The Role of Chinese Immigrants in Shaping Yosemite National Park
Updated: Apr 16
For many, the mention of Yosemite National Park conjures images of majestic waterfalls, towering granite summits like Half Dome and El Capitan, and expansive lakes and valleys. The fact that Yosemite is an incredible site of natural beauty is indisputable. But our general understanding of the Park’s political and cultural history tends to begin and end with figures like environmentalist John Muir or photographer Ansel Adams. The dominance of such figures in our cultural understanding of Yosemite Park speaks to the overt whitewashing of our National Parks’ histories.
There are two important examples of these less-acknowledged histories--the catastrophic effects that the creation of Yosemite Park had on the Indigenous peoples already inhabiting the land and the ways in which the Park was critically shaped by its first rangers, the black regiments of the Union Army (the “Buffalo Soldiers”).
There is another seldom recognized group of people who made important contributions to Yosemite Park as we know it today: Chinese immigrants who arrived in California in the mid-nineteenth century. Thousands of people moved to California during this time in pursuit of gold, and many Chinese immigrants, fleeing difficult conditions at home, joined this mining effort. However, in 1850 the Foreign Miners’ Tax was passed, which imposed a tariff of $20 a month on all non-American miners.
While the stated aim of this tax was to “exert greater control over foreign miners while raising badly needed revenues for the depleted state treasury," many historians have argued that the tariff’s actual goal was to drive foreign miners--primarily Mexican and Chinese immigrants--from the mining territories (Kanazawa). As a result, many foreign mine workers were forced to move to other kinds of work; in fact, the government’s efforts to raise revenue through this tax were largely ineffective, as many laborers chose to find new work as opposed to paying the high fee.
After the passage of the Foreign Miners' Tax, thousands of Chinese immigrants became laborers on the construction of the Central Pacific railroad, which was a difficult and sometimes lethal project. Deaths and injuries of laborers were not officially recorded during the construction of this railroad, as workers were seen as a “resource that the companies used and replaced as needed.” In one instance, a single avalanche killed at least 100 laborers--most of whom would have been Chinese--during construction of the railroad in the Sierra Nevadas.
In Yosemite, Chinese immigrants became the primary construction labor involved in the building of two major roads: Wawona and Tioga. These immigrants worked under extremely challenging circumstances; Wawona Road required laborers to work through heavy snow and precarious mountain terrain using tools like handpicks. This 23-mile long road was constructed during the winter of 1874-1875 and ascended over 4,000 feet. The workers finished this project in just four months. Tioga Road was built by approximately 250 Chinese and 90 European-American laborers; the Euro-Americans were paid $1.50 per day for their work, while Chinese workers earned $1.20 per day.
In addition to their work on the Park’s transportation systems, Chinese immigrants sought work around the Yosemite Valley as cooks. Ah You served as the head chef of Wawona Hotel for 47 years, from 1886-1933, and made meals for presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.
Tie Sing served as the backcountry head chef for the US Geological Survey from 1888-1918. During this time, cartographers from the Geological Survey were working to create a map of Yosemite as well as advocating with NPS directors to preserve the park.
In 1915 and 1916, Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, led “Mather Mountain Parties,” during which he brought powerful men to the mountains to try to convince them of the necessity of preserving these beautiful places. Tie Sing cooked splendid meals for the men who attended these trips, and several of these men later recorded how much Sing’s food had added to their experience during their time in the Valley. In fact, Sing was nicknamed “The Wizard” during the first Mather Mountain Party for his incredible meals. Tie Sing served his meals on linen tablecloths laden with fine silverware while the men sat and talked in the Yosemite wilderness; his culinary experience became a vital part of these mens’ impressions of Yosemite. Mather himself commented during a conference of park supervisors in 1915 that “Scenery is a splendid thing when it is viewed by a man who is in a contented frame of mine. Give him a poor breakfast after he has had a bad night’s sleep, and he will not care how fine your scenery is. He is not going to enjoy it.”
In 1899, the USGS honored Tie Sing by naming Sing Peak after him, a 10,552-foot peak which rests on the boundary between Yosemite National Park and the Sierra National Forest. Today, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the National Park Service host a “Yosemite-Sing Peak Pilgrimage,” which takes place each year in late July. The event, founded in 2013, is designed to “bring together outdoor and history enthusiasts to celebrate the contributions of Chinese Americans to the founding and development of both Yosemite National Park and the Park Service.” The multi-day gathering includes activities in Yosemite like short hikes and talks, group meals, and tours of historic buildings, culminating in a backpacking trip up to Sing Peak. This annual pilgrimage aims to honor Sing and other Chinese immigrants, recognizing their important impact during Yosemite’s formative years.
Current Yosemite Park Ranger Yenyen Chan (who is responsible for much of the research which unearthed the histories of Chinese immigrants in Yosemite) hosts lectures at the Park today about the ways in which Chinese immigrants have shaped the Yosemite Valley. By sharing her research with Park visitors, Chan is expanding the narrative of Yosemite Park’s history. And through the Sing Peak pilgrimage, rangers like Chan are forging new traditions into the history of the Park, traditions which honor the diverse contributions involved in the creation of the Park as we know it today. Efforts like Chan’s are crucial in building a more accurate and inclusive understanding of the history of this beloved place.
Kanazawa, Mark. “Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush California.” The Journal of Economic History. Vol. 65, No. 3 (Sept. 2005).
Chan, Yenyen F. "Interpreting the Contributions of Chinese Immigrants in Yosemite National Park's History." The George Wright Forum Vol. 34, No. 3 (2017).