James Savage, Indian war and Yosemite Valley

Because of the shortage of available women in California many of the early settlers chose to marry Indians. A lot of these men were trappers and mountain men who lived much like the natives did anyway, but some were educated, cultured men who later became prominent and influential. One of these men was Daniel Murphy, who came across the Sierra in 1844 with the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party. After gold was discovered he set up a trading post northeast of Angels Camp with his brother John. Daniel married the daughter of a local chief and paid the Indians with trade goods to mine gold for him. Both brothers became so rich that John left town after the summer of 1849 and never returned.

Yosemite Indians

Indian Camp Yosemite 1873 by Thomas Hill

Another was John D. Savage. He came to California in October 1846 and fought with Fremont’s California Battalion in the Mexican War. The next year he went into the San Joaquin Valley and lived with the local Indians there. He learned their language and would marry as many as five women, all daughters of chiefs. In 1848 Savage was with James Woods at Woods Creek but by 1850 he had set up a trading post at Fresno Crossing on the south fork of the Merced River and, like Murphy, employed Indians to mine gold. In October of 1850 he went to San Francisco with some of his native workers and is said to have rolled a barrel full of gold through the hotel lobby  where he stayed. When he returned to his store that December the employees he left behind had been killed by some of the very natives he traded with.

Bridal Veil Falls Indian Camp by Thomas Hill

The local militia was called out to deal with what would come to be called the Mariposa Indian War but when they failed to find those who had committed the murders Savage was put in charge of the Mariposa Battalion and given the rank of Major. Meanwhile an agreement with six of the rebellious tribes was reached and a treaty signed at Camp Fremont on March 19, 1851. But two tribes, the Ahwahneechees and Chowchillas, failed to appear so Savage and his Battalion followed their trail into the mountains. Marching in rain, sleet and five foot snow drifts, two companies of the battalion discovered the Ahwahneechee refuge in Yosemite Valley on March 27 but found few natives. Still they were the first men of European descent to enter the beautiful valley. A second campaign destroyed the food supplies of the Chowchillas and killed their chief. The Chowchillas surrendered. On May 22 the Ahwahneechees were surrounded and forced accept peace and the Mariposa Indian War was over.

Map of the Mariposa Indian War

Savage returned to his store along the Mariposa River, but also started trading posts at the new Indian Reservations. When white squatters led by Walter Harvey killed several Indians at the King’s River Reservation, Savage protested and called for an inquiry. It was scheduled for August, but as Savage was headed there he ran into Harvey on the road. A fight ensued and Savage struck Harvey on the chin. Harvey then pulled a pistol and shot Savage four times, killing him. Harvey was later tried for the murder but was acquitted.



  1. David Hocking says

    I lived in the Atwater/Merced area for some 40 years. I am so pleased that I have seen most of these photos. I have been there on motorcycle and/or car. Taking friends from Germany and locally was rewarding to me and we all enjoyed the park and its history. I thank my friend for emailing this to me. Sincerely, David.

  2. Dawn Kallner says

    I have recently found out James Savage is a related to me, and would like to know more information about him and the family. If you can assist me please email. Thank you. Sincerely, Dawn

  3. Dawn Kallner says

    Follow up, I am now a verified member of Society of Mayflower Descendants and Daughters of the American Revolution.
    I am related to James D Savage he was brother to my 7th Great Grandfather Charles Lyman Savage of Depue IL. If I can help others with this line of family please let me know. Thank you. Dawn Kallner email mypixiepap@yahoo.com

    • Wow, you do have a great family history Dawn. Thanks for sharing with us. The James Savage story is one of the most compelling I’ve seen from the gold rush.

      • Dawn Kallner says

        Thank you for your interest, if needed I can provide info to other as yet unknown family members, as far as I have been able to find he had 8 siblings. He and Morgan are the only 2 that went west after moving with some of his family from Illinois to Kansas. I love history. Our family history is very rich in Military history, I am deeply proud and humbled to their sacrifice and determination.

  4. Who created the “Map of the Mariposa Indian War” used in the article? It’s the only map I’ve seen that shows Fort Miller, Camp Barbour, Fort Washington & Cassady’s Ferry as being in four separate locations. I believe that Camp Barbour & Fort Miller were at the same location. It was Camp Barbour first & later became Fort Miller. I also believe that Cassady’s Ferry was located at Fort Washington…

  5. Linda Hird says

    I am a desended of James Savage and Mary Hilton through the Isaac,and Deborah Soule, James S Savage, and Abby Howes, Dennis and Abby Rose, then Ida May Savage born in 1949 town Columbia, Ca…..Ida lived to 102 1857 to 1959 I was 12 when she died and she told me many things…. I would like to know if this James Savage out west was a relative in this line…
    Linda Hird
    would love some help

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