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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar

The Big Trees

It has already been observed that the Walker party probably saw the Merced or Tuolumne Grove of Big Trees in 1833 and that Bidwell happened upon the Calaveras Grove while trying to find a route for the Bartleson party in 1841. In those days men were more interested in trapping and in gold than in the wonders of nature; so, while the big trees may have excited surprise and admiration for a moment, they were soon forgotten. Thus it may well be that many a hunter and miner paused to look at the colossal trunks and went his way without proclaiming the discovery.

Bunnell says that a man who worked for him in 1851 had seen same of the big trees near the Mariposa Grove in 1849, but this fact seems to have been brought to light only after the announced discovery of the Mariposa Grove a few years later. The discovery of the big trees is usually credited to A. T. Dowd, a hunter employed by a canal company at Murphy’s Camp, who brought attention to the Calaveras Grove in the spring of 1852. 38 Whatever the precise course of events may have been, the Calaveras Grove man received a great deal of publicity. The scientific name has been the subject of considerable discussion, but the name Sequoia gigantea is now the one most frequently used. The first botanical descriptions were published in England based on specimens brought in 1853 by William Lobb, collector for Veitch’s Exotic Nursery. Specimens were transplanted shortly afterwards to nurseries and gardens in the eastern United States and in England and the continent.

The big trees of California soon became celebrated and enterprising exhibitors hastened to secure tangible evidence of them wonders. In 1853 one of the Calaveras trees was cut down and the following year an exhibit of the bark was displayed in the Union Club, New York, In 1854 one of the finest trees, known as “The Mother of the Forest,” was stripped of its bark to a height of 116 feet. Portions of this bark were exhibited at the Crystal Palace, New York, in 1855, and in 1856 in London. The first London exhibit attracted so much attention that the exhibit was transferred, in April 1857, to the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, where a full 100 feet of the bark was set up. 39

The Calaveras Grove was the first grove to become generally known, but others were soon discovered. In 1855 a workman named Hogg reported to Galen Clark the discovery of big trees near the route to Yosemite, and others were discovered shortly afterwards by J. E. Clayton. Bunnell says he accompanied Clayton on a second visit. In June 1856, Galen Clark and Milton Mann explored the Mariposa Grove. The Fresno Grove and others became known soon afterwards. 40 There is little doubt that the big trees; of the Tule River region were a familiar sight to many prospectors, particularly those who crossed the Sierra from 1853 to 1855 in the rush to the Inyo gold discoveries. These trees received no prominent mention, however, until the publications of the Whitney Survey, in which it was said that they were discovered by d’Heureuse, a member of the Survey. 41

The Giant Forest, on the Marble Fork of Kaweah River, was discovered by Hale Tharp in 1858. He carved his name and the date on a log at a spot now known as Log Meadow. In 1860 he visited the grove again, and from that time forth considered it his own particular stamping ground. The groves between the Kings River and the Kaweah were the first to fall before the attacks of the lumbermen, and by 1864 destruction of the forests was rapidly going forward.

The subsequent history of the big trees may be summarized as follows: The Calaveras Grove continued to attract the most attention for a long time and received innumerable tourists, particularly during the ’60s and ’70s; later, the Mariposa Grove came into prominence on account of its favorable position on the Wawona route to Yosemite; to the south, the destruction of the forests for lumber went on for many years, and is still in progress; some of the finest trees of all, however, were saved by the establishment of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks in 1890, and by protection under the Forest Reserves. It is only today that these southerly groves are becoming more appreciated, and at the same time there seems to be a revival of interest in the Calaveras Grove.

38 Hutchings, Scenes of Wonder, and Curiosity, 1860, pp. 10-12.

39 Description of the Great Tree, etc., New York, 1854; Description of the Mammoth Tree from California, etc., London, 1857.

40 Bunnell: Discovery, 1880, p. 335.

41 Whitney Survey: Yosemite Guide Book, 1870, p. 154.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management