Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Three:
Exploration and Exploitation


Exploitation Begins

The effective replacement of the Native American population of the southern Sierra with a population of Caucasian settlers had a profound effect upon the land. Both cultures looked to the land for sustenance, but in very different ways. Through many centuries the Indians, with their hunting and gathering economy and their use of fire, had established a relatively stable relationship between man and the ecosystems of the Sierra. Human impacts on the natural systems were real and significant, but an approximate equilibrium had been established that later residents of the region misperceived as purely natural. All this disappeared in a decade, however, with the arrival of a new culture and a new way of life.

The new culture that washed over the Sierran landscape in the twenty years following Tharp's arrival held values far removed from those of the Native Americans. These new people valued not nuts, berries, and game, but pasturelands, timber, and minerals. The new people saw nature not as a part of the same psychological world as that of humanity, but instead as something provided for their consumption and use. The new people sought not stability and equilibrium, but instead had a strong predisposition towards change, even if it involved total consumption of the places and resources at their disposal. Not surprisingly, therefore, the change in cultures that took place in the southern Sierra in the second half of the nineteenth century changed the Sierra much more than had the previous several centuries of Native American habitation.

During the 1860s and 1870s the southern Sierra was closely searched for resources of value. First came the cattle and sheep men. The 1850s, with the rapid growth of the mining industry and the development of California's first real cities, had seen the expansion of grazing activity into the interior valleys of the new state. Tharp's arrival in the Kaweah canyons was a part of this process. In those early days, when transportation was still very primitive, the highest value for many remote areas was to use the lands for grazing. Once the grass had been consumed, the animals could walk to market, however far that might be. In the early 1860s, after a rapid buildup of interior grazing activity, two successive events, the great Central Valley flood of 1862, and the severe drought of 1863-64, shook the grazing industry to its foundations. The drought especially, with its near total failure of winter pasture grasses, sent stockmen desperately searching for previously unused range lands. What resulted was the first major utilization of the Sierra for large-scale livestock feeding. During the drought years hungry cattle from the lowlands swarmed over the Sierra foothills and forests while the high country suddenly found itself assaulted by huge herds of domestic sheep. Tharp and his Three Rivers neighbors had claimed their mountain ranges none too soon. In 1864 as many as 4,000 cattle were in the Giant Forest area. [14]

Within a few years much of the herbaceous vegetation of the Sierra had been either destroyed or replaced. In the foothill grasslands, annual Eurasian grasses replaced the grazing-sensitive native perennial species. In the high country, entire basins were so thoroughly denuded that parties traveling on horseback lamented the almost total lack of feed for their animals. Particularly hard hit was the alpine, northern portion of the Kern River watershed. The change was apparent to all who knew the country. Geologist Clarence King, who had first visited the "green and lovely" Kern Plateau in 1864, reported in 1873 that the same country had become "a gray sea of rolling granite ridges no longer velveted with meadows and upland grasses." [15]

The search for resources was not limited to grass, however, for timber and mineral deposits could also have value if they were either particularly rich or accessible. Accessibility was the key to much of this resource prospecting activity, and accessibility was exactly what the southern Sierra did not naturally offer. The logical result was the beginning of an improved trail system. The initial trail-building impetus in the southern Sierra was not so much to get into the mountains as to get across them. The Native Americans had regularly crossed the mountains on trading and even social journeys, and they had worked out the best routes long before the arrival of the Europeans. Indian paths were of limited use to the new wave of mountain travelers, however, because the Native Americans had not used beasts of burden. Since they traveled only on foot, and seldom with heavy loads, their trails were usually little more than general routes. White men, however, wanted to travel on horseback with freight loaded on mules, a practice which required better prepared trails.

As noted, trans-Sierra travel began as early as the late 1850s, but only with terrible hardship. Soon, however, the development of mining communities in the Owens Valley and Coso Mountains areas immediately east of the southern Sierra led to attempts to improve transportation across the mountains. Anyone looking at the western side of the Sierra from the San Joaquin Valley could tell that the high peaks of the Sierra, which stretched north almost indefinitely, ended immediately south of the Kaweah watershed. It was for this natural target that the early trails headed. The first route, used by the summer of 1860, was known as the Dennison Trail, The Dennison ascended the west slope of the Sierra along the Tule River, south of the Kaweah country, crossed into the Little Kern drainage, and eventually came out on the east at Olancha. Little is known about the Dennison because it was soon supplanted by the better-known Jordan and Hockett trails. [16]

map of pioneer trails
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

John Jordan petitioned the county of Tulare for permission to build a toll trail across the mountains in November 1861. He was at work on his trail when he drowned attempting to cross the Kern River in June 1862. Other pioneers completed his trail, which was largely an improvement of the Dennison route, and used it for many years. That December, Tulare County chartered yet another trail across the mountains, this time in response to a petition from John B. Hockett. Hockett's trail ran farther north than either the Dennison or Jordan routes, and passed through portions of what later became Sequoia National Park. The Hockett Trail began near Tharp's Ranch on the Kaweah River, ascended the South Fork of the Kaweah to the subalpine plateau now known as Hockett Meadow, then crossed into the Little Kern; it briefly combined with the Jordan Trail only to diverge to the north again and cross the main Kern in the vicinity of Kern Lake. East of the Kern the route climbed Golden Trout Creek (then Whitney Creek) to Big Whitney Meadows, crossed the Sierra at Cottonwood Pass, just south of the southernmost major peaks, and then descended steeply to Owens Lake and the desert. [17]

By 1865, traders pushed a wagon road over Walker Pass in the southern Kern country, providing business headed from Visalia to the Inyo mines a longer, but much easier route. The trails remained however, and they opened up the southern flank of the high Sierra to sheepmen, hunters, mineral prospectors, and anyone else interested in looking at the country.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap3c.htm — 12-Jul-2004