Big Trees of California or Sequoia Gigantea

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

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.[20] 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 L. 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

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.[21] 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

“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 cushions. 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.”

[Illustration: THE TUNNELLED TREE.]

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
canyons 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.”

Records of the number of visitors to the Yosemite down to and inclusive
of 1875, show that in 1852 Rose and Shurban were murdered by the
savages, while their companion, Tudor, though wounded, escaped. The
next year, 1853, eight men from the North Fork of the Merced, visited
the valley, returning unharmed. Owing to murders of Starkey, Sevil and
Smith, in the winter of 1853-’4, as it was believed, by the Yosemites,
no visitors entered the valley during the summer of 1854. In 1855
Messrs. Hutchings, Ayers, Stair and Milliard, visited it without being
disturbed by the sight of any of the original proprietors, either
Indians or grizzlies. Mr. Hutchings, on his return to San Francisco,
began to draw the attention of the public to the Yosemite, through his
magazine and otherwise. Notwithstanding the ample means afforded by
his magazine, and his facilities as a writer, Mr. Hutchings found it
difficult to bring the valley into prominent and profitable notice, and
few Californians could be induced to make it a visit. A peculiarity of
those days was a doubt of the marvelous, and a fear of being “_sold_.”
Any statements of travelers or of the press, that appeared exaggerated,
were received by the public with extreme caution. Not more than
twenty-five or thirty entered during that year, though Mr. Hutchings’
efforts were seconded by reports of other visitors.

The following season, 1856, it was visited by ladies from Mariposa and
San Francisco, who safely enjoyed the pleasures and _inconveniences_
of the trip; aroused and excited to the venture, no doubt, by their
traditional curiosity. The fact being published that ladies could
safely enter the valley, lessened the dread of Indians and grizzlies,
and after a few _brave reports_ had been published, this fear seemed to
die away completely.

From this time on to 1864, a few entered every season; but during
these times California had a _wonder_ and interest in its population
and their enterprises, greater than in any of its remarkable scenery.
Everything was at high pressure, and the affairs of business and the
war for the Union were all that could excite the common interest. In
1864, there were only 147 visitors, including men, women and children.
The action of Congress this year, in setting the Yosemite and big trees
apart from the public domain as national parks, attracted attention to
them. The publicity given to the valley by this act, was world-wide,
and since 1864 the number visiting it has steadily increased.

According to the _Mariposa Gazette_, an authentic record shows that in
the season of 1865 the number was 276, in 1866, 382, in 1867, 435, in
1868, 627, and increasing rapidly; in 1875 the number for that year
had reached about 3,000. The figures are deemed reliable, as they were
obtained from the records of toll-roads and hotels. They are believed
to be very nearly correct.

The _Gazette_ “estimates the proportion of eastern and European in
the total number to be at least nine-tenths,” and says: “It is safe
to place the Atlantic and European visitors for the next ten years at
2,000 per annum.”

I have no doubt the number has been greater even than was estimated,
for improved facilities for entering the valley have since been
established. Seven principal _routes_ have been opened, and a post
office, telegraph and express offices located. A large hotel has been
built by the State, the trails have been purchased and made free, and
the management is now said by travelers to be quite good. There is no
reason why still further improvements should not be made. A branch
railroad from the San Joaquin Valley could enter the Yosemite by way of
the South Fork, or by the Valley of the Merced river. Mineral ores and
valuable lumber outside and below the valley and grant, would pay the
cost of construction, and no defacement of the grand old park or its
additions would be required, nor should be allowed.

With cars entering the valley, thousands of tourists of moderate wealth
would visit it; and then on foot, from the hotels, be able to see most
of the sublime scenery of the mountains.

If horses or carriages should be desired, for the more distant points
of interest, they may readily be obtained in the valley at reasonable
rates. At present, the expense of travel by stage, carriage and
horseback, is considerable, and many visiting California, do not feel
able to incur the extra expense of a visit to the Yosemite.

Visitors intending to see both the big trees and the Yosemite Valley,
should visit the trees first, as otherwise the forest monarchs will
have lost a large share of their interest and novelty.

The hotel charges are not much higher than elsewhere in the State, and
the fare is as good as the average in cities. If extras are required,
payment will be expected as in all localities. There is more water
falling in the spring months, but the water-falls are but fractions of
the interest that attaches to the region. Yosemite is always grandly
beautiful; even in winter it has attractions for the robust, but
invalids had better visit it only after the snow has disappeared from
the lower levels, generally, from about the first of May to the middle
of June.

From that date on to about the first of November, the valley will
be found a most delightful summer resort, with abundant fruits and
vegetables of perfect growth and richest flavor.

All modern conveniences and many luxuries of enlightened people are now
to be found, gathered in full view of the great fall and its supporting
scenery. The hotels, telegraph, express and post offices are there, and
a Union Chapel dedicated at a grand gathering of the National Sunday
School Union, held during the summer of 1879, is regularly used for
religious services. Those who may wish to commune with Nature’s God
alone while in the Yosemite, will be in the very innermost sanctuary
of all that is Divine in material creation for the valley is a holy
Temple, and if their hearts are attuned to the harmony surrounding
them, “the testimony of the Rocks” will bring conviction to their souls.

The unique character of Mirror Lake will leave its indelible
impressions upon the tourist’s mind, and residents of the Yosemite
will gladly inform him of the varying proper time in the morning when
its calm stillness will enable one to witness its greatest charm, the
“_Double Sunrise_.” That phenomena may be ascribed to the lake’s
sheltered closeness to the perpendicular wall of the Half Dome (nearly
5,000 feet high), and the window-like spaces between the peaks East and
South, looked through by the sun in his upward, westward flight.

As a matter of fact, differing according to the seasons of the year,
“sunrise on the lake” may be seen in its reflections two or more times
in the same morning, and, if the visitor be at the lake when the breeze
first comes up on its daily appearance from the plains, shattering the
lake mirror into fragments, innumerable suns will appear to dazzle and
bewilder the beholder.

The wonderful scenery and resources of California are becoming known
and appreciated. A large addition has been made to, and surrounding
the Yosemite and Big Tree Parks, which in time may become one (see
map); and another very large National Park has been established in
Tulare County, to be known as the _Sequoia_ Park, which includes most
of the Big Trees of that entire region; but it is not so generally
known in the Eastern States that there are such vast landed estates,
such princely realms of unbroken virgin soil awaiting the developments
of industry. Official reports of the California State Board of
Equalization show that there are 122 farms of 20,000 acres each and
over. Of these there are 67 averaging 70,000 acres each, and several
exceed 100,000 acres.

These figures are published as official, and were well calculated to
make the small farmers of the east open their eyes; they will yet open
the eyes of the land owners themselves to the importance of bringing
their estates under successful and remunerative cultivation. This
will have to be done in order that these acres may be made to pay
a just taxation. Thousands of acres that are of little use to the
owners or the public–of no value to the state–can, by the judicious
introduction of water, be made to pay well for the investment.
Irrigating ditches or canals from the Merced, one on the north side
and the other on the south, a short distance above Snelling, in Merced
county, were located by the writer, and soon after completion, the
arid and dusty land was transformed into blooming gardens and fertile
vineyards. These were the first irrigating ditches of any considerable
magnitude, constructed in Mariposa or Merced counties, though
irrigation was common enough in other parts of the state. The advance
that has since been made in California agriculture is wonderful. New
methods adapted to the peculiarities of soil and climate have been
introduced, and new machinery invented and applied that cheapen the
cost of production and lessen manual labor to a surprising degree: for
instance, machinery that threshes and cleans ready for the market, over
5,000 bushels of wheat to the machine per day. Capital is still being
largely invested in railroads, and in reclaiming the Tule (Bull Rush)

These lands are among the richest in the world. They grow cotton,
tobacco, rice and other southern staples, equal to the best of the
Southern States, with much less danger from malaria. The valleys of
the San Joaquin and Sacramento, which are simply _local_ divisions
of the same great valley, produce according to altitude, moisture
and location, all the cereals, fruits and vegetables of a temperate
clime, as well as those of semi-tropical character; even the poorest
hill-side lands grow the richest wine and raisin grapes. The yield is
so astonishing, as to appear incredible.

The raisins grown and cured in California are said to be equal to the
best Malaga; while the oranges, lemons, olives, figs, almonds, filberts
and English walnuts, command the highest prices in the market. Peaches,
pears, grapes and honey, are already large items in her trade; and her
wheat crops now reach a bulk that is simply enormous.

The grade of horses, cattle, swine, sheep and wool, are being brought
to a high degree of perfection; for the climate is most salubrious and
invigorating. Her gifts of nature are most bountiful and perfect. No
wonder, then, that the Californian is enthusiastic when speaking of his
sublime scenery, salubrious climate and surprising products.

But I must no longer dwell upon my theme, nor tell of the fruitful
Fresno lands, redeemed from savage barbarity. Those scenes of beauteous
enchantment I leave to those who may remain to enjoy them. And yet–

El Capitan, I turn to gaze upon thy lofty brow,
With reverent yearnings to thy Maker bow.
But now farewell, Yosemite;
If thou appears not again in sight,
Thou’lt come, I know, in life’s extremity
While passing into realms of light.