The Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada
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Our hope is to present the story of the giant sequoia and the ecological interrelationships with its associated biota, including man, and with its inseparable abiotic environment. The story which follows may, at times, prove provocative and disturbing, but hopefully challenging to the imagination. The ecological concepts discussed are basic and not peculiar to the giant sequoia communities.

The presence of Western man, however, created problems among the sequoias not anticipated in the earlier years, namely, that of the impact of visitors upon the once pristine sequoian forests. Investigations designed to determine the extent of the impact brought to light many aspects of the sequoia story that were not previously known or but poorly understood.

Because of its rather singular attributes of enormous size and longevity, its majesty, and its rugged mountain setting, the giant sequoia has, from the time of its discovery, drawn people into its native Sierra Nevada in ever-increasing numbers. Man has seemed compulsively inclined to visit the largest specimen, the oldest specimen, to drive through the tree with the tunnel in its trunk, or to see still other specimens with novel attributes—novelty itself being an attraction. As men came in unplanned-for numbers, mostly in the three summer months, they placed a great strain upon certain groves or on limited areas within groves, causing degradation of both the living communities and their physical environments. The more heavily visited specimens were literally in danger of being "loved to death" by the admiring public. Growing concern over the integrity of this national treasure moved us to write this book.

As studies of the human impact progressed, shedding considerable light on its various aspects, corrective measures were conceived and implemented. A most valuable by-product of these studies was the determination of many gaps in the written life history of the species, especially in its ecological relation to other plants and animals. To better insure programs of protective management, specific studies were directed at these gaps, and gradually, as in a puzzle of many parts, the picture took on form and clarity. The giant sequoia's life story now holds even greater potential interest for scientist and layman alike. The resulting appreciation is often reflected in the respect and careful protection given these trees by visitors to the sequoia groves. We hope our interpretation of the sequoia story will further that end.

A major goal of ours is to maintain the highest level of scientific integrity without sacrificing readability. While we intend this presentation to be more factual than impressionistic, it may be somewhat difficult at times, and perhaps undesirable, to eliminate completely the latter aspect.

Scientific words and concepts must be employed to convey the story in its fullest meaning. There is no pretext for avoiding such terminology when concepts must be expressed exactly. We believe most of these terms, where their meaning is not implicit, are adequately explained in the text where first used. The appendixes list the scientific names of plants and animals found as associates in the sequoian communities but not importantly connected with the sequoia story. For the reader who wishes to enrich his experience and knowledge, the appendixes also contain additional material too detailed for inclusion within the text.


It is intriguing to wonder what thoughts may have run through the minds of those who first saw these colossal trees, so greatly exceeding in size any tree previously recorded. One may think of their reacting with a flurry of adjectives and grandiloquent phrases expressing awe and wonderment. But such was not the case. For the people moving westward in the early and mid-19th Century, a first-priority consideration was that of just remaining alive. Then, too, discoveries were rather commonplace during that period of America's history, so that immediate responses may have been somewhat subdued, or perhaps the uncommon was expected.

The news of the tree's discovery, announced in 1852, seems to have captured the attention of the civilized world. Any lack of grandiloquence on the pioneers part has since been rectified many times over by people with far more leisure, and the flow of impressionistic rhetoric has not yet ceased.

The first authentic record of the giant sequoia was published at Clearfield, Pa., by Leonard (1839). Leonard was chronicler for the Joseph Reddeford Walker party, which crossed the Sierra Nevada in the autumn of 1833. In almost stoic tones, he relates that they ". . . found some trees of the redwood species, incredibly large—some of which would measure from 16 to 18 fathoms around the trunk at the height of a large man's head from the ground." We must remember that the time was late autumn, the weather was growing colder, and their shoes were badly worn. Undoubtedly, the pioneers feared being trapped in the winter snows of the Sierra and were bent on reaching the more amiable climate of the San Joaquin Valley. There was no mention of their having collected either foliage or cones. Their reference to "redwood species" indicates at least a familiarity with the coast redwood, discovered 64 years earlier, in 1769; but possibly this reference to redwoods was interjected as an afterthought while the journal was being prepared for publication.

The route the Walker party followed across the Sierra is not clearly documented. Leonard did, however, refer to a very deep valley to the south of their route which could have been Yosemite. If so, then the sequoia trees he described must have belonged to either the Tuolumne or the Merced grove, both of which are now included in the western portion of Yosemite National Park. None of the other northern groves of sequoias fits the relationship of a deep valley to the south quite so well as these groves do.

Despite the Walker party discovery in 1833, the world was not to learn of the sequoias' existence for another 19 years. It seems that the printing shop in Clearfield burned to the ground and that only two copies of Leonard's narrative were rescued. The disposition of these copies following the fire appears undocumented at this time, but clearly the contents were either not made known to the world or simply not accepted by the public at large. At least one copy turned up some 65 years later, when the Burrows Brothers Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, reprinted its contents in 1904 and again in 1908. By that time, however, the tree's existence was hardly news, although Leonard's version of the discovery did increase the confusion as to who really had seen it first. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the Walker party's discovery is that there is still no record of its members ever having mentioned the big trees to anyone else. Possibly their stories were laughed off as the preposterous exaggerations with which mountain folk of the early West were often credited.

The loss of the Leonard narrative insured the prevalence of another tale of discovery in the literature. A. T. Dowd, an employee of the Union Water Co. at the town of Murphy's in the Mother Lode Country, apparently discovered one of the two Calaveras Groves while tracking a grizzly bear he had wounded. His report of the unusually large trees he had stumbled upon was regarded as an unfounded extension of the truth by the men in the camp and not one of them would consent to make the hike to see for himself. Rather than defending his story of the trees, therefore, Dowd resorted to a trumped-up story about a huge grizzly bear he had shot, and thus lured several others into accompanying him to the grove, where his earlier claim was, of course, quickly verified.

An article in the Sonora Herald, in June 1852, reported Dowd's discovery of the Calaveras Grove. Other than the Leonard narrative, this is the first printed record of the giant sequoia to appear in the public press, and its publication remains the sole reason for using the term "effective discovery date" for the species. Shortly thereafter, the article was carried in San Francisco's Echo du Pacific, and within a year London's Athenaeum and the Gardener's chronicle had announced the giant sequoia to Europe.

With the news out, others began to claim discovery of the tree—at earlier dates than Dowd's, of course. The Walker party's failure to speak up on behalf of its valid claim is again perplexing. Shinn (1889) and others record the story of John Bidwell, who claims that in 1841 as a boy, he passed through a grove of exceptionally large trees while on a hunting trip. Why he also kept this tempting secret is puzzling indeed, and it was only after Dowd's discovery that he volunteered the comment, "Those are my trees; I'm glad they have been found." Bidwell, who later ran for President of the United States, reportedly conveyed this information to Col. John C. Fremont, although no written record apparently exists. This, and his failure to speak up on his own behalf until after the Dowd discovery, renders his story suspect.

Other contenders for the honor of discovery—J. Marshall Wooster, William Quirk, and a Mr. Sanborn—were collectively given credit for discovering the Calaveras Grove in May 1850 (Todd 1870). In a letter to the editor of the San Andreas Independent, dated 26 September 1857, Wooster relates carving their initials in the burnt part of one of the trees. He also claims, however, that a Mr. Whitehead, a prospector, had visited the same grove in April of that year. The carved initials of Wooster, Quirk, and Sanborn were verbally verified by "some one" at a later date.

Joly (1883) reported discovery of the sequoia in 1850 by a Capt. Boling; Krussman (1966) credits the Prince of Wied (Germany) with the honor between 1832 and 1834; John Barrington, in a personal communication, mentions the sending of a packet of seed to his father in Ireland in 1844; and Prince (1854) claims that he and 12 others were in the Calaveras Grove in 1849. Still others refer to the arrival of sequoia seeds in Europe before 1853. The most vulnerable point in these last-mentioned stories is that they were all written following Dowd's discovery in 1852, and therefore still remain suspect.

Once the sequoia was "discovered," its fame spread rapidly around the civilized world and brought visitors from near and far. Some came out of curiosity to verify the great tree as fact or to disprove it as fancy; a few came in awe, and some out of piety; others came to transport the tree's progeny to the far reaches of the earth; and a goodly number came to cut it down.

Human interest

Once the sequoias' existence and its novel attributes became known, publicity was quick to follow. The vital statistics of girth, height, and age were in great demand but in short supply. Anyone who had visited a sequoia grove was considered an authority, and his reports of the trees' dimensions were both indisputable and highly publishable. However, the circumferences were measured by methods that seem wanting in the light of today's demands for precision. Pacing, outstretched arms, and lariat lengths were all in common employ. Undoubtedly, the lariats' elasticity was greatest when stretched out for measurement. Some measurements were admittedly "by eye." Only the relatively recent literature mentions steel tapes of known accuracy. Yet some of the older figures have been repeated over and over as gospel.

Whereas the more conscientious measured the circumference in a horizontal plane above the trees' butt swell, others made ground-level measurements, which were then converted directly into diameters without the slightest compensation either for butt swell or for the measurement possibly being made on a steep slope. Others reported unabashedly the circumference of fused doubles and triples. The trees' attraction assuredly grew when diameters of 45-50 ft were recorded in several publications, all using the same source of information. But not everyone accepted the figures as true, and challenge was inevitable. Starker (1935) said of the studies that followed, "Many claims have shrunk under the glare of investigation, some dissolved into the atmosphere."

The trees' heights were understandably more difficult to measure than their diameters. Triangulation was crude at best and might better be called guesswork. Fallen trees should have been another story, but were not. It is beyond comprehension that fallen specimens could be so inaccurately measured; many works reported the "Father of the Forest" in the Calaveras Grove to be 450 ft long as it lay on the ground—140 ft longer than the tallest specimens measured by modern surveying instruments. There are several early reports that the tallest sequoias approached 600 ft, and one Londoner even predicted that specimen trees, if undisturbed, would eventually reach 50 ft in diameter and 1000 ft in height (Anon. 1876).

With the credibility gap between early Westerners and the rest of the world, it occurred to American showmen that they could prepare and ship sections of the big trees to almost any place on earth for exhibition purposes, thus silencing the doubting Thomases. Exhibit sections were prepared for this purpose with great labor and expense. But the American fancy for size so exceeded the availability of downed specimens that, to satisfy the curious, some of the larger living trees were selected for sacrifice, apparently without qualms or regrets.

The carnage began in the same year as Dowd's discovery, 1852. Saws of such gigantic proportions being understandably not available, pump augers were used to weaken the first of the many trees cut. According to Remy (1857), 25 men worked 10 days drilling the holes that finally set it off balance until it toppled. The tree dropped with a thundering crash, its reverberations exceeded only by the furor of a private citizenry incensed over its destruction. The trunk reportedly hit the ground with such force that "mud and stones were driven near 100 feet high where they have left their mark on the neighboring trees" (Anon. 1855a). If some Americans seemed callous over the felling, others were certainly greatly troubled. Several articles, singularly alike in tone, expressed unbelieving revulsion: this was, in time, to forge a movement which later resulted in the public reservation of nearly all sequoia lands.

An example of the more classic rhetoric in this vein comes from the editor of Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room companion (Anon. 1853):

To our mind it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree. But this has not been done, however, without a vast deal of labor. It was accomplished by first boring holes through the body with long augers, worked by machinery, and afterward sawing from one to the other. Of course, as the sawing drew to a close, the workmen were on the alert to notice the first sign of toppling, but none came; the tree was so straight and evenly balanced on all sides that it retained its upright position after it had been sawed through. Wedges were then forced in, and a breeze happening to spring up, over went the monster with a crash that was heard for miles around. The bark was stripped from it for fifty feet from the base, and is from one to two feet in thickness. It was taken off in sections, so that it can be placed, relatively, in its original position, and thus give the beholder a just idea of the gigantic dimensions of the tree. So placed it will occupy a space of about thirty feet in diameter, or ninety feet in circumference, and fifty feet in height. A piece of the wood will be shown, which has been cut out from the tree across the whole diameter. We are told that this piece of wood shows a vestige of bark near the middle, and that this bark was evidently charred many centuries ago, when the tree was comparatively a sapling. At last accounts, the tree was in Stockton, on the way to San Francisco, where it was to be exhibited previous to its shipment to the Atlantic states. Probably it will not be very long, therefore, before our readers will be able to get a view of this monster of the California woods for a trifling admission fee. In Europe, such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but in this money-making, go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it, and the purchaser chops it down, and ships it off for a shilling show! We hope that no one will conceive the idea of purchasing Niagara Falls with the same purpose! The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, is comparatively safe, being underground; and then it would be impossible to get it all the way through the limited size of the entrance! So, for the present, at least, we need not except the cave this way. But, seriously, what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such a speculation with this mountain of wood? In its natural condition, rearing its majestic head towards heaven, and waving in all its native vigor, strength and verdure, it was a sight worth a pilgrimage to see; but now, alas! it is only a monument of the cupidity of those who have destroyed all there was of interest connected with it.

However well taken, the points made above did little to slow the destruction. A second specimen was to be exhibited in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, England.

Because means of transportation were primitive, the weight of large specimens created difficulties. The tree chosen for the Crystal Palace display was the "Mother of the Forest," another resident of the Calaveras Grove. Its bark was stripped to a height of 120 ft above the ground from scaffolding erected for that purpose (Fig. 1). Because the weight of the trunk's whole section would have been tremendous, only the bark was shipped. Even this posed engineering problems, for the "Mother" had a basal diameter of 31 ft. The remaining portion of the tree (most of it) was left in place, where it fared rather poorly. It reportedly remained "alive" for a few years; but, divested of its bark, it was assured of premature death. Even so, its remains stood intact until partially destroyed by fire in 1908, and the remaining snag is a prominent landmark of the North Grove today.

Fig. 1. Mother of the Forest, Calaveras Grove. In order to prove the great size of the newly discovered mammoth trees of California, the bark of this 31-ft sequoia trunk was carefully removed by means of scaffolding erected to a height of 120 ft. The sections of bark were reassembled for a display at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, England. The dead snag of this once great tree remains as a monument to man's mood during the 1850s. Photo by permission of Harpers Magazine.

The skinning of the tree was utterly deplored by John Muir, who often set the tenor of feeling about such matters. In Muir's words, this was ". . . as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness" (Wolfe 1938). The display at Sydenham was immensely popular, however, and remained so until fire consumed both the Palace and the "Mother's" vestments in 1866. With the tree's removal from its ancient mountain home, hastened by many centuries, its value to mankind came to an untimely end.

In 1876, another tree was cut from the Grant Grove for Philadelphia's Centennial exhibition. The uneven surface of its stump bears testimony to man's struggle in bringing it down. Except for the portion removed for exhibit, the trunk still lies in front of its more fortunate neighbor, the famed General Grant Tree.

One of the better-known sequoias felled for exhibition in 1891 was the Mark Twain Tree in what is know called Big Stump Grove, Kings Canyon National Park (Fig. 2). Early photographs show a near-perfect specimen without serious fire scars. Because of its excessive size and weight, an extensive feather-bedding trench was dug to prevent its breakage in felling. Some 8 days of labor were required for the felling, a monument to the engineering skill of the loggers, whose pride undoubtedly exceeded their monetary recompense. Collis P. Huntington gave the basal section of the tree to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it remains today. The next higher section, presented to the British Museum in London, has remained there since. The remainder of the tree was cut up for grape stakes and fence posts, so that only the stump remains. Surely, these cross sections of the tree have been of great interest to viewers, but can it possibly be as great as if it were today a living museum piece in its native Big Stump Grove?

Fig. 2. The Felling of Mark Twain Tree, Big Stump Grove. In what is now a part of Kings Canyon National Park, this excellent specimen was cut in 1891 for museum display sections. A great loss to the lovers of nature, its felling was regarded as a great feat of logging engineering. Photo by National Park Service.

Though much to be regretted, the cutting of exhibit sections was only a fraction of the tragedy that was to befall the giant sequoia.

Sequoia lumbering operations

Logging entrepreneurs were interested in far more than a few verifiable measurements to satisfy the curious. The thought that a single sequoia log contained more board footage than a whole acre of northern pine held, for a Lake States logger, a pocket-jingling interest. Imagine the thrill of cutting 3000 fence posts from one tree, enough to fence in an 8000-acre ranch, plus some 650,000 shingles that would cover between 70 and 80 roofs (Andrews 1958); or imagine one tree providing enough wood for a telephone pole 40 miles high! These are but a few of the size criteria the lumbermen used. The literature, filled as it is with just such materialistic comparisons, bears out their eminent success in this field.

Several groves in the southern Sierra were logged of virtually all marketable species, including the giant sequoia. No matter how questionable the cutting, a market for it existed, and so the sequoia was cut. Its wood, resembling that of its coastal cousin, although more even-grained and much more brittle, was marketed under the same name, which probably adds to confusion between the two trees in the public mind today.

Although the wood's great resistance to decay was a distinct advantage, its low tensile strength and brittleness made it unsuitable for most structural purposes. When felled, the dry, fine-grained sequoia often broke across the grain, or in almost any direction. Steele (1914) described it picturesquely as breaking into "more wasteful shapes than so much frozen water." Consequently, as the cedar gave out, the king of trees was converted into such plebeian items as fence posts, grape stakes, shingles, novelties, patio furniture, and pencils for Europe—ignoble uses for a most noble tree. While the storm of resentment gathered, whole groves were cut down for these purposes beginning in 1856 and continuing intermittently until the mid-1950s.

The giant sequoias' size, which was, in essence, the trees' undoing, posed various problems for the most experienced logging engineers of the time. But the problems of logging were a challenge, and challenge in the old West daunted few and encouraged many. Always, Yankee ingenuity rose to the occasion as manifest in the felling, skidding, and milling. The task of getting the trees down was of Herculean proportions and the slightest miscalculation could result in great losses of wood and, of course, danger for man. To log a tree of sideshow proportions took men with sideshow imaginations. Undercuts on the larger specimens were enough for a man to stand in upright, or pose upon a horse or mule. Saws had to be welded together to span the breadth of the larger trees.

Felling often caused the wood to shatter, wasting as much as 75% or more of individual trees. Challacombe (1954) reflects the feeling of many; it was a "real national tragedy," and the term "arboricides" was coined specifically in reference to the sequoia loggers.

With increasing lumber prices, more and more sequoias were cut. Some were left shattered on the ground and, although a few of the remnants were salvaged when intact, this was small consolation to those vigorously opposing their cutting. The shattering of the big logs had a double minus value: not only was the splintered wood useless for harvest, but the debris, according to Muir (1894), was "a certain source of future fires," a prediction which frequently has proven true. Despite the general belief that sequoia wood is not especially flammable, it burns hotly when splintered and dry.

The sections of sequoia logs that did not shatter with felling still presented problems of handling and transportation. Logs 20 ft and more in diameter could not be handled in the same way as the "diminutive" species of sugar pine and ponderosa pine. Where splitting by wedges was not feasible because of size, auger holes drilled into the ends of the logs were filled with explosives to blast the huge trunks apart. This method was a gamble, often producing nothing but a great quantity of unusable splinters.

Reduced to a workable size, the sequoia logs were milled in the normal manner, although some new methods of transportation were introduced. In the Converse Basin operations, the wood was first milled in the area of cutting and then sent 54 miles by flume to Sanger, where it was further milled to finer requirements. The flume's water capacity and its gradient controlled the rate of water flow. Andrews (1958) vividly reports this portion of the sequoia tragedy. Despite its depressing overtones, it is well worth reading. The author records flume velocities of up to 50 mph, a speed of commercial log transport unmatched in that period. The flume was also used to transport supplies, mail, and occasionally human beings, whose safety was understandably in jeopardy.

After several years, a large portion of the flume burned in a forest fire and the rest was finally dismantled, a fitting finale to an era of wanton forest destruction. The devastation and wastage in sequoia logging are almost beyond belief. Healing will take centuries; the shambles remaining are perhaps the greatest monument ever to man's destructive lumbering enterprises in this country. Of the many thousand sequoias in the Converse Basin, only one escaped the ax. Curiously, it was the largest.

In a spectacular setting overlooking the Canyon of the Kings River is a tree with the largest diameter of all sequoias—35 ft. Its size was undoubtedly its salvation. Because of the tree's great bulk and rocky habitat, it is unlikely that enough wood could be salvaged to make it worth the felling. The logging company was thus persuaded to spare the great tree, which was then named for Frank A. Boole the Superintendent of the Converse Basin Mill, who had overseen the cutting of the Basin's 2600-acre sequoia forest. Today, the Boole Tree (Fig. 3) seems a monster out of place among the diminutive but thick stands of Scouler willows which encroached after the logging. Its 268 ft stands out starkly against the distant skyline of Spanish Mountain north of the Kings River. In its greatly modified environment, with few serious competitors, the Boole Tree is probably growing faster than before the logging. Ironically, it may well escape future serious fires because of the greatly reduced fuel in its vicinity, and it will perhaps continue to grow uninterruptedly for many centuries. Still, this preservation of one tree hardly compensates for the destruction of its more easily merchantable compatriots.

Fig. 3. The Boole Tree, Converse Basin Grove, Sequoia National Forest. The world's third largest tree stands alone among the diminutive Scouler willows. Named after Frank Boole it commemorates the man who supervised the cutting of virtually all of the other sequoias in this large grove. Its basal diameter exceeds that of any other living sequoia tree. Photo by H. Stagner, courtesy National Park Service.

By the time of their final inroads, the loggers had cut some 34% of the original sequoia acreage. Fortunately, not all the groves they cut were ruined as the Converse Basin was. An informative and interesting record of the logging era, with good detail, is "The Status of Sequoia gigantea in the Sierra Nevada," a report to the California State Legislature (1952) compiled and written largely by Frederick A. Meyer, then chief state park forester, from data gathered by him and by Dean F. Schlobohm of the California Division of Forestry. We share the thought Meyer offers in his summary that, in spite of the logging desecration, the resulting forest and landscape teach us lessons of academic worth. The young sequoias that had seeded so thickly into the much disturbed soils grew with great rapidity and vigor, and definitely disproved the long-standing hypothesis that the sequoia was a decadent, slow-growing tree well on its way to extinction. Furthermore, the sequoia was revealed as one of the earliest trees in the stages of plant succession, a fact poorly understood until relatively recent time.

That some people, at least, did care about such things was another valuable lesson; but it took the destruction of a great many sequoias to weld public sentiment into a momentous, though somewhat sporadic, movement that eventually reserved for aesthetic and scientific purposes most of the original sequoia lands. The reservation began during the Lincoln administration in the heat of the Civil War. Americans must be forever grateful for the efforts of the few dedicated people and citizen groups who led that crusade.

Public reservation of sequoia lands

In a piece of landmark legislation, the Federal government in 1864 deeded the Mariposa Grove and the Yosemite Valley to the state of California, to be administered as part of the Yosemite Grant. The bill, introduced by California Senator John Conness, a native of Ireland, set the tone for the preservation gradually extended to most sequoias. The lands given over to California were meant ". . . for public use, resort, and recreation and shall be inalienable for all time." Although the bill did not define the word "inalienable," no one challenged it or asked its intent. This grove, then, received public protection before the lumber industry had a chance to develop an interest in it.

Despite Yosemite Valley's protected park status, John Muir was apprehensive about both logging and grazing of sheep in the highlands above. He foresaw accelerated erosion and impairment of Yosemite Valley. With written attacks on the practices of the "muttoneers," Muir urged establishment of a Yosemite National Park which would include all the lands draining into the valley. He further voiced fears that the destructive logging of his beloved sequoias would result "in a few decades . . . in a few hacked and scarred monuments" (Muir 1894).

His efforts, assisted by the deep interest of editor Robert Underwood Johnson, strongly contributed to passage of further remarkable Federal legislation in the autumn of 1890. This was preceded by several unsuccessful attempts to create reservations above Yosemite Valley, and farther south in today's Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Congressmen Lewis E. Payson of Illinois and William Vandever of California were instrumental in the passage of legislation which created Sequoia and General Grant National Parks on 25 September 1890, and Yosemite National Park on 1 October 1890. There were notable similarities in the two bills, but some unusual and unexplained differences between them suggest that the whirlwind of congressional activities leading to their passage may have been opportunistic. Whatever the reason, much of the sequoia land was reserved before the lumber industry became seriously interested in obtaining the rights to log it off.

Berland (1962) thought that including the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park was somewhat erratic. Yet the preamble of the 1 October act explicitly stated that:

. . . rapid destruction of timber and ornamental trees in various parts of the United States, some of which are the wonders of the earth on account of their size and the limited number growing, makes it a matter of importance that at least some of said forest should be preserved.

Apparently, sequoias were not mentioned by name, but the reservations were clearly intended as parks for public enjoyment.

Representative Payson's bill for the reservation of land above Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove contained slightly different wording, although both bills apparently were patterned rather closely after the Yellowstone act of 1872. The bill, an alternate for one introduced the previous March by Representative William Vandever of California, declared the purpose was "to set apart a certain tract of land in the State of California as a forest reservation." Neither the word "park" nor the word "sequoia" appears in the text (Ise 1961); but the bill stated explicitly that "regulations shall provide for the preservation from injury of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities or wonders" (26 Stat. 650).

Payson's bill found strong favor with California Congressmen, the Governor of California, and the Secretary of the Interior. Once again, opportunism probably moved Congress to act quickly, so that the bill was passed by both Houses in a single day and signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison on 1 October 1890. Land, which included both the Tuolumne and Merced groves, was soon withdrawn from the public domain. The land was soon given the title "park" by the Secretary of the Interior.

As provided by these two bills, a considerable percentage of all sequoia land was now in public reservations, although logging of sequoias continued or was threatened on lands adjacent to Sequoia and General Grant National parks. The famous Calaveras Groves far to the north were excluded from these preservation efforts.

There was, however, much concern over the future of the Calaveras Grove. This unit of sequoias had the sentimental distinction of being the first to have drawn the world's attention to these trees and, at the turn of the century, may still have been the most visited grove. The land had been sold into private ownership for $100,000, and the owner, because of an initially low return on his investment, thought of logging the big trees. The furor that arose over this prospect had substantial backing, with people turning to both state and Federal governments to intervene in the threatened destruction through purchase of the Grove. The state of California showed no serious interest in its acquisition at the time, perhaps because it hoped that the Federal government would purchase it as a national park unit (Anon. 1903). There was widespread interest in its preservation, and Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of the state of New York, strongly encouraged Secretary of the Interior Ethan Hitchcock to do all in his power to save the grove. Such help, however, was not forthcoming, and, when Roosevelt became President, a petition was sent to him bearing 1,437,260 signatures and asking for federal purchase of the land. Although Roosevelt generally fought for conservation issues, he failed to persuade Congress to appropriate the money. After several more attempts at such legislation, the North Grove was finally included in a bill signed by Roosevelt in 1909 creating the Calaveras Bigtree National Forest.

It was not until 1931, however, that the grove acquired park status. Through matching funds raised by the Save-the-Redwoods League and the Calaveras Grove Association, the North Grove was finally added to the growing state park system. Public ownership of the much larger South Grove, because of its much higher price-tag, was not due for another 23 years.

After these many years of planning and fund-raising, the Save-the-Redwoods League acted as intermediary for a gift of $1 million from the Rockefeller Foundation, and another $65,000 from the Calaveras Grove Association. The state provided $1.07 million from state park matching funds, and from the U.S. Forest Service came land valued at $350,000. While the purchase was consummated on 29 April 1954, the land, being inaccessible to the public, was not formally dedicated as a part of the state park until 9 September 1967, when the long struggle to preserve the Calaveras Groves finally reached fruition.

In the southern Sierra, the unappropriated sequoia lands remained a thorn in the sides of many. Money was again the problem, and the Federal government lacked what was needed for purchase. Here, the benefactor was the National Geographic Society. In 1916, it began a fund-raising campaign to purchase lands within and adjacent to Sequoia National Park. By 1921, the society succeeded in adding nearly 2000 additional acres of sequoia forest to the park, at a cost of $96,330 (White 1934). The last remaining large piece of sequoia land, the Redwood Mountain Grove of 3720 acres, was added to the park system when Kings Canyon National Park was created in 1940. While minor adjustments and additions to the public ownership followed, the bulk of the trees was safely reserved by that time.

The present distribution of total sequoia acreage by ownership is approximately as follows:

National Parks68%
National Forests21%
Bureau of Indian Affairs1%
State and County2%
Private owners8%

The current policies of all public ownership agencies preclude lumbering of the giant sequoias. Even on private lands, there is little apparent threat of further cutting. For all practical purposes, the era of sequoia logging is over and, except for the threat of fire and ecological damage by man, the remaining specimens appear safe for future generations' spiritual and scientific benefit.

Significance of the giant sequoia

Man has invested the giant sequoia with a significance that probably has no counterpart among other trees. The reasons, of course, vary, whether deriving from the scientific or the lay community. Undoubtedly, its great size, longevity, and comparative rarity have prompted the ardor and respect expressed for the tree ever since its discovery, as evidenced in the abundant writings about the sequoia over the past 120 years. Approximately 3000 literature citations are now catalogued for this species in about a dozen languages, with English leading the field.

Curiosity about a tree of such novel dimensions was understandable in the years immediately following its discovery. An even greater significance was attached to it because of its assumed rarity. Although the novelty wore off somewhat with the discoveries of new groves, man's regard for the sequoia was enhanced only by increasing knowledge of its seemingly unique attributes.

Obviously, the lumberman and the sideshow opportunist regarded the giant tree as a source of board footage and personal profit. But the giant sequoia, unlike other species in the Sierran forests, proved to be of small importance as a timber, and perhaps the great brittleness of its wood was its eventual salvation. Certainly the carnage wrought by the lumbermen aroused the feelings and brought forth public efforts that succeeded in reserving nearly 90% of all sequoia acreage. Truly, the reservation of no other species of tree rests upon so dedicated a foundation.

The many superlative attributes of the giant sequoia are often still confused in the public mind with those of its relative, the coast redwood, which is also a tree of admirable proportions, but whose range nowhere overlaps or even closely approaches that of the giant sequoia.

If measured by volume of wood in the outstanding specimens, the giant sequoia is undisputedly the world's largest tree. Even so, exaggerations were commonplace in earlier years. It is now known that one species of tree has a greater diameter than the giant sequoia (see "Other Large Trees"), that three grow to a greater height, and one, the bristlecone pine, lives to a greater age. While such attributes have been of largely popular appeal, efforts were made to explain their scientific importance as well. Today, many other biologically and ecologically interesting qualities of this tree further insure man's high regard for it. Consider, for instance, that it carries a remnant gene pool which bridges the eons back to the Cretaceous, some 125 million years in the past. Here is a world of scientific interest perhaps never to be fully explained.

Long before man discovered the existing sequoian species, fossil remains of several related forms had been found and named. The records of these ancestral forms are known from much of the Northern Hemisphere, and those which seem directly ancestral to the giant sequoia are known from northern Europe, Greenland, and North America. Evidence suggests that these forests at times were enormous in extent. It is possible that pterodactyls, the large flying reptiles, inhabited these ancient sequoia forest communities (Ellsworth 1924).

The closest direct ancestral relative of the giant sequoia, according to fossil evidence, lived in what is now southern Idaho and western Nevada. Forests of these trees existed there as much as 10-20 million years ago, before the last great rise of the Sierra Nevada. As conditions became cooler and drier with the Sierra's rise, the survivors of this change still managed to prosper along the southwestern edge of their range, not far from the present eastern boundary of California. While the Sierra's elevation was still only a few thousand feet, this species migrated westward through the lower mountain passes and on to its western slope. As the Sierra continued to rise to its present imposing height, a gradual but vast climatic change took place: the land to the east became too dry for the sequoias, leading to their extinction there, and finally the sole survivors of a once widespread race were the relict groves left in a string along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

The present distributional range of the sequoia and its closest living relatives invites us to speculate on past genealogical changes and to ask just where the species is headed now. For that matter, similar questions arise over the entire redwood family, whose past distributional area, compared with the small remaining one, is impressive to say the least. Today, the family Taxodiaceae is represented by only 10 genera and 15 species in the entire world (see Appendix I). Each species has a limited areal range. Only Taxodium (southern and pond cypresses) and Sequoia (coast redwood) have fairly extensive ranges, while that of Metasequoia (dawn redwood) is so small and its location so remote that it was unknown to science until 1944. Of the 15 species constituting the redwood family, only five are native to the New World. The other 10 are found in the Asiatic-Pacific portion of the world. The family's two sequoian forms in America are confined to the Pacific coastal area, and the range of the giant sequoia is much smaller than that of the coast redwood.

In the redwood family, the two genera apparently most closely related to the giant sequoia are the coast redwood and the dawn redwood. These three genera, or any two of the three possible pairs, share many characteristics, of which we will highlight only a few. An expanded comparison is shown in Table 1.

TABLE 1. Comparison of Dawn Redwood, Coast Redwood, and Giant Sequoia. From Chaney 1950; Munz 1959; Stebbins 1948.

Dawn Redwood
Coast Redwood
(Sequoia sempervirens)
Giant Sequoia

SizeHeight—to 140 ft to about 370 ftto about 310 ft

Diameter—to 6 ft to 16 ftto 35 ft
LeavesNeedle-like two types; needle-like and awl-shapedawl-shaped

with small stalksessllesessile

Bear short shoots in opposite pairs bear short shoots in alternate arraybear short shoots in alternate array
Short branchletsLeaves oppositeleaves in spiralsleaves in spirals

leaves in two rowsleaves in two rows except at tips leaves in spirals

Seed ConesAbout 1 inch long0.75-1.50 inches long 2-3 inches long

deciduoussome persistent but open after first season persistent and may remain green 20 years

scales oppositescales in spiralsscales in spirals

seeds in one row on each scaleseeds in one row on each scale seeds in two rows on each scale

mature in one seasonmature in one season mature in two seasons
Pollen Cones (staminate)scales opposite scales spiralscales spiral
Chromosomes22 per diploid cell66 per diploid cell 22 per diploid cell

While many differences are visible among these trees, perhaps the most evident ones are in the foliage. In striking contrast to the dawn redwood, with its deciduous leaves, the giant sequoia and coast redwood are evergreen. Each fall, the dawn redwood sheds its short branchlets of leaves and the tree remains barren until spring, unlike many other coniferous trees. The giant sequoia's leaves are all scale-like, while those of the dawn redwood are flattened and needle-like. Most of the leaves of the coast redwood are also flattish and needle-like, but some resemble the overlapping, scale-like leaves of the giant sequoia. The leaves of the dawn redwood are arranged opposite to each other, while in both other genera they are placed spirally on the stems. The distinctive arrangement in the dawn redwood leaf is repeated in the cone scales, which are actually modified leaves. Its seed cones are shed yearly; those of the coast redwood may persist on the trees for perhaps a year or two after the seeds have been shed. In the giant sequoia, however, the seed cones remain green after they mature at the end of the second year, and may continue alive and closed for as much as two decades.

The coast redwood is well known for its ability to sprout from its base or from its stumps and roots following destruction by fire or logging. This vegetative reproduction is undoubtedly an adaptation to fire, assuring more rapid recovery for the species. Although the giant sequoia has other adaptive relationships with fire which will be explained in some detail later, it has never been known to sprout from its base. The small sequoias occasionally growing from the trunks of larger specimens are, in reality, separate trees.

One important difference, not readily seen, among the three sequoia forms is the number of chromosomes in their reproductive cells. Both the giant sequoia and dawn redwood contain 11 chromosomes per reproductive cell, while the coast redwood has 33 per reproductive cell. On the basis of similar chromosome numbers, Stebbins (1948) suggests that "the dawn redwood may actually be a direct descendant of the present coast redwood." It is generally held that the closest relative of the giant sequoia is the coast redwood, but that the dawn redwood and the coast redwood are more closely related. Because of the similarities in these trees, the term redwood has been applied to all three.

Although the extent of the distributional range of the giant sequoia during the geological past and its immediate predecessor is but poorly known, its current restriction in the form of 73 groves, the total area of which is estimated at 35,607 acres, has been seen by some as heralding the final chapter of a long and successful genealogy. While the assumption appears logical, its validity will, of course, remain for a future generation to record. The species does appear trapped in its remnant "cells," but there is no evidence that its groves are now shrinking in size. Most of the grove perimeters seem relatively stable, and some groves show good evidence of expansion during the past few centuries.

The collective attributes of this species have, from the very beginning, whetted the appetites of both scientific question and inquiry. The admirable longevity of individual specimens and the ancient lineage of their predecessors have lent to it a significance for mankind that is well beyond the realm of botanical sciences. Geology, climatology, entomology, genetics, phytogeography, and other fields have all gained from knowledge of the sequoia. With the many recent additions to such knowledge, its significance for man has only increased, and is not likely to lessen with time.

Sequoia varietal forms

After the sequoia was introduced in Europe in 1853, several forms or sports appeared in nursery stock and were assigned horticultural names. Man's careful selection has resulted in several such forms, assumed to represent mutant strains; in the wild, however, where similar mutations doubtless occur, the seedlings are eliminated by the environment as rapidly as they appear, and therefore, not surprisingly, none has ever been noticed or recorded. In Europe, a much greater effort to grow sequoias in nurseries gave these forms, once noticed, correspondingly better care than in the United States. Den Ouden and Boom (1965) list some 14 horticultural forms, of which only 2 may be considered common.

The weeping sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Pendulum') probably originated in Nantes, France, in 1863, while another specimen of the same form was grown from seed at a nursery in Carlisle, England, and still another at Versailles, France. This form is the commonest of the species' horticultural varieties, with specimens found in the British Isles, France, Switzerland, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe.

The growth form of the weeping sequoia is one of shortened, drooping branches, in striking contrast to the sequoia's normal form. Some of the trees are straight of habit, but commonly they bend over in grotesque forms, more interesting than beautiful. A specimen in Cambridgeshire, England, takes the form of a large hoop, 40 ft long. One, at Somerset, forms a 42-ft arch, while one in Sussex turns horizontal at 40 ft. Nelmes (1964) refers to the specimen in Roath Park in Cardiff, Wales, as the "ugliest tree in Britain" (Fig. 4). This form is not common in the United States, where the only living specimens known at present are on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, and the San Jose State University in San Jose.

Fig. 4. Weeping sequoia, Roath Park, Cardiff, Wales. One of 14 known horticultural forms, the weeping sequoia has no one typical form; most are bent and grotesque. This one was labeled, "The Ugliest Tree in Britain." Photo by W. Nelmes, Roath Park.

The only other horticultural form fairly common in Europe is the golden sequoia, S. giganteum 'Aureum,' which is possibly identical with one known as S. giganteum 'Aureovariegatum.' This form was developed at the Lough Nurseries in Ireland in 1856. Its foliage is a variegated golden yellow. The largest specimen recorded is 66 ft tall and grows in Gloucestershire, England.

Other horticultural forms are, in their appearance, dwarfed, columnar, white-variegated, pyramidal, glaucous, and silvery. Four of them are no longer in cultivation, the stock having died. All these forms are generally propagated by cuttings in hot frames rather than by seeds.


Naming the giant sequoia, we believe, has been a process beset with such difficulties as few other well-known species of plants have suffered. Controversies over the various names began early and, from time to time, rose to clamorous proportions. No less than 13 scientific names have been proffered for this species. Although this number is not excessive for plant species, considerable disagreement accompanied the naming and, occasionally, certain accepted rules of botanical nomenclature were abandoned. Botanists of considerable note were involved. Furthermore, the tree has had five English common names, and the result has been confusion for the general public. While a full account of the contentious intrigue and chauvinism over the naming is beyond the scope of this book, some aspects of the story are worth reporting.

It seems logical to assume that, over the centuries, several tribes of California Indians were familiar with sequoias and had words or names for them. Powers (1877) lists only one such name, used by the Mokelumne Tribe in the Miwok tongue: "woh-woh'nau," or "wawona," which is more common today. He records that the word was formed in imitation of the hoot of an owl, the guardian spirit and deity of the sequoia trees. It was thought bad luck for any person to cut or otherwise damage them. The literal translation apparently means "big tree," but the word "wawona" is best known to the world as the name for the famed Tunnel Tree of Yosemite's Mariposa Grove (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. The Wawona Tunnel Tree, Mariposa Grove. This tree, tunneled in 1881, has long been a favorite with park visitors and is perhaps the world's best known tree. Pictured here is President William Howard Taft (hat off in carriage), John Muir, Major Forsythe, Congressmen McKinley and Englebright, Governor Gillett, Charles Forbes, and Captain Butts. 8 October 1909. Boysen photo, courtesy National Park Service.

The Walker discovery party offered no common name for the giant trees they had found other than "trees of the redwood species...," indicating that they knew of the coast redwoods at least at the time of their writing. But this could hardly be called a christening. Dowd apparently made no suggestions after his 1852 rediscovery, but the term "mammoth tree" was rather common in writings immediately following his find. This designation was soon largely discarded in its English usage in favor of the simpler term "big tree," although "mammoth tree" is still preserved as "Mammutbaum" with German-speaking Europeans. "Big tree" is still common today, but in disfavor because the name describes several other trees as well. The terms "giant sequoia" and "Sierra Redwood" are probably in much greater use today. Even the specific epithet gigantea is used as a common name, as is sempervirens for the coast redwood. Unlike scientific names, common names are often provincial and thus subject to personal preference and emotion. However, with no ground rules by which to "legislate" in favor of one acceptable common name, the variety now in use is probably here to stay. As we noted, even scientists have met with difficulties in giving this species a scientific name, which itself has quite a history.

Fossil sequoian ancestors were known for many years before discovery of the two living species, and the generic term first given them was Steinhauera by Presl (1838) of Czechoslovakia. His description of the genus being rather poor, it is difficult to know whether the two living species are closely enough related to Steinhauera to warrant their assignment to that genus. While the rules of botanical nomenclature forbid assigning the name of a fossil genus to a living one, this was done in 1904 by German botanist Karl Kuntze (Post and Kuntze 1904), who attempted to revise some 30,000 plant names. His Steinhauera gigantea was not at all well received and is usually cited in the literature only as a curiosity.

In 1828 Lambert named the coast redwood Taxodium sempervirens, which troubled an Austrian botanist, Stephen Endlicher, a specialist in coniferous trees. He found good reason to segregate it from the genus Taxodium, assigning the name Sequoia sempervirens to the coast redwood, and Sequoia gigantea to a horticultural form of the tree, possibly his Sequoia sempervirens 'Glauca' (Endlicher 1847).

The giant sequoia, first seen in 1833, remained unknown to the scientific world—and to the world in general—until 1852, 5 years after Endlicher's use of the name Sequoia, and it remained unnamed until 1853. Endlicher died in March 1849, and could play no role in the ensuing problems over the tree's naming. In June 1852, Dowd sent branches bearing both foliage and cones to Albert Kellogg, one of the founders of the California Academy of Sciences and a scientist of considerable note. Kellogg did not immediately proffer a scientific name and description for the new species, but in May 1855, he and Dr. Behr of the Academy finally named it Taxodium giganteum, thus adhering to the genus which Lambert had assigned to the coast redwood. By then, however, the species had acquired five other names, which invalidated their proposal. Furthermore, the tree is not as closely related to Taxodium as Kellogg and Behr had presumed, although it is classified in the same family. The literature does not explain why Kellogg and Behr delayed 3 years in offering a name. Whatever the reason—and lack of interest was not a likely one—the price was the naming of the tree by a European.

Apparently, some question also exists about the role another American botanist, John Torrey, played in naming the sequoia. One parcel of specimen materials sent to him was purportedly lost in transit across the Isthmus of Panama. According to Bloomer (1868), specimens did perhaps reach Torrey, whom he quotes as naming the tree Sequoia gigantea in August 1855. Since no formal publication by Torrey confirms this, any claim he may have otherwise made to its naming is invalid. Whether he knew that Joseph Decaisne of France had earlier assigned it the same name, or that Kellogg and Behr had assigned a name 3 months before, cannot be determined.

The species was given its first scientific name after the visit of a William Lobb, who in the summer of 1853 was collecting plants for the nursery of James Veitch of Exeter, England. In San Francisco, Kellogg showed the visitor the cones and foliage brought in by Dowd and gave him a description of the tree. Lobb, who must have recognized it as a member of the family Taxodiaceae, may have also realized the potential interest of the nameless tree to his employer's customers. After hastening to the Calaveras Grove where he collected cones, seeds, foliage, and seedlings, he sailed immediately for England, arriving there by 15 December 1853. While his hasty departure for home was probably in his employer's interest, possibly another motive prompted him the prospect of presenting his specimens to John Lindley, an English botanist. Lindley lost little time in capitalizing on the tree's lack of a name. He wrote a description of the tree and published it 2 weeks later in the Gardener's Chronicle (Lindley 1853), including the tree's first scientific name—in honor of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. "As high as Wellington towers above his contemporaries," said Lindley, "as high towers this California tree above the forest surrounding it. Therefore, it shall bear for all time to come the name Wellingtonia gigantea." Neither Lindley nor the beloved Wellington had ever seen this tree. Both were English, neither had ever been to California, and Wellington, it was reported, had no particular interest in plants. So the battle began.

Americans were understandably incensed over the name, despite their own curious foot-dragging. A strictly American species honoring a British war hero, and named by a Briton in Britain! Lindley was soon judged non composmentis by most American botanists for his "scientific indelicacy," and many abandoned academic dignity to qualify Lindley's name with various uncomplimentary adjectives.

Though quick to respond with names of their own to counter the unpopular Wellingtonia Americans had rather poor success. Kellogg and Behr had finally assigned the name Taxodium to the tree. American botanist C. F. Winslow stated that, if it were indeed a Taxodium, it should be called T. washingtonianum; if it were a new genus, he suggested that it be named Washingtonia californica, with the obvious intent of honoring an American military hero who actually liked plants. The tree proved not to be a Taxodium; Washingtonia is and was then the name of a genus of palms and therefore illegitimate, and the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature prohibits the assignment of provisional and alternative names, so both American attempts at rescue proved abortive (Rickett 1950).

Botanists of other nations must have been more than mildly amused over the struggle. One of them came to the aid of the desperate Americans, and successfully so. In 1854, French botanist Joseph Decaisne asserted in a detailed lecture that the coast redwood and the big tree surely belonged to the same genus, and he therefore reassigned Endlicher's Sequoia to replace Wellingtonia, while maintaining Lindley's specific epithet, gigantea. Whether Decaisne was inflicting mild revenge on the British for Wellington's defeat of the French at Waterloo, or whether Americans had prodded him to make the change remains a moot point (Anon. 1855b). Neither is it certain whether Decaisne knew that Endlicher had already used the name Sequoia gigantea, and that homonyms are also untenable under the accepted code of nomenclature. The name Wellingtonia soon began to disappear from British literature as botanists like Joseph Hooker agreed to the new generic name. As a common name for this tree, however, Wellingtonia is still generally used in the British Isles today.

Not all botanists agreed with Decaisne concerning his new generic name. In 1855, Berthold Seeman, a German naturalist living in England, eliminated the error of using the earlier homonym Sequoia gigantea by proposing the compromise, Sequoia wellingtonia. Despite the validity of this name, the plight of the tree's nomenclature seemed only to grow. Botanists, while aware of the earlier homonym, accepted and used Sequoia gigantea, although by no means exclusively, until American botanist John T. Buchholz (1938) gave the tree its present name, Sequoiadendron giganteum. Buchholz, following a series of scholarly investigations, pointed out that the two California sequoias were strikingly different in their embryogeny, and not as closely related as previously believed. He further adduced more than 50 known botanical differences between Sequoia and Sequoiadendron. This, and the two trees' lack of a common fossil ancestor in their immediate past, justified his generic segregation. Buchholz's was the 13th scientific name assigned to this species over the years, as the following list shows:

Synonymy of Sequoiadendron
(St. John and Krauss 1954)

Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindl.) (Buchholz 1939).

Wellingtonia gigantea Lindi. (Lindley 1855).
Americus gigantea (Lindl.) Anon. 1854.
Sequoia wellingtonia Seem. (1855).
Sequoia gigantea (Lindl.) Decaisne 1854.
Taxodium Washingtonianum Winslow. (Winslow 1854).
Washingtonia Californica Winslow. (Winslow 1854).
Washingtonia Americana Hort. Am. ex Gordon. (Anon. 1862).
Gigantabies Wellingtoniana J. Nelson, under pseudonym Senilis. (Nelson 1866).
Taxodium giganteum (Lindl.) Kellogg and Behr. (Kellogg and Behr 1855:53).
Americanus giganteus (Lindl.) Anon. emend. Gordon, Pinetum 330, 1858. Published in synonomy.
Sequoia washingtoniana (Winslow emend. Sudw.) Sudw., U.S. Dep. Agric. Div. Forestry Bull. 14:61. (Sudworth 1897).
Steinhauera gigantea (Lindl.) Ktze. in Voss, Deut. Dendrol. Gesell., Mitt. 16 (1907):90. (Voss 1908).

Perhaps under suspicion as the unlucky 13th, the Buchholz name was slow to gain acceptance. Dayton (1943), in an opinion survey of some American botanists, records amazing resistance against using the new name, with much expression of strongly emotional rather than academic opinions. And there was the problem of a national park bearing the name of the former genus. However, Sequoiadendron National Park has never been seriously suggested.

Perhaps more justifiable was the fear that, if Buchholz had correctly interpreted the relationship, the rules of nomenclature would force a return to the use of Wellingtonia. The latter, however, had already been assigned in 1840 to a plant in the family Sabiaceae, and thus became illegitimate as a name for the giant sequoia. Present well-substantiated evidence supports the generic segregation of the giant sequoia to Sequoiadendron giganteum and should close the matter. The common name is less well established, however; the National Park Service uses "giant sequoia," while the U.S. Forest Service and the California Division of Beaches and Parks prefer "Sierra redwood." Still others use the older name "big tree." Perhaps the confusion of names is not yet resolved.

Origin of the name sequoia

The name Sequoia has been most popularly represented as the Latinized version of "Sequoyah," the name of a remarkable Cherokee Indian (Fig. 6) from the southern Appalachian Mountains. He was the son of a Cherokee mother and a German immigrant father, and his Christian name was George Guess, or Gist. Being highly gifted, Sequoyah became a talented silversmith. His keen intellect led him to realize that the Indians' plight was partly due to their having no written language. Apparently troubled by this, Sequoyah began to experiment with symbols which he made to represent the various syllables of the Cherokee language, a language with many guttural sounds not easily adaptable to written English. He reportedly worked for 12 years, finally narrowing his syllabary to 85 symbols in 1821. His system proved easy to use and it is said that most of his tribe learned to use it. The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper begun in 1828, was printed in these syllabic characters, as were the Bible (Fig. 7) and a few other works (Martin 1957-58). Although popular writings often recorded Sequoyah as a chieftain, he held no such position in the Cherokee Tribe.

Fig. 6. Sequoyah, Cherokee Indian. A man of many talents, Sequoyah devised a syllabary that permitted his people to read and write in their own language. It is believed by many persons that the genus Sequoia is the latinized version of Sequoyah who lived 3000 miles to the east of this species. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Fig. 7. The Lord's Prayer, from the Cherokee Bible, using Sequoyah's syllabary. Photocopy by University of Michigan Library, by permission of the American Bible Society.

When gold was discovered in Cherokee country, the Indians were forced off their lands and those that were not killed, including Sequoyah, were "beneficently" placed on reservations in Oklahoma. Completely out of their element in a strange and hostile land, the Cherokees fared badly and began to wander. Sequoyah reportedly died during a trip to Mexico, possibly attempting to restore some meaning to the Cherokees' shattered lives (Mooney 1900).

Despite Sequoyah's short and unfortunate stay in his adopted state, and his burial as an outcast at an unknown spot in Mexico, Oklahoma claimed him as a citizen. In tardy recognition, he is one of two outstanding Oklahomans in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

Certainly this compassionate and talented man, on whom such indignities were imposed, deserved the honor, and should have his place in the sun. Unforgivably, however, Endlicher omitted the etymology of his new genus in his Synopsis coniferae, contravening another recommended procedure of botanical nomenclature. No one has ever found mention in his writings of Sequoyah's name or of his unique Cherokee syllabary. It was apparently assumed that Endlicher, a known philologist, admired the Indian for his linguistic accomplishments. The assumption became widespread, and some botanists, such as Asa Gray, searched the Endlicher papers for confirmation, but in vain. French botanist de Candolle agreed with Gray that "the supposed origin of Sequoia from Sequoyah or Sequamal is entirely fanciful." Although Koch (1873) believed its origin to lie in one of the California Indian languages, his contention lacks support.

Gray thought that the stem of the word had derived from the Latin sequi or sequor, which means "following," and was an allusion to the two extant species as followers or remnants of many related forms now extinct (Bellue 1930). If there was an association with Sequoyah in Endlicher's mind, Gray felt, surely it was an afterthought (Anon. 1891). De Candolle dismissed the word's origin as unimportant, but others did not, hoping perhaps to rescue a name of American origin for an American tree. Whatever the origin, the name of this remarkable tree has remained generally associated for more than a century with that remarkable Indian, Sequoyah. Perplexity and doubt notwithstanding, let it so remain.

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Last Updated: 06-Mar-2007