Interesting questions come my way occasionally, and sometimes the answers surprise me. Here’s a recent example.
Back in August, I was asked if I could come up with evidence to “prove” the reliability of the story that is usually told about how the General Sherman Tree of Sequoia National Park obtained its name. Proving anything historical is always a tricky business, but I promised to look into it.
The official story, which has been published in national park publications for many decades, is that the tree was named on August 7, 1879. On that day a cowboy and fur trapper named James Wolverton is reputed to have discovered the tree. The story goes on to state that since this was the biggest tree Wolverton had ever seen, and since he had served under Sherman during the Civil War, Wolverton named the tree after the general, whom he greatly respected.
So how does a historian “prove” that a story of this sort is true? The answer is to seek out contemporary evidence that confirms the story but remain skeptical until such evidence is found. This is what I set out to do.
I have always been a little suspicious about the truthfulness of this story. First, the date is just too specific. Why would a cowboy, camping rough for months at a time, remember the exact date on which he first encountered a particular tree? It’s not impossible, but somehow it doesn’t feel right.
And, if the story is to be believed, why did Wolverton center his attention on this specific tree? Using only the naked eye, several nearby trees look just as large as the General Sherman, including the monarch sequoias now named Lincoln and President. Indeed, modern measurements show these three trees to be relatively close in overall size.
So, with more than a little skepticism, I went looking for evidence. Specifically, I sought a written document that could confirm early use of the General Sherman name. In this I struck out. I could not find a single mention of the “General Sherman Tree” in the decade following the tree’s supposed christening in 1879.
Congress created Sequoia National Park in 1890, and beginning in 1891, U. S. Army troops came each summer to the new park to protect the trees. As you might expect, these soldiers produced reports and other documents. Surely I would find the Sherman Tree mentioned there.
And, after a long search, I eventually did, but not as early as I expected. Not until 1897, in fact, did soldiers first write down the name “General Sherman Tree” in a report. That summer, they documented, they placed a sign on the tree with that name.
So, I then asked, could I find any other mention of this tree between 1879 and 1897? That proved easier. Beginning in 1884, a socialist Utopian group known as the Kaweah Colony explored the Giant Forest area with the goal of ultimately logging the area. The colonists identified the very large tree and gave it a name – “Karl Marx.”
When the soldiers arrived in the spring of 1891 to protect the new national park, they expelled from the park those Kaweah colonists who were still present. Did they also throw out the “Karl Marx” name? And did those same soldiers also come up after 1890 with a new, military name for the tree? One has to wonder.
I pursued my research a bit farther, this time seeking the first reference I could find in print mentioning the James Wolverton connection. To my surprise, I could find nothing earlier than a park guide published in 1921 – a full forty-two years after the supposed event.
So where does all this leave us? Nowhere very clear, I must admit. There is, as best I can determine, no contemporary evidence to support the 1879 story and in fact the full story does not show up in print until over forty years later – a time lapse that at best makes one pause.
In the end, all I could tell the person who first got me started on this was that the official story that the tree was named in 1879 by James Wolverton cannot be proved and seems shaky. Beyond that, despite apparent plausibility, the alternative argument that the army named the tree is founded on nothing more than circumstantial evidence.
And there you have it. You can believe the official story, even if it is weak and un-provable, or you can draw your own conclusions from the circumstantial evidence. The choice is yours.
Sometimes, history just doesn’t provide the clear answers we seek.
© Wm. Tweed