The Life and Times of George Monroe and His Family

By Tom Bopp

“Just as there are the greatest of soldiers and sailors, artists and mechanics at times
 so there are greater stage drivers than their fellows and George Monroe was the greatest of all.”

– A.H. Washburn, Supt., Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Company

Although Tom’s book is focused on George Monroe, it is actually about the Monroe family from 1794 in Pennsylvania to 1912 in Southern California. Their family movements and experiences supported George through much of his life from the east coast to Mariposa County and Yosemite to the story’s end in Southern California. This Black family had brushes with slavery, prejudice, and poverty, yet it held together until after George died in 1886 following an accident. At the same time, George’s reputation drew from his driving of the coaches of the Washburn and related livery stables into Yosemite.

Just as Tom has fleshed out the family heritage, he also has related it to the development of the Washburn interests in the roads and hotels from Mariposa to Wawona and Yosemite Valley in which George Monroe played a significant part. There are few accounts of Black people in the Sierra, much less whole families. We are fortunate to have this one.

- James B. Snyder, Yosemite National Park Historian from 1988-2005.


The story of George Monroe’s ascent to the top of his profession lay hidden for a century, languishing amid that tantalizing, antique fragrance of disregarded city records. The only one who remembered the story was an elderly African American blacksmith named George Millen, left alone in San Diego in 1897. Under questioning by the jury in a coroner’s inquest, Millen in his southern, possibly Cajun accent, revealed an epic tale that led from the Antebellum South, through the California Gold Rush and the dawn of Yosemite tourism, to Southern California at the brink of the automobile era. In a few deft sentences, Millen rescued his family’s history from being forever lost. He also testified to the triumph and power of self-definition that was achieved by his indomitable sister, Mary Ann Monroe.

Mary’s son, George Monroe, had in his short life become a famous stagecoach driver and guide, introducing a stellar cast of international celebrities to Yosemite. Mary’s husband, Louis, was a civil rights activist following the Civil War. Together the family established and operated a ranch and farm.

Through the entire arc of her life, Mary asserted her inner strength and intelligence though beset by adversity and tragedy, and endured just long enough, as the reader will learn, that the very nature of her death would result in the preservation of her remarkable story.

Reports of George Monroe’s transcendent abilities have filtered down to us through occasional articles, inspiring his placement in the title of this book. But it is crucial to remember that the boldness, drive, and strategic agility displayed by Mary and her brother and husband merit them equal standing with their famous son. This is the story of a determined, talented family emerging triumphant from a systemically oppressive cultural milieu of gender and race bias.

To date, knowledge of George Monroe has come primarily from three sources: press coverage of Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to Yosemite in 1879, Monroe’s 1886 obituary, and writer Ben C. Truman’s reminiscences from 1899 and 1903. This book reaches far beyond those sources with fresh, new research.

Essential to the story is the colorful backdrop of Monroe’s career with the Yosemite Stage & Turnpike Company, the complex, fascinating social climate in which the Monroes found themselves, and the local and national historic events that so directly affected their lives. The copious endnotes are provided not only to substantiate the story, but to enrich it with extra details, and to provide clues to aid further research.

As a note to the reader from the author’s perspective, a history book always becomes more vivid by conjuring up in the imagination the places, the smells, sounds, and feel of the air, and especially the people—the cadence of their voices, and what they might say over dinner if you could only join them.