Defend California’s Redwoods

The destruction of California’s once vast and magnificent redwood forests is entwined with American expansion westward, violent dispossession, and the ravenous commodification of nature. The remaining redwoods demand our protection.

A small boy walks by the bases of two giant redwood trees on a forest path, circa 1935. (Ralph Hopewell Anderson / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Along the northern coast,

Just back from the rock-bound shore, and the caves,

In the saline air from the sea, in the Mendocino country,

With the surge for bass and accompaniment low and hoarse,

With crackling blows of axes, sounding musically, driven by strong arms,

Riven deep by the sharp tongues of the axes—there in the Redwood forest dense,

I heard the mighty tree its death-chant chanting.

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

This is the story of the Redwood Empire, celebrated by Walt Whitman as “the empire new” where “the genius of the modern, child of the real and the ideal [is] clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America.” Its purpose: “to build a grander future.”

The story is not unique; it is just one chapter in the conquest of California. Still, it is a necessary chapter; necessary if we are to understand the full history of this conquest and the meaning of Whitman’s “true America.” It is about, in part, how Manifest Destiny came to Northern California, the completing of the march westward, even to the remote, “rock-bound,” fog-shrouded coast of Mendocino. The story begins in the 1850s, and belongs with the other “empires” of the era, those in iron and steel, silver and gold, shipping, railroads, oil, and agriculture. Here it was an empire in timber, “in the Redwood forest dense.”

It is like all these, a story of conquests and occupations, and the great theft that accompanied them — the theft of the people’s lands, that is the transfer of ownership of the land, some 2 billion acres of the forests, mineral deposits, mountains, rivers, and harbors into the hands of a few men. These men, ruthless men with an “almost maniacal appetite for wealth” (Whitman) came to rule the land like the barons of a distant past. They were “absentee owners” in Thorstein Veblen’s terms, who believed that they embodied a “divine right,” and ruled these rich principalities “not by virtue of having produced or earned them . . . but because they owned them.” So it is not such a pretty tale to tell. All the more so because, as with Rome’s legions, the empire triumphant brought not “peace” but “desolation,” “earthy ruin” — though of course they called it “civilization.”

This is a history of the destruction of the Redwood Forest, one of the true wonders of the world. In that sense it is not about the great men and their fortunes; rather it is a history that begins with the trees — the largest “creatures” ever to have lived on this planet, and about the people who, for better or worse, lived in or adjacent to the forest. Ironically, the term “Redwood Empire” is still used here in Northern California, though the trees are largely gone. It was an empire but of a different kind: the timber barons were not “empire builders” — even as they proclaimed one — but destroyers.

Sequoia sempervirens, the coastal redwood, is a tree nearly four hundred feet in height when mature. It’s a tree sometimes more than 2,400 years in age, with a roots system far older. Redwoods once blanketed the Northern California coast, a narrow length of deep, cool greenery that stretched from below Monterey to the Oregon border. It was the southern extension of the massive temperate conifer rain forest — Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, cedar, western hemlock — the remnants of which still stretch far north to the Tongass forests of the Alexander Archipelago on the Alaskan panhandle.

The Redwood is a conifer belonging to the family Taxodiaceae; these are large, fast-growing trees with reddish bark that produce small seed cones; their leaves vary from long, narrow, and flattened to small and scale-like. Their history is deep; their ancestors emerged in the Cretaceous period, some 100 million years ago. They were most widespread in the Tertiary period, some 50 million years ago. They thrived in wet, warm, temperate climates. They once existed on nearly every continent; over time, however, most would disappear, the exceptions being the Dawn Redwood, still found in China, and the Redwoods here in California.

The Redwood of the western Sierra, Sequoiaderon giganteum, a close cousin (the same genus, not the same species), is larger in mass than the coastal Redwoods, though not taller; it is still found in some seventy-five groves. Over millennia, global climate changes — the cooling and drying of much of the earth, then episodes of glacial advance and retreat — steadily reduced these forests. The Mediterranean climate of California stabilized some eight million years ago and provided a sort of last refuge, though even here the forest retreated further still, until it flourished only along the coastal strip. In that sense, then, it is a relic, a living evolutionary artifact, and a reminder of nature’s long history. And it exists here and only here.

Thus for some millions of years, these trees have grown along our coast, watered by long wet winters, usually frost-free, shielded from hot, dry inland summers by Pacific fog — the heat of the inland summer drags in the fog that bathes the forest. In an ecology known for fire, the forest cools its domain, its thick, red bark defends the tree itself. Remarkably, the trees themselves collect moisture, “intercepting” fog moisture, some of which is absorbed by the trees leaves, the rest that is collected drips to the earth below, into gardens of ferns and flowers, redwood sorrel and rhododendron. In 1850, this forest was 2,000 square miles, 1,280,00 acres that stretched some 450 miles; it was often little more than twenty miles in width.

These groves, these ancient coastal forests are like nothing else. Reed Noss, the well-known student of the Redwoods, writes: the Redwoods

deserve all the lavish terms used to describe them. No one with an open mind could walk through an old-growth redwood forest without being humbled. No thoughtful person could stand beneath one of these immense trees, gaze up into its canopy, and not help but think that here is a remarkable organism — so much more than all the board feet of lumber that men might cleave from it. Not only are the coast redwoods among the largest living trees, they are among the largest living organisms ever to inhabit the earth. Their close ancestors have been here since other giants — including the dinosaurs — came and went. An entire forest of these trees is one of the most remarkable expressions of nature’s productive capacity. And it is beautiful, truly beautiful.

“No thoughtful person?” Alas, were this only true.

Today perhaps 4 percent of the old growth of this forest survives, the rest lying “disturbed,” at best in stands of third and fourth growth (not without value, of course), at worst in ruin, the barren clear-cut mountainsides that so shocked the readers of the Sierra Club’s 1969 book, The Last Redwoods. How did this happen, and happen in just over one hundred years — a wink in time? And why?

The First People

In 1850, California’s North Coast had already been populated. Russians had already come and gone, having exhausted the waters of sea otters and its coastal plains of fur-bearing creatures. There had been Spanish and Mexican settlements, though these were mainly to the south and inland.

But there were people who had been here far longer. They had not “settled” the North Coast, but they had lived here from time “immemorial”: Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Whilkut, Wiyot, Mattole, Wailacki, Pomo.

These people and many others lived along the coast or just inland, on the other side of the great forest. We now believe that they are the descendants of people who came from Asia (across the Bering land bridge and down an ice-free corridor, or down the coast) perhaps twelve thousand years ago, making their way to this coast possibly eight thousand years ago.

In Two People, One Place, historians Ray Raphael and Freeman House tell the Humboldt County story in great detail. These coastal peoples believed the Creation occurred here, right here in identifiable places, along river flatlands and in interior valleys; “the place itself goes through changes, but it remains underfoot, the solid bedrock of the people’s lives.” They did not farm or raise animals, but nor were they wanderers; they lived in stable, well-developed communities based on deep understandings of their environments, including the forest. They spoke many languages; their cultures were distinct.

The climate was pleasant, nature’s gifts abundant. They did not live in the forest, though they lived with it. Some built their homes with Redwood timber, others sailed in Redwood dugout canoes. They gathered edible plants in the forest, they used medicinal herbs, roots, mushrooms.

The forest was in their stories and myths. People went into the forest to gain knowledge, they fasted at sacred locations and sought visions there. Some passed through the forest on their way to the sea. There are Pomo today who can trace these ancient paths, to where their ancestors camped on rocky cliffs and who can explain what they gathered and what they returned with — abalone, mussels, clams, seaweed, and salt.

We need not claim that violence was a foreigner in this world; certainly there were conflicts, skirmishes, even battles, and they could be bloody, but, by all accounts, these were not common. It would be the same with nature — we need not be wishful romantics to believe that they neither hated nor feared their environment. They did not. Their notion of mutuality, “reciprocities,” and “trust,” between nature and the people makes perfect sense. As Raphael and House have written, if people “honored the spirit of what they took and were not greedy, the world would provide for them.”

Clearing the Path

“Whiskey,” wrote Mark Twain, is

the van-leader of civilization. Look over history and you will see. The missionary comes after the whiskey — I mean he arrives after the whiskey has arrived. Next comes the poor immigrant with ax and hoe and rifle; next the trader, next the miscellaneous rush; next the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in sin of both sexes; and next the smart chap who has bought up an old grant that covers all the land; this brings in the lawyer tribe; the vigilance committee and the undertaker. And these interests bring the newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands turn to and build a church and a jail — and behold, civilization is established forever in the land.

And so they came. The miners were the first Anglos to come to the North Coast in numbers, though they were for the most part passing through, spreading northbound looking for gold in the Trinity Mountains and in the Oregon interior. Twain might have added soldiers to his list; empires require soldiers.

The miners and the early Anglo settlers were rough and ready; their “problem” was that there were already people here, people who, one supposes like Iraqis today, for example, lived by accident of history in the vicinity of oil. Incredibly, the Anglo miners and the settlers bent on occupying the North Coast seem from the start to have perceived themselves not as conquerors, but as victims — or potential victims — of this wild new land and its people. This was a mantra in the West; it is with us still: we are the victims. So they demanded the federal government supply soldiers to protect them and their new properties. The government obliged, sending soldiers, and thus the “Indian Wars” of Northern California began.

The appearance of the Anglo settlers was not promising, neither for the coastal peoples, nor for these trees. The Indians perhaps had reason to expect the worst. Certainly the trees were not prepared; though we may now know that trees can indeed communicate with each other, chiefly for self-protection, possibly from infestation, possibly from disease, they were no match for the settlers. The miners and the settlers swept away all in their paths: mountains, rivers, wild creatures large and small, the ancient trees and the coastal peoples; theirs was a mission; nothing else mattered. It was Manifest Destiny, the march of civilization.

It was gospel, at least for many, a doctrine that advanced the idea that the American Anglo-Saxon “race” was “separate, innately superior.” Gray Brechin, historian of San Francisco, writes that the slogan “provided the rhetorical ordnance necessary to forcibly annex half of Mexico and then to ‘pacify’ the natives — the American Canaanites — who stood in the way of empire’s path and God’s will.” In extreme, it held that inferior races were doomed to subordinate status or extinction. It was used to justify slavery and the expulsion and possible extermination of the Indians. So the Indian fighter William Cody: “The bullet is the pioneer of civilization, for it has gone hand in hand with the axe that cleared the forest, and with the family bible and school book.”

In April 1850, on the eve of statehood, an assembly of politicians meeting in San Jose, California’s first capital, made this explicit, passing “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” Any white person could apply to a Justice of the Peace for the removal of Indians from land he claimed as his own . . . [also] could apply to a Justice of the Peace to obtain an Indian child for indenture.”

Any Indian “who shall be found loitering and strolling about or frequenting public places where liquors are sold, begging or leading an immoral or profligate course of life” could be brought before a justice of the peace and declared a vagrant. The justice could then order “to hire out such vagrant within twenty-four hours to the highest bidder . . . for the highest price that can be had.” (This provision was not repealed until 1937.)

Justices of the peace had exclusive jurisdiction in all matters dealing with Indians. With no appeal to a higher tribunal, the judgment of a single white man could seal the fate of any Indian. To this, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, an open advocate of exterminating California Indians, added in 1851 “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

All this, one supposes, was intended at least in part to facilitate the toil first of the miners, then the “pioneers,” and followed by the loggers, the millhands, and the rest that migrated with them into this land, still a wilderness. It is interesting to think about the meaning of wilderness. Michael Williams, a historian of the world’s forests, writes:

To the early American pioneers the forest was repugnant, forbidding, and repulsive. Some of those feelings and reactions had roots that went back a long way, into the culture of their ancestors in Europe but were to be reenacted in a dialogue between the European pioneer’s mind and the American environment.

The forests were “wild areas, alien to man and in need of felling, firing, grazing, and cultivating so that they could become civilized abodes.” They were “dark and horrible, places where there were very real dangers from wild animals, particularly bears and wolves.” The word “wilderness,” Williams has found, was almost “synonymous with forest; etymologically, it was the ‘place of wild beasts’.”

If later naturalists and romantics, the Thoreaus and Muirs, challenged this view, they had little impact on the pioneers: “We were dreadfully afraid,” wrote Alice Chase from England traveling to Humboldt in 1861, “of Indians and wild animals, thinking one or the other might molest us at any moment.” The woods, they believed, “swarmed” with grizzlies (the symbol of the new state, soon too to be exterminated). And Indians.

So the settlers made clear their intention to “get the land subdued and the wilde [sic] nature out of it.” The settler yearned for the cleared land, cultivation, for the fenced off — that is, for enclosed land, not at all for a common. There was no Charter of the Forest in Northern California, no place where the commoner might have rights to firewood, wood for fencing and building, a “right” some country people might imagine, mistakenly, though they tend not to extend this right to newcomers. The “locals,” when they can, reserve the “right” to exclude “tree-huggers” and tourists.

Was the Redwood forest a “common” — certainly it was never something to be owned by the coastal peoples, who for the most part shared it, sometimes clearing parts for the sake of hunting or encouraging the growth of berries and other vegetation. We might think of these clearing as commons. But not the settlers’ clearings; they were areas of exclusion. Treaties, such as they were, nearly always contained the language of enclosure; “they must not enter our enclosures” read the treaty imposed on the remnant of the Mattole people in 1862.

Students today often seem to think rather indiscriminately of all this activity as variations in “managing” the forest, though this seems to be a stretch; it removes any real meaning from the term “management,” surely if it is thought there is some continuum from the times of the first peoples to the world of private property, the commodity, and the market.

The settlers, then, seem to have hated the Indians, though inter-marriage suggests perhaps not all did. They seem also to have hated the great trees, and they would welcome the loggers. I had never known of the “species” called “tree hater” until settling myself on the Mendocino Coast. Certainly the first coastal peoples did not hate these trees. Is it wishful thinking that there were some among the settlers, like Noss, who felt “humbled” before them? It matters little now; “civilization” demanded that the North Coast be cleared — of its people, of its forest.

Indian Removal

Andrew Kelsey, one of three Kelsey brothers in northern California, was killed by Pomos in 1850, apparently in retaliation by mistreated Indians. According to contemporary accounts, Andrew and his companions had “lashed [Indians] as a sort of recreation when friends from the outside world chanced to pay them a visit”; they would “shoot an Indian just for the fun of seeing him jump”; they would select an Indian at random “and hang him up by the thumbs. So that his toes just touched the floor . . . and keep him there two or three days with nothing to eat.”

Brother Samuel, with vigilantes, replied by killing twenty Indians who happened to be nearby. Kelsey apparently was proud of the appellation “the Indian Killer”; there were to be more massacres to come, notably at “Bloody Island” on Clear Lake. The family is remembered to this day in Lake County in the town Kelseyville.

When James Wood, one of the first white residents of the Garberville area, and two other men were charged with selling nine Indian children from Humboldt in the Sacramento Valley, one of the defendants pleaded that it “was an act of charity . . . to hunt up the children and then provide homes for them, because their parents had been killed, and the children would have perished with hunger.” When asked how he knew that the parents had been killed, the defendant stated flatly, “I killed some of them myself.”

This practice (murdering the parents, then indenturing the children) was called, apparently, “Black birding.” In Mendocino County, “The Woodman,” remembered Helen Carpenter, was a familiar sight in Ukiah and the Long Valley. Periodically he would appear from the mountains on horseback with two, three, sometimes more Indian children tied to a trailing horse. They varied in age from two to twelve years. Ukiah was a stop-over; there the children would be cleaned up for the trip to Napa. The children, “poor little shivering bodies, already sore from mountain travel, were put [again] on horses and rushed into civilization at the rate of thirty-five or forty miles a day.”

On one occasion, “meeting no opposition or unfriendliness on the part of the settlers, he grew less discreet, and on March 1862, . . . deliberately drove into the town of Ukiah . . . with a wagonload of almost nude boys and girls, snugly covered over with dripping wet blankets.” destined for indenture and “civilizing” to the highest bidder. The consensus was that “the children were better off this way,” though for some fate was worse — according to The Woodman the children he did not want to keep met the same fate as their parents. “Civilizing” went forward, and, Carpenter recalled, “there were few families in town that did not have one to three Indian children . . .” though for her this was “little less than downright slavery.”

Astonishingly, conflicts such as these came to be recorded as “the Indian Wars,” and in these “wars” of the 1850s and 1860s the coastal peoples were all but annihilated — their villages scorched, burned by soldiers and vigilantes alike — though there were episodes, such as that in 1860 in Eureka which was more properly seen for what it was — the Indian Island Massacre. At least sixty and perhaps more than two hundred women, children, and elders of the Wiyot tribe were slaughtered with axes and knives by six white men, known to be landowners and businessmen. This was the “Wiyot’s apocalypse.”

So gruesome at times was the news from the north that the San Francisco Bulletin could refer to Eureka as “Murderville” in an 1860 report, written, probably, from Arcata by Bret Harte. It “could find no parallel to the recent atrocities perpetuated in California, referring to the Humboldt County massacres.” Harte added an anonymous letter, complaining: “The pulpit is silent, and the preachers say not a word.” He was subsequently expelled from Humboldt County.

Anglos overwhelmed the Pomo homelands. In 1850 alone, two hundred Pomo were murdered, their villages ransacked, their lands stolen. In 1856, entire bands were imprisoned in Mendocino, eleven years later, turned out, “homeless, landless, and with no legal rights.” The horrors of these “wars” stain history here; the Anglos succeeded in driving out the Pomo, though not entirely. Survivors regrouped, then regrouped again; they are here still. They continue summer treks through the coastal mountains to the sea.

Everywhere people were torn from their homes and driven like cattle from one place to another. It was a California trail of tears. The Klamath reservation became a concentration camp for coastal Indians — Wiyot, Whilkut, Sinkyone, Chilula. It had its own hanging tree. Another camp was at Fort Bragg, the military instillation in Mendocino County. In January 1859, 120 Concow and Pit River prisoners, mostly women and children, were loaded on board the ship the Fanny Major and sent to Fort Bragg. These had been captured by vigilantes, the Kibbe Guards, “pioneers who knew the ways of the Indian.” Another 150 followed in March.

Gold Rush miners had opposed slavery for California; in any event, it entered the union as a “free state.” The miners apparently feared competition in the free for all that was the labor market. But the settlers, including miners, brought slavery, that is, the buying and selling of people, to the North Coast. In 1858, a young mother was stolen by a packer in back of Uniontown, who brought her into town and sold her for $50 to a Mr Dakin for a servant. Her children were sold into slavery.

The coastal peoples were nearly destroyed in a mere two decades. They were, at best, left strangers in their own land. In 1979, it was reported there were no full-blooded Mattoles alive in their valley. Still, there were coastal peoples that survived, stubbornly, defiantly, and to this day the Hupas live on their original habitations in the Hoopa Valley, near the Yuroks, in good part due to their knowledge of the forest, where they could escape the “remove or exterminate” pogroms of the settlers.

Pockets of resistance continued. and many succeeded; all was not lost, but the Indian population rapidly declined in these years, and rampant discrimination persisted. Those who survived fought, heroically, to maintain and protect their sovereignty. “Thus, for many California Indians,” writes historian William Bauer Jr, “the story is two sided — exploitative and negative but also empowering, every day, and, ultimately, positive.”

Grabbing the Land

The state of California helped finance removal and extermination — and for this it received nearly $1 million in compensation from the federal government, eager to populate the new territory. It was the party of Lincoln that initiated the massive transfer of power to the emerging large-scale capitalism and the new “captains” of industry — opening the “feudal” era of industry in our history. The Homestead Act signaled the distribution of the public domain, the people’s land, which was then owned by the federal government — this amounted to fully half the present area of the United States. The nation’s natural treasures were opened to unparalleled exploitation — most notably by the railroads and the mining interests.

Timber, however, was not far behind and by the 1850s, it was an essential component in the development of large-scale industry, and there was nothing romantic about it. The exploitation of the forests was by then already industrial and capitalist, financed by the banks of New York and Europe. It was and is as destructive an industry to the earth and its climate as any yet.

Timber was needed by the railroads, by the mines, also the new towns and cities. Famously, the Redwood Forest built San Francisco, twice. And timber had its own “empire builders,” its own “conquistadores” every bit as avaricious as the Huntingtons, Stanfords, and Crockers. By the end of the century, half a dozen men owned the northern forests — Carson, Holmes, Hammond, Hill, Johnson are names happily forgotten.

Congress got rid of this land as fast as it could, and California was no exception. Congress sold it, granted it, donated it, acquiesced to trespass, watched as it was stolen. Congress privatized it. The rich were always favored — the auctions inevitably favored the well-to-do, represented by the speculators and their promoters. By the 1880s virtually all of the Redwood forest was privately owned, dominated by the timber interests.

Humboldt County was famed for land fraud. The New York Times wrote a series about it — false claims, the elimination of the small holders, bribery, murder, and conspiracy. When a giant tract of dense Redwood forest was thrown open to entry in 1876, the California Redwood Company, with offices in Eureka, began hiring men to file claims.

Stephen Puter, a participant, wrote from an Oregon jail that “I have known agents of the company to take at one time as many as twenty-five men from ‘Coffee Jack’s’ sailor boarding house to the county court house where they would take out their papers, declare their intentions to become citizens and proceed direct to the land office and make their filings . . .” They’d receive a check for $50 and a blank deed and return to their ships or to the boarding house. “The description of the tract filed on was afterwards inserted and the transfer of title completed to the corporation. Then to a Scotch syndicate.” There would be no national forests in the Redwood Empire.

The timber interests had good reason to want the Redwoods. The forests of the East — from Maine through the Great Lakes — were exhausted, though devastated is the better term. They, the timber barons, like locusts moving westward, left ruined lands behind; by 1900 there were 80 million acres of charred and decimated stump lands east of Mississippi and a legacy of destruction that included the fires that came with the logging. The Peshtigo fire in northeastern Wisconsin in 1871 killed 1,500 people and burned 1.28 million acres. In 1885 nearly all the Wisconsin Valley was swept by fire, and in 1881 the eastern Michigan “thumb” was burned over, with a fire claiming 160 lives.

Vast areas of the Great Lakes, probably totaling over 50 million acres and stretching from Lake Huron in the East to the Red River in the West in Minnesota, had been laid bare through the clear-cutting techniques of the highly mechanized and efficient lumber industry. Efficient, perhaps; wasteful, certainly. The saws with their extravagant kerfs, the burning of refuse, the cutting of trees to leave high stumps, and the felling for roads and tracks all took their toll, as did fire, the curse in the forests; fire that fed on the slash that piled feet-deep on the forest floor after the timber was taken out. Fire probably consumed about as much every year as the timber that reached the mill.


The Americans largely worked hard, drank hard, boasted often and loudly, and contended fiercely with each other for the same objects, while thinking the same thoughts and wondering at the same miracles of mechanical progress, or of Manifest Destiny in its ascending march, ‘uniform, majestic as the laws of being, sure of itself as the degrees of eternity.’ Everywhere was observed the same banging and hammering of ‘empire.’

The golden flood, however, even where it happened, did not, could not, last forever; the rich placer claims on the Sierras were stripped, and the prospector was replaced by the industrialist. And then what was there for the “losers,” the many thousands of ex-miners, far from home, dreams crushed, but despair, and for many, lives of drinking, fighting, and robbing each other? Some prospered, but more did not; these were men broken in spirit and pocket, doomed to lives of misery in the promised land.

An 1853 report from San Francisco concluded:

There has never been so deplorable an exhibition of mendicancy in our streets as may be witnessed daily at this time . . . hundreds of destitute men and scores of women . . . little girls are to be found in front of the city saloons at all hours of the day, going through their graceless performances.

The Workers Divided

The first industrial logging in California began in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1830s. The East Bay forests were logged beginning in 1845. But gold brought more than one hundred thousand “immigrants” to California and an insatiable demand for timber — above all for the mines, railroads, and new cities, as well as for customers from as far as the South Pacific and Australia.

The Anglo settlers in the North failed as miners and agriculturalists; timber was another story. There the onslaught was unforgiving: nature was spared no more than her peoples, both victims of civilization. The ravaging of the coastal mountain ranges and the destruction of the forest coincided with the “Indian Wars.”

The great Redwood stands in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties were assaulted in the 1850s, attacked first from the sea. The Pioneer Mill was opened on Humboldt Bay in 1850; by 1854 there were nine mills on the bay. The California Redwood Company owned one hundred thousand acres of redwood. The timber men also brought a train of speculators, thieves, and swindlers, wheelers and dealers, everywhere they gathered up the massive tracts of land. It was a bonanza.

The first Mendocino mill was built at Big River in 1852, another at Caspar a year later. Along the wild Mendocino coast — with no harbors to speak of —  nevertheless logging proceeded apace. It was calculated that a stand of redwood in Mendocino County contained nine times as much timber per acre as southern pine. Elaborate chutes were constructed to carry timber from rocky headlands to steamships just off shore.

Almost every cove had a mill and became the site of heavy industry — Greenwood, Salmon Creek, Albion. Little River, Mendocino, Caspar, Noyo, Westport, Rockland, Usal. The mills produced deafening noise, fire and smoke and ash; they were surrounded by wasteland and a bleak disarray of outbuildings and wooden shacks — instant, temporary slums, altogether forming a coastal necklace of distress, sites festering like open sores along this shoreline, stretching the length of the coast. At one point there were said to be sixty landings between Bodega Bay and the Humboldt Bar.

Human “sharks” lured in the loggers and itinerant laborers — mostly men, though some with families, all poor. They came from Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota, as well as from much farther: Sweden, Finland, Italy, Portugal, and China.

The Chinese came to California as laborers, poor laborers from South China, indentured to wealthy merchants, whose passage was paid by these merchants, and who delivered them, in contract gangs, to the mining districts and the railroad builders. The Chinese “coolie” (bitter labor) workers came in ships reminiscent of the slavers, crowded in filthy vessels with extraordinarily high death rates. Indeed, Peter Kwong found that many of the ships were the very same as had once plowed the Middle Passage. Passage home too was controlled by these merchants, in collusion with the shipping companies.

In 1860, two-thirds of the Chinese worked in the mining regions of the Sierra Nevada and the Trinity Alps. By 1870, the estimates were that there were 50,000 Chinese in California, probably more, at least a quarter of the waged workforce. There were settlements, chiefly in San Francisco but also in Sacramento and in coastal towns from Seattle to San Diego.

The primary source of the anti-Chinese movement may well have been economic; the more-or-less free labor force, made up of a hodgepodge of “white” ethnicities, was compelled to compete with the Chinese, though as Alexander Sexton writes, “The economic, however, coincided with a preexisting dichotomy of ideological and organizational patterns that stemmed from Jacksonian politics of the antebellum East.” That is, they entered a country with a racial and ethnic hierarchy, with roots in conquest, occupation, and slavery.

The Chinese presence challenged the established American binary of black and white, much as did Mexicans and Indians, but this purported problem was easily settled. In 1854 California Supreme Court chief justice J. Murray ruled on the question of whether Asians could testify against whites in court, a key question, apparently, certainly when property was at stake. State law, he argued, prevented blacks, mulattoes, and Indians from testifying, and the omission of Asians from this list, he argued, was simply an excusable error. Moreover, as Indians, it now appeared, had themselves come from Asia, thus their exclusion must apply to the Chinese as well.
The exhaustion of placer mining, the completion of the great railroads projects, plus the vicissitudes of the economy introduced what Sexton called “a sense of deprivation and displacement” that united California’s diverse non-Chinese labor force; this unity came about fueled with anti-Chinese racism. And if the mining barons were out of reach, the Chinese laborers were not. For decades the California labor movement would champion exclusion.

But they were not alone. The Democratic Party swept the 1867 elections on an anti-Chinese platform. Politicians of all stripes and preachers joined what became a chorus of shame; the Reverend Isaac Kalloch, offering a prayer at San Francisco’s 1878 Fourth of July parade, asked that “our rules may be righteous, that our people may be peaceful” but demanded that “the Chinese must go.” Kalloch became San Francisco’s mayor the following year.

The California Workingman’s Party piled on. At the 1878 Constitutional Convention of the Humboldt County Working Man’s Party, delegate J. N. Barton, a Ferndale farmer who supported women’s suffrage and public ownership of the state’s waterways, argued for the need to limit the power of the corporations: “I came here with the determination of working for the interests of the people . . . the corporations will take care of themselves.” But in the same session, delegate Barton deplored “importing and bringing into this state this horde of Mongolian slaves.”

What began as discrimination and segregation became exclusion, though not for all Chinese. The Congress’s 1882 Exclusion Act might have been entitled the “Chinese Laborers Exclusion Act,” as merchants and others continued to be eligible for entry. Chinese elites made peace with the Anglo elites, though they too faced prejudice and hostility. Anglo workmen claimed to see Chinese labor as a variation on slavery, but their solution was to keep out the “slaves”; a solution not always favored by California’s industrialists, merchants, and ranchers.

Aside from the Trinity miners, few Chinese made their way to the North Coast, and those that did fared no better than those they left behind; ostracized and oppressed, they lived separate from the whites, working chiefly as cooks and cleaners, sometimes servants and sometimes laborers.

A search of local histories reveals their presence but tells little about the circumstances of their lives, though we get a glimpse in an 1883 Harper’s Monthly magazine piece:

“At Duncan’s camps [apparently several miles inland in the hills above the Russian River in Sonoma County] almost every European nationality was represented — French, German, Norwegian, Spanish, English, Scotch, and Irish, not to speak of Americans, Chinese and ‘Indians not taxed.’ [sic] . . . It is a curious social life existing in these forest communities, the membership of which is constantly changing, and whose scene is annually shifted. At this camp there were only two families, but they had nothing to do with the housing or feeding of the sixty or more men (half Chinese), who messed by themselves, and slept in slab shanties nearby, the Chinamen having a group of well mottoed [sic] houses to themselves.

John Chinamen is in force here, as everywhere, for all help-work, His slight, wiry frame, with its shoulder under the lever, shows as much tough strength as that of his burly white neighbor, and he grinds all day at the fed-cutter, or totes kegs of water, balanced across his neck, up and down the rough declivities from morning till night, without seeming to tire out or ever thinking of a holiday. His is also to manage the kitchen of the camp.

In the 1880s the Chinese were driven from towns along the full length of the Pacific Coast. In 1885, mobs forced Humboldt Chinese onto steamships and sent them south to San Francisco. In 1892, Chinese laborers working on the Noyo tunnel east of Fort Bragg were beaten by white workers and chased from the town. There were, however, small (tiny) “Chinatowns” in Fort Bragg and Mendocino well into the twentieth century.


The workers in the woods felled the giant trees; it might take a team of six a week to down one tree. The trees had to be carefully laid to rest, lest they shatter — a blanket of brush and branches was woven to soften the fall; the thick, red bark also protected the fallen tree. Black powder and dynamite were commonplace — giant logs were blown into manageable bits. On Big River at Mendocino — in common practice — huge logs were piled into the river and its tributaries. Downriver a dam was built; when the winter rains came the logs were driven down, the dam was then dynamited and the timber spilled into the mill ponds.

The loggers took down every tree within reach. The slash, the mass of rubble left behind, was burned — limbs, bark, other trees, undergrowth, birds and animals, beds of Redwood Sorrel, the ferns and flowers, everything that could not escape. All perished. Entire (mini) ecosystems were destroyed, leaving the ridges charred, streams unrecognizable. Salmon, forever the staple of the North Coast, became endangered and remain so, in many places extinct. The loggers themselves often emerged from these fires blackened as coal miners, lungs ravished, bodies bent, sometimes broken. The mills themselves were the victims of fires, sometimes repeatedly.

The trees were impossible to move in one piece. The loggers cut the huge logs into sections; then they were hauled one section at a time, first by oxen, then steam engines and by rail, much later trucks and tractors, to the mills. Conditions were dangerous in the hills and brutal in the mills. The workers were known as “timber beasts”; they in turn were subject to discrimination when the heavy rains of winter forced them out of the woods; they became homeless men, as often as not despised by town’s people, their worldly belongings in a bindle.

“Timber beasts”? Why? James Thompson, the lumber industry organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), explained to the Industrial Commission in Washington, DC that these workers “were being murdered on the installment plan . . . they breathe bad air in the camps, that ruins their lungs. They eat bad food. That ruins their stomachs. The foul conditions shorten their lives and make their short lives miserable.” The loggers worked twelve hours a day, often seven days a week, and lived in company shacks, often in company towns. The work in the mills was no better, not easier, not safer: giant saws, horrific noise, dust and smoke, deadly belts. Hospital records reveal the human costs.

By 1900, 40 percent of the old-growth was gone. These are the years remembered on the walls of coastal bars here and in cafes and in the dozens of picture books found in local bookshops. They feature first the fallen trees, then the mills and the towns. Virtually each such tree is accompanied by loggers, posing as if they were “great white hunters,” examples of man conquering nature. The old photos rarely show the land. And nowhere is there a hint of war, conquest, slavery, reservations, ethnic cleansing, privatizing, and exploitation. Why not? The land, wrote a founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1919, was devastated to the extent that it reminded him of war-ravaged “districts in France.” This was no “golden age” and, alas, it was not the end of the story.

Highway 101, now well known to the California tourist, was planned as the artery of the Redwood region, stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge up to Crescent City and the Oregon border. This “Redwood Highway” was built with convict labor — by hundreds of men who lived in camps along the route, working six day weeks throughout the year. It was “improved” in the 1930s with the support of New Deal funding and the volunteers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The purpose of the highway was straightforward — it was meant to open Redwood timberland to the interior — it was to be an alternative to the uncertainties of ships and the sea. After all, much old-growth forest survived. But not for long; the highway cleared a path for trucks and tractors and the ubiquitous chainsaw, and these took the industry into each and every last enclave of standing timber, and within decades the old growth was gone.

By the end of the last century, of the big mills, only the ones in Fort Bragg and Scotia survived, and now the Fort Bragg mill is gone as well. The industry persists; foresters seek out the largest trees, though, if it can be milled, it seems there is no tree too small to take. There are new barons in charge, still reaping profit from these hills. In Mendocino County the Mendocino Redwood Company owns 230,000 acres of timberland. In Humboldt County the Humboldt Redwood company owns 200,000 acres, together more coastal timberland than any other corporation ever has. Both are owned by the Fisher family of San Francisco, owners also of Gap and Banana Republic.

Save the Redwoods?

There were few “Forest Defenders” in the Coastal Ranges; one searches for voices of dissent, and there were some. But the thundering stanzas of Whitman substituted themselves for any authentic retort from the trees.

A murmuring, fateful, giant voice, out of the earth and sky,

Voice of mighty dying tree in the redwood forest dense.

Farewell my brethren,

Farewell O earth and sky, farewell ye neighboring waters,

My time has ended, my term has come.

When anarchist communards as well as socialist colonists settled here they too saw their future in harvesting the big trees — though I think the colonists at the Kaweah Colony in the Sierra never actually brought down a mature redwood. The photo that remains of them is in front of a standing giant — they called it the Karl Marx Tree. It’s since been renamed the General Sherman Tree. Far to the north, the Puget Sound Colonies at Equality and Home had no church, no jail, no saloon, no police — but they had a mill and “the primeval forest . . . everywhere awaiting the Axe.”

There were strikes in the forest, one in 1903. Carlo Tresca, the IWW organizer, visited Italian loggers in Greenwood, Fort Bragg, and Eureka in the spring of 1916. “Fellow Worker” John Pancner of Eureka reported these meetings were “successful” but added: “The Italian and Finnish workers promise us that they will line up their own nationalities, and it is up to us to get the English speaking workers.” Nevertheless, a report from Eureka later that year complained that the “feudal system” persisted.

There was bloody confrontation in 1935 in the aftermath of the San Francisco General Strike. In late summer that year, two communist lawyers, George Anderson and Leo Gallagher, and their assistant Elaine Black drove north along the “Redwood Highway,” intent on assisting beleaguered strikers, eighty of whom were in jail. They marveled, as they drove, at the beauty of the Eel River, “twisting and squirming . . . between great stately redwoods . . . [reaching] for the starry sky. . .”

The lawyers were perhaps unaware that the great trees they admired were by then just remnants, a thin strip of forest along each side of the highway. Just beyond their vision lay vast stretches of wasteland, blackened stumps and ruined streams. The strike, however, was broken, its leaders forced to flee, its rank and file to return to the sixty-hour week, thirty-five cents an hour, and hard lives in logging camps and company shacks, with little time to “marvel” at their victims.

In the aftermath of the next war, the workers struck again, this time for more than two years. They were, however, no match for the united front of the six giant firms that dominated the industry. There is no evidence that these strikes in any way threatened logging as an industry; still, defeat ensured that poverty would endure in California’s northernmost counties and that the timber barons would be free to do as they pleased with the forests.

On labor’s part, an exception was the venture of the leaders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) into the world of conservation. The CIO leadership backed a 1946 bill by the liberal Los Angeles congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, a bill that essentially would have nationalized the entire forest, bringing 2 million acres of forestland under federal control and creating four new national parks — as a monument to the late President Roosevelt and to be for the use of “all the people.” According to Douglas, “Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers Union paid the research costs.” Reuther himself, it seems, was fond of Redwood; he used bits to decorate his Michigan cabin getaway.

It was one of the few proposals ever to treat the forest as a whole. It recognized the scale of the problem, global, and implicitly it recognized that the fate of the forests and the fate of mankind were inextricably linked. It failed. Gahagan herself was driven from office by Richard Nixon in an early campaign that fine-tuned the anti-communist smear.

A first voice for the Redwoods was that of California assemblyman Henry Crabb, who in 1852 argued, to no avail, that the Redwoods remain in the public domain. Crabb was soon to be executed in the Sonora town of Caborca in 1857, victim of an ill-fated “military” adventure into Mexico. In 1879 Carl Schurz, then secretary of the interior, proposed a national park, though, again nothing came of this. John Muir called the Sierra groves “God’s First Temples.” He is reported to have raged, “Any fool can destroy a tree. That sequoia was a seedling in Christ’s time. God has cared for it all these centuries. But God can’t save His sequoias from Greedy men!”

Saving the Redwoods was left to naturalists like Frederick Law Olmsted, who visited the Redwoods of the Western Sierra in the waning years of the nineteenth century. Olmsted certainly had an eye for the beautiful; he proposed the government reserve public lands, to protect their “value to posterity.” He emphasized that the value of the landscape was not in this or that grove but as a whole in the

miles of scenery where cliffs of awful height and rocks of vast magnitude and of varied and exquisite coloring, are banked and fringed and draped and shadowed by the tender foliage of noble and lovely trees and bushes, reflected from the most placid pools, and associated with the most tranquil meadows, the most playful streams, and every variety of soft and peaceful pastoral beauty.

But he judged just 3 percent of the forests could be saved and proposed the salvation of four small islands in this sea of destruction — parkland, pretty much the ones we have today, the still-embattled Redwood National Park included. Olmstead and his son, Brechin writes, “were the great exponents and proponents of the public domain. Jr. moved to California and largely laid the groundwork for the State Park system.” Today, the four parks of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties are home to nearly half the remaining old growth — 48,000 acres of the once 2 million, though marvelous places all.

By the turn of the century, it was widely known that the Redwoods were threatened and the notion of Redwood groves as nature’s cathedrals gained adherents. The Big Basin Redwoods near Santa Cruz were saved in 1902. The founders of the Save-the-Redwoods League, the early twentieth-century organization proposed quite modest goals, though without them it’s conceivable that we might have no old-growth groves at all. Still, while certainly every Redwood tree is worth saving, there has been no challenge, not since that of Helen Gahagan Douglas, to the fact that these forests and the land on which they stand remain private — and their value, to the degree they have value, is to produce profit.

I have not written here about the good times, the times when there were wet winters and long cool summers and peace and quiet in the forest and time and space for animals and flowers. And when people loved and laughed, and about when families had picnics on the beaches, went camping, and had long walks in the woods. All this happened and is part of the story and is important, but it must be seen in context; it is not the whole story. Will our times, the first years of the twenty-first century, be remembered without reference to Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza and Syria? Without reference to inequality, black lives, Katrina, BP, and global warming?

“The West,” wrote the late Californian Wallace Stegner, “is not only beautiful and spacious and exhilarating, it is also very fragile. Westerners would do well to examine their own relation to it, and learn to live in harmony with it, instead of joining those who, as Aldo Leopold said, are trying to remodel the Alhambra with a bulldozer, and proud of the yardage.”

Today people come to Mendocino County above all to see its magnificent coast, its rocky headlands, sea caves, and secluded beaches, and to watch for whales. What is remarkable about this is it was only a few decades ago that these beaches and bluffs were industrial sites. This coast, to a degree, has recovered, helped by the ever-pounding waves of the Pacific. What is remarkable as well is that the forests too can recover, as we glimpse in the delight of the visitor passing along State Highway 128 from inland to the sea through the Navarro Redwoods, not knowing this sliver of second and third growth along the Navarro River offers but a hint of what was once here.

There is much talk of regeneration and sustainability, and rightly so. The problem, however, is that the discussion of “recovery” is dominated by recovery for use; “sustainability” means sustaining the forests for logging again, for profit again. The notion of letting the forest alone, letting it recover itself remains elusive. So too does the idea that our forest lands, all our forest lands, need to be taken back into the public domain — not just for our own sakes now but for the future of the planet.

We might never, not in our lifetimes, see a once, twice logged Redwood forest truly renewed. We may not see unspoiled oak woodlands, or streams teeming once again with salmon, a world where Pomo, Wiyot, and Ohlone and we all are free, a world where neither the fruits of one’s labor nor the wealth of the earth are seen as spoils for others. But we can imagine this world and we can work toward it for the future. It can happen. It begins by facing up to our history. It begins with saying no to war and empire and to the idea that nature is there to be conquered, occupied, and exploited.

The struggle, then, continues — even if just one tree at a time — and because of this, and because there are still forests that might be saved, the story of the Redwood forest remains worth telling. It can be, and should be, read as a repudiation of destiny and empire. It tells us how things turned out, and why in fact they did so. It does not, however, tell us that this had to happen.

Finally, the late historian Edward Thompson once advised fellow socialists to “put on our boots . . . and walk around among the . . . people, listen to them a bit more, have a touch of humility before their experience. . .” The same might be said for the trees, we must walk amongst them and listen and have a touch of humility, and ask again, how anyone with an open mind could walk through an old-growth redwood forest without being humbled.