Women Artists & Writers of Early Yosemite

Throughout national parks history, many women have fallen in love with our national parks and who can blame them.  Our national parks are a site unlike anything else in the world.  There are many famous men who helped document the national parks in their early years.  Writers like Thoreau and Muir, along with painters like Moran and photographers like Watkins, all used their art to promote the beauty of nature.  All of these men (and more) were crucial in helping to make the national parks popular, but there were female counterparts that played a quiet, yet still important role in documenting the wilderness.  Writer Jessie Benton Fremont, photographer Mary Winslow, and painter Constance Gordon-Cummings, all documented our early national parks, with Yosemite being the favorite between the three.  These women were not as popular as the men of this time, but that’s not to say their contributions were not just as important.

Jessie Benton Fremont in undated photograph. (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Jessie Benton Fremont was an explorer and preservationist at a time when this was not common for women.  She followed her husband, John C. Fremont, on his expeditions in the West and documented each experience.  She fell in love with Yosemite and nearby areas, like the Mariposa Grove.  She wrote of her time camping here in such an eloquent way.  She writes, “The grandeur of this silent forest, this ‘green solitude where awful silence dwells,’ told on us all, trees of six and eight feet in diameter, rising straight as masts over a hundred feet, the golden-green canopy through which high above only a mist of sunlight came, made a cathedral dignity that hushed us.”[1]  Her words arouse a desire to see those trees and view the sunlight as it comes through the canopy – to experience this for oneself.  She did not simply enjoy these wonderful sites; she wanted to preserve them.  She commissioned photographer Carleton Watkins to photography Yosemite and the surrounding areas, then used these pictures to convince Congress and ultimately President Lincoln that these areas needed to be preserved for public use.  This ultimately culminated in the creation and signing of the Yosemite Grant which was the first step in what would eventually become our national parks.     

This group of photographers is helping the woman in their party across the footbridge, Mary Winslow would have crossed unassisted while carrying her own equipment. (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Mary Winslow was a self-taught photographer who was eventually commissioned to take pictures of California’s orange groves and other land around Los Angeles.  She was a woman who marched to the beat of her own drum and simply did whatever she wanted, societal rules be damned.  She traveled “in a buggy alone, and thinks nothing whatever of driving her own horse over any road where somebody else’s horse has been driven” and her “only arms are a revolver and a man’s hat.”[2]  With the money she earned from her commission by the city of California, she traveled with a group to Yosemite “where she duly admired the wonderful, had a jolly good time and made photographs at the same time.”[3] Once the party returned from the trip, she showed them her pictures and they were a hit with the group.  Each person purchased several from her.  Many women at this time found it difficult to break into the field of photography and receive recognition, so her work went almost entirely unnoticed and it is difficult to find many surviving photographs.  This is completely opposite of photographers like Watkins, whose work was well known and has been preserved over time. 

Constance Gordon-Cumming inn 1893. (Photograph courtesy of the NPS)

Yet another woman to document Yosemite was Constance Gordon-Cummings, a writer and painter.  She was a world traveler who visited Australia, New Zealand, America, China, Tahiti, and Japan.  In 1878, she visited Yosemite in what was supposed to be a short three-day visit.  Instead, she stayed for roughly three months.  She was initially informed that three days would be plenty of time to see everything Yosemite had to offer.  However, upon realization that it would take much longer, she wrote, “I for one have wandered far enough over the wide world to know a unique glory when I am blessed by the sight of one, and the first glimpse of this extraordinary combination of granite crags and stupendous waterfalls showed me plainly enough that it would take me weeks to make acquaintance with them, and that if I fail to do so I shall regret it all my life.”[4]  Her time in Yosemite was documented by her pictures and writings, which was eventually put together in a book called Granite Crags of California.  It was actually quite popular at the time and I believe she had an easier time gaining exposure than Mary Winslow due to the fact that women writers were fairly common at that point.

These three women had varying degrees of popularity, exposure, and success, but all of them had a hand in documenting early Yosemite and assisting in the popularity of nature as a place to escape and enjoy.  They stepped outside of the normal roles of women during this time period and weren’t afraid to explore the wilderness.  If it were not for their adventurous spirit, we may not have some of the documentation of early Yosemite today.  Honestly, if it weren’t for Jessie Fremont, we may never have had Yosemite as a national park.  I think each of these women played an extremely important role in Yosemite’s history, yet they have not received the recognition I feel they have absolutely earned.  My hope is that as time goes on, more people discover the roles women played in preserving our national parks.

[1] Jessie Benton Fremont, Far West Sketches (Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1890), 139.

[2] Article, San Francisco Examiner, March 14, 1895.

[3] Article, San Francisco Examiner, March 14, 1895.

[4] Constance Gordon-Cumming, Granite Crags of California (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1888), 91.