Notes From The Frontier
They Were Giants: America’s Lost Forests
Once much of North America was blanketed in forests. Today only 10% of those forests remain.
It’s hard to imagine what our continent was like before European whites came. Imagine, for example, that the land we know today had 90% more trees. Much of North America was blanketed in forest. Buffalo and bear and beaver and wolves and elk and cougar and so many other animals were not the only species that was nearly decimated in the name of Manifest Destiny. Forests were nearly decimated too.
Of course, forests were destroyed in the name of progress from the East Coast to the West Coast. But it was not until white settlers encountered the first grove of giant sequoias in California during the 1849 Gold Rush and immediately began to cut them down that some Americans began to question unfettered “progress.”
The first giant sequoia “discovered” by white settlers (Native Americans had already co-existed with the trees for thousands of years) was recorded in 1852 and called The Discovery Tree, then later the Mammoth Tree by the national press. More than 300 feet tall and nearly 1,300 years old, it was cut down in 1853. Its stump was used for an outdoor dance floor then, later, a bowling alley. It was the age of P.T. Barnum’s freak shows and spectacle and speculators had the idea of making huge profits off the tree. They cut it into segments and sold its monster pieces of trunk to the world’s museums and the World’s Fair. Its massive bark covering was sold to Broadway in New York, where it was reconstructed using scaffolding and a piano placed inside to entertain and mesmerize theatre goers.
The next year, other gargantuan trees were being cut down for profit. The bark of the Mother of the Forest was purchased by London’s Crystal Palace, generating great excitement in Victorian England who marveled that such trees existed in America. There had long been disbelief in Europe that the claims of spectacular flora and fauna in the New World was not to be believed. Americans hoped that the giant trees might prove their assertions.
Unfortunately, the Mother of the Forest’s gnarly, ancient bark was destroyed by fire in 1866. The bark of the original Mammoth Tree was also lost to fire as it lay in storage in 1855. (An ironic end for the bark of both trees, who had survived thousands of years of forest fires when they were alive in the western frontier.)
The fame of the felled titans spread around the world and lithographs illustrating their immense size sold like hot cakes. Ironically, the stumps of the trees became tourist attractions and a hotel was quickly built to capitalize upon the crowds. The hotel held outdoor tea dances on the stump. Later it became an outdoor bowling alley, an ignoble end for such a once-towering and noble living thing.
The mid-1800s was a time of spectacular growth and humanity pouring into the previously unsettled frontier, rich in natural resources. The concept of Manifest Destiny was generally accepted among white civilization. Settlers saw those resources as God-given gifts put on the earth expressly for Mankind to exploit.
But, not everyone lauded the destruction of the magnificent and ancient trees in the name of Manifest Destiny. A month before the Mammoth Tree was to be cut down , the Sonora Herald newspaper reported that Captain Hanford, the man leading the enterprise, "is about stripping off the bark. This will of course kill the tree, which is much to be deprecated."
On 27 June, 1853, the same day The Mammoth Tree finally fell, the San Francisco Placer Times and Transcript bemoaned that Captain Hanford was preparing for a "portion of the mammoth tree" to be sent to New York and was “dreadfully shocked at the vandalism and barbarity of flaying that giant of the woods, and depriving California of its greatest growing exponent.”
But these two small western newspapers had little clout and readership. But soon Eastern newspapers began to take up the gauntlet. One of the most popular magazines of the time, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, featured an illustration of "the largest tree yet discovered in the world" on October 1, 1853. The accompanying text would stir the beginnings of outrage:
To our mind it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree…In Europe, such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but in this money-making, go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it, and the purchaser chops it down, and ships it off for a shilling show! We hope that no one will conceive the idea of purchasing the Niagara Falls with the same purpose!...But, seriously, what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood? In its natural condition, rearing its majestic head towards heaven, and waving in all its native vigour, strength and verdure, it was a sight worth a pilgrimage to see; but now, alas, It is only a monument of the cupidity of those who have destroyed all there was of interest connected with it.
The chorus of indignation began in the national press. In 1855, the New York Herald called for the State of California and the Congress to“interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country.” The article pointed out that Congress has already moved to protect the live oak forests of Florida “from the rapacity of unscrupulous speculators…We repeat, that it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments. Let it be the law that Mammoth Grove shall stand.”
Finally, in 1864, California Senator John Conness made a speech beseeching Congress to pass a bill that would see the now nationally famous Yosemite Valley and its neighboring grove of sequoias in the mountains above Mariposa secured and protected "inalienable forever".
The Yosemite bill passed and paved the way for the movement to create the first national park at Yellowstone in 1872. Famed conservationists such as Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir would visit the stump of the Mammoth Tree and pay homage to it not only for its sacrifice but as the origin of America’s conservation and national park movement.
You may also find these posts interesting:
-Yellowstone's Keystone Wolves
-Every Dead Buffalo Is An Indian Gone
-Native Americans: Back from the Brink
"They Were Giants" was originally posted on May 1, 2020.
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