Growing Up in Yosemite: Florence Hutchings

Growing Up in Yosemite: Florence Hutchings

A view of Yosemite peaks from the Four Mile Trail, including Mount Florence, the prominent mountain in the middle. Photo: John Little

Performer Audrey Davis brings Florence Hutchings' story to life on stage at the Yosemite Theater.On August 23, 1864, as the U.S. Civil War raged to the east, Elvira Hutchings gave birth to a daughter in the heart of California's Sierra Nevada: Florence Hutchings, the first non-American-Indian child born in Yosemite Valley.

Florence, known as "Flo" or "Floy," experienced Yosemite in its early years as a protected landscape. Just a few weeks before her birth, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Yosemite Grant Act, which preserved the Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.

Growing up in what would later become our third national park, she was surrounded by the natural wonders that made Yosemite famous — and witnessed early commercialization, as people like her father, James Mason Hutchings, worked to draw tourists to the newly publicized area.

Florence lived a brief but boisterous life...

• An adventurous tomboy, she defied conventions of her time. Florence rode bareback, camped and hiked alone, and flamboyantly greeted Yosemite visitors in “knee-high boots, trousers, a flowing cape, and a wide-brimmed hat” with an exuberant "Welcome, welcome!"

 

• Florence was born at the start of a tumultuous time for her family. Her father, a publisher, had used his Hutchings' California Magazine to rocket the previously little-known Yosemite area to fameHe purchased a hotel in the Valley, dubbed Hutchings House, shortly before Lincoln's 1864 legislation granted the land to the State of California.

Florence Hutchings' cherished Yosemite Valley Chapel was originally built near the start of the Four Mile Trail, but was relocated about a mile east in 1901. Photo: Yosemite Conservancy/Keith WalkletOver the next decade, the family fought for their claim to the hotel property. They eventually got a settlement from the state and a lease offer, but opted to move to San Francisco instead. (Mr. Hutchings later served as guardian of the Yosemite Grant, but was discharged after four years.)

 

• Florence was a favorite of conservationist John Muir, who operated a sawmill for her father near the base of Yosemite Falls. Muir called Florence his “squirrel,” and described her as “that tameless one” and “a little black-eyed witch of a girl.”

 

• As a teenager, Florence was deeply interested in religion, and eagerly helped out as a caretaker of the then new Yosemite Valley Chapel. She “swept, dusted, decorated the church with wildflowers, laid out hymn books, and rang the bell to announce services when a minister visited.”

Her contributions were later celebrated by a generous donor, who gave an organ to the chapel in Florence's memory. The nondenominational chapel, which was built in 1879, still offers weekly services, hosts weddings, and welcomes visitors from around the world.

 

You can still visit the gravestones of Florence Hutchings and her father, James Mason Hutchings, in the cemetery in Yosemite Village. Photo: Megan Rosenbloom• Elvira Hutchings had a phobia of food with fat, so Florence and her sister, Gertrude (known as "Cosie"), would often coax their grandmother to make them cornbread.  Cosie later recalled trading the cornbread with American Indian children for one of the girls’ favorite treats: nutpatty, a cake made from ground acorns.

 

• Florence died tragically and mysteriously in a rockfall in 1881, at age 17. She is buried beside her father in the Yosemite Cemetery, which you can still visit today.

Her name lives on in Mount Florence (12,561'), in Yosemite's Cathedral Range, one of the park's few peaks named for a woman. 

 

Never been to Mount Florence? You're not alone — it's not that easy to get to! Here's a quick recap of the journey our outdoor programs manager, Kylie, took during her "Mount Flo" summit in July 2016...

Kylie and her pals headed out after work, and passed Cathedral Peak at sunset a beautiful start to an adventurous weekend. After spending the night at Sunrise High Sierra Camp, they took off cross-country to Babcock Lake (shockingly warm water!) and hiked alongside the Fletcher Creek cascades. After a short jaunt on the Lewis Creek and Isberg trails, they started up a drainage toward Mount Florence. Mosquitoes swarmed whenever they paused, so they pressed on until after dark. 
Photo: Kylie ChappellThe next morning, they spent several hours walking up talus fields, picking their way through piles of rocks (and finding lots of bighorn scat on the slopes they never saw the sheep, but were excited to know she was in the area). 
They made it to the top of Mount Flo around midday, with plenty of time to enjoy 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks and lakes especially the Clark Range, right across the canyon. To get back to Yosemite Valley (and their day jobs), they descended to Merced Lake, and then covered the spectacular remaining miles through the Merced River drainage. They made it back home by midnight, with a memorable weekend, and 50 miles of hiking, behind them.
As Kylie noted, she's seen Mount Florence from many points in Yosemite, but until that weekend it had always seemed unattainable. It turns out that with the right friends, and with mosquitoes chasing you, anything is possible! After years of staring at this peak, she's thrilled to say that she made it to the top.

You don't have to trek into the remote backcountry to experience Florence's legacy (though if you do, we hope you'll share your photos and stories with us on Flickr, Facebook and Instagram). If you're in Yosemite Valley, you can see her spirit and stories come to life on stage at the Yosemite Theater in Growing Up in Yosemite: The Spirited Life of Florence Hutchings, starring Audrey Davis. Catch the live performance, which features a special photo-based presentation and Q-and-A session with Audrey, every Friday at 7 p.m., through the end of October. 

Can’t make it to the show, or to Mount Flo? Learn more about Florence Hutchings in High Country Women, by Chris Enss, and Pioneers in Petticoats, by Shirley Sargent, both available in our bookstores in the park and online. 

 

*Quoted material is from Pioneers in Petticoats by Shirley Sargent (pp. 33-40)

 

Above: A view of snow-capped Mount Florence (the prominent peak in the center) and surrounding peaks from the Four Mile Trail, captured by John Little in June 2017. 

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