One of Sequoia’s ancient mysteries, prehistoric bedrock basins present an unsolved riddle handed down from from the native denizens of this land to its current visitors.

Bedrock Basins, Atwell Grove

NOTE: This is a compilation of two articles written by John  Elliott, 3RNews, in August 2019, with an editorial update in 2021.

One of the unsolved riddles handed down by Kaweah Country native people to present-day occupants are the prehistoric bedrock basins.

Commonly called “Indian Bathtubs,” these cavities are located in granite slabs, measure four to five feet in diameter, and are two or more feet in depth. They are shaped like huge wash bowls with smooth curved sides and bottoms.

Although they may be work of an ancient people, the the present-day Native Americans know nothing about them — either who made the basins or how.

Some researchers believe they were worn by the action of running water or glaciers. But some basins are found in locations where there is no historical evidence of creeks or rivers, and some are located below the assumed lowest extent of the Tahoe and Tioga glaciations.

The Sequoia basins are found in groups at elevations from 4,000 to 9,000 feet, scattered over an area about 35 miles long. Similar basins occur through the southern Sierra Nevada, however, from northernmost California to Lake Isabella on the south.

Colonel John Roberts White (left), superintendent of Sequoia National Park from 1920-1939 and 1943-1947, with George W. Stewart, the Father of Sequoia National Park.

In 1925, George W. Stewart was camped at Redwood Meadow in Sequoia National Park, where he inspected some of these mysterious basins in the company of Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service.

Known as the “Father of Sequoia National Park” for his role in the creation of the park in 1890, Stewart was the editor and publisher of the Visalia Delta newspaper. He is remembered for his efforts to preserve the Big Trees. Before his death in 1931, he wrote extensively on national parks including an article on the rock basins that was published in the American Anthropologist in 1929.  

In this article, Stewart described the basins near Redwood Meadow. These specimens had been excavated in the tops of small granite knob-like outcrops scattered among the giant sequoias, pines, and firs adjoining the meadow.

“The knobs consist essentially of unfractured, massive granite and measure from five to fifteen feet in height and from twenty to thirty feet in major diameter” he described. “The basins are almost perfectly circular in outline and smoothly concave. In a general way, they resemble the well known mortar holes in which the Indians grind acorns and seeds, but they are many times larger and more smoothly finished.”

More current research suggests the Modoc people to the north and east of Lassen country may have used the basins to evaporate salt; however, the basins in Sequoia country are not near significant salt deposits or saltwater sources — they were used for something else.

Nearly a century later, there is still no scientific consensus explaining these curious basins.  Who made this curious rockwork and how they were used remains one of the great mysteries of the Sequoia region of Tulare County.

Disclaimer: These rock basins are archaeological sites and may contain information helpful to researchers in deciphering their origin. To protect them is illegal to excavate or disturb them in any way, including moving or removing any artifacts, duff, dirt, or forest materials from those vicinities.

…to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us. —Manifest Destiny

By Sarah Elliott, 1 July 2020, 3RNews

What’s in a name?

Let’s meet the man after which the largest, and arguably most visited and revered, tree in the world is named. However, here we are in the 21st century, and no one can say for certain how, why, or when the General Sherman Tree was named.

In the Sequoia National Park historical archives, it is written that the General Sherman Tree was named “August 7, 1879, by James Wolverton, pioneer cattleman and trapper, in honor of General Sherman, under whom he served as First Lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry.” But historians have discovered that there is no evidence documenting that any of this statement is true.

“As we will see, there are a few issues with this narrative. Foremost among them is that James Wolverton, as such, never existed…” wrote Laile Di Silvestro in a 2019 series for 3R News entitled J. Wolverton and the Ghastly End. “There are no census, voting, or property records for a James Wolverton in Tulare County between 1874 and 1893.” 

“What we know for certain is that the earliest historic reference to the name is from 1897, when the acting superintendent reported his plan to get a new sign for the tree.”

During the period of 1886 to 1892, the tree was dubbed the Karl Marx Tree by the members of the Kaweah Colony. It’s likely this was the first time the tree was given a name by the early white settlers.

General William T. Sherman
General William T. Sherman (Wikimedia Commons photo)

The Sherman legacy

General William Tecumseh Sherman (February 8, 1820-February 14, 1891) did as much as any man to ensure Euro-Americans achieved their manifest destiny. The ideology that became known as Manifest Destiny, coined by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan in 1845, was a belief in the inherent superiority of white Americans, as well as the conviction that they were destined by God to conquer the territories of North America, from sea to shining sea. 

Once white settlers were bestowed with the privilege of Manifest Destiny, the indigenous peoples were a mere impediment to progress. And the doctrine inflamed tensions over slavery, ultimately leading to the Civil War.

In California

Originally from Ohio, William Sherman began his military career as a young soldier in California, where he would spend three years, from 1847 to 1850. While he was here, there was the Mexican-American War (he didn’t see action), the Gold Rush, and California was granted statehood. According to biographer James Lee McDonough, “Sherman threw himself into the civic life of the state. He met almost everyone of note, visited missions, unsuccessfully hunted grizzly bears, patronized the local arts, opened a store in Coloma (to supplement his meager Army wages), and spent as much time with the state’s women as possible.”

And Sherman even explored the mountain range where there is now a beautiful giant sequoia named in his honor, although it’s doubtful he ventured this far south in the range. He helped assemble a surveying party to study the Sierra Nevada and find a railroad route through the high mountains.

Civil War

During the U.S. Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman was one of the major architects of Confederate defeat and the final overthrow of American slavery. Yet in his personal attitudes, he was, by his own account, a racist and white supremacist.

Sherman’s attitude toward black people was one of contempt. He was quite comfortable with referring to them in derogatory terms. But he also told Southern slaveholders that they needed to treat their slaves “more near the status of human beings.” Sherman had no issue with keeping black people enslaved, he just thought they should be treated humanely.

This painting entitled “The Peacemakers” depicts a March 1865 meeting with (from left to right) William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln, and David Dixon Porter. (Wikimedia Commons image)

After the Emancipation Proclamation, many former slaves sought to join the Union army. Sherman ordered that any recruiter who enlisted black soldiers would be arrested and possibly imprisoned. President Abraham Lincoln reminded Sherman that there was a law in effect regarding black recruitment into the Union Army, and that because it was a law, all must follow it. Sherman refused to change his mind.

For the Great Warrior Sherman, it was easier to unmake laws than it was for the courts of the land to interpret them. (Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee)

March to the Sea

The Civil War military campaign known as Sherman’s March to the Sea occurred from November 15 until December 21, 1864. It began after the burning of Atlanta with forces traveling from there to the port of Savannah on the Atlantic coast. Everything in the Union troops’ path was destroyed — Sherman’s own controversial “scorched-earth” policy — which left nothing but ruin behind.

An unintended consequence of Sherman’s scorched-earth campaign was that all manner of freed slaves —men, women, children, and the elderly — abandoned the now-demolished plantations and fell in behind him. More than 10,000 black refugees followed Sherman’s March to the Sea. And the Confederate cavalry was closing in from the rear.

A defining moment was when a pontoon bridge had to be quickly erected to cross Ebenezer Creek. Telling the refugees that the troops needed to cross the swollen creek first because of fighting in the front, the soldiers crossed and quickly dismantled the bridge, cutting off the refugees’ only route to freedom.

The Confederates arrived at water’s edge, causing hundreds of stranded liberated slaves to jump into the icy water in an attempt to cross. Many drowned. Those who didn’t were shot on sight or captured and re-enslaved. Any Union troops attempting to help the victims were ordered to continue the march. It was a barbaric slaughter of thousands and thousands of newly freed slaves.

To avoid reprimand, Sherman had to make amends for the Ebenezer Creek massacre. Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton requested that Sherman convene a group of black leaders. Of the 20 men summoned, all were church leaders and 16 were former slaves.

The question was asked: What should the government do for black people?

The answer was land; give them land to work and live on with an opportunity to purchase it.

Four days after the meeting, Sherman issued Field Order No. 15: the “40 acres and a mule” rule, which set aside islands along the Georgia, Florida, and Carolina coasts — nearly 400,000 acres — for black resettlement. Within months, more than 40,000 black Americans had flocked to the Sea Islands area, dubbed “Sherman Land.”

The future looked bright until… soon after the inception of Sherman Land, President Lincoln was assassinated. His successor, Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer, overturned Field Order No. 15 in the fall of 1865.

By the end of the Civil War, Sherman recognized that the South had severely mistreated its black population. But he never denounced the institution or morality of slavery.

American Indian Wars

All we ask is to be allowed to live, and to live in peace. I seek no war with anyone. (Cheyenne chief)

Sherman, now the most senior member of the U.S. Army, was the man for the job of eradicating the natives. The same tactic was used as with the slaves: the government made promises that it did not keep. By 1880, most of the tribes, along with the buffalo that fed and clothed them, were eliminated.

Great Warrior Sherman, as the natives called him, was to secure land for the transcontinental railroad and mining interests in territory inhabited by the indigenous peoples. The plan was to move them onto reservations, where they would no longer be free to move about the country. They were instead confined while the the white man was able to freely settle, explore, build, mine, hunt, and exploit.

The end of the Civil War did not, however, mark the end of General Sherman’s military career. Off he went to cleanse the frontier of the indigenous people who lived on ancestral lands that were now being exploited by white settlers to be dug up, dammed up, and deforested in search a grand fortunes.

Whether on the ground leading troops or from behind a desk in Washington, D.C., Sherman ordered many trials and punishments for native captives. At times, the indigenous peoples were treated as prisoners of war even though the war had been unilaterally initiated by the United States.;

The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told. (Yellow Wolf of the Nez Perce)

General Sherman (third from right facing camera) and “Indian commissioners” in council with native chiefs at Fort Laramie, Wyoming (1868). (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Sherman was also responsible for the near extinction of the American bison. He knew that the way to subdue the indigenous tribes was to annihilate the buffalo of the Great Plains. Since buffalo were a critical part of the natives’ existence, both physically and spiritually, Sherman went straight for the herds. What’s in a name

“I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America… this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt and make one grand sweep of them all,” Sherman wrote.

The U.S. Army offered protection for the hunters while allowing them to kill hundreds of thousands of the animals. While buffalo lay dead and rotting on the plains, Sherman continued to promote the killing of the once vast herds to vanquish the native people. (By the early 20th century, only 325 buffalo were left in America.)

By Sherman’s retirement in 1884, he had succeeded in forcing all the Plains Indians who had survived the many conflicts onto regional reservations.

My opinion is, if fifty Indians are allowed to remain between the Arkansas and the Platte we will have to guard every stage station, every train, and all railroad working parties. In other words, fifty hostile Indians will checkmate three thousand soldiers. Rather get them out as soon as possible, and it makes little difference whether they be coaxed out by Indian commissioners or killed. (General William T. Sherman)

Ironically, Sherman’s middle name, Tecumseh, is after a Shawnee chief and warrior whom his father admired. And while Sherman was most definitely a warrior, the second act in his military career was dedicated to decimating the indigenous culture and life of his namesake.

American hegemony was victorious over the tribal resistance. And this is the “hero” who was foremost in the forced, violent, and deadly removal of the indigenous people off the lands where they and their ancestors were born and for whom the General Sherman Tree is named.

What would Sherman think of having the world’s grandest natural monument named after him? Perhaps he would feel subjugated because that monument is located within the boundaries of a national park that is named in honor of a descendant of the country’s indigenous inhabitants.

To the Kiowas and Comanches the white men seemed to hate everything in nature. (Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee)

Much appreciation to Laile Di Silvestro of Three Rivers, historical archaeologist and researcher extraordinaire, for providing information for this article and answering a lot of questions. Additional sources include Memoirs of William T. Sherman (1875), The 1619 Project (The New York Times Magazine, 2019), and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown, 1970).

Sequoia National Park was created in 1890, named for the tree that it was created to preserve. The end.Or is it?

By Sarah Elliott, 20 July 2020, 3RNews

Sequoia National Park’s namesake is the Sequoiadendron giganteum, known to us laypeople as the giant sequoia, the most massive tree on the planet. But history may not be correct in how the “sequoia” received its name.

The sequence of Sequoia

The species of redwood that today bears the botanical name Sequoiadendron giganteum was identified by Stephan Endlicher (1804-1849), an Austrian botanist who died by suicide at the age of 44. It has been widely written, even by Sequoia National Park representatives, that Endlicher named the largest tree on the planet for Sequoyah (1770-1843) of the Cherokee Nation who created a syllabary of 86 characters that provided thousands of Cherokees the opportunity to read and write.

There is research that debunks this theory, stating that the European scientist never wrote down that he was honoring Sequoyah with the name Sequoia and there is no record of him speaking of this. In the words of one scientist who has written extensively on giant sequoias, it is contended that:

Sequoyah Sillabary
Sequoyah’s syllabary in the order that he arranged the characters. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Latin word that Endlicher chose to derive the prefix of the name for the coast redwood that established what Lowe (2012) called Endlicher’s sequence of five genera in his Suborder Cunninghamieae is indeed appropriate: ‘I follow, i.e. sequor.’ Since in the verb ‘sequor’ the ‘passive r … was added immediately to the root of the verb,’ then dropping the added ‘r,’ leaves the root verb ‘sequo’ to which is added the Latin suffix ‘ia’ used in the naming of plants, yielding the new word Sequoia as the name for the plant. The Latin suffix ‘ia’ means something derived from, relating to, or belonging to what is conveyed in the prefix. The question then arises: Was Endlicher aware of this specific Latin grammatical nuance in order to derive his prefix? Yes. …” (from the book DEBUNKING THE SEQUOIA honoring SEQUOYAH MYTH, by Gary D. Lowe, 2018).

Sequoyah is remembered kindly by history, and his accomplishments have been honored. Oklahoma gave a statue of Sequoyah to the National Statuary Hall Collection in 1917. Sequoyah’s cabin in Oklahoma, where he lived from 1829 to 1844, is a National Historic Landmark. The United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor in 1980. However, as scholars and scientists delve deeper, it’s unlikely that Sequoyah is the namesake of the giant sequoia and, thus, Sequoia National Park.

Here is another citation:

In 1847 Endlicher, a German [sic] botanist, believing that [the tree] was a distinct genus, published it under the name of Sequoia. [Endlicher], contrary to custom, omitted to give the origin of his name, and botanists have conjectured that it was intended to commemorate ‘Sequoyah,’ a … Cherokee Indian, who, all by himself, invented an alphabet and taught it to his tribe by writing it upon leaves. … It seemed fitting that the redwood should be named for the red man, yet Prof. J. G. Lemmon and others consider it to have been derived from sequor (to follow) alluding to the fact that our redwoods are the followers of a vanishing prodigious race, which Prof. Lemmon considers a much more appropriate and pleasing origin for the botanical name of our monster tree.” —George Morris Homans, California State Forester, 1910-1921 (italic added to highlight the cultural racism)

And finally:

… No one has ever found mention in [Endlicher’s] 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 Candole agreed with Gray that ‘the supposed origin of Sequoia from Sequoyah is entirely fanciful.’ —The Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada, by R.J. Hartesveldt, H.T. Harvey, H.S. Shellhammer, and R.E. Stecker (1975)

[Article continues below. Click on the images for a slideshow.]

All that’s left today are their markings of millennia in stone…

Native people and Sequoia’s place names

Sequoia National Park set aside wilderness to preserve in perpetuity. This sounds good in theory (if you’re a white person), but the legislation took away yet more ancestral lands from the Native peoples. At that time, a scattering of Indigenous tribes was still living in the region that would become United States’s second national park before the end of the 19th century.

The irony of the national parks, and Sequoia in particular, is that these lands didn’t need protection until the white settlers arrived. They mined the mountains, their stock grazed the meadows, they cut the sequoias, and they displaced the Indigenous caretakers who coexisted with the land and respected the natural world.

By the end of the 19th century, the Native peoples who didn’t assimilate into white society were soon extinct. All that’s left today are their markings of millennia in stone: bedrock mortars scattered along the waterways, the mysterious bathtub-like basins in the sequoia groves, and some pictographs telling an undecipherable story of human occupation.

Contemporary tributes are few to the Native population that called the Sequoia region home for so many generations. There’s the carved “Indian head” sign at the entrance to the park. There are two place names along the highway named for tribes: Potwisha Campground (a Native village site) and Wuksachi Village (named in the 1990s).

Of the ancient Big Trees, dozens of which have commemorative names, only one tree in Sequoia National Park was named for an Indigenous person: Chief Sequoyah Tree. In contrast, there are twice as many trees — two — named for Black Americans: Colonel Charles Young and Booker T. Washington. The rest of the named trees mostly pay tribute to colonizers.

The ‘Indian Head’ sign at the entrance to Sequoia National Park.
Chief Sequoyah Tree
The Chief Sequoyah Tree in the Giant Forest Grove, Sequoia National Park.

The Chief Sequoyah Tree is a deserving tribute to an accomplished man who was greatly admired by the Cherokee people and others, but (1) Sequoyah is most likely not the namesake for the giant sequoia or Sequoia National Park, and (2) Sequoyah was not a chief. His maternal grandfather was a chief, but Sequoyah never held that distinction.

There is the Suwanee Grove of giant sequoias, which is a name derived from a native language. “Suwanee” is a projectile tool made by Native inhabitants of the eastern part of the country but the grove could also be named for a town in Georgia. Or Kentucky.

The trail to the pictographs at Hospital Rock, Sequoia National Park.

Hospital Rock provides visitors with the most visual replica of Indigenous occupation. There was a Native village here and there are prehistoric pictographs and bedrock mortars in the vicinity.

The Kaweah River is derived from the Native language. According to James Barton (1819-1912) of Three Rivers (the author’s great-great-grandfather): “Kaweah is formed from two words… Kawa is the Wutchumna word for crow. Aweah means ‘water’ in the same language. The combination of the two means crow-water and people got to pronouncing it wrong and it now has the name Kaweah.”