Wild Women Of The West: Flo Hutchings


Fifteen-year-old Gertrude Hutchings sat on the edge of her sister Florence’s bed, crying.  Florence, a pretty girl of seventeen with long, dark hair lay motionless under a mountain of blankets.  A massive purple and black bruise on the side of her right cheek was the only color on her slender, pale face.  Her eyes were closed and her hands were folded across her chest, her breathing was labored and slow.  Her grandmother, Florantha Sproat, dabbed the teenager’s forehead with a cool, moist cloth, kissed her forehead, and then stepped away waiting for the girl to respond.1

Florence did not move.  She would never move again.  She died on September 26, 1881.  Family and friends that surrounded her wept and wondered aloud to one another how someone so young and vibrant could be gone from them.  “Yosemite Valley was diminished in a sense by her passing,” one of Florence’s teachers said at the young girl’s funeral.  “She was a rarity and added to the setting’s beauty.”2  

Florence “Floy” Hutchings was the first white child born in Yosemite.  Her parents, James Mason Hutchings, a businessman, farmer, and promoter of Yosemite National Park, and artist Elvira Sproat, welcomed their daughter into the world on August 24, 1864.  The precocious, inquisitive child was the first child for the couple who lived in a log cabin close to Yosemite Falls.

In addition to exploring the land in which James Hutchings and John Muir would help preserve, James was a homesteader in the north section of Yosemite where he raised fruit trees, strawberry plants, and various livestock, including horses.  He also owned an inn which Florence’s mother and he ran.  Elvira was a reluctant innkeeper; she preferred painting, reading poetry, writing, and playing music.  Her mother, Florantha, assumed the responsibility of caring for Floy and the two other children the Hutchings had: Gertrude, a blue-eyed, fair-haired girl born in October 1867, and William a cheerful boy born in July 1869 who suffered from a spinal deformity.4    

Despite her best efforts, Florantha had a difficult time raising Floy to be a proper young lady.  Even as a small child she cared little for frilly dresses, curly hair, and ribbons.  She was a tomboy and enjoyed collecting insects and toads, hiking, camping, and riding horses.  She would often disappear for hours at a time to explore the valley and mountains.  Although her mother would be furious with Floy for taking off without letting anyone know where she was going, the young girl refused to change and was seldom sorry for making her mother [and grandmother] worry.

Naturalist John Muir, who worked for Floy’s father, referred to Floy as “a smart, handsome, and mischievous Topsy that could scarce be overdrawn.”  It was not uncommon for the spirited Floy to jump on her horse and ride alongside the wagon trains or stage coaches traveling into the area to see the sights. Passengers would watch in amazement as the young girl boldly sped after the vehicles. 

Charles Warren Stoddard, a poet and musician from San Francisco, and frequent guest of the Hutchings family, wrote about the fearless Floy in his memoirs.  “She is constant motion…lightening quick motion,” he noted.  “Dear little squirrel,” a nickname given to her because of her fast, sudden moves, “she knew nothing of the world but what she saw of it within her mountain – walled horizon; such an odd little child she was, left to herself and her fancies; no doubt thinking she was the only one of her kind in existence; contented to see-saw for hours on a plank by the woodpile; making long, solitary explanations, and returning, when we were all well frightened, with a pocket full of lizards and a wasp caged in her hand.  They never stung her.” 

Six-year-old Floy made an impression on a number of visitors to her parents’ inn at Yosemite.  In 1870 she enthusiastically introduced herself to an English novelist who memorialized the occasion in his journal.  “Say!  Listen!” he reported.  Floy began a conversation after pinching him on his arm to gain his full attention.  “Where do you come from; do you want to camp out?  I’ll go with you.  We better start before the moon goes down; have you plenty of blankets?  It’s only twenty miles to the top of Tis-sa’-ak [Half Dome].  I’ll show you the trail.  I’ve just come down today.  You are not afraid of rattlesnakes, I suppose; there is one just below here that has bitten me three times, but I always cut the piece out with my jack knife, and it did me no harm….  Say!  Do you want a polecat skin?  I’ll go out and catch and skin one alive, and bring it to you.”8

Floy learned to read and write from her mother but had no formal education in her early years.  She listened intently to the books Elvira read aloud and to the discussions the adults had with both her parents about politics, religion, and finances.  According to John Muir’s reminiscences, Floy frequently offered comments on a variety of subjects beyond the intelligence of some grownups.9  

Neither Elvira nor James ever stifled their children’s desire to ask questions or engage in conversation with adults.  They were not, however, as permissive with their diet.  Elvira was strict about the amount of food Floy, Gertrude, and William consumed and made them follow a regiment of eating mostly alfalfa, fruit, and some meat on special occasions.  Water was the only beverage the children were allowed to drink.  It wasn’t uncommon for Floy and her siblings to visit John Muir at his cabin and beg for food.  He always made sure the children got plenty of bread to eat and milk to drink when they called on him.  After the three had their stomachs full, John would take them hiking and teach them about flowers and wildlife in the area.  Recalling those times years later, Gertrude said that John Muir was “gracious and attentive to all of us.”10  

Jeanne Carr, one of John’s closest friends, developed quite a fondness for the Hutchings children, particularly Floy.  “I think with delight of how the winter home looks, of little brown ‘squirrel’ in the glow of the firelight,” she wrote about the little girl in 1871.11  

Keen interest in preserving the natural beauty of Yosemite brought about big changes in Floy’s life and the lives of her family as a whole in 1874.  Congress set aside the Yosemite Valley and the neighboring Mariposa Grove of big trees and turned them over to the state of California to administer for all the people for all time.  James Hutchings, along with a handful of other families who had been living in the region for a number of years, were forced to leave.  Hutchings received $24,000 for the land he had worked as a homestead.  Racing her horse over the rocky paths and through mountain passes of her childhood home would never be as easy for Floy again.  The broken hearted girl said goodbye to the beautiful, vast area that was once her playground and moved to San Francisco to live with her grandmother, Florantha Sproat.  Florantha had moved to the city several years prior to the family having to leave Yosemite.12  

Not long after the Hutchings relocated, Floy’s parents’ marriage began to fall apart.  Elvira was not content to stay home with the children.  She craved the excitement of attending art showings, going to the theatre, and meeting new and interesting people.  She had an affair which led to the ultimate demise of the Hutchings’ union.  James and Elvira divorced in 1876.13  

Florantha continued on with the day-to-day care of her grandchildren and managing the household.  Floy and her siblings lived at Florantha’s home the majority of the year and attended the local San Francisco school.  During the summer months James would escort Floy back to Yosemite where she would spend time hiking and riding her horse.  Landscape painter Thomas Hill, photographer Edwin Muybridge, and botanist Albert Kellogg accompanied the Hutchings on their outdoor jaunts.  Floy’s spontaneity and love for the open spaces amused the talented individuals that traveled with James and his children.  Floy’s unladylike antics, such as riding astride and venturing off on her own, was the source of many conversations and inspiring to all who knew her.  “We all wished to be able to throw caution and tradition to the wind with such enthusiasm,” Muybridge wrote in his memoirs.14  

Just prior to her sixteenth birthday in 1880, Floy’s father remarried.  His new wife, Widow Augusta Sweetland, a landscape painter and newspaper correspondent, was not fond of Floy.  Floy didn’t care for her either.  Whether the reason as to why the pair didn’t get along was jealousy or resentment is not entirely known.  Perhaps it was Floy’s refusal to conform to Augusta’s idea of what a proper lady should be.  Floy did struggle in school over the same issue.  Teachers could not harness Floy’s restless nature, and she didn’t care to learn what books and administrators told her she had to learn.  Floy was expelled from school at the same time her father was appointed guardian over Yosemite Park.15

Sixteen-year-old Floy returned with James to Yosemite.  Upon returning to their old homestead, she hurried off to the meadows and the mountains where she used to roam as a child.  Women’s groups exploring the wilderness hired her once as a guide.  Floy happily introduced the inquisitive ladies to the high country’s rarely traveled peaks and valleys.  She educated them on the customs of the indigenous people and the habits of the animals that made Yosemite their home.16  

In the winter of 1880, Augusta Sweetland died.  Although she was sorry for her father’s loss, the sudden demise of James’s second wife had little effect on Floy.  Florantha continued to act as “homemaker, doctor, cook, spinner of yarn, knitter of stockings in our homes as long as she lived in Yosemite and San Francisco,” Floy’s sister Gertrude recalled many years later.17  

Floy continued her routine of communing with nature and discovering all of Yosemite’s hidden treasures.  One of her most favorite places was the old chapel located on the south side of the Merced River.  It had a seating capacity of one hundred persons. The tiny, New England style church was built under sponsorship of the California State Sunday School Children.  The original reed organ was a gift from Miss Mary Porter of Philadelphia in memory of Floy.18  

Floy’s contagious and vivacious personality was the inspiration for the title character in a novel written by Theresa Yelverston entitled Zanita: A Tale of the Yosemite.  Yelverston, a controversial woman from Britain who was more than a little preoccupied with naturalist John Muir, his time in Yosemite, and the people he knew – Floy Hutchings being one of them.  She believed Floy had the talent to become a great actress.  Yelverston wanted to adopt the girl and personally train her for a stage career.  Not only would Floy’s father not allow it, but Floy had no interest in ever leaving Yosemite again.19  

Floy had a deep affection for the children that resided in her beloved Yosemite.  She always took time out of her daily horseback rides to stop and visit with them and play a few games.  Often times her best friend Effie Crippen, daughter of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joshua Crippen, would join her on visits with the children.  Effie grew up in the Valley with Floy.  The two also hiked and climbed rocks together.  Effie died in 1881 from a cut she received from a broken bottle.  She was wading in Mirror Lake when she stepped on a piece of glass on the floor of the lake.  It severed an artery and she bled to death.20  

Not long after Effie passed away, Floy took a job working as a caretaker for the Yosemite Chapel located near Half Dome.  Her duties included dusting, sweeping, decorating, and, on occasion, ringing the church bell for the services.21

On September 11, 1874, Floy wrote a poem that expressed her gratitude for being able to live and work in the Yosemite Valley.  “Beautiful. Wonderful.  How come you are?  For what has nature caused this awe inspiring deep canon and high towering peaks from it is to remind one there is a God, and that his works are the works of nature?  That His works are wonderful beyond comprehension.”  The moving verses are included in a compilation of other thoughts about the scenic area written by thousands of visitors on file at the Yosemite Museum.22  

In early fall 1881, Floy succumbed to the injuries she sustained in a tragic hiking accident.  She died just three weeks after the passing of her best friend.  “A party of friends were climbing the ledge trail when someone above her accidentally loosened a large rock and it rolled down, striking Florence,” Gertrude Hutchings recalled in her memoirs in 1949.  “She died the following day.”  Ironically, Floy’s death mirrored the death of the character patterned after her in the novel Theresa Yelverston wrote.  “She had missed her footing and pitched headlong over the brow of Tis-sa-ack [Half Dome],” Yelverston penned in her book Zanita: A Tale of the Yosemite.  “The piece of her dress hanging on the bushes denotes she has fallen….”23   

Florence “Floy” Hutchings’ funeral was held at the hotel her father, mother, and grandmother operated when she was a child.  A family member offered a few words about Floy’s shocking passing.  Her sentiments echoed the thoughts of many at the service.  “Only a week before she was climbing heights and scrambling through ravines where eagles might be looked for….”24      Among the many people who attended her service were artists C.D. Robinson, Charles Dorman Taylor, and author and poet Benjamin F. Taylor.  Not long after Floy’s death, Charles Dorman Taylor asked the National Park Committee to consider naming a mountain in Yosemite to honor the feisty teenager.  A 12,561 foot peak west of Mount Lyell, as well as a nearby lake, was named after the adventurous, young woman.25 

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