Major Jim Savage

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Major James D Savage

Birthdate: (35)
Birthplace: Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana, United States
Death: August 16, 1852 (35)
Tulare, Tulare County, California, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Peter Swinburn Savage and Dorothy "Dolly" Savage
Husband of Eliza I R Savage
Father of Baby Girl Savage
Brother of Marilla Jane Venchioneur-Greener; Harriet Hart Piper; Charles Lyman Savage; Morgan R Savage; John Hart Savage and 1 other
Half brother of Lydia Ann Piper

Managed by: Abbie Louise
Last Updated:

About Major Jim Savage

Born in 1817 in Indianapolis Indiana, the son of Peter Swinburn Savage and Doritha "Dolly" Schaunce, and died August 16,1852 in Tulare County California.

Indian Fighter and Explorer, he is said to be the first white man to enter Yosemite Valley

In 1846, he heard the call and caught the fever of restlessness that infected Illinois, and with his wife and child, joined an emigrant train that was going across country to California. His wife, Eliza, and their child, both died on this harsh journey.

He reached Sutter's Fort with the Boggs party on October 28, 1846. He immediately volunteered to serve in the California Battalion under Fremont and remained in service until the disbanding in April of 1847. He was with Sutter in May 1848, aiding Marshall in the construction of the mill at Coloma, where gold was first discovered on January 24, 1848, by James W. Marshall, an employee of John A. Sutter of Sacramento. This gold discovery spread like wildfire and soon swarms of gold seekers in covered wagons, on horseback, and even on foot were headed for this gold country.

By 1849, the Mariposa hills were occupied by the miners; more than three thousand inhabitants occupied the town of Mariposa. It was near here that he started his mining and trading episode. He first located on a tributary of the Tuolumne River where he both mined and acted as a trader between the Indians and miners. He also employed Indians to work "the diggins" for him, paying them for their gold with blankets, knives, and other goods that he had in his store. In this triple capacity, he soon acquired wealth, fame, and influence.

In 1849, as more and more miners came into the area, Indians were unable to maintain their ground against the encroachments of the whites. James Savage withdrew from Woods Creek and went about 20 miles further south to the region called Big Oak Flat. His Indians followed him and soon developed their "diggins" for him. He paid them in provisions and goods as before and undertook to protect them against the whites. By this time he had learned their language and was an important figure among them.

During the year 1849, quarrelling began between the Indians and the whites, and the white miners now took up arms. He was able to act as intermediary and prevented bloodshed, but he thought it best to retire from the district.

He then went south, established a store on the Merced River, near Horseshoe Bend, and developed his talent for learning the language and gaining the friendship of the Indians. Here he further cemented his alliance with the Indians by taking several of their women as his wives. The number of these wives is legend, but the figures range from 2 to 27; five, however, is the figure most frequently mentioned.

In 1849, he had set up another store near the bottom of the Merced River Canyon, which is the deep gash in the mountains that seperates the Big Oak Flat region from the Mariposa area. Here, however, he was in danger of a tribe of Indians with whom neither he nor any other white man had been able to establish friendly relations, the Yosemite or Grizzly Bear Indians, who inhabited the almost impenetrable valley which they called Ahwahnee, the deep grassy valley.

One time after a raid on his post, when he chased these Indians up the Merced River, he gave up the attempt to overtake them when the canyon wall became so narrow that he feared he would be ambushed. It was probably on this occasion that he passed the entrance of, or possibly went up into Cascade Canyon, whose precipitious walls would be a remarkable sight in themselves were they not completely subdued by the incomparable grandeur of the Yosemite Valley close by.

After a severe attack by the Indians in the early spring of 1850, he abandoned this site and withdrew. He came down the Merced River and went up Bear Creek until he came to the high country above Mariposa. He then set up two trading posts; one where the Agua Fria meets the Mariposa near the site of the old stone fort, and and the other about 20 miles further south on the right bank of the Fresno River about 4 miles from the present town of Coarse Gold. The spot where he located came to be known as the old Fresno Crossing and was a place where the main wagon road between Mariposa and the Coarse Gold "diggins" cross the Fresno River.

In the fall of 1850, his Indian friends told him that the Yosemites and some other discontented Indian tribes were about to declare open war on the whites. He believed in the possibility of such an attack and took active steps to avert it. With the idea of impressing the Indians with the power and overwhelming number of whites, he took with him to San Francisco, a chief of the Chowchillas by the name of Jose Juarez; two squaws and several braves also went to San Francisco. They spent money recklessly and made themselves extremely conspicuous. He anticipating war with the Indians, took a lot of his gold with him for safekeeping, barrels full according to legend, but instead of depositing it anywhere, he seems to have squandered most of it in gambling.

After staying in San Francisco long enough to share the excitement of the announcement of the admission of California into the Union, he went back to the Indians in his Fresno River store. His attempts to convince them of the power and strength of the whites was futile; he was overruled, and the Indians decided to go on the warpath. At this point he withdrew to warn the whites. Around December 18, or 19, his Fresno River store was attacked. Greely, the manager, and two clerks were killed while the third escaped through the intervention of an Indian friend and a gentleman named Long Haired Brown, who eluded his pursuers all the way to Mariposa.

He went to Horseshoe Bend to get a group together to go after the Indians. While he was gone, his store at the junction of the Agua Fria and Mariposa was attacked, his assistant killed, his goods stolen, and his squaws carried off.

On January 13, 1851, Governor MacDougal wrote to Sheriff Burney, the Sheriff of all Mariposa County, authorizing him to muster a force of men for the protection of lives and property in Mariposa County. The command with commission of Major was offered to James Savage, and the men formed into three companies. The entire Battalion was composed of about 200 men and thereafter became known as the now famous Mariposa Battalion.

He drilled the Mariposa Battalion at the Lewis Ranch about 15 miles southwest of the Agua Fria on the Mariposa Creek, until on February 16, 1851, when Governor MacDougal ordered all military activity ceased until peaceable means of reconciling the Indians could be tried.

A Federal Commission then endeavored to persuade the tribes of the Sierra south of the Stanislaus River to come in and talk peace. Only the friendly ones reported. When the warring tribes of the Mariposa region failed to appear at a feast and council scheduled for them at Fremont's Ranch on the Mariposa River, the Mariposa Battalion was given orders to bring them in by force. They left the Lewis Ranch on their now famous expedition, on March 19, 1851.

The expedition went up Mariposa Creek, passed Savage's ruined store at the junction of the Mariposa and the Agua Fria, and turned off toward the Chowchilla Mountains. It followed through the mining camps of Bootjack and Usona to Wawona. From Wawona, they went down the south fork of the Merced River to Bishop Creek.

He and the Companies of the Mariposa Battalion completely surprised about 1,000 Nuchu Indians at a place called Bishop's Camp at the fork of Bishop Creek and the Merced River, who readily agreed to the terms of the Commissioners. Nuchu runners were then sent out to the other tribes, threatening them with severe reprisals if they did not come in and surrender like the Nuchus.

One of the runners reached the Yosemites with this message and on March 23, 1851, Tenaya, Chief of the Yosemites, the most recalcitrant of all the chieftains, stood at the edge of Savage's camp in dignified silence until bidden entry. Suspicious at first but finally appearing won over, Tenaya departed to bring in the rest of his people. The next day he returned to say that his tribe was coming in, but that since the trails were full of deep snow, it would take time to bring in the men, women, and children. This seemed reasonable, but by the next day when none had shown themselves, Savage figured that the crafty Tenaya had actually ordered his people to go higher into the mountains.

By the strange and humorous means of a foot race, which incidentally included Indians, he selected 57 men to follow after Tenaya and the Yosemites. This bizarre foot race served the purpose of warming up the men, providing excitement for the Indians still in the vicinity, and perhaps most importantly, insuring the fleetness of the 57 volunteers.

The volunteers ascended the divide to the east of Bishop's Camp, progressing slowly in deep snow. In midafternoon, they met 72 Yosemites heading for Savage's Camp. Tenaya explained this was all that had come and that the rest had fled to the Tuolumne, and to the Monos across the Sierra Nevada. Knowing the Yosemites were a large tribe, Savage sent Tenaya and the 72 Indians to his camp and pressed on, following the Indians trail in the snow.

After more than an hour's march, they reached a promontory in the vicinity of Old Inspiration Point, and from this spot across from Majestic El Capitan, late in the afternoon of March 27, 1851, the awestruck Major Savage and his men had revealed to them the full glory of Yosemite Valley.

They camped that night at the foot of Bridalveil Falls and then discussed a name for the Valley. Unaware of the beautiful Indian name Ahwahnee, meaning "deep grassy valley", the men voted to name it after the tribe and called it Yosemite.

After several days of exploration in the Valley, one aged squaw was discovered, and through the negligence of some of the soldiers, Tenaya and most of the Yosemites were allowed to escape.

On July 1, 1851, the Mariposa Battalion was mustered out. Major Savage resumed his trading operations in a store on the Fresno River near Coarse Gold. He engaged again in trading and in cattle ranching. Bad blood had sprung up between him and some of the settlers along King's River. He was fearless and felt the security from danger at the hands of those he disliked, which he expressed in seemingly careless but purposeful disdain and contempt. Among those toward whom he thus felt was Major Harvey, then the County Judge of Tulare. He had spoken foully of Harvey, and his language had been reported to that gentleman, August 16, 1852. He visited King's River Reservation, where William Campbell, whom he also disliked, was agent. Judge Marvin of Tuolumne was there present with Major Harvey. The latter asked him if the reported language had been uttered by him, and, on his responding that it was correctly reported, Harvey demanded its retraction. His only response was a slap in the face, and at that instant his pistol dropped from his loose shirt bosom. Harvey instantly drew his pistol and fired with fatal effect. James D. Savage fell dead. An examination before a neighboring justice of the peace ended in Major Harvey's immediate release, as it was held that he had acted in clear self-defense.

The remains of Major Savage were at the time buried near where he fell. In 1855, they were removed by Dr. Leach, his firm friend and at one time his business partner, and given permanent sepulture at the point on Fresno River known as "Leach's old store," which had also been James D. Savage's trading post. Doctor Leach erected over the spot a granite monument, ten feet high, square and massive and stern, typical of the robust form and the sturdy spirit of the strange and strong man whose memory it commemorates, and upon one of its sides is carved simply his name. He sleeps the everlasting sleep in the enduring, rock-bound bed in the middle of the stream on whose banks he last dwelt, and its gentle murmurings in placid flow, and its wild turbulence when lashed by angry winds, are alike as the calmness and the passionate moments of his lifetime, the lullaby of his peaceful rest, and the wierd threnody of his violent end.

The quotation from a letter and speech by Kenneth J. Fryer, at the dedication of a plaque in honor of James D. Savage. This plaque is located at the new Inspiration Point right near the eastern entrance to the Wawona Tunnel.

Per Pathways: A Story of Trails and Men, by John W. Bingaman.

The former Fresno River basin which is now Hensley Lake used to be home to the Miwok and Yokuts people. Their presence in the area is still evident, mostly in the form of milling areas, where they prepared food.

Also of historical interest is a monument in the Buck Ridge Recreation Area erected to the memory of Major James D. Savage. Highly successful as a miner, trader and leader, Major Savage is credited with the discovery of Yosemite Valley on March 25, 1851, during the Mariposa Indian War. As a trader, Savage established a store on the Fresno River where he made a small fortune trading goods for gold with local miners.

His wife Eliza I.R. Hall Savage (1828 - 1846) and his baby girl (1846 - 1846) were buried somewhere in the

Siblings and step siblings:
 Alice Savage
 Jane Savage Venchioneur-Greener (1819 - 1850)
 Morgan R. Savage (1825 - 1904)
 Harriet H. Savage Piper (1827 - 1907)
 Charles Lyman Savage (1831 - 1922)
 John Hart Savage (1833 - 1897
 Lydia Ann Savage Piper (1840 - 1868)

Jim Savage or James D. Savage, (1817–1852) was a California pioneer. He was a 49er, businessman, American soldier in the Mexican American War, and commander of the California Militia, Mariposa Battalion in the Mariposa War, and the discoverer of the Yosemite Valley.

Early years

James D. Savage was born in Morgan County, Illinois in 1817. When he was sixteen, his family settled in Princeton, Bureau County, Illinois. Although poorly educated he had a gift for learning languages. Savage married and moved to Peru, Illinois, where his daughter was born. In April 1846, Savage and his brother, Morgan, decided to migrate to California. At Independence, Missouri, they joined the party led by former Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs for the trip to California. During the six month journey, both his wife and child died.


Mexican American War

Boggs party arrived in California in late October 1846, and Savage joined John Fremonts, California Battalion during the California Campaign of the Mexican American War. In April 1847, Frémont disbanded the battalion and Savage went to the San Joaquin Valley where he lived with the Tularenos and learned their language. He eventually married several daughters of the tribal leaders of the tribes in the Sierra foothill region and led them in war against other tribes as one of their a chieftains.

Gold rush

After the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill, Savage established his own trading posts on Mariposa Creek and the Merced and Fresno Rivers where he traded for gold with the local tribes. In October 1850, he traveled to San Francisco with a band of Indians, and was said to have rolled a barrel full of gold dust through the lobby of the hotel where he was staying. When he returned to his post on the Fresno River, he found it had been raided and his employees killed by some of the tribesmen he had been trading with.


When local militia failed to quell the uprising of the tribes, the governor of California, John McDougall put Savage at the head of a unit of State Militia called the Mariposa Battalion with the rank of Major. On March 25, 1851, Savage marched at the head of a company of the Mariposa Battalion which included a Doctor Lafayette Bunnell, who wrote about the expedition. Marching into the Sierra wilderness, they came upon Yosemite Valley at Inspiration Point and became the first non-indigenous discoverers of Yosemite Valley. Discovery was not the main purpose of the trip: the Battalion rode out in search of Native American tribal leaders involved in recent raids on American settlements. After campaigns up the rivers into the mountains and taking control of the Yosemite, the tribes submitted to moving to a reservation ending the Mariposa War and the Mariposa Battalion was disbanded.

Last year

Savage returned to his work as a trader, establishing posts at the new reservations. On July 2, 1852, white squatters entered the King's River Reservation and several natives were massacred by whites led by Walter Harvey. Savage publicly denounced the action to pacify the tribes, and called upon the United States Indian Commissioners to conduct an inquiry. A council was to be held in August. While on his way to the council, Savage met Harvey, and an argument ensued in which Harvey demanded that Savage retract his statements about him. Savage struck Harvey on the chin, and Harvey pulled a pistol and killed Savage with four shots. Harvey was arrested and tried for murder, but not convicted. The fact that the judge trying the case had been placed on the bench by Harvey may have been a reason for the acquittal.

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Major Jim Savage's Timeline

Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana, United States
Age 29
California, United States
August 16, 1852
Age 35
Tulare, Tulare County, California, United States