December 13

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 13, 1798:

Joseph Walker born in Tennessee

Joseph Reddeford Walker, one of the greatest trailblazing mountain men and the first Anglo-American to see Yosemite, is born in Tennessee.

Although he had little formal education, Walker was an exceptionally intelligent explorer and leader, possessing an extraordinary ability to read and remember the geography and topography of uncharted regions. When he was 20 years old, Walker joined an illegal hunting and trapping expedition into the Mexican-controlled territory in the southern Rocky Mountains. Arrested by the Mexican authorities, Walker served a brief prison term in Santa Fe, but then turned the situation to his favor by helping the Mexicans in their war against Pawnee raiders, earning rare trading privileges as a reward.

Walker's journeys into the relatively unexplored far western regions of the continent began in 1832 when he met Captain Benjamin Bonneville, who asked him to join his trapping and trading expedition into the West. The following year, Walker, probably at the behest of Bonneville, embarked on a daring journey west into the Mexican province of Alta California, a feat that had only been accomplished by two other Anglos, Jedediah Smith and Peter Ogden. Ignoring the trails blazed by his predecessors, Walker instead led a small group of men on a new route through the Sierras that proved far more challenging than expected, and at several points the explorers were reduced to eating their horses to stay alive. But after crossing the Continental Divide on November 13, 1833, Walker and his men were rewarded with an amazing sight that no Anglo-American had ever before seen: the mighty redwoods and majestic waterfalls of the Yosemite Valley. Later in life, every man in the troop recalled that day of discovery as among the greatest of his life.

In subsequent years, Walker continued to use his voluminous knowledge of western geography as an employee of the American Fur Company and as a guide for explorers like John C. Fremont. He also led countless emigrant parties to California. His wide-ranging travels took him all the way north to the headwaters of the Missouri in Montana and led to memorable partnerships and adventures with other famous trailblazers like Kit Carson and Jim Bridger. When he finally settled down on his California ranch in 1867, nearly blind and approaching 70 years old, the intrepid mountain man remembered a single day as the best of his life, and asked that a remembrance of it be carved on his tombstone: "Camped at Yosemite, Nov. 13, 1833."

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