The Redwood Story - B.C. to 1848

Updated: Jan 11, 2019

Written by Fiona Ross

September 2018

In researching this blog, I have learnt so more about these majestic trees and their fate. It's the wonder of their past, present and future, all of which I think needs closer inspection. I'm not alone, and the Scottish Redwood Trust isn't either.

Before the late 1840s, the coast redwoods flourished in over 2 million acres of California, from the Canadian border to below the Big Sur. Inland, the 'mountain' redwoods, or giant sequoia, grew in groves in Calaveras, in the Sierra Nevada, where westerners first observed them. There are, in fact, three members of the sequoioideae family, one of the 615 global conifer, recorded as the tallest and largest trees in the world. The sequoiadendron giganteum being the tallest - the clue being in the name I reckon.

Before humans walked the earth, pre-dating sequoia trees appeared in fossils relating to the Jurassic period (180 to 135 million years ago), whilst those are now extinct, the modern day redwood is the surviving link (Kirchhoff, 2018).

Victorian plant hunters first named the giant redwoods Wellingtonia, after the Duke of Wellington in the UK and Washingtonia, in the US, after their ‘first’ president George Washington. They are now known as Sequoiadendron giganteum, Sequoia sempervirens and Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Sequoiadendron means ‘sequoia’ to reflect its genus, ‘dendron’ the Greek word for tree and giganteum speaks for itself. Sequoia Sempervirens, identifies sequoia and sempervirens from the Latin meaning ‘always alive’ or ‘evergreen’ (

Metasequoia glyptostroboides (the dawn redwood), which was only discovered in 1946 in China, taking meta from the Greek for ‘akin’ [to sequoia] and sequoia to reflect it relation to the Californian and glyptostroboides due to its connection to another Southeast Asia conifer (Cemetery, 2011).

People started populating North America as early as 20,000 years ago, migrating from Siberia across the Bering Straits, however larger numbers came after the last ice age moving down into South America (Hogenboom, 2017). For thousands of years, these people lived in harmony with their environment, knowing that their ‘unique forest ecosystem’ was intrinsic to life’s cycle (Breyer, 2017).

In 1849, this equilibrium changed forever, when more than 12,000 people ‘the 49-ers’, as they were known, descended upon California seeking fortune in the gold rush. By 1853, numbers had risen to 250,000 people (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018), comparing that to the 160,000 indigenous people living there. Approximately, $2 billion in gold was found, but there were very few prospectors who actually found gold.

It brought wide scale development of cities and towns, and the decimation of the redwood trees as news of these ‘gigantic trees’ spread to the Europe. Today, all three sequoias are on the ‘endangered conifer’ list worldwide – the Dawn Redwood is on the ‘critically endangered’ list (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2018). Their current threat, also being by human cause, is climate change bringing drought.

There had been word, small rumours more like about huge trees (Sequoiadenron giganteum) in California dating back into the 18th century, but exact locations were unclear. However, the first accurate word of the ‘largest trees’ in the world, came in 1852, from an animal hunter named Augustus T. Dowd who came across a glade of redwoods whilst chasing down a bear. Dowd on returning to camp exclaimed 'I've found the biggest tree in the world'. But, no-one believed him as there was suggestion that he was a 'drinker'. Yet, Dowd persevered and eventually convinced a crew to return to the site with him. They were astonished, and news of the Discovery Tree spread fast and people clamoured there to see for themselves. (St. George, 2018). In 1853, the first redwood in the Calaveras glade was felled. It took five men and 22 days. It was and 1300 years old. The remaining stump was used as a dance floor.

In that same year, two Scottish brothers, who were in Californian during the gold rush, came across the trees and wrote home immediately to share their discovery (and seeds) with their father. Landowner Patrick Matthew of Gourdiehill in Grange, Perthshire, Scotland (Oates, 2016). He received the seeds in August 1853 and proceeded to cultivate them immediately. He was the first person in Europe to do so.

Back in California, many of the prospectors who didn’t find gold became loggers and returned to the coastal redwood glades to harvest the "red gold" found in the forests. The native Americans had been using it to build houses for thousands of years, and gold-rush population explosion needed housing and amenities (Californian State Parks).

Written by Fiona Ross, Co-founder of the Scottish Redwood Trust.

Next time:'The Giant Sequoia of Gillies Hill under Threat' by Peggy Edwards, Californian redwood aficionado!

Breyer, M, 2017. Treehugger. ‘11 facts about coast redwoods, the tallest trees in the world’

Californian State Parks: Redwood Ed: A Guide to the Coast Redwoods for Learners and Teachers.

· Cemetery, M.A. 2011. Horticulture Highlights: Metasequoia glyptostroboides.

Hogenboom, 2017. BBC Earth.

Kirchhoff, H. 2018 The Difference between Sequois Sempervirens and Sequoia Giganteum.

Oates, J. 2016. Of Seeds and Saplings: A Race to Plant the Giant Trees of Tay. TLP.

International Conifer Conservation Programme. Threatened Conifers of the World. 2018.

St George, Zach. Smithsonian Magazine.

Tikkanen, A. 2018. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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