In July of 1861, photographer Carleton Watkins journeyed to the “newly discovered” wonder of the West: Yosemite. He was accompanied by a dozen mules that carried his bulky cameras, photographic equipment and supplies. Watkins used two cameras: a large format camera using 22 x 18 glass negatives and a stereographic camera that took parallel images used to create 3D views known as stereographs. He wrestled cameras to now iconic scenic views of the Valley, developed glass negatives on site and left Yosemite with 30 mammoth plates and 100 stereo views.
Watkins sent prints to the Reverend Starr King, a traveler who had written a popular series of letters to the Boston Evening Transcript while traveling in “Yo-semite” in 1859. King’s account of his visit to the “vegetable titans” of the Mariposa Grove had met with disbelief. Readers wrote to King requesting photographs of Yosemite and the Giant Sequoias. Watkins’ photographs gave proof for the Reverend’s account of the wonders he had seen.
An 1862 exhibition of Watkins photographs in New York City marked the beginning of a movement to preserve Yosemite as a public trust. Portfolios of Watkins’ photographs were presented to Congressmen, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Law Olmstead and other influential public figures who urged that the Valley and Grove be set aside for the enjoyment of future generations. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant to protect the area from development and commercial exploitation, the first step in the eventual creation of the National Park of today.
View a slide show of a sampling of Carleton Watkins’ 1861 Yosemite photos.