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
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.
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.
The historic Gamlin Cabin is located near the General Grant Tree.
*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.
The planet’s 4th largest tree by volume was dedicated Aug. 10, 1923, in honor of President Warren G. Harding, at the hour of his funeral.
By Sarah Elliott, 16 April 2019, 3RNews
The President Tree is the fourth largest tree in the world. It is easily accessed via the Congress Trail in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest.
The Congress Trail is a paved loop trail that begins and ends at the General Sherman Tree parking lot. It is a self-guiding trail and, although the most famous of the named trees are also graced with carved, wooden signs, there are pamphlets available at the trailhead that correspond with numbered markers along the trail that discuss various natural features of the forest.
It is also advised to travel in this area with a map in hand (available at park visitor centers). There is a network of trails criss-crossing the Giant Forest plateau and though most junctions are marked, it’s easy to become confused.
To reach the President Tree, take the Congress Trail — which is marked with a sign just east of the Sherman Tree — into the forest past the Leaning Tree, where the route then turns south.
In less than a tenth of a mile, the trail crosses Sherman Creek. Although above the return loop portion of the trail, it can be intermittently seen below.
The trail climbs gently, and in just over one-quarter of a mile, crosses another tributary of Sherman Creek. A trail junction is reached in under a half-mile that connects with the return loop.
Stay left here and continue to gradually ascend on the Congress Trail south. At just over three-quarters of a mile, the trail meets the Alta Trail.
This is where a slight detour will allow a glimpse of the beautiful Chief Sequoyah Tree. Instead of turning right on the short portion of the Congress/Alta trails just before they again go their separate ways, continue instead straight, crossing the Alta Trail.
This one-tenth of a mile segment is part of the Trail of the Sequoias, a six-mile loop trail that explores the highest reaches of the Giant Forest plateau, as well as Log, Crescent, and Circle meadows, Tharp’s Log, and provides access to several other trails in the area.
About 500 feet south of the Alta Trail on the Trail of the Sequoias, the Chief Sequoyah Tree comes into view. It is reached by a short spur trail that ascends to the left.
The Chief Sequoyah Tree was named in 1928 by Colonel John R. White, park superintendent, for the man who developed an alphabet for the Cherokee people, one of the greatest intellectual feats of all times. German botanist Stephen Endlicher, who originally named the trees sequoia gigantea (the Big Trees are now botanically known as sequoiadendron giganteum) and sequoia sempervirens (coast redwood), did so in Sequoyah’s honor, but changed the spelling to how it appears today.
Back on the trail, the President Tree is in sight on the right side of the trail, an easy jaunt of one-tenth of a mile. The President Tree was dedicated Aug. 10, 1923, in honor of President Warren G. Harding, at the hour of his funeral.
Presidents of the United States well understand the checks and balances provided by their various branches, and for this, the President Tree is aptly named. It’s branches are high up, large, and powerful, keeping the main body of the President, its trunk and lifeline, upright and true despite the species’ shallow roots system.
The planet’s 5th largest tree by volum was named in 1960 for Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862-1965), a college football coach.
By Sarah Elliott, 7 October 2019, 3RNews
The fifth largest tree on the planet is the Amos Alonzo Stagg Tree. It is also the largest tree outside of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and has had the distinction of being the largest tree in the world that is located on private land. (But, perhaps, not for much longer. The Rouch family sold the Alder Creek Grove to Save the Redwoods League.)
The Stagg Tree is located off Highway 190 east of Springville.
To reach the Stagg Tree, drive east on State Highway 190 for 2.5 miles beyond Camp Nelson. Turn left on Redwood Drive (County Route M216) at the subdivision of Alpine Village and continue about 6 miles to the cabin community of Sequoia Crest. When Redwood Drive turns sharply left to become Alder Drive, drive straight ahead on the unpaved road for less than a half-mile to the locked gate.
From here, it’s less than a one-mile walk to the tree. Continue beyond the gate along an old logging road. Stay on this road as it passes through an old logging camp – with its unmistakable twin towers of giant sequoias – until reaching a short trail that is identified by a handmade sign pointing the way to the tree, which is a short walk downhill.
The land on which the Alder Grove grows is owned by the pioneer Rouch family. It is from this grove that a 25-foot-long block of downed giant sequoia wood was donated to sculptor Carroll Barnes of Three Rivers and during 1941-1942 was transformed into a statue of Paul Bunyan. The 20-foot tall, 13-ton statue has stood sentry at several Three Rivers locales and wandered as far as Porterville in southern Tulare County, but today calls Three Rivers Historical Museum home and greets all passersby on Sierra Drive.
This impressive carving has had several homes over the past 80 years, but today stands along Highway 198 in front of the Three Rivers Historical Museum. The sculpture is 17 feet tall, 9 feet wide, and weighs 13 tons.
The present-day owners of the Alder Creek Grove is the Rouch (pronounced ra-ow) family who are kind enough to grant public access so all may visit this fifth largest of all trees. (Be sure to follow all parking directions and refrain from smoking and littering.)
The Alder Creek Grove is about 785 acres and contains stands of young and mature sequoias. Although the Rouch family were loggers and developers throughout much of the 20th century, they never cut a giant sequoia.
When my husband, John, and I visited the tree, we were joined by two couples who were visiting from Russia. On our return hike we met other groups on pilgrimages to the tree.
The tree was named in 1960 for Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862-1965), immortalized college football coach whose career spanned 70 years. He also coached track, baseball, and basketball.
Stagg helped organize what is today the Big Ten Conference and is credited with many innovations in the game of football, from formations to uniforms and equipment. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
According to measurements taken by Wendell Flint (To Find the Biggest Tree, 2002), the tree has reached a height of 244 feet and has a ground perimeter of 82.2 feet.
The Stagg Tree is on a steep slope, which makes it difficult to judge its true size. It has several burn scars and extremely thick bark.
Not only are sequoias the largest trees on earth, they are also the most enduring. Big Trees can live to be thousands of years old, mainly because they don’t usually die of natural causes.
The secret to this everlasting life is the giant sequoia’s outer bark, a fibrous, deeply furrowed, almost fur-like reddish-brown cortex. In the oldest of the trees, the outer bark can be up to two feet thick.
The leading cause of death for giant sequoias is fire. And in a complete contradiction, the giant sequoia also depends on fire for survival.
When the fuel of smaller trees such as pine and fir and accompanying forest shrubs build up the understory and encroach upon the Big Trees, a fire will burn with too much intensity, ultimately working through the sequoia’s protective outer bark to its thinner, more vulnerable inner bark.
Giant sequoias: The aging process
In contrast to a conflagration, occasional small fires burn away accumulated fuel. The sequoia seeds then germinate on the bare, mineralized soil.
A sprouting sequoia seed actually grows faster downward during the first several years of life, its taproot growing deep into the ground.
Above ground, through its adolescent years of a hundred years or so, the sequoia tree is conical with gray bark, blue-green foliage, and feathery limbs. A sequoia is fast-growing, adding about six feet per year.
As it ages, the trunk bares itself of branches and the needles turn greener. It’s only after a millennium or more that the tree’s bark turns to a cinnamon color and becomes deeply furrowed.
By then, its upper branches have grown as large as most trees. The largest will have jutted from the tree horizontally, as branches tend to do, but then form an elbow and grow skyward as if declaring their independence from the massive trunk.
The realm of massive trees once covered most of the Northern Hemisphere during an age of gigantic things. Although dinosaurs have long been extinct, the Big Trees continue to survive.
Today, giant sequoias have chosen to grow naturally only in groves located in the mid-elevations along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
We must never take these primeval trees for granted. Travelers from across the globe flock to see those that have chosen to grow so close to Three Rivers.
This article was originally published August 2011 in The Kaweah Commonwealth newspaper. Claud “Sonny” Rouch, 92 and then-patriarch of the Rouch family, corresponded upon learning of the feature. Sadly, Sonny died in February 2012 so my email conversations with him abruptly ended. Here are some of his insights from his original email:
I’m told that your paper had a good article about the STAGG TREE. My family owns the land where that tree is located. There is a long and very interesting story which if you wish I will share it with you.
I have lived in Camp Nelson for over 50 years, My dad bought the land where the Stagg Tree is located in 1945. There was no road there at that time.
In the fall of 1945, coming home from service in the army, my first job was to build 6 miles of road to this full section of land which included the STAGG TREE. This area of Sequoias is named the South Alder Creek Grove.
We had a saw mill in Springville. Fortunately we didn’t cut the redwoods.
We then subdivided about 200 acres. This is now known as Sequoia Crest and there are now over 100 mountain homes built there.
This is enough for now. If you wish in the future I have a story of working for Disney in Mineral King. I worked for the Tulare County Road Dep. when the flood of 1969 took out the Kaweah Northfork road.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
Sometimes a tale’s ending is so ghastly, we might be tempted to change it in the retelling. And, in the process we might introduce a few improvements to the rest of the tale. Our written history is replete with such improvements, and the story of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks hasn’t escaped embellishment. This is a four-part series that explores a small portion of the embellished lore associated with the creation of Sequoia National Park, exposing little-known aspects perhaps suitable only for the Halloween season and those with sturdy digestive systems. In this first part of the series, we meet a ghastly end and reminisce about a legendary man whose life concluded just as the Park’s began.
By Laile Di Silvestro, 1 October 2019, 3RNews
It was pitch black the night of May 23, 1903, and William Trauger was falling down a forty-foot mine shaft.
Will was properly drunk. Nevertheless, he was also forty-two years old and had a full life to flash before his eyes, assuming he sobered enough on the way down:
Bleary visions of the preceding hours at Phillip’s Place, a fine drinking establishment that he and his partner Will Kenna frequented when they weren’t seeking their fortunes in gold. A decade of mining in Mineral King for his friend Arthur Crowley. The time they caught some trout and carried them in coffee cans up to the lowest Mineral Lake. His home and apple orchard by the old wooden bridge at the base of the Mineral King Road.
The name Wolverton is indelibly associated with Sequoia National Park. There is Wolverton Meadow, of course, a favorite snow play area in the winter and a popular trailhead in all seasons. Visitors can also find Wolverton’s name while exploring the history of General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, and Hospital Rock, a granite shelter featuring Potwisha Monache pictographs. Although there are variations, Wolverton’s story appears well known.
Popular accounts inform us that James Wolverton was a cowboy, fur trapper, and naturalist who arrived in the Sequoia area in 1874. He developed a close friendship with the area’s first Euro-American settler Hale Dixon Tharp and built a small cabin in what is now known as Wolverton Meadow. He discovered the largest sequoia and named it the General Sherman on August 7, 1879. Wolverton had earned that honor by serving as lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry under General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War.
According to local lore, Wolverton eventually homesteaded 160 acres on the Mineral King Road. There he raised stock and built a home at Wolverton Point, where the helipad is now located. In 1893, however, he was working for his friend Hale Tharp as a lookout near Hospital Rock when he fell ill. Members of the local Potwisha Monache tribe took care of him until Tharp found him. Tharp first transported Wolverton twenty-five miles downriver to his home near Horse Creek, and then back upriver to the Last Chance Ranch halfway up the Mineral King Road. There, Will Trauger’s father and adoptive mother, Mary, lived. Mary, who was known as the angel of Mineral King, tended Wolverton until his death.
For unknown reasons, Wolverton had asked to be laid to rest by the wooden bridge that crossed the river near the base of the Mineral King Road. Captain “Galloping Jim” James Parker of the 4th Cavalry was acting superintendent of newly formed Sequoia and General Grant national parks. He attended the service and gave Wolverton the military burial honors befitting a lieutenant in General Sherman’s army.
A wooden marker was placed at the head of Wolverton’s grave. At some point over the next few decades it was consumed by a brush fire, and the location of his final resting place was forgotten. Only his name and his story remained.
As we will see, however, there are a few issues with this narrative. Foremost among them is that James Wolverton, as such, never existed.
As for Will Trauger, he hit the bottom of the forty-foot shaft after only 1.577 seconds. At the time of impact, he was moving at about 34.59 miles per hour.
This is the second installment of a four-part series that explores a small portion of the embellished lore associated with the creation of Sequoia National Park, exposing little-known aspects perhaps suitable only for the Halloween season and those with sturdy digestive systems. In Part 1, we met Will Trauger, who was plummeting down a mineshaft, and James Wolverton, a legendary man whose life concluded just as the Park’s began. This week, we join some Boy Scouts on a search for James Wolverton’s grave.
By Laile Di Silvestro, 7 October 2019, 3RNews
The rattlesnakes were still dormant on the first day of March in 1936. Seven boys were walking on the hillside above the East Fork of the Kaweah River. They rustled through the stalks of last year’s grasses still towering above new green growth, and they inhaled the overpowering smell of buckthorn blossoms. The boys were seeking a spot on the ground under which the bones of a hero lay.
They were seeking the grave of Lieutenant James Wolverton. With the Second World War looming overseas, honoring the resting place of the local Civil War icon made for a meaningful outing. The boys were members of Troop 23 led by Lloyd Fletcher, a local landscape architect whose work is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The nature and timing of the boys’ adventure was no accident. The troop was sponsored by the Big Tree American Legion Post – the same big tree purportedly named General Sherman by James Wolverton. Frank Been, Sequoia National Park’s first full-time ranger-naturalist led the outing. At the same time, Sequoia National Park was preparing to host a Boy Scout camp at Wolverton Meadow. Well-publicized resurrection of Wolverton as a symbolic hero made sense.
The story of James Wolverton and his naming of the General Sherman tree emerged as early as 1914 in newspaper articles promoting Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. By 1935, Wolverton’s tale had fully evolved, and numerous newspapers published large front-page articles featuring the hero. With his journalistic exhumation, Wolverton’s reputation grew. Wolverton had now become an acquaintance of John Muir, and he was patrolling the Park at the time of his death. Most articles ended by wondering why James Wolverton chose to be buried in an isolated grave.
According to local lore, Wolverton’s grave was near a wooden bridge built in 1879 to carry miners and supplies to the Mineral King mines and silver ore back down. There, in in October 1893, Wolverton supposedly received a dignified burial with the military honors suitable for a Civil War lieutenant who had served under General Sherman. In 1936, the bridge was still standing, but the road was no longer in use. Fire had swept through, consuming any grave markers in its path, and new vegetation had obscured any telltale mound or depression. James Wolverton’s gravesite needed rediscovery.
Jim Barton, 95, of Three Rivers was eleven years old on that day. He remembers walking the abandoned Mineral King Road down to the East Fork of the Kaweah River and the rickety wooden bridge that crossed it. According to contemporary newspaper reports, the boys found a site distinguished by a large moss-covered bolder. Two weeks later, they returned with new wooden head and foot markers and built a trail to the site.
Given the passage of more than four decades and at least one brush fire, however, is it certain the boys found the exact location of the grave? How would the troop definitively recognize the gravesite? When reminiscing in 2002, Jim Barton expressed some uncertainty.
“I don’t think we found it,” he noted before reminding his listeners of the effect time wields on memories.
Compounding the doubt is another mystery. There are no census, voting, or property records for a James Wolverton in Tulare County between 1874 and 1893.
Regardless, two things are now nearly certain. Forty-three years before young Jim Barton sought the grave, and a decade before plummeting down a forty-foot shaft, Will Trauger’s boots compressed the soil under the Boy Scouts’ feet. And somewhere in the vicinity lies a six-foot skeleton exhibiting the ravages of what could well have been venereal disease.
In the next installment, we follow the path of a man named Joel Rivers Woolverton to his ghastly end.
This the third installment of a four-part series that explores a small portion of the embellished lore associated with the creation of Sequoia National Park, exposing little-known aspects perhaps suitable only for the Halloween season and those with sturdy digestive systems. In previous segments, we met Will Trauger who was tumbling down a mineshaft (Part 1), the legend that’s James Wolverton, and a group of Three Rivers Boy Scouts searching for Wolverton’s grave (Part 2). In this third part of the series, we meet Joel Rivers Woolverton at his ghastly end.
By Laile Di Silvestro, 14 October 2019, 3RNews
Before we return to Will Trauger at the bottom of a forty-foot mine shaft, let’s step back to a time when Will owned the property where Three Rivers Boy Scouts were to seek James Wolverton’s gravesite in 1936. It’s the last week in March 1893, and Joel Rivers Woolverton is lying helpless on the ground at Hospital Rock, about five miles northeast of Will’s place.
Joel wasn’t the first Euro-American to lie there, according to Walter Fry, the first civilian superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. In 1860, John Swanson and Hale Tharp, who claimed to be the first Euro-American in the area, were exploring when Swanson injured his leg. They sheltered under Hospital Rock for three days while the Potwisha Monache tended Swanson’s wounds with a poultice of jimsonweed leaves and bear fat.
Joel also wasn’t the first to suffer there alone. In 1873, a hunter and trapper named Alfred Everton was shot in the thigh by one of his own guns. He had stretched a string across a bear trail and attached the string to the gun’s trigger. He meant to shoot a bear with it, but accidentally brushed the line himself. His hunting partner carried him to Hospital Rock where Everton waited alone until his partner returned with help three days later.
Now Joel was there, alone, immobile, dying of an illness that prominently featured an abscessed groin. In other words, it is quite possible he was suffering the final stages of a sexually transmitted disease.
How did he end up at this point?
Joel was born in about 1832 in the farming country of Ossian, New York. His father, Joel Woolverton III, had started producing children at the age of fifteen. Not all survived, but when our Joel was born seventeen years later, he had at least five older siblings at home.
His parents didn’t stop with Joel. By 1840, he had four more siblings, with a fifth on the way.
Perhaps weary of farming, disgruntled with a crowded home, or simply yearning for wealth and adventure, Joel left New York by 1850 to join his older brother Alva and assumed brother Chancy in Ohio. From there, Joel and Chancy traveled overland to the California gold fields. They were mining somewhere in Placer County, California, when they registered to vote in the 1852 presidential election.
Four years later, Chancy was back in Ohio. Joel, however, kept following his dreams of wealth from gold camp to gold camp.
The Civil War found Joel in Gold Hill, Nevada, a district that hosted numerous brothels and saloons. There, Joel joined the Nevada 1st Battalion Cavalry, Company D, on September 3, 1863.
His battalion was formed not to fight the Confederate forces, but to control the remnants of the Southern Paiute tribes in the Nevada Territory. Joel had fair skin, light blond hair, and steel blue eyes. At about six feet in height, he towered over most men of his time. He was consistently present at roll call, and quickly moved up the ranks from private to 2nd lieutenant.
He spent the first year at Camp Nye, where he saw no action but impressed his superiors. The next year, he went to Fort Churchill to attend a court martial and then went to San Francisco to be mustered as a 2nd lieutenant.
After that, he and his company went on some scouting expeditions, but did not detect any hostiles. He was acting post adjutant for a short time. His Civil War service was decidedly uneventful, perhaps even boring.
Company D mustered out November 18, 1865. Joel had quit showing up consistently for roll call in September, however, and didn’t show up at all the last week of his service.
As a result, he was the only officer in the 1st Battalion who was declared a deserter. As a deserter, Joel commenced his post-war life without his $50 bounty and land warrant.
After his untimely departure from the Army, Joel seems to have disappeared. He didn’t participate in a census or register to vote, at least not under his given name.
A decade after his desertion, however, Joel resurfaced in the Hueneme District of Ventura County. Named after the Chumash word for “resting place,” the Hueneme District produced an abundance of lima beans and sugar beets. Here, in 1875, Joel registered to vote as a farmer. He had returned to his agricultural roots.
It is uncertain how long Joel resided in Ventura County. A street named Wolverton suggests he may have stayed long enough to make a mark on the land.
Meanwhile, the Nevada government seems to have reconsidered Joel’s record, and officials began to search for him as early as 1869. In 1886, they succeeded in finding him. A certification of service was filed, and on December 8 Joel finally received his $50 bounty.
On October 11, 1890, Joel registered to vote in Tulare County as a landless laborer. He was residing in the Kaweah District and may have already taken up residence at Hospital Rock or one of the other abodes that were associated with his name, including Tharp’s Log, Wolverton’s Lean-To, and a cabin in Wolverton Meadow, which was owned by his employer Hale Tharp.
Joel had been troubled by an abscess for some time when he collapsed at Hospital Rock. He could have been lying unable to move for days before Hale Tharp began to miss him.
When Tharp found him, it was clear that Joel’s condition was more than he could handle. Tharp went to the nearby homesteads and recruited Will Trauger and two other men to carry Joel 25 miles downriver to his homestead along Horse Creek (present-day Lake Kaweah).
The two-day trip was hazardous due to the heavy spring runoff. The men had to cross the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River holding Joel’s litter above their heads so that the rapids wouldn’t carry him away.
Joel didn’t stay at Tharp’s for long before the men transported him back upriver to Will Trauger’s home, where Will’s adoptive mother Mary Trauger was willing to tend him. Assuming Joel was suffering the final stages of syphilis, he would have had oozing abscesses, dementia, and paralysis. It would have been unpleasant to tend him. Mary had earned her reputation as the “Angel of Mineral King,” however. Additionally, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted to pay her an allowance for the six months that Joel remained alive.
Joel died on October 8, 1893. His 61-year life differed substantively from the legend. His name was Joel, not James. Rather than serving under General Sherman, he was a deserter from the 1st Nevada Cavalry.
He was not in Tulare County from 1874 until his death, and there is no evidence that he owned any land in the county. He was a miner and farmer not a cowboy, fur trapper, and naturalist.
He lived his final months in Will Trauger’s house rather than Harry and Mary Trauger’s Last Chance Ranch fourteen miles farther up the Mineral King Road. And, finally, there is no evidence that he named the General Sherman Tree. Indeed, the name was not associated with the tree until 1897.
Joel was buried on Will Trauger’s land, however, as that was where he died. Will’s home was about a mile from the confluence of the East and Main forks of the Kaweah River near where the 1879 Mineral King Road crossed the river on a wooden bridge. Will was almost certainly among those who helped lay Joel to rest under the graying grasses, shrubs, and oaks. There is no evidence that the 4th Cavalry attended, so we will have to provide the sound of Taps ourselves and imagine Will walking away from the grave to find a whiskey bottle. In ten years he was going to collide with the bottom of a deep mineshaft.
This installment drew on the talents and support of multiple people. I am grateful to Savannah Boiano, research partner, naturalist, and adventurer extraordinaire; Bill Tweed, esteemed naturalist and historian, who has been researching the origin of the General Sherman Tree’s moniker; and the staff and volunteers at the Tulare County Library’s Annie Mitchell Room.
Sometimes a tale’s ending is so ghastly, we might be tempted to change it in the retelling. This is the final installment of a four-part series that explores little-known samples of local lore perhaps suitable only for the Halloween season and those with sturdy digestive systems. The first installment introduced us to the legend of James Wolverton and to Will Trauger, who was tumbling down a mineshaft. In the second installment we met a group of Three Rivers Boy Scouts searching for Wolverton’s grave. And, in the third installment we followed Joel Rivers Woolverton to his final resting place. In this final part of the series, we face Will’s ghastly end.
By Laile Di Silvestro, 21 October 2019, 3RNews
When we last left Will Trauger, it was the dark night of May 23, 1903, and he had just reached the bottom of a forty-foot mineshaft.
He wasn’t alone. Will Kenna had landed beside him, which wasn’t surprising as the men were seemingly inseparable. They lived together in a small cabin. They mined together when they weren’t drinking, and they drank together when they weren’t mining. They were about to become notorious.
Infamy wasn’t new to Will Trauger. Indeed, he had been born into it.
He started out life in 1859 as William McCoy. His mother, Margaret McCoy, was living with her husband, James, in Congress, Ohio, at the time, as was the presumably ardent Harry Trauger. It didn’t take James long to conclude that Will was not his son, and he filed for divorce from Margaret in 1860 on the grounds of her adulterous relationship with Harry.
Margaret was cast out of her home and denied custody of her two older children. Harry Trauger was no help. He left Ohio for California, abandoning his mercantile and farming businesses for a relatively unsuccessful career as a miner.
Margaret and Will boarded with other families for a time while she developed a career as a women’s hat-maker. By the age of twenty, Will had abandoned her too. He took on the name of Trauger and headed west to find his father.
Harry Trauger was at this time living with his indomitable wife Mary on the Last Chance Ranch. He had found a job as supervisor for the duplicitous New England Tunnel and Smelting Company in Mineral King, and was now mining, tending the books as the mining district recorder, and earning a reputation as a drinking man.
When Will arrived, the silver rush in Mineral King was all but over, but he was able to find work as a mining laborer for Arthur Crowley and helped him set up a summer resort in the Mineral King valley. For several years he and Harry also received a contract from the County of Tulare to maintain the Mineral King Road after the road was declared “a disgrace to an enlightened community” in 1893.
Will made a home on the land near the bridge over the East Fork of the Kaweah River, the home where he brought Joel Rivers Woolverton to be tended by his stepmother, and the land where he helped lay Woolverton to rest in 1893.
Will was a tall man at 5 feet, 10½ inches, with blue eyes, fair skin, and hair that had turned prematurely grey. Like his father, Will developed a profound relationship with the bottle.
He partook in intoxicated fistfights and even ended up in jail on one occasion with several of his friends. He was a favorite with the local newspapers, however, due to his exuberance for life.
Will enjoyed taking friends to Mineral King, where they hunted and ate roasted bear head, built and launched a boat in Eagle Lake, and carried trout to Mineral Lake in a coffee can.
In 1897 Will Trauger left Tulare County for the mines of El Dorado. There he, Will Kenna, and their small dog set up house in a little cabin in Volcanoville. It was only a half-mile distance from Phillip’s Place, a drinking establishment that they frequented when they weren’t seeking their fortunes in gold.
On the eve of May 23, 1903, the men stumbled together out of the establishment with their dog. The spent Rubicon Mine was in the vicinity, but in the dark only the dog saw its forty-foot shaft.
The impact broke both of Will Trauger’s thighs and one of Kenna’s legs.
They had one pistol between them. They fired all their bullets up the shaft and shouted, to no avail. Eventually their voices gave way.
Their absence was not noted because they were known to go missing on account of being drinking men. Kenna purportedly kept track of the passing days on a slip of paper.
According to Kenna, after several days, our Will realized he would die. He wrote a note to Harry and Mary and provided verbal instructions on the eventual disposition of his possessions.
He then became delirious and attempted to eat Kenna, who suffered numerous bites and clawing. According to Kenna, Will died after nine days in the shaft.
On the eleventh day, the little dog was able to attract the attention of George Morrow of the Gregory Mine. Morrow followed the dog to the abandoned shaft. There he found Will dead and Kenna extremely weak. Kenna’s leg was rotting, and it was deemed unlikely that he would live long.
How could Kenna have survived almost eleven days without food and water? We can easily imagine. The state of Will’s body prompted an inquest, which mercifully resulted in a verdict of accidental death.
Will’s ending was too ghastly for Mary and Harry Trauger. They told their friends and neighbors that Will had died honorably in a mining accident in Alaska.
Over time, Will became the “angel” Mary’s son, best known for his contribution to the new resort at Mineral King. And as we have seen, Joel River Woolverton’s story was improved as well. History renamed him James Wolverton and created a hero worthy of the biggest tree in the world. A hero who fought with General Sherman to preserve the Union; a hero who met John Muir and helped preserve the giant sequoias; a hero who stood lookout to protect the new Sequoia National Park from the ravages of livestock. A hero who stayed at his post even while facing his death. …
What do we gain and lose from resurrection of the real stories? Certainly we lose the legend, but perhaps we gain an essential human connection through the less heroic and sometimes macabre truths. Regardless, we retain the story of a community that tends and celebrates even the least mighty among us.
Thus ends this series. The search for our roots goes on, however. One of the most rewarding aspects of historical research is the joy of discoveries that augment or refute what we thought we knew. If you have perspectives, stories, or evidence that would enhance or alter the tale that has been laid out in this space, please contact us.
I am grateful to Sarah and John Elliott for hosting this series, and for their ongoing support, encouragement, and editorial expertise.
About the Author:
Laile Di Silvestro is a historical archaeologist who resides in Three Rivers, California, just outside Sequoia National Park. Her current project is researching and documenting the 19th-century mining activities in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park.