The Road to Sequoia.

This multi-part series was first published in The Kaweah Commonwealth in tribute to African-American History Month, beginning with the February 16, 1996 issue.

By Jay O’Connell, Febuary 1996,  Kaweah Commonwealth

Portrait of Charles Young in 1903 (courtesy of the United States Army)

In 1903, Charles Young was military superintendent of Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park (the predecessor to Kings Canyon National Park), where one of his several major achievements was completing the road the Kaweah Colony had started to Giant Forest.

During his brief time in Kaweah Country, Charles Young had as great an impact on local history as anyone before or since.

The third African-American ever to graduate from West Point Military Academy, Young faced numerous difficulties due to racial prejudices that, while time has eased, are still prevalent today.

In upcoming installments, we will look at Charles Young and his remarkable military career, examine the impact he had on this area’s history, and share some of the local anecdotes that have been handed down generation to generation about this great American.


Troops I and M (colored) of the 9th U.S. Cavalry arrived in Visalia this morning en route to the Sequoia National Park. The two troops are under the command of Captain Charles Young… a colored man and the only officer in the United States Army of his color and rank. He is a graduate of West Point and is a man of brilliant parts. His career has been one of hard struggle against prejudice of race. He has, however, risen above all these difficulties by force of character and inherent ability. —Tulare County Times, June 4, 1903

Charles Young was born in Mayslick, Kentucky, on March 12, 1864, to Gabriel and Arminta Young. His parents, both former slaves, moved the family north to Ripley, Ohio, after the Civil War.

Charles graduated from the formerly all-white Ripley High School at 16 years of age. In 1883, having become a teacher there, Young was encouraged by the principal to apply for examinations to West Point.

Earning a high application score, Young was invited to take the preliminary examination. He placed 22nd out of 100 candidates and in June 1884 arrived at the famed military academy.

Things soon proved difficult for the cadet who was accustomed to excelling scholastically. In 1885, he was turned back to the fourth class due to a deficiency in mathematics. When Young graduated from West Point in 1889, he was ranked 49th out of 49.

John Grunigen, Three Rivers pioneer and among the first Sequoia Park rangers, revealed that Charles Young once told him that the worst thing someone could wish on a person was to “make him black and send him to West Point.”

Nonetheless, Young did graduate West Point — only the third African-American to do so — and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Later in life, Young admitted to Phil Winser, former Kaweah colonist and local apple rancher, that he “went through hell to get his commission and so had no fear for future life.”

After an initial appointment to the 10th Cavalry and reassignment to the 25th Colored Infantry Regiment, Young finally reported to a preferred assignment with the 9th Cavalry at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in November 1889. According to post records, Young’s time at Fort Robinson was not without blemishes.

His file contains a complaint of “tactical errors” as officer of the guard. A reprimand for neglect of stable duty also mars Young’s record.

In October 1890, Lt. Young’s troop was assigned to Fort Duchesne, Utah. It was there that he was again able to utilize his talent as an educator.

Young served as officer-in-charge and teacher of the post school until March 1894, when he was called upon to fill the shoes of a fellow graduate of West Point. Lt. John Hanks Alexander had been the second African-American to graduate the U.S. military academy, and when he died at just 30 years of age, he was serving as military instructor at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

Young’s career was already tracing Alexander’s, who had graduated West Point two years before Young and also served at Forts Robinson and Duchesne. After Alexander’s death, the head of Wilberforce wrote President Cleveland requesting the appointment of Young to the University. In May 1894, Charles Young assumed duties as Military Instructor at Wilberforce.

In December 1896, the Cleveland Gazette reported that Young had passed the examination for promotion to first lieutenant and “would now be paid $1,800 per year, has a handsomely furnished home free, and is only 32 years old.” The newspaper failed to mention that when Lt. Young was in Leavenworth, Kansas, for the examination proceedings, he could not get accommodations in town due to his race and had to stay in Kansas City.

The Spanish-American War brought further distinction to Charles Young. In May 1989, he was granted a leave of absence from the regular U.S. Army to accept appointment in the 9th Ohio Battalion National Guard as a field officer with rank of major.

According to the Richmond Planet newspaper, this was the first instance “in which a colored officer has commanded a battalion.” Robert Greene’s book, Black Defenders of America, notes that the 9th Battalion was assigned to the 2nd Army Corps at Camp Russell, Virginia, then Camp George G. Mean in Pennsylvania, and finally in Summerville, South Carolina. “Young did not see service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War,” it was stated.

But this claim has been disputed. During the Spanish-American War, he was in command of a segregated squadron of the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers in Cuba. 

It has been written that Young charged San Juan Hill (Cuba) alongside Teddy Roosevelt and his famed Rough Riders. Phil Winser of Kaweah, who became good friends with Young in 1903 when he was stationed in Sequoia and corresponded for years afterward with him, wrote in his memoirs that Young was “promoted to a captaincy for conspicuous bravery at San Juan Hill.”

Many Buffalo Soldiers did see service alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and African-American troops from the 9th and 10th Cavalry later paraded with President Roosevelt. 

In 1899, Young rejoined his unit at Fort Duchesne. There he was involved in disputes between Native Americans and local sheepherders and demonstrated a talent for diplomacy.

In 1901, Young was assigned to the recently acquired Philippines. Young commanded troops at Samar and participated in numerous engagements against insurgents. It was during this time that he received his promotion to captain.

On December 27, 1902, the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper reported the following:

The colored officer of the 9th Cavalry, who will in the future be stationed at the Presidio, was a great favorite on the Sheridan coming from Manila to San Francisco and was in great demand. His skin is of the darkest hue of the race, but he is exceedingly clever, a West Point graduate, and a pianist of rare ability.

On May 20, 1903, Captain Charles Young was appointed acting superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. In the days before the National Park Service was created (1916), the management of national parks was the responsibility of the U.S. Army, which had very little Congressional funding for the task.

The giant sequoia named in honor of the accomplishments of then-Captain Charles Young in Sequoia National Park is located along the Crescent Meadow Road in the famed Giant Forest.


In 1903, Captain Charles Young, stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, could already boast of an accomplished military career. He was described in the Visalia Delta as “a man of medium build, very erect, well preserved and though he says he is 39 years old, he looks scarcely 25.”

Young received orders to report to Sequoia, and on May 20, 1903, departed San Francisco with Troops I and M, Ninth Cavalry, consisting of three officers and 93 enlisted men. After a 16-day journey, they arrived at Kaweah.

“A general supply camp was established and maintained there throughout the year, as it is centrally located,” Young recalled. “The ground for this camp was kindly offered to the troops by Mr. Ralph Hopping.”

The first order of business was an inspection tour with Ranger Ernest Britten, who had served in Sequoia since 1900. He had already begun repair work on the existing road, which continued the Kaweah Colony road toward Giant Forest (pre-Generals Highway).

The route of extension, still several miles shy of completion, was also viewed with construction engineer George Welch, who had worked on the road for several of the previous summers.

It was imperative they begin road work right away. George Stewart, an original agitator for Sequoia’s establishment, wrote to the Secretary of the Interior on April 14, 1903, explaining that “a large number of people will visit Giant Forest this year, and it is desirable that the road building [commence] at an early date.”

On June 4, Young telegraphed the Secretary, requesting permission to begin work immediately.

“Laborers are on the grounds now,” he explained, and claimed that hundreds of dollars would be saved by beginning work before the ground became hard and dry.

Work commenced June 11, 1903, and on June 20 the Visalia Delta boasted that Captain Young would have the road “smooth enough for automobiles and bicycles.”

The Delta also noted Young’s admiration for his inherited ranger staff, quoting him as saying, “The people who rely upon Ranger Britten to prepare and build trails do not realize his ability to do that work to perfection.”

Ernest Britten also displayed administrative skills appreciated by Captain Young. Writing the Secretary of the Interior, Britten suggested a system of vouchers to guarantee payment to suppliers and asked that money to pay the laborers be entrusted to the officer in charge. Young heartily recommended this request be approved, reasoning that it would greatly facilitate matters, as keeping vendors and workers promptly paid would avoid delays in completing the road.

Most of these men earned two dollars a day as laborers, with foremen earning three dollars per day. George Welch, the civil engineer overseeing the project, earned an impressive $150 per month.

In addition to starting early in the season and keeping men and suppliers promptly paid, one factor was key to the success of the 1903 road-building crew. Captain L.W. Cornish, Young’s eventual replacement, considered it “largely due to the strict personal supervision given by Captain Young, who continually spurred on the men under his employ.”

Young had long before earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. His Ninth Ohio Battalion had been considered “one of the best drilled in the volunteer army.”

Captain Young was also a fair and generous leader who knew the importance of rewarding a job well done. Examining National Park Service archives, one finds a letter he wrote to his superior explaining a 10-day absence by Ranger L.L. Davis. Young had insisted Davis take the time off, with pay, after he had supervised the blasting on road construction.

“I ordered him away from duty for rest because of the ill effects of close contact and long use of dynamite,” Young informed Secretary Hitchcock. “If the exigencies of ranger service will not permit him to have those days so richly deserved by him, I shall be glad to refund the money paid him by the department.”

The best example of Young’s rewarding hard work was a well-publicized event in Sequoia National Park’s early history. On September 1, the Visalia Delta offered this report:

The great feast that was given last Sunday at Giant Forest by Captain Young, and the splendid road that has been perfected into the forest are themes of conservation among Visalians who attended…

The elegant feast was put upon the table and some hundred or so guests sat down to honor the completion of the road. The menu consisted of roasted chicken, roast pork, beef, and all the delicious dishes that are served to make them all the more palatable.

Those from this city who sat about the festal board speak in glowing terms of the hospitality of Captain Young and his ability to entertain.

The celebration was the talk of Kaweah Country for a long time. Young had encouraged the workmen by promising this feast upon completion of the road. Everyone who worked on the road, as well as Visalia dignitaries, were invited. The banquet was set out on a huge log and Young, acting as head waiter and assisted by his non-commissioned officers, served the guests from blasting powder boxes attached to shovels.

One account mentions Young’s truly appreciated grand finale. When they were about finished, he announced that this wasn’t all. He had beer — store-bought! — for everyone.

Young was well liked in Three Rivers. He purchased local rancher Marion Griffes’s house during that summer, so it is apparent he was fond of the area and hoped to stay. After completing the road, Young concentrated his efforts on obtaining options for the government to purchase privately owned land in Sequoia. Sequoia National Park seemed to be in Captain Young’s future.

Even Captain Cornish, who technically replaced Young as park superintendent in September due to seniority, stated in his official report, “Owing to the good work performed by Captain Young, Ninth Cavalry, during the present season, I recommend his permanent detail on this duty as long as he is available.”

The design by the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point for a Buffalo Soldier Monument on the campus.


From the Visalia Delta (October 13, 1903)— In an interview, Captain Young said that he with the other proper officials have seen, or corresponded, with, all of the people who own property within the park lines and have secured their consent as to the sale of the land to the government. As will be remembered, nearly every captain that has been here on duty has made an effort to purchase the private land within the boundaries and convert it into the park.

* * *

Acquiring options on all the privately held land in Sequoia National Park was an impressive feat. Reading the promissory letters in the Park files, it is apparent that Young received help in obtaining them. Several of the notes are addressed to Ranger Ernest Britten, and in one case, George Stewart acted as liaison.

Unfortunately, Congress failed to act on Young’s recommendation and would not appropriate the necessary monies to buy the land. The problem of dealing with privately owned land within Sequoia would haunt the national park for many years to come.

Still, just obtaining the options was further evidence of Captain Young’s effectiveness as superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903. It is testimony to his ability to utilize Britten’s talents and local connections, as well as his own considerable, and somewhat legendary, charms in convincing settlers to sell their land.

That Captain Young charm is best exemplified, perhaps, in the following local anecdote.

Once, while on patrol near Oriole Lake (8 miles up the present-day Mineral King Road), Young and a number of his Buffalo Soldiers (a complimentary term for the African-American troopers) stopped at the Grunigen’s Lake Canyon house on the Mineral King Road. (The Grunigens were the parents of John Grunigen who had worked on the road for Young.)

It was getting late and Young asked Mrs. Grunigen if she would feed his men. She prepared a meal and invited the soldiers to eat.

Young told her he would have his men file through the kitchen, pick up their plates of food, and take them outside. Mrs. Grunigen informed him that they would do no such thing. They would eat under her roof or not at all.

As Mrs. Grunigen was from Alsace, she was fluent in German and French, but her English was shaky. After dinner, as the soldiers set up camp for the night. Mrs. Grunigen and Captain Young sat out on the front porch and conversed in French until well past midnight.

Young also became good friends with the Winsers. Phil Winser had come from England to join the Kaweah Colony and subsequently started at apple orchard with Fred Savage on the North Fork. Young had once told Winser that he had “come to Kaweah with his heart full of bitterness and left it a different man with a better outlook.”\

In one letter, dated January 6, 1904, Young wrote:

“Oh beautiful valley! You are right, Mr. Winser, when you speak of the charms, due in large measure to the people living there. It will likely be impossible for me to get down now, even though we pull free of the Panama Muddle.”

Despite his desires and others’ recommendations, Young did not return to service at Sequoia. On May 13, 1904, he assumed duties as military attache to Haiti. It was undoubtedly upon learning of this assignment that Young sold Marion Griffes’s Three Rivers house back to him and prepared to relocate to Haiti with his new bride.

Young’s career after Sequoia included several years in Haiti. He later served, at the personal urging of Booker T. Washington, as military attache to Liberie. In September 1915, Major Charles Young was officially assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment.

On February 22, 1916, he received the Spingarn Medal for outstanding service in Liberia and, in 1916, Young served in Mexico as part of the Punitive Expedition with General John Pershing. He led a fight against Pancho Villa at Aguas Calientes and his 10th Cavalry came to the rescue of the 13th Cavalry at Santa Cruz de Villegas.

It was written that Major Tompkins of the 13th, upon their rescue, exclaimed, “By God, Young, I could kiss every black face out there.”

In July 1916, Young was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. As Young earned a higher and higher rank, racial prejudice became more of a problem for the Army due to resentment from other officers.

In 1917, Young was ordered before a retirement board. Young had battled malaria in Liberia, and the lingering effects were justification for his retirement.

In 1918, after America had joined the “war to end all wars,” the patriotic Young rode on horseback from his home in Ohio, 500 miles to Washington, D.C., to prove he was still fit for active duty. He was recalled to service and assigned to Camp Grant, Illinois. In 1919, he returned to Liberia as military attache.

Young’s ride to Washington was just one more example of the determination that defined his career. He refused to let the difficulties connected with the racial temperaments of his America get to him. While he could not ignore them, he was able to deal with them in whatever manner most effective. 

One example turns up again and again in Charles Young’s life. The episode is reported to have taken place in Virginia, San Francisco, and in Three Rivers.

The local version recounts how Captain Young’s troop was all “Negro except for one white doctor and two white Lieutenants.” Once, at the old Three Rivers Store, the two lieutenants deliberately walked by the Captain without saluting.

Young whipped off his shirt and hung it on a fence post, brought the boys back, and said, “You don’t have to salute me but, by God, you’re going to salute the bars!”

And they did.

On January 8, 1922, Colonel Charles Young, on duty in Lagos, Nigeria, died from an acute exacerbation of an old-standing illness. His body was brought back to the United States, and he was given a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.


Jay O’Connell was raised in Three Rivers and currently lives in Southern California. He is the author of several acclaimed historical works, including TRAIN ROBBER’S DAUGHTER: THE MELODRAMATIC LIFE OF EVA EVANS, 1876-1970. His first book–CO-OPERATIVE DREAMS: A HISTORY OF THE KAWEAH COLONY–is considered the definitive study of that late 19th-century utopian community in present-day Sequoia National Park. He is also the co-author of A STRENGTH BORN OF GIANTS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DR. FOREST GRUNIGEN, the biography of an accomplished California osteopathic physician.  When not researching and writing about California history, Jay O’Connell works in the television industry as a producer and production manager for Warner Bros. Television. Some of the television series he has worked on include THE BIG BANG THEORY (CBS), 2 BROKE GIRLS (CBS), GOOD MORNING, MIAMI (NBC), and $#*! MY DAD SAYS (CBS) with William Shatner.

What’s the story behind the second largest giant sequoia and the controversy with its naming myth?

By Sarah Elliott, 16 April 2019, 3RNews; editorial update 31 March 2021

There is no other tree on Earth that has had such attention and honor bestowed upon it by U.S. presidents than the General Grant Tree.

The General Grant Tree is the second largest tree by volume in the world.* It is 268.1 feet in height, almost seven feet shy of the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree.

Named for Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), the Union general and 18th president of the United States, it was designated as the Nation’s Christmas Tree by President Calvin Coolidge on April 28, 1926. The General Grant Tree is also a living memorial to the men and women of the United States who have given their lives in service to their country. It was proclaimed a National Shrine on March 29, 1956, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Naming the Tree

General U. S. Grant, City Point, Va., August, 1864 (Library of Congress)

The tree was purportedly discovered by Joseph Hardin Thomas in 1862. According to Park Service lore, it  was reportedly named by Lucretia Baker of Visalia on Aug. 20, 1867, while General Ulysses S. Grant was still in command of the Union armies, however, there is some controversy in my family about who really named the tree.

My great-great-uncle, Hudson Barton (1844-1929), was once quoted as saying: “In 1866, one year before it is claimed that Mrs. Baker named the tree, I myself held a tapeline to my belt and walked around the General Grant Tree. I found it to be 106 feet in circumference. The tree was known as the General Grant Tree at that time. I further state that I was told by Joseph Hardin Thomas, owner of the sawmill in Shingle Flat [now Sequoia Lake] that he himself discovered and named the tree. Thomas made this statement in the presence of men who could have disputed it had they knowledge to the contrary.”

Mrs. Baker did send General Grant a frond from the tree, and Grant responded with a letter recognizing the honor.

Grant is well known for his victorious exploits in the Civil War. But at Shiloh (Tennessee) in April 1862, Grant fought one of the bloodiest battles in the West and came out less well.

For his next major objective, Grant maneuvered and fought skillfully to win Vicksburg, the key city on the Mississippi, and thus cut the Confederacy in two. By the end of 1862, he broke the Confederate hold on Chattanooga. Then, on December 17, 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant expelled all Jewish people from the Department of Tennessee, which included parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi, based on anti-Semitic stereotypes and rumors. He gave Jewish people just 24 hours to leave their homes, businesses, and lives behind. When Lincoln heard of the order, he was so shocked that he asked his staff for confirmation. Once they confirmed that it was real, he revoked it.

Annual Trek to the Tree

The first Christmas service at the base of the tree was inspired by the late Charles Lee of Sanger. In 1924, as he was gazing in awe at the huge tree, a small girl approached. “What a lovely Christmas Tree that would be,” she said, then turned and ran off.

The idea stayed with Lee and on Dec. 25, 1925, he organized the first Christmas program at the tree. Upon returning home, Lee wrote a letter to President Coolidge, who adopted Lee’s suggestion.

Christmas services have been held each year since, except during World War II when travel was restricted. The ceremony is sponsored by the Sanger Chamber of Commerce.

At the annual event, the National Park Service places a wreath at the base of the tree in honor of our fallen heroes.

Getting there

It is located just inside the Kings Canyon National Park entrance in the Grant Grove. Turn left off of Highway 180 one-quarter mile past Grant Grove Village. Travel 1.2 miles past Azalea Campground and Columbine Picnic Area. It is an easy, quarter-mile walk to the General Grant Tree from the parking lot, where also seen will be the Fallen Monarch, which has been historically used as both living quarters and a stable; the Gamlin Cabin, home to brothers Israel and Thomas Gamlin in the 1800s while they worked their 160-acre timber claim in the Grant Grove; and the Centennial Stump, all that’s left of a Big Tree that was cut down in 1875 for display at the World Exposition in Philadelphia.

*NOTE: The General Grant was not always deemed the second largest tree. The Washington Tree held that honor untl the summer of 2003.

2003 was a tough fire year. The Dinely Fire in Three Rivers, Calif., created many tense moments for homeowners. Antelope Mountain in Woodlake burned.

In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, fire crews were busy balancing prescribed fires and several lightning-caused blazes, including a particularly destructive one in the Giant Forest. Although orders were given to create a perimeter around the Washington Tree and protect it from the approaching fire, something went horribly wrong. Word slowly trickled out that the second largest tree in the world had caught fire.

The Washington Tree, located in a remote corner of the Giant Forest Grove, is these days a shell of itself; its defining branch, bigger than most mature trees, is on the ground in a charcoal heap. As of this writing, the Washington Tree has been removed from this list of the “Biggest of The Big Trees.” It no longer holds the distinction of #2.

With all eyes on Confederate symbols it shouldn’t be lost on the residents of Kaweah Country that there are two living monuments within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks dedicated to Confederate General Robert E. Lee

By Sarah Elliott, 25 June 2020, 3RNews

The Robert E. Lee Tree in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. ( photo)

Monuments have come down throughout the nation during a worldwide wave of protests that began May 25, 2020, with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., by police. Along with the recent murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, these actions have sparked demands for sweeping changes and a nationwide uprising for racial justice. There is a re-energized movement that hasn’t been experienced in the U.S. since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and activists are calling for a just and sustainable future where Black Lives Matter.

With all eyes on Confederate symbols, from its flag to statues, it shouldn’t be lost on the residents of Kaweah Country that there are two living monuments within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks dedicated to Confederate General Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807-October 12, 1870).

Robert Edward Lee, Confederate general and slave owner
Lee, who was born in Virginia, attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated second in the class of 1829. Two years later, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a descendant of George Washington’s adopted son, John Parke Custis.

Lee served 17 years as an officer in the Corps of Engineers, supervising and inspecting the construction of the nation’s coastal defenses. He first set foot on a battlefield during the 1846 war with Mexico. He quickly distinguished himself, earning three brevets for gallantry and emerging from the conflict with the rank of colonel.

From 1852 to 1855, Lee served as superintendent of West Point. In 1855, he left the academy to take a position in the Cavalry and in 1859 was called upon to stop abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.

In April 1861, as the Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the federal forces. Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army when the state of Virginia seceded on April 17, arguing that he “could not fight against his own people.” Instead, he accepted a general’s commission in the newly formed Confederate Army, fighting for slavery.

In February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis named Lee general-in-chief of all Confederate forces. Two months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee and his army surrendered to the Union’s General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the Civil War.

Lee returned home on parole and eventually became the president of Washington College in Virginia (now known as Washington and Lee University). He remained in this position until his death in Lexington, Virginia, at the age of 63.

During the Civil War, Lee was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they were black. And Lee was a slave master himself. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, Lee was described as cruel and heavy handed. 

Lee was especially vicious because he would separate slave families, which was a fate worse than death. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor creates a portrait of Lee through his writings, and said, “By 1860, he had broken up every family but one on the estate.”

A well-known story of Lee describes when two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured. Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, General Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with [salt] brine, which was done.”

Lee Trees

Robert E. Lee Tree
The most famous of the two Lee trees in the local parks is the Robert E. Lee Tree in Kings Canyon National Park. Located on the trail to the General Grant Tree and adjacent to the Fallen Monarch, this Lee Tree is, at 254.7 feet in height and 40,102 cubic feet in volume (sans burn scars), the 11th largest tree on the planet. It was reportedly named in 1875 by Richard Field, a former Confederate lieutenant, five years after Lee’s death and 15 years before General Grant National Park was established (Kings Canyon’s predecessor). The Lee trees

Currently, hundreds of people walk past this tree each day without knowing that it’s named for the Confederate general or realizing it’s one of the largest trees they will ever see. The tree is in decay, sort of like its namesake’s reputation, and, in July 2006, a limb came crashing down, narrowly missing three international tourists. A year later, tree-climbing scientists entered the tree and confirmed that it was compromised by fungus and rotted material.

At that time, the National Park Service removed the ROBERT E. LEE TREE sign for the reason of safety. Without a sign designating it as a named tree, the visiting public is less likely to pause and gather under the tree for photos. Because of the recent outcry against Confederate monuments, the tree’s moniker will most likely be allowed to fade into obscurity

General Lee Tree
The other Lee Tree is in Sequoia National Park with no superlatives such as “largest” attached to it. It has a sign identifying it, but is not as noticeable as the other trees in the vicinity: President, Sequoyah, Congress Group.

“The one in Giant Forest, the General Lee Tree, still has its sign in place,” reported Sintia-Kawasaki-Yee, parks information officer. “[The Park Service is] having conversations about what the options are for that sign and what policies are involved as we’re getting asked to both remove the sign and also to leave the sign in place. I think this is going to take some public engagement, and we may not have a decision soon.”

“As far as removal of reference to Robert E. Lee, we’ve looked through our website and other materials and found one document that listed the Robert E. Lee Tree,” Sintia continued. “We’ve modified this document and updated the website. We haven’t found anything else yet, but we’re still looking.”


…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).