Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Three:
Exploration and Exploitation


Caucasian Settlers Come to the Southern Sierra

At the end of the Mexican War, all of California officially became a part of the United States. Almost simultaneously, the discovery of gold in the central Sierra foothills east of Sutter's Fort began a new chapter in the history of California. During 1849 and 1850 several hundred thousand argonauts descended upon California from all over the world. Initially, the gold seekers focused upon the areas where gold had initially been discovered, well to the north of the future area of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. But the arrival of so large a group inevitably came to affect the remainder of the California landscape.

On the scene in the Tulare Lake basin at the moment of transition was Lieutenant George H. Derby, another representative of the U. S. Army's Topographical Engineers. During 1850 Derby, assigned to search for the best location for a military post to control the Indians of the basin, visited not only Tulare Lake but also the lowland deltas of the Kings and Kaweah rivers. He noted the now well-known topography of the valley region as well as the great changes ongoing in the Indian world. [6] Even as Lieutenant Derby made his reconnaissance of the Tulare Basin, Caucasian settlement was beginning in the oak forests of the nearby Kaweah River delta. The Indians, long embittered by their experiences with Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans alike, killed those first settlers, but a few months later another settlement, called Visalia, popped up nearby. Within two years Visalia was a county seat, and with emigrants spilling out of the northern gold country looking for settlement and business opportunities, life would never be the same again for the Native Americans of the Tulare Lake basin and its tributary mountain rivers. From Visalia, the first permanent European settlement in the San Joaquin Valley, settlers began to disperse in search of the best land opportunities. Before the decade ended, they had invaded the mountain canyons to the east.

The story of Hale Tharp, the first Caucasian to settle in the Kaweah River canyons, reflects a typical experience of those who came to California in the early 1850s in search of fortune. Born in Michigan, Tharp was twenty-three in 1851 when he was hired by an Illinois widow with four young sons to take her family to California. Driving a prairie schooner with two teams of oxen, Tharp succeeded in delivering the Swanson family to Placerville. There, having noted that good women were in short supply, he made Mrs. Swanson henceforth Mrs. Tharp. He worked in the mines for several years, with fair success, but the work did not agree with him. Thus, like many another disenchanted miner, Tharp sought another way to make a living.

The rapid growth of the mining and trading cities of the gold region had created a substantial demand for foodstuffs, and good opportunities existed for an ambitious young man. Tharp settled upon cattle raising as a likely prospect. He wandered south, away from the heavily populated region, in search of open land that would support cattle. Sometime during 1856, Tharp followed the Kaweah River into the foothills east of Visalia. In the broad, open canyon where the Kaweah leaves the Sierra, Tharp found what he was seeking. Open grassland covered the hills and surrounding highlands while the Kaweah River provided a reliable and ample water supply. Years later, Tharp recounted his positive impressions of the new land:

There was abundance of game and other animals in this country when I first came here. Deer were practically everywhere, with lots of bear along the rivers; occasionally a grizzly bear, too. Lions, wolves and foxes were very plentiful. There were a great many ground squirrels, cottontail and jackrabbits; quail were seen in coveys of thousands. I never saw elk or antelope in the Three Rivers country. There were plenty of fish in the rivers below the rapids, lake trout and suckers; once in a while a speckled trout could be caught. [7]

Tharp also noted the substantial Native American population, which to its later dismay, welcomed him graciously:

I first located my ranch where I now live in the summer of 1856. There were about 2,000 Indians then living along the Kaweah Rivers above where Lemon Cove now stands. Their camps extended up along the rivers on the South Fork to the Cahoon Ranch, the North Fork to Kaweah, the East Fork to Kane's Flat, and the Middle Fork to Hospital Rock in Sequoia National Park. The Indian chief was named "Chappo" and he was a fine man. The Indians told me that I was the first white man that had ever come to their country. But few of them had ever seen a white man prior to my arrival. The Indians all liked me because I was good to them. I shot many deer for them to eat as they had no firearms and knew nothing about firearms. I liked the Indians, too, for they were honest and kind to each other. I never knew of a theft or murder amongst them. [8]

It is possible that Tharp was not actually the first Caucasian to enter the Kaweah Canyons. Nearly thirty years had passed since fur trappers first entered the region, and the lower canyons of the Kaweah must have been penetrated by someone during those curious times. However, no recorded attempt had been made to penetrate the higher mountains. Because there were no beaver above the low foothills, all the early entries into the high country were attempts to cross the Sierra, and nowhere else in the southern Sierra did the mountains appear more formidable than at the head-waters of the Kaweah drainage. From clearings in the oak forest of the Kaweah delta, peaks as high as 13,000 feet were clearly visible. In comparison, from the floor of the San Joaquin, even the Kings River country, which concealed one of the deepest canyons on the continent, looked more feasible as a possible trans-Sierra route.

Two years later in 1858, with his brother-in-law, John Swanson, Tharp returned to the Kaweah and began actual development of his ranch. That first year he built a log cabin and a barn. He also explored the mountain country to the east:

I made my first trip to the Hospital Rock camp during the summer of 1858. Chief Chappo and I had become the very best of friends and he asked me to come up and stay with him overnight. He sent down two young Indian men to pilot me in, as there were no trails in the country, just Indian footpaths. I went on horseback and it took me about 8 hours to work my way in, the distance being about 18 miles from my Three Rivers ranch. When I arrived at the Camp, Chappo and his men extended me a cordial welcome and gave me the best his camp afforded. He called out every individual in the camp and with much dignity and long ceremony introduced me to all. There were over 600 Indians then living at the camp. My arrival excited the curiosity of most of the Indians, as I was the first white person that had ever visited their camp, and only a few of their leaders had ever seen a white person before. As for myself, I did not attract half so much attention as did my horse and saddle, my weapons, and the clothing that I wore. These were all new to most of the Indians.... [9]

Having caught a glimpse of the high country, Tharp's curiosity increased, and he made arrangements to explore further to the east:

Accompanied by two Indians, I made my first trip into the Giant Forest during the summer of 1858. We went in by the way of the Middle Fork and Moro Rock and camped for a few days at Log Meadow, after which we came out by the same route that we went in. 1 do not remember the dates that we were there, but I carved with my knife on the big hollow redwood log my name and the date on the same day that we got there. [10]

Tharp was now convinced that the Kaweah country offered what he was seeking, and he moved quickly to strengthen his situation. He moved his wife and children from Placerville to Farmersville, near Visalia, explored the mountains as far north as Kings Canyon and as far south as Mineral King, and in 1861 began grazing his horses at Log Meadow during the summer months. [11] All this was necessary because, increasingly, Tharp had company. In 1859 Hopkins and Martha Work became Tharp's first white neighbors, and during the next few years William Swanson, Joseph Palmer, and Alfred Everton began a parade of settlers that in some ways has yet to end. And the Kaweah region was not unique in the attention it was receiving. As early as 1858, a party led by J. H. Johnson of Tulare County succeeded in crossing the Sierra via what is now known as Kearsarge Pass, a route that must have taken them through Kings Canyon. [12] Thus Caucasian settlement in the Kings River foothills began as early as that along the lower Kaweah.

The immediate human losers in this influx of white men were the Native Americans. Nearly half a century later, Tharp recalled their fate:

By the spring of 1862 quite a number of whites had settled in the Three Rivers section, and the Indians were gradually forced out. Then, too, the Indians had contracted contagious diseases from the whites, such as measles, scarlet fever and smallpox and they died off by the hundreds. I helped to bury 27 in one day up on the Sam Kelly place. About this time Chief Chappo and some of his men came to see me, and asked me to try and stop the whites from coming into their country. When I said that was impossible, they all sat down and cried. They told me that their people loved this country, did not want to leave it, and knew not where to go. A few days later Chappo came to me with tears in his eyes he'd told me that they had decided not to fight the whites, but would leave the country. From that time on, they moved out little by little and from time to time until all were gone. I think by the summer of 1865 the Indians had left the district. Their Hospital Rock camp was the last vacated.... [13]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap3b.htm — 12-Jul-2004