The naming of Half Dome shared the same fate as the naming of many mountains and landscapes in the United States. Often, there was already a Native American name for distinguishing features. Then European explorers and settlers changed those names to words more familiar to them. In some cases, surveyors and politicians further changed the names given by the earlier Europeans.
The first English language name bestowed upon the mountain was most likely “Rock of Ages.” Two bear hunters by the names of Reamer and Abrams gave the mountain this Christian name in 1849. Abrams’ journal entry reads:
“Reamer and I saw a grizzly bear[’s] tracks and went out to hunt him down getting lost in the mountains and not returning until the following evening, found our way to camp over an Indian trail that led past a valley enclosed by stupendous cliffs rising perhaps 3,000 feet from their base and which gave us cause for wonder. Not far off a waterfall dropped from a cliff below three jagged peaks into the valley while farther beyond a rounded mountain stood, the valley wide of which looked as though it had been sliced with a knife as one would slice a loaf of bread and which Reamer and I called the Rock of Ages.”
Abrams’ estimate of the height of the Valley’s walls is the first accurate guess at their height. Future inaccurate guesses put El Capitan at a half to a quarter of that size.
The present name came courtesy of the Mariposa Battalion, the same group who came to Yosemite Valley to remove the Native Americans. On March 27, 1851, while scouting away from camp, a Private Champion Spencer became lost deep in thought about the mountain. His Sergeant, Alexander Cameron, remembered:
“Spencer looked a good long while at that split mountain, and called it a ‘half dome.’ I concluded he might name it what he liked, if he would leave it and go to camp for I was getting tired and hungry and said so.”
Private Spencer’s deep pondering is not an inspiring origin story for the naming of Half Dome. It is no equal to Tis-sa-ack and her story, but Half Dome is the name that stuck.
The Mariposa Battalion had several non-white members. These were the Native American scouts they had recruited from other tribes to guide them into the Valley and assist in tracking the Ahwahneechee. Some of these scouts had bad blood with the Ahwahneechee from previous conflicts and were willing to help the Battalion. Some of the scouts knew Half Dome as “The Sentinel.” In the present day, The Sentinel is now assigned to the jagged granite spire towering over the Four Mile Trail, across the Merced River from the Yosemite Valley Lodge and Camp 4.
Later, Half Dome was briefly called “South Dome.” The intent behind this name was likely to create geographical harmony by having a North Dome and a South Dome. While this name did not endure, it was used by John Muir in several of his writings, including the description of his ascent of Half Dome in November 1875.
Perhaps Muir preferred South Dome. Regardless, he was a decade behind the consensus of his fellow pioneers. In 1865, Clarence King and James Gardiner, two surveyors working for the California Geological Survey, affixed the name “Half Dome” to the mountain on the official maps. Josiah Whitney, the chief of the Survey and namesake of California’s Mount Whitney, also used “Half Dome” in his 1869 book “The Yosemite Valley.” It is also important to note that Whitney made no mention of “South Dome” or “Tis-sa-ack” in the same book.
A Monument to the American Ethos
In 1864, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act—a pivotal moment in the public lands movement. The Act marked the first time that the United States Government set aside land for protection and public enjoyment. It also set the tone for the creation of Yellowstone in 1872, the first National Park.
The Yosemite Grant took place amidst the horrors of the American Civil War. The Grant reflected a realignment of political policies within the federal government founded in emancipation and with the goal of rewarding Americans for their sacrifices during the Civil War. What better way to highlight the greatest benefit of American citizenship—freedom—than to set aside one of its most majestic landscapes in perpetuity for all people?
At the same time, the landscape photographs of Carlton Watkins and the paintings of Albert Bierstadt reached the East Coast. These photos and paintings depicted the peaceful and inspiring scenes of Yosemite Valley. They were an island of the sublime amidst an ocean of atrocities. They were a reminder of the American ethos of liberty as reflected in its landscape.
During this time, suggestions for Half Dome’s name included “Goddess of Liberty” and “Mt. Abraham Lincoln.” Both of these names are understandable given the political climate of the time; they reflected the hope for a better future that existed amidst a time of great upheaval.
Mountains have always held a special place in the psyche of humans. Half Dome is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Highlighting this is another of Half Dome’s first suggested names, “Spirit of the Valley.” To this day Half Dome captures the hearts of many. People travel to Yosemite from all over the world to visit this mountain that stirs powerful feelings within them.
The history of the naming of Half Dome demonstrates the significance we attach to these seemingly inaccessible places. We see them as monuments to the past, atonement for sins committed, signs of strength to contrast the inherent frailty of humanity, and symbols of our ideals.