The land was once used as a home by Native Americans. (Ahwahnee is an Indian word meaning “deep grassy valley.”) In 1851, a force of 74 Anglo miners under the command of Captain James Burney, Sheriff of Mariposa County, fought a battle with the Miwok Indians on or near the park. Lt. Skeane S. Skeenes received a mortal wound in the battle and was buried in what is now the park. In 1970 his body was moved to Oakhill Cemetery in Oakhurst.
The first owner of the property was Franklin Dennis, who homesteaded 160 acres on the future park site in 1882. The property then passed to Martin H. and Bessie Cassell, who by 1891 owned 320 acres.
Sometime about April 1892, the property was purchased by Albert Henry Washburn (1836–1902), owner of the stage company that operated between Raymond and Wawona. In August 1892, Washburn sold the property to William Martin Sell, Sr. (1854-1932). Sell soon built the two-story Ahwahnee Tavern to serve as a stage and luncheon stop on the Raymond to Wawona Road. Sell had earlier been the first person to send a telegraph signal out of Yosemite Valley. Washburn built stables and other buildings and operated the Ahwahnee Tavern in partnership with Sell.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt had lunch at the Ahwahnee Tavern on his way to meet John Muir and visit Yosemite Valley. Other famous visitors included Susan B. Anthony, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Crown Prince Albert of Belguim.
In 1906 William Sell moved to El Portal to build the El Portal Hotel. In his absence, Edwin T. Huffman leased and ran the tavern. Horse-drawn stages were gradually replaced by automobile stages, and in 1913 Huffman moved his operations to the Miami Lodge, which he had built in a location better situated for automobile traffic.