The First Published Illustration of Yosemite Falls

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Thomas A. Ayres (1816-1858). The Yo-Hamite Falls [caption title]. San Francisco: James M. Hutchings, Printed by Britton and Rey, [October 1855]. Lithograph, 23¼ x 15 inches, with an additional attached upper margin, measuring 3½ x 15 inches, bearing the words: “Hutching’s Panoramic Scenes in California.”

Thomas Ayres, a native of New Jersey, was the first artist to create an image of California’s beautiful Yosemite Falls for publication. The print was commissioned by James Mason Hutchings, publisher of Hutchings’ California Monthly. Traveling with three other men, Ayres and Hutchings entered Yosemite in June 1855. The group stayed in the area for five days and Ayres completed a number of drawings. Later, Hutchings had the sketches transferred to stone by the San Francisco artists, Kuchel and Dresel, and the stones printed by Britton and Rey. This view of the high falls appeared for sale in October 1855.

Hutchings also produced a pictorial letter sheet called Hutchings’ Panoramic Scenes and it has been suggested by William Reese that this copy of the Yo-Hamite print may have been created as a promotional display to promote Hutchings’ letter sheet. The print’s text reads “This magnificent scene is situated in the Yo-Hamite Valley near the source of the middle fork of the River Merced, Mariposa County California. It is the highest waterfall in the world - rushing over the precipice, at one bold leap it falls 1,300 feet, & the whole hight [sic] from valley is 2,300 feet.”

The following year, Ayres made a second trip to Yosemite and wrote about it in the Daily Alta California: “Upon another occasion we rode down the valley some six miles, and crossing the picturesque ford where the Mariposa trail enters the valley, ascended the mountain, reaching a point on the trail some fifteen hundred feet above the river. From here the traveler obtains the most complete general view of the entire valley… . To the right descends the Cascade of the Rainbow in all its beauty, giving life and expression to the scene, while the Two Domes bound the dim distance. All, all is as Nature has made it, fresh and beautiful from the hand of the Creator. On the glorious Fourth we were treated to a salute from Nature’s artillery. The effect of a thunderstorm in the valley was such as words cannot describe.

From crag to crag / Leaped the live thunder— / Not from one lone cloud, / But every mountain then had found a tongue.

… The time passed like a dream, and it was with regret that we left the beautiful Valley of the Yohemity, bound on an exploring trip to its head waters, far among the snow-clad peaks of the Sierra Nevada, of which more anon.” —Thos. A. Ayres, “A Trip to the Yohamite Valley,” Daily Alta California, 7, no. 207 (August 6, 1856).

Ayres’s drawings were exhibited in New York City and he was hired by Harpers Weekly to illustrate several articles on California. Sadly, his career was cut short in 1858, when the schooner he was riding to San Francisco capsized and Ayres was drowned.

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This is the first painting of Yosemite Falls, now there must be millions