have far more history here than anyone and yet it seems that most of us know very little of it. Similarly, I explored the Sierra for many years before learning the stories of Austin, Young and Sing.

I’m glad I finally did because knowing about their lives helps me to understand and appreciate these mountains more. This hiker and climber plans to put greater effort into learning about the mountains’ diverse stories in the future. When studying maps or history, it pays to read the fine print.

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