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Big Trees of California or Sequoia Gigantea—Their Discovery and Classification.

In speaking of the discovery of the “Big Trees” of Calavaras, Mr. Hutchings, in his “Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity,” says that: “In the spring of 1852 Mr. A. T. Doud, a hunter, was employed by the Union Water Company of Murphy’s camp, Calavaras county, to supply the workmen with fresh meat from the large quantity of game running wild on the upper portion of their works. Having wounded a bear, and while industriously following in pursuit, he suddenly came upon one of those immense trees that have since become so justly celebrated throughout the civilized world.

“So incredulous were Doud’s employers and companions, when told of his discovery, that a ruse had to be resorted to, to get men to go and view the trees.”

Big trees in Mariposa county, were first discovered by Maj. Burney, of North Carolina, first sheriff of Mariposa county (after its organization), John Macauly of Defiance, Ohio, and two others, whose names I have now forgotten. The discovery was made in the latter part of October, 1849, while in pursuit of some animals stolen by the Indians.

The trees seen and described by Major Burney and his party, were only a few scattering ones on the Fresno and South Fork divide. The major spoke of the trees as a new variety of cedar, and when he gave the measurements that he claimed the party had made with their picket-ropes tied together, his auditors thought he was endeavoring to match some “big yarns” told around our camp fire at the mouth of the Merced river. Afterwards, while sheriff, the Major indicated the locality and size of the trees, in reply to some one’s description of the big yellow pine that lay prostrate on what became the Yosemite trail, and when rallied a little for his extravagance of statement, declared that though true, he should not speak of the big trees again, for it was unpleasant to be considered an habitual joker, or something worse.

I asked the major, seriously, about the trees he had described, and he as seriously replied that he measured the trees as stated, but did not regard them as very remarkable, for he had seen accounts of even taller ones, if not larger, that were growing in Oregon.* [*See Gen. John Bidwell’s account in Century magazine for Nov. 1890.] In referring to these large trees, they were spoken of as being on the ridge known to us afterwards as the Black Ridge. The big trees of the Kah-we-ah and Tu-le river regions, were first noticed by a party of miners returning from the “White River” excitement of 1854, but as these men were uncultured, and the Calavaras grove was already known, no notice was taken by “The Press” of the reports of these miners, who were regarded by their friends as entirely truthful.

It has been thought strange that no member of the “Mariposa battalion” should have discovered any of the big trees, but they did not.

Among forests of such very large pines, cedar and fir trees, as grow adjacent to and among the sequoia, an unusually large tree would not probably have attracted much attention. Had a grove of them, however, been discovered, the fact would have been spoken of in the battalion. As the species was not known to any of us at the time, even had any been seen, and even the pendant character of their branches noticed, doubtless they would have been classed and spoken of as “cedar.” I do not believe, however, that any of the battalion ever noticed these trees, for the reason that strict orders were given against straggling, and our explorations were, for the most part, in the mountains above the line of growth of the sequoia. While hunting for game, during our first expeditions, the depth of snow forced the hunt below.

A few of the Mariposa big trees were first brought into notice by the discoveries of Mr. Hogg in the summer of 1855. The year previous, Mr. Hogg was in the employ of Reynolds, Caruthers and myself, and proving an able assistant and expert hunter, he was employed by our successors, the “South Fork Ditch Company,” to supply them with game. During one of his hunting expeditions, Mr. Hogg discovered some sequoia on a branch of “Big Creek,” and relating his discoveries to Mr. Galen Clark, Mr. Mann and others, the exact locality was indicated, and became known. During the autumn of this year (1855), other trees were discovered by Mr. J. E. Clayton, while exploring and testing, by barometrical measurements, the practicability of bringing water from the branches of the San Joaquin to increase the supply from the South Fork of the Merced. Upon Mr. Clayton’s second visit, a few days later, I accompanied him, and was shown his discoveries.

About the first of June, 1856, Galen Clark and Milton Mann discovered what has now become famous as the “Mariposa Grove.” The next season Mr. Clark came upon two smaller groves of sequoia in the near vicinity of the big grove. Not long after, he discovered quite a large collection at the head of the Fresno. This grove was visited two days after its discovery by Lafayette A. Holmes, of the “Mariposa Gazette,” and Judge Fitzhugh, while hunting; and afterwards by Mr. Hutchings in 1859, accompanied by the discoverer, Mr. Clark.

The groves of big trees on the North and South Tule rivers, said to contain thousands, were discovered in 1867, by Mr. D’Henreuse, of the State Geological Survey. From the foregoing statement concerning the Sequoia, or Big Trees, and the well known fact of their easy propagation and distribution over the whole civilized world, it is no longer feared that the species is in any immediate danger of becoming extinct.

Upon the tributaries of the Kah-we-ah river, these trees are converted by the mills into lumber, which is sold about as cheap as pine. The lumber is much like the famous red-wood of California, and is equally durable, though perhaps not so easily worked. Although of the same genus as the red-wood, the species is distinct, the “Big Trees” being known as the Sequoia Gigantea, while the California red-wood is known as the Sequoia Sempervirens. This statement may seem unnecessary to the botanist, but the two species are so frequently confounded in respectable eastern periodicals, that the statement here is deemed proper. Besides this, absurd fears have been expressed by those uninformed of the facility with which these trees have been cultivated in Europe and in this country, that the species will soon become extinct.* [*Most of the Big Trees of Tulare County are within the new “Sequoia Park."] Professor Whitney says: “It is astonishing how little that is really reliable is to be found in all that has been published about big trees. No correct statement of their distribution or dimensions has appeared in print; and if their age has been correctly stated in one or two scientific journals, no such information ever finds its way into the popular descriptions of this tree, which are repeated over and over again in contributions to newspapers and in books of travel. * * * * * No other plant ever attracted so much attention or attained such a celebrity within so short a period. * * * * * Seed were first sent to Europe and to the Eastern States in 1853, and since that time immense numbers have found their way to market. They germinate readily, and it is probable that hundreds of thousands of the trees (millions it is said) are growing in different parts of the world from seed planted. They flourish with peculiar luxuriance in Great Britain, and grow with extraordinary rapidity. * * * * * The genus were named in honor of Sequoia or Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian of mixed blood, better known as George Guess, who is supposed to have been born about 1770, and who lived in Wills Valley, in the extreme northeastern part of Alabama, among the Cherokees. He became known to the world by his invention of an alphabet and written language for his tribe. * * * * *

The big tree is extremely limited in its range, even more so than its twin brother, the red-wood. The latter is strictly a coast-range or sea-board tree; the other, inland or exclusively limited to the Sierra. Both trees are also peculiarly Californian. A very few of the red-wood may be found just across the border in Oregon, but the big tree has never been found outside of California, and probably never will be.” In a note Prof. Whitney says:

“There are several fossil species of the genus sequoia.” Also, “that the Calavaras Grove contains, as will be seen in the table on page 125 (Whitney’s Yosemite Guide Book), four trees over 300 feet high, the highest one measured in the Mariposa Grove being 272 feet. The published statements of the heights of these trees are considerably exaggerated, as will be noticed, but our measurements can be relied on as being correct. The Keystone State has the honor of standing at the head, with 325 feet as its elevation, and this is the tallest tree yet measured on this continent, so far as our information goes.”

“When we observe how regularly and gradually the trees diminish in size from the highest down, it will be evident that the stories told of trees having once stood in this grove over 400 feet in height, are not entitled to credence. It is not at all likely that any one tree should have overtopped all the others by seventy-five feet or more. The same condition of general average elevation and absence of trees very much taller than any of the rest in the grove will be noticed among the trees on the Mariposa grant, where, however, there is no one as high as 300 feet.”

The average height of the Mariposa trees is less than that of the Calavaras Grove, while the circumference of the largest is greater. Prof. Whitney measured the annual growths of one of the largest of the Calavaras group that had been felled, which he made out to be only about 1,300 years old. The Professor says:

“The age of the big trees is not so great as that assigned by the highest authorities to some of the English yews. Neither is its height as great, by far, as that of an Australian species, the eucalyptus amygdalina, many of which have, on the authority of Dr. Müller, the eminent government botanist, been found to measure over 400 feet; one, indeed, reaches the enormous elevation of 480 feet, thus overtopping the tallest sequoia by 155 feet.

“There are also trees which exceed the big trees in diameter, as, for instance, the baobab (adansonia digitata), but this species is always comparatively low, not exceeding sixty or seventy feet in height, and much swollen at the base.”

Mr. Whitney concludes his chapter on the sequoia by saying:

“On the whole, it may be stated, that there is no known tree which approaches the sequoia in grandeur; thickness and height being both taken into consideration, unless it be

the eucalyptus. The largest Australian tree yet reported, is said to be eighty-one feet in circumference at four feet from the ground. This is nearly, but not quite, as large as some of the largest of the big trees of California.”

Prof. Whitney gives the measurement of the largest tree in the Mariposa Grove as ninety-three feet seven inches, at the ground, and sixty-four feet three inches at eleven feet above. This tree is known as the “Grizzly Giant;” its two diameters were, at the base, as near as could be measured, thirty and thirty-one feet. This tree has been very much injured by fire, no allowance for which was made. It is probable that could the tree—and others like it—have escaped the fires set by the Indians, to facilitate the gathering of their annual supplies and the pursuit of game, exact measurements would show a circumference of over 100 feet. But, even as large as it is, its size does not at once impress itself upon the understanding.

There are nine or ten separate groves of “Big Trees,” in California, and all lie upon the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada at an altitude of from five to seven thousand feet above the sea. Mr. A. B. Whitehall has given a very interesting account of these in the Chicago Tribune, from which I extract such portions as will best serve to interest my readers.

“The wood is soft, light, elastic, straight grained, and looks like cedar. The bark is deeply corrugated, longitudinally, and so spongy as to be used for pin cushious. The branches seldom appear below 100 feet from the ground, and shoot out in every direction from the trunk. The leaves are of two kinds—those of the younger trees and the lower branches of the larger set in pairs opposite each other on little stems, and those growing on branches which have flowered, triangular in shape, and lying close down to the stem. The cones are remarkable for their diminutive size, being not much larger than a hen’s egg, while the cones of much smaller conifers are larger than pine-apples. The seeds are short and thin as paper. * * * The magnificent proportions of the trees and the awful solitude of the forest gives an almost sublime grandeur to this part of the Sierra. The Tuolumne grove is situated almost due north of the Merced, and is on the Big Oak Flat trail to the Yosemite. There are about thirty trees in the group, and they are excellent representatives of the sequoia family. The Siamese Twins, growing from the same root and uniting a few feet above the base, are thirty-eight feet in diameter and 114 feet in circumference at the base. A unique piece of road making is here seen. In the construction of the highway for coaches and wagons to the Yosemite, the engineers suddenly found themselves face to face with one of these monster trees, and not choosing to build around it, they cut through it, thus forming a tunnel, the like of which can only be found in the Mariposa grove. The diameter of the tree being over thirty feet, there remained an abundance of material on each side of the cut to retain the tree in a standing position, and the hole ten feet high and twelve feet wide is sufficiently large to allow the passage of any coach or team.”

“In the South Park and Calaveras groves there are some remarkable trees. One tree in the South Park grove will hold forty persons in the hollow of its trunk; another has sheltered sixteen horses. The four highest trees in the Calaveras grove, are the Keystone State, 325 feet high, Gen. Jackson, 319 feet, Mother of the Forest, 315 feet, and the Daniel Webster of 307 feet high. The Husband and Wife are a pair of trees gracefully leaning against each other, 250 feet high, and each sixty feet in circumference. The Hermit is a solitary specimen of great proportions; the Old Maid, a disconsolate looking spinster, fifty-nine

feet around, and the Old Bachelor, a rough, unkempt old fellow nearly 300 feet in height. The Father of the Forest is prostrate, hollow, limbless and without bark; yet across the roots the distance is twenty-eight feet. * * Into the tree a tourist can ride ninety feet on horseback. One of the largest trees of the Calaveras grove was bored down with pump augurs, and the stump smoothed off and converted into a floor of a dancing hall. Thirty-two persons, or four quadrille sets, have ample room to dance at one time, and yet leave room for musicians and spectators.”

I can give my readers no better idea of the solemn immensity of the trees, than by again quoting Mr. Whitehall. He says in conclusion: “Although it was then June, yet the eternal snows of the mountains were everywhere around us, and, as the huge banks and drifts stretched away off in the distance, the melting power of heat and the elements was on every side defied. Not a weed or blade of grass relieved the monotony of the view; not the chirping of an insect or the twittering of a bird was heard. The solemn stillness of the night added a weird grandeur to the scene. Now and then a breath of wind stirred the topmost branches of the pines and cedars, and as they swayed to and fro in the air the music was like that of Ossian, ‘pleasant but mournful to the soul.’ There were sequoias on every side almost twice as high as the falls of Niagara; there were pines rivaling the dome of the capitol at Washington in grandeur; there were cedars to whose tops the monument of Bunker Hill would not have reached. There were trees which were in the full vigor of manhood before America itself was discovered; there were others which were yet old before Charlemagne was born; there were others still growing when the Savior himself was on the earth. There were trees which had witnessed the winds and storms of twenty centuries; there were others which would endure long after countless generations of the future would be numbered with the past. There were trees crooked and short and massive; there were others straight and tall and slender. There were pines whose limbs were as evenly proportioned as those of the Apollo Belvedere; there were cedars whose beauty was not surpassed in their counterparts in Lebanon; there were firs whose graceful foliage was like the fabled locks of the gods of ancient story. It was a picture in nature which captivated the sense at once by its grandeur and extent; and, as we drove back to Clark’s through six miles of this forest luxuriance, with the darkness falling about us like a black curtain from the heavens, and the mighty cañons of the Sierra sinking away from our pathway like the openings to another world, then it was not power, but majesty, not beauty but sublimity, not the natural but the supernatural, which seemed above us and before us.”

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