Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Mirror of Us: CHS Celebrates NPS and the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks Centennials

Genl. Grant National Park, California. The World's Largest Tree.
California Historical Society

From Redwood National Park in the north to Joshua Tree in the south, California’s parks are as varied and diverse as the population of the Golden State itself. The oldest, Yosemite, was established in 1890; the youngest, Pinnacles, graduated from monument to park just three years ago, on January 10, 2013. Each California park has its own kind of beauty and all are a reflection of the society into which they were born—a reflection of us. With this offering in the “Mirror of Us” series, the California Historical Society celebrates Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

Rising Up from the Ground, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Courtesy National Park Service; photograph by Stephen Leonardi

If the history of California’s national parks was to be written as a musical drama—à la the recent Broadway sensation Hamilton—the hands-down stars of the show would be Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

Where else does one find the largest living thing on earth today, a giant Sequoia formerly known as Karl Marx; the highest mountain in the continental United States; and places in each park named for opposing figures in the Civil War?

This being California, the story also features a Utopian community led by a fiery labor leader, scenic valleys coveted as dam sites, and—like Alexander Hamilton himself—an immigrant to the
United States, who, through his advocacy for the Sierra Nevada, set the bar for wilderness preservation in California.

John Muir
Courtesy Library of Congress

Wandering south from Yosemite in 1876, John Muir, a Scottish immigrant who came to California in 1868, encountered Hale Tharp, a keeper of cattle in the area of the Kaweah River watershed. Tharp introduced Muir to the mighty Sequoia groves Muir would later call the Giant Forest, “a magnificent growth of giants grouped in pure temple groves.” Logging of the sequoias had been taking place since the 1860s, which troubled San Joaquin valley farmers concerned about watersheds and George W. Stewart, editor and publisher of the Visalia Delta, among others. With the help of Stewart’s editorials advocating preservation of the forests, a bill was introduced in Congress in 1881 to preserve a vast area of the southern Sierra. Like many that would follow, however, these early efforts failed.

Burnette Haskell
California Historical Society

Meanwhile, in 1885, fifty members of the Cooperative Land and Colonization Association a utopian community hoping to settle in the area of the Giant Trees and begin logging operations, filed claims for land ownership there. The group—later known as the Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth Association, or Kaweah Colony—was led by Burnette Haskell, a native of Sierra County who, after careers as a Republican party activist, editor, and lawyer, found like minds in the progressive trade labor movement in San Francisco. Haskell came to see socialism as a means of transforming society and of giving “each man the full product of his labor and his fair share of earthly benefits.” Haskell had high hopes his utopian dreams could be borne out in the areas along the Kaweah River east of Visalia.

Once settled, and while awaiting final ownership rights, the colonists named the largest tree in the forest—indeed the largest currently living tree on earth, called today the General Sherman tree—for their idol, Karl Marx.

Over time, the Kaweah Colony grew to include roughly two hundred members who lived in tents on the land and built an 18-mile wagon road in the direction of the Giant Forest. At the same time, Visalia Delta editor George Stewart, with the support of a number of other interests, continued to bring increasing attention to threats to the giant sequoias through various governmental land acts and by logging concerns such as the Kaweah colonists.

On September 24, 1890 Stewart’s efforts finally met with success, and Sequoia National Park was created, becoming the second national park after Yellowstone. One week later, on October 1, 1890, the federal government created the contiguous General Grant National Park, thus protecting another giant sequoia grove. The same act also created Yosemite National Park. Additionally, the legislation tripled the original size of Sequoia National Park, preserving hundreds more square miles of Sierra wild land.

After years of work to purchase the land, the Kaweah Colony was forced to abandon their operations inside the park boundaries. To add insult to injury, the colony’s symbolic sequoia was renamed for famed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman (a man known, ironically, for committing some environmental destruction of his own during his famous “march to the sea” at the end of the Civil War).

Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal, Owens Valley, California
Courtesy Alison Moore

The acreage added to Sequoia National Park also brought Mt. Whitney into the park’s fold. Named for state geologist Josiah Whitney, the peak is the highest in the United States outside of Alaska. Also ironically, Whitney argued that glaciers had played no role in the formation of the Sierra range. His opposite in the controversy, and winner of this geological bet, was none other than John Muir.

Burnette Haskell, whose socialist dreams died with the creation of Sequoia National Park returned to San Francisco in 1892 and died, destitute, in 1907.

The effort to preserve greater areas of the southern Sierra continued, buoyed by the support of the Sierra Club and the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916. Once again it had been John Muir who first brought national attention to a Sierra landscape. Visiting Kings Canyon in 1873 Muir later wrote, “In the vast Sierra wilderness, far to the southward of . . . Yosemite Valley, there is yet a grander valley of the same kind . . . situated on the south fork of the Kings River.”

Bubbs Creek, Kings River Canyon
California Historical Society

Many years later, opposition to additional National Park lands in this area came from farming, mining, and hydroelectric interests, including the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light, which sought to build Hetch Hetchy-type dams in the canyons of the Kings River watershed, among others.

During the 1920s and 30s environmental activists continued efforts to add the Kings Canyon region north of Sequoia into the national park system, and in 1935 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes proposed a bill to establish Kings Canyon National Park. It would take another five years, however, for negotiators for the various interests to reach a settlement. On March 4, 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill establishing Kings Canyon. General Grant Park, which included an eponymously named Sequoia tree, was then incorporated into this newest national park and today the two parks are administered as one.

Following its park designation, battles over the Kings Canyon area continued for a number of years. Efforts to create each of California’s national parks—indeed all of our national parks—involve conflicting interests and complex political and social events, many of which are unknown to the public at large.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park
California Historical Society; photo by Lindley Eddy Studios

Today people flock to Sequoia & Kings Canyon to gaze in awe at the mighty General Sherman and Grant trees and to enjoy the awesome beauty of the Yosemite-like Kings Canyon, Moro Rock, and the high country. Much of the area of these parks is accessible—by design—only to backpackers.

Neither Ulysses S. Grant or William T. Sherman—both figures of great political and social complexity themselves—lived to see the creation of the parks or trees that bear their names. General Sherman, though, did speak with prescience when he wrote: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

(Left) General Grant Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Park
Courtesy; photo Mark Ralston
(Right) General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park
Courtesy; photo Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher

Alison Moore
Strategic Initiatives Liaison

Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980)

Lary M. Dilsaver, “Conservation Conflict and the Founding of Kings Canyon National Park,” California History LXIX (Summer 1990)

Lary M. Dilsaver and Douglas H. Strong, “Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: One Hundred Yeaers of Preservation and Resource Management,” California History LXIX (Summer 1990)

James D. Hart, A Companion to California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987)

“Joseph Le Conte”;

Jay O’Connell, Co-Operative Dreams: A History of the Kaweah Colony (Van Nuys, CA: Raven River Press, 1999)

“Sequoia National Park turns 125 years old today,” Fresno Bee (Sept. 24, 2014);

“Three Rivers, California - Gateway to Sequoia National Park!”;

William Tweed, Kaweah Remembered: The Story of the Kaweah Colony and the Founding of Sequoia National Park (Three Rivers, CA: Sequoia Natural History Association, 1986)

U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, “Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Official Map and Guide”;;


Read about other parks in A Mirror of Us: CHS Celebrates the National Park Service Centennial:


NPS Centennial Events at Lassen Volcanic National Park

Learn more about the NPS Centennial Initiative

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