Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Three:
Exploration and Exploitation

IN THE MIDDLE DECADES of the nineteenth century, the Native Americans who had lived relatively undisturbed in the southern Sierra for countless generations found themselves suddenly and permanently displaced as the dominant mountain culture. The agents of change, of course, were people and cultures of European descent. California is a long way from Europe, yet within fifty years of the first voyage of Columbus across the Atlantic, Portuguese sailor Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made crude maps of the cold, foggy coast of Alta (Upper) California. Cabrillo found little to excite the Spanish colonial mentality, and over two centuries passed before Spain finally thought Upper California worthy of organized exploration and settlement. In 1769, responding to perceived international threats in the North Pacific from Russia and England, the staid, already centuries-old Spanish colonial administration of the Americas began to establish a tenuous string of European outpost villages along the Alta California coast.

Anchored by the small military posts, or "presidios," at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, the chain of Spanish settlements was secured by Christian missionary settlements sponsored by the colonial government, operated by the Franciscan Order, and populated largely by unenthusiastic Native Americans from the coastal tribes. None of the twenty-one missions the Spaniards ultimately established was more than a few dozen miles from the coast, yet the impacts of these settlements on California and its residents were widespread and significant. Even the southern Sierra was not immune.

In a way it is deceptive to call these Spanish settlements "European," for the number of pure-blooded Europeans in Spanish California was never very large. Most of the mission residents were California Indians, and most of the "Spanish" immigrants were actually of the ancestry the Spaniards called "mestizo," or mixed Indian-European blood. Only a tiny handful of civil and ecclesiastical colonial appointees were truly European, born on the eastern shores of the Atlantic. But if the new people who came to Alta California were more truly "American" than European, the material culture they brought was not only European, but specifically Mediterranean. The connection was highly fortuitous, for many of the plants and animals the Spaniards brought to California, with its coastal Mediterranean climate, were actually better suited to life in the new California settlements than they had been to Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. The Spaniards brought to their settlements many crops that are still California staples, including oranges, olives, peaches, corn, and wheat. They also brought with them from Mexico European grazing animals including cattle, sheep, goats, burros, and horses. The crop plants the Spaniards brought to California were limited by water and climate largely to the places they were put, but the grazing animals the Spaniards imported, and the plants that inadvertently came with them, would, within a century, permanently change the face of much of California, including the southern Sierra.

Initially, the Spaniards were content to explore the terrain near the coast, but within a few years they had begun to define the shape and texture of inland California. During the 1770s several expeditions sought some understanding of the lands to the east. It soon became apparent that beyond the coastal mountains was a large, often swampy inland plain, and that east of that was a much higher, rugged mountain range, or "Sierra" as the Spaniards called serrated ridges. In 1776, Franciscan missionaries Francisco Garces and Pedro Font, both members of the first overland colonizing party to come to California from the south, explored the northern and southern extremities of the San Joaquin Valley. To Font fell the accidental honor of naming the high eastern mountains. In his journal he described, as he looked eastward across the marshlands near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, "a great snow-covered range [una gran sierra nevada] which seemed to run from south-southeast to north-northwest." Font's intentions were merely descriptive, but the mountains east of the San Joaquin have henceforth been known as the Sierra Nevada, the "snowy mountains."

plateau of Giant Forest
The forested mountain-top plateau of Giant Forest, with its thousands of giant sequoias, has always been the heart of Sequoia National Park. (National Park Service photo)

Time passed slowly in Spanish California, and a new century began before much more was officially known about the eastern mountains. During two expeditions in 1806, Ensign Gabriel Moraga mapped and named a number of features along the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, including the San Joaquin, Merced, and Kings rivers. In the Spanish fashion each feature received an ecclesiastical name appropriate for the day of discovery. Because Moraga camped on the banks of the Kings River on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, he named the stream "the river of the holy kings" [el rio de los santos reyes] after the three magi of the Christmas story. [1]

Moraga was not the only Spanish Californian to enter the interior during the early years of the nineteenth century. Increasingly, Spanish activity along the coast affected inland areas. The coastal missions had led to a severe and spreading disruption of California Indian life. Refugees from the coastal tribes often sought escape among the tribes of the interior plains, and they brought with them both a hatred for the Spaniards and an appreciation for the tastiness of their grazing animals. Eventually horse and cattle theft became a way of life for many interior Indians, a development that required a Spanish response. As the early decades of the nineteenth century passed, this situation worsened, with the ultimate victims being the valley Indians themselves. Their cultures diluted by refugees from other tribes, their security reduced by raiding parties of soldiers and mission Indians from the settlements, and their numbers threatened by the introduction of European diseases, the Native Americans found their world crumbling. Least affected by all this were the Indians of the Sierra, but as their valley neighbors suffered, so was their protecting buffer zone slowly eroded.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap3.htm — 12-Jul-2004