Chronicles of Early Ascents of Half Dome.
Part I: Anderson's Years
Oct 1875: Indomitable Scotchman, George Anderson
For about twenty years, tourists and inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley looked at Half Dome (or "South Dome") and dreamed of scaling it. Finally, in 1875, somebody had enough courage and determination to reach its top. The following article from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin appears to be the earliest newspaper account of Anderson's legendary ascent.
Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, October 19, 1875, p. 3
Newspaper article that describes Anderson's first ascent of Half Dome
An Unparalleled Feat.—On Tuesday the 12th instant, the extraordinary feat of ascending the South Dome in the Yosemite Valley was accomplished by a Scot[c]hman by birth and a sailor by profession, named George Anderson. He drilled his way up the south side, about 1,500 feet in two days.
John Muir repeated Anderson's feat several weeks later. He described Anderson's and his climbs in an article published in the San Francisco Bulletin, on November 18, 1875. Here are paragraphs from that article related to Anderson's first ascent. (Muir's ascent is fully covered later). Muir also gives credit to John Conway and his sons for an earlier similar but unsuccessful attempt:
Daily Evening Bulletin, November 18, 1875, p. 1
Its Ascent by George Anderson and John Muir.
(From our special correspondent).
Yosemite Valley, November 10, 1875.
The Yosemite South Dome is the noblest rock in the Sierra, and George Anderson, an indomitable Scotchman, has made a way to its summit... With the exception of conoidal summit of Mount Starr King, and a few minor spires and pinnacles, the South Dome is the only inaccessible rock of the valley, and its inaccessibility is pronounced in very severe and simple terms, leaving no trace of hope for the climber without artificial means. But longing eyes were none the less fixed on its noble brow, and the Anderson way will be eagerly ascended.
The Dome rises from the level floor of the valley to the height of very nearly a mile... On the east, where it is united with the dividing ridge between the great Tenaya and Nevada canyons, the Dome may be easily approached within six or seven hundred feet of the summit, where it rises in a smooth, graceful curve just a few degrees too steep to climb. Nearly all Sierra rocks are accessible on the eastern or upper side, because the glacial force which eroded them out of the solid acted from this direction[!]; but special conditions in the position and structure of the South Dome prevented the formation of the ordinary low grade, and it is this steep upper portion that the plucky Anderson has overcome. John Conway, a resident of the valley, has a flock of small boys who climb smooth rocks like lizards, and some two years ago he sent them up the dome with a rope, hoping they might be able to fasten it with spikes driven into fissures, and thus reach the top. They took the rope in tow and succeeded in making it fast two or three hundred feet above the point ordinarily reached, but finding the upper portion of the curve impracticable without laboriously drilling into the rock, he called down his lizards, thinking himself fortunate in effecting a safe retreat.
Mr. Anderson began with Conway's old rope, part of which still remains in place, and resolutely drilled his way to the top, inserting eyebolts five or six feet apart, and making his rope fast to each in succession, resting his foot on the last bolt while he drilled for the next above. Occasionally some irregularity in the curve or slight foothold would enable him to climb fifteen or twenty feet independently of the rope, which he would pass and begin drilling again, the whole being accomplished in a few days. From this slender beginning he will now proceed to construct a substantial stairway which he hopes to complete in time for next year's travel; and as he is a man of rare energy the thing will surely be done. Then, all may sing "Excelsior" in perfect safety...
Muir later used this text in at least two of his books, The Mountains of California, 1894, and The Yosemite, 1912. It is interesting to study revisions that he made in the later years. For example, in The Yosemite, Anderson, being dead and all but forgotten, didn't fare well in the edited text. The original sentence (see above), "...and as he [Anderson] is a man of rare energy the thing will surely be done", is now replaced by "...but while busy getting out timber for his stairway and dreaming of the wealth he hoped to gain from tolls, he was taken sick and died all alone in his little cabin". On the other hand, Conway and "his lizards" would get a slightly better treatment. The original text "John Conway, a resident of the valley has a flock of small boys..." is replaced by "John Conway, the master trail-builder of the Valley, and his little sons..." Muir also dropped his speculation about "Sierra rocks being accessible on the eastern or upper side, because of glacial forces", and made other corrections in the later editions of the text.
(Another description of Conway's attempt can be found in Josiah Whitney's The Yosemite Guide-book, 1874 edition).
Here are some other early descriptions of Anderson's first climb:
The earliest book that mentioned (indirectly) Anderson's Half Dome ascent, was apparently Charles Beebe Turrill's first volume of California Notes, printed in San Francisco in 1876. The author states (pp. 215-216) [emphasis mine]:
The grand feature of this section [of Yosemite Valley] is the South, or, as sometimes called, the Half Dome... The shape of the South Dome is such that but one party has ever succeeded in reaching the summit, an undertaking few will care to attempt, and still smaller number can accomplish.
In the spring of 1878, Lady Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming, of London, then about 40 years old, visited Yosemite. She intended to stay for three days, but ended up being there for three months. A collection of her letters from that trip was published under the title Granite Crags, by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh/London, 1884. Her letter dated "Saturday, 4th May " talks about Anderson's climb:
Granite Crags, by C. F. Gordon Cumming, Chapter VI
...For many years [Half Dome] was considered altogether inaccessible; but about eighteen months ago [actually, two and a half years ago] it was scaled by an energetic, determined Scotchman, George Anderson by name. He hails from Montrose, but has taken up his abode in this beautiful valley; and now he looks on the Half-Dome with such mingled pride and veneration, that I should think he will never leave it.
It was in 1875 that he determined to reach the summit, if mortal man could accomplish the feat. Climbing goat-like along dizzy ledges, and clinging like a fly to every crevice that could afford him foothold, he reached the point where hitherto the boldest cragsman had been foiled. Here he halted till he had drilled a hole in the rock and securely fixed an iron stanchion with an eye-bolt, through which he passed a strong rope. Then resting on this frail support, he was able to reach farther, and to drill a second hole and fix another eye-bolt. From this point of vantage he could secure a third, carrying the rope through every bolt, and always securing it at the upper end.
Thus step by step he crept upward, till at last he had drilled holes and driven in iron stanchions right up the vast granite slab, securing 1100 feet of rope. Then rounding the mighty shoulder, he stood triumphant on the summit, and there to his amazement he found a level space of about seven acres, where not only grasses have spread a green carpet, but seven gnarled and stunted old pines, of three different kinds, have contrived to take root, and, defying storms and tempests, maintain their existence on this bleak bare summit...
This same text about Anderson and Half Dome also appeared in the Cornhill Magazine, vol. 47, April 1883, pp. 410-423, under the heading of "Early spring in California", but Gordon Cumming's authorship was not indicated in the magazine.
Another note about Anderson's first ascent is from 1879. Presumably, the (anonymous) author gathered the information directly from Anderson:
San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 1879, p. 1; reprinted in St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 3, 1879, p. 10
...Anderson tried to climb [Half Dome] in his stocking feet, then barefooted, then by wearing bags full of pitch tied around below his knees, then by moccasins with pine pitch on the soles. The latter was the most hopeful, but none effected much, and well was it that he failed, for never could he have retraced his steps, and his life would have had a fearful end. He finally succeeded by using baling-rope of eight thicknesses, together with 40 or 50 strong iron pins, seven inches long, with an eye in each one in which to fasten the rope...