Yosemite Reveals the Mapmaking, Artistry, and Humor of Jo Mora
By Peter Hiller
What would become California was once home to approximately three hundred thousand Indigenous people, who, before outside interference, lived as best as possible in harmony and balance with the land’s striking natural features and bounty. Had Jo Mora (1876–1947) camped in and explored Yosemite’s environs sixty years before he did, he would have found the Ahwahnechee people living there. Instead, he arrived in the summer of 1904 and discovered an established national park focused on encouraging a steadily increasing parade of visitors, and multitudes of newly mobile, largely Anglo people touring, and often settling in, the US West—both trends that continue to this day. Military actions and settlers had radically transformed Yosemite starting in the mid-1800s from a Native homeland into a tourist destination.
Many who have spent time in Yosemite have been inspired by its sights—whether artistically, commercially, or a mix of both—to express themselves in a creative manner. Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, Carleton E. Watkins, Chiura Obata, David Hockney, and Ansel Adams (that last artist most closely associated with Yosemite) are among the many creative souls who have produced visions and interpretations of the park’s magnificent features. The exposure they’ve brought about has, in turn, broadened the public’s interest in the park.
But largely overlooked to date are the wonderful Yosemite-inspired artistic efforts of Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora. Mora was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and his family moved to the Boston area when he was three. Art was a constant presence in the Mora household. Jo’s father, Domingo, was a classically trained sculptor, and his brother, Luis, a fine-art painter.
Starting from his first visit to Yosemite in 1904, Mora was inspired to respond artistically to the sights he found in the park. The physical beauty of Yosemite, along with the photographs he took, provided the source material for several drawings and paintings. These rarely seen images focus on the famed landmarks Yosemite is known for and are executed with a brevity of compositional elements. Graphite, ink, watercolor, and camera were the art tools Mora carried with him on the deliberate walks he took to find the viewpoints he wanted.
Mora began drawing his “cartes” (the artist’s name for maps) in 1927 with the help of his business-minded son, Jo Junior. They were a wonderful means to visually depict his love of the natural world, deep interest in history, and sense of humor. Mora sold the original 1931 hand-colored version of his Yosemite carte (now in the collection of the Yosemite Museum) to the Curry Company in the late 1930s or early 1940s, and relinquished his rights to its use. Versions of it were printed in 1931, 1941, and 1949 by park concessionaires. With each printing, details changed to reflect current park activities and roads. The sale of Jo’s cartes to which he owned the rights were a financial windfall for the Mora family, especially during the Depression. Jo Junior traveled around the West, selling them at gift shops and trading posts.
Although the 1931 Yosemite carte illustration was completed twenty-eight years after Mora’s first visit to the park, many of the images appear to be autobiographical and based on his journal entries from 1904. One shows a wagon being drawn by two mules with two passengers hitting the brakes as they come down Coulterville Road—just as Mora and Walter “Honey” Williams, his friend and traveling companion, had done one June day in 1904. Other parts of the drawing include the entire nineteen-mile loop hike Mora took up to Glacier Point and back around to Vernal Falls. A man wipes his brow along the Glacier Point Trail, and a man takes a photograph of Nevada Falls, just as Mora recorded in his journal that he had done.
The central image of the carte is an overall view of the park from the Merced River entrance, outside El Portal, looking up the valley to the east. The many well-known physical features clearly noted include Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls. Most points of interest are named (the national park system loves to name sites), and many have a vignette or visual pun to bring them to life: Washington Column has George leaning on a carved marble column, three beauties frolic at the Three Graces spires, and a woman in a red dress powders her nose while looking into (what else?) Mirror Lake.
Many of the park’s famous activities are depicted as well, depending on which version of the carte you are looking at. The Fire Falls (in which people throw burning logs over the granite edge to the valley below), Indian Field Days, and the Zoo appear along the left side of the 1941 version. First conceived by the National Park Service in 1916, Indian Field Days showcased Native American skills, crafts, and games for the consumption and entertainment of tourists. The last Indian Field Days was in 1929, so Mora’s inclusion of it on the 1931 carte was perhaps a nod to his fascination with the former event and Native American culture in general. That icon on the carte would be replaced in a subsequent printing, reflecting changes in the park’s activities.
“I had never imagined Yosemite was the enchanted Garden of Eden…”
After that first visit in 1904, Mora wrote, “I had never imagined Yosemite was the enchanted Garden of Eden nor the only place on earth yet I had formed a good opinion of it and I’m glad to say I was not disappointed. It quite came up to expectations. . . . I took photos from Artist Point etc. Very beautiful view of the valley and the cloud effect in the distance, almost blending themselves with the hazy mountains was superb. At last, we came to Inspiration Point and we took our last view of the valley. Goodbye to Yosemite!”
Left: Jo Mora, detail from Yosemite, 1949, showing a family of four (perhaps Mora, his wife, Grace, son Jo Junior, and daughter Patti) with mouths agape in reaction to “that first view” of Yosemite, an often-seen reaction to encountering Yosemite for the first time. Offset lithograph. California Historical Society
Versions of this story appeared in the winter 2008 issue of Yosemite: A Journal for Members of the Yosemite Association (now the Yosemite Conservancy) and From Dust to Granite: The Yosemite Art and Writing of Jo Mora, both by Peter Hiller. In his role as the Jo Mora Collection Curator, Hiller is continually working to bring Mora’s fascinating life story and artistic legacy to the attention of the public. Hiller’s biography The Life and Times of Jo Mora: Iconic Artist of the American West was published by the Book Club of California in 2019, and a trade edition published by Gibbs-Smith was released in 2021.