On a mission on Independence Day

Independence Day, anniversary no. 241 is upon us, a holiday surely on the short list of important ones in the United States. There’s no end to the philosophical and political ideas that can be, and have been, expounded upon. But as for me, I’m thinking about connections inspired by the research and personal reading I’ve been doing lately. Bear with me grizzlies, while I attempt to connect genetic research on rare California plants to American history.

I started graduate school in genetics, not ecology, and that field has always been the most fascinating to me. I’m in fact currently working on a topic that bridges the two fields, referred to as genetic biocontrol, the aim of which is to use genetic methods to reduce fitness, and hence population sizes, of harmful or otherwise unwanted species. So, I was sad to learn in a recent special issue devoted to the work of Dr. Leslie Gottlieb of UC Davis, on polyploid genetics, that he had passed away five years ago. The major focal taxon of Gottlieb’s work was the genus Clarkia, and I had some good conversations with him when I was doing restoration and propagation work on a very rare Clarkia (C. lingulata) endemic to the Merced River canyon, the main river flowing into, and through, Yosemite Valley. This is a famous species in plant genetics, cited in textbooks as an example of instantaneous speciation (see here and here), derived from it’s progenitor, Clarkia biloba. Clarkia lingulata is found in only two populations near the junction of the South Fork Merced with its main stem, a few miles west of the western boundary of Yosemite National Park.

Said River of Mercy is not merciful this year though, or any time at high water, should you happen to be in it. It is uncontrolled, and at high water rages through a steep, boulder filled death sieve as it leaves Yosemite Valley and heads for the San Joaquin. I still remember well the day that a woman, with her three kids, fell asleep at the wheel after driving all night, and drove off the road and into the river at daybreak, just above this location, drowning them all. When I was kayaking, the Merced was the only river that ever scared me off the river, although part of that was due to being solo and exhausted, which is a full-on recipe for disaster. There is also some very interesting history regarding Clarkia lingulata‘s location, one involving the cause of the American discovery of Yosemite Valley in 1851, but I won’t go into that here.

In one of our discussions, Les discussed some aspects of another rare Clarkia species he was working with, Clarkia franciscana. The species is so named because it is found only in the immediate area of the San Francisco Presidio–and this makes for a segue from genetics to history, involving the SF Presidio, Spain, Mexico and the United States, Upper (or New) California, and July of 1776.

The history of what is now the state of California has, I think, to rank as one of the most interesting of any in the world, and especially so from 1846 to 1850. Just a week before the momentous event in Philadelphia, a small group of Spanish Franciscans, with a small military escort, arrived from the Carmel River area (just south of present Monterey, CA), to extend the Spanish Upper California dominion northward by establishing their third presidio (military base and/or fort, the first two being at San Diego and Monterey in 1769/1770), and with it another mission of course. These establishments were significant because both were to carry the name of the order’s founder, Saint Francis of Assisi.

On June 27 1776, this group came upon a small creek draining the peninsular hills east (toward San Francisco Bay), which they named Dolores, and decided that this would serve as the future mission site. On June 29 they established an altar and consecrated the site, and then began looking for a strategic location for the presidio and fort, which they located on a high bluff commanding the narrow entrance to the bay (the “Golden Gate”), just to the water side of what is now the southern anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge.

A depiction of Mission Dolores circa 1893 by Edward Borein

At this point, books worth of material could be inserted discussing the Spanish (and after 1822, Mexican) discovery, settlement and management of Upper California, and with jaw fairly agape at both the process and the end result (circa 1848), for much of it. And we, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, wouldn’t be the first to do so either–the Russians, the British, and especially the Americans, of that time, did so also. It’s documented in various writings, which are for me at least, entirely fascinating. Some of it seems to defy logic. If anyone could write an authoritative book titled “Imperial expansion: how not to do it”, it would have to be the Spanish and/or Mexicans.

To say that things went downhill for the Spanish from 1776 to 1848 would be the understatement of the century. Twenty-one missions were established in Upper California during the “mission period” from 1769 to the American conquest in 1846, but for various reasons including Russian presence starting around 1805, only two north of Mission Dolores (Missions San Rafael and Solano), and both of those quite late in the game. The events in Philadelphia five days after consecration of the Mission San Francisco de Assis (= Dolores) site, caused the Spanish to pull back on several intended plans in northwestern New Spain, now the western United States, including expansion north of San Francisco Bay and another plan for a series of missions in the interior lands east and south of it.

Mission Dolores circa 1842 by Henry Miller

One argument has it that in so doing the Spanish were hoping to marshall their energies to re-claim parts of Spanish Florida lost initially to the French, and hence to the British after 1763, thinking that the Revolutionary War might offer their best chance to do so. But this plan, along with apparently about everything the Spanish and Mexicans did from 1800-1850, backfired. Not only did they not increase Spanish Florida, they quickly lost what they already had. This was followed later (1822) by the entire loss of New Spain, i.e. Mexican independence. The fracturing of the once vast Spanish empire then continued as the Mexicans in turn quickly lost Texas to independence, whose annexation by the United States about a decade later thus led to the Mexican-American war. In amazingly short order therein, they then managed to not only not reclaim Texan territory, but instead to astoundingly quickly lose both California and New Mexico. This was followed in less than a year by surrender, and with it the additional loss of what are now roughly the states of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The total area is a large and very valuable chunk of real estate, by any standard.

I’m no historian, though I read my fair share, but compared to the serious difficulties and drain of two wars with the British spanning 40 years, and the even more extended and often ferocious wars with various Native American tribes, this sudden acquisition of a vast, important territory without much of a fight stands out. James Marshall discovered gold in the tail race of John Sutter’s sawmill east of what is now Sacramento just about two weeks before the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ceded all this territory to the United States. That this should happen to a people who had historically been obsessed and sometimes deluded by various fantastic stories regarding that material, kind of says it all. Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery secret for a couple of months but that was a lost cause, and they likely knew it–it was a virtual certainty that the gold veins and placer deposits that ran up and down half the Sierra Nevada, and elsewhere, would be found in almost no time by those about to pour unobstructed into what was now the United States. And so they poured. And the rest as they say…

Threaded between tragedies

August 24…just as we were commencing the ascent of the mountain, several Indians made their appearance, about fifty yards from the trail. The leader and chief was an old man, with a deeply-furrowed face. I rode towards him, holding out my hand in token of friendship. He motioned me not to advance further, but to pass on and leave him, as he desired to have no communication with us. I insisted upon the reason of this unfriendly demonstration; assuring him, as well as I could by signs, that we desired to be at peace, and to do them no harm. His response was, if I understood it, that we, the whites, had slaughtered his men, taken his women and children into captivity, and driven him out of his country. I endeavored to assure him that we were not of those who had done him and his tribe these wrongs, and held out my hand a second time, and moved to approach him. With great energy of gesticulation, and the strongest signs of excited aversion and dread, he again motioned us not to come nearer to him, but to pass on and leave him. The other Indians, some six or eight in number, took no part in the dialogue, but were standing in a line, several yards from their chief, with their bows and arrows in their hands. Finding that it would be useless, perhaps dangerous, to press our friendship further, we continued our march. I have but little doubt, that these Indians are the remnant of some tribe that has been wantonly destroyed in some of the bloody Indian slaughters which have occurred in California.

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Rough and Ready

In the fall of 1849, the “Rough and Ready Company” of emigrants, under Captain Townsend, composed of some dozen men, from Shellsburg, Wisconsin, arrived by the Truckee route at a point on Deer Creek near the mouth of Slate Creek; they mined successfully there, a few weeks in the bed of the creek; one of their number went out to kill some game, deer and grizzly being plentiful, and in quenching his thirst at the clear stream of the ravine below Randolph Flat, discovered a piece of gold on the naked bed-rock. Consequent prospecting by the company satisfied them that the new found diggings were rich, and removing their camp, they prepared winter quarters by building two log cabins on the point of the hill east from and overlooking the present town of Rough and Ready. Two of their number struck out through the woods “on a bee line” for Sacramento, to procure provisions, and thus made the first wagon tracks on what afterward became the Telegraph road. From the name of this company, the settlement and town afterward derived its designation…

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Warner, 1833

Just one reason why I will never tire of reading history and exploration, extracted from:
Anonymous (1891). A Memorial and Biographical History of Northern California. Lewis Publishing Co., Chicago IL.

Colonel J. J. Warner, now of Los Angeles, a member of the Ewing trapping expedition, which passed north through these valleys in 1832, and back again in 1833, says:

“In the fall of 1832, there were a number of Indian villages on King’s River, between its mouth and the mountains; also on the San Joaquin River, from the base of the mountains down to and some distance below the great slough. On the Merced River, from the mountains to its junction with the San Joaquin, there were no Indian villages; but from about this point on the San Joaquin, as well as on its principal tributaries, the Indian villages were numerous, many of them containing some fifty to one hundred dwellings, built with poles and thatched with rushes. With some few exceptions, the Indians were peaceably disposed. On the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Calaveras rivers there were no Indian villages above the mouths, as also at or near their junction with the San Joaquin. The most hostile were on the Calaveras River. The banks of the Sacramento River, in its whole course through the valley, was studded with Indian villages, the houses of which, in the spring, during the day-time, were red with the salmon the aborigines were curing.

At this time there were not, on the San Joaquin or Sacramento river, or any of their tributaries, nor within the valleys of the two rivers, any inhabitants but Indians. On no part of the continent over which I had then, or have since, traveled, was so numerous an Indian population, subsisting on the natural products of the soil and waters, as in the valleys of the San Joaquin and Sacramento. There was no cultivation of the soil by them; game, fish, nuts of the forest and seeds of the field constituted their entire food. They were experts in catching fish in many ways, and in snaring game in diverse modes.

On our return, late in the summer of 1833,we found the valleys depopulated. From the head of the Sacramento to the great bend and slough of the San Joaquin we did not see more than six or eight live Indians, while large numbers of their bodies and skulls were to be seen under almost every shade-tree near water, where the uninhabited and deserted villages had been converted into grave-yards; and on the San Joaquin River, in the immediate neighborhood of the larger class of villages, which the preceding year were the abodes of large numbers of these Indians, we found not only many graves, but the vestiges of a funeral pyre. At the mouth of King’s River we encountered the first and only village of the stricken race that we had seen after entering the great valley; this village contained a large number of Indians temporarily stopping at that place.

We were encamped near the village one night only, and during that time the death angel, passing over the camping-ground of the plague stricken fugitives, waved his wand, summoning from a little remnant of a once numerous people a score of victims to muster in the land of the Manitou; and the cries of the dying, mingling with the wails of the bereaved, made the night hideous in that veritable valley of death.

History N CA cover

A massive mess of old tree data

I’m going to start focusing more on science topics here, as time allows. I’ll start by focusing for a while on some forest ecology topics that I’ve been working on, and/or which are closely related to them.

I’m working on some forest dynamics questions involving historical, landscape scale forest conditions and associated fire patterns. I just got done assembling a tree demography database of about 130,000 trees collected in about 1700 plots, in the early 20th century, on the Eldorado and Stanislaus National Forests (ENF, SNF), the two National Forests that occupy the mid- to upper-elevations on the relatively gradual western slope of the central Sierra Nevada. The data were collected primarily between 1911 and 1923 as censuses of large plots (by today’s standards, each ~2 or 4 acres) as part of the first USFS timber inventories, when it was still trying to figure out just what it had on its hands, and how it would manage it over time. An enormous amount of work was involved in this effort, but only a small part of these data has apparently survived.

The data are “demographic” in that the diameter and taxon were recorded for most trees, making them useful for a number of analytical purposes in landscape, community and population ecology. They come from two datasets that I discovered between 1997 and 2001, one in the ENF headquarters building, and the other in the National Archives facility in San Bruno CA. For each, I photocopied the data at that time, and had some of it entered into a database, hoping that I would eventually get time to analyze them. For the ENF data, this was a fortunate decision, because the ENF, as I later learned, has managed in the mean time to lose the entire data set, most likely along with a bunch of other valuable stuff that was in the office housing it. I thus now have the only known backup. Anyway, that time finally came, but the data were in such a mess that I first had to spend about three months checking and cleaning them before they could be analyzed. The data will soon be submitted as a data paper to the journal Ecology, it being one of the very few journals that has adopted this new paper format. In a data paper, one simply presents and describes a data set deemed to be of value to the general scientific community. There is in fact a further mountain of data and other information beyond these, but whether they’ll ever see the light of publication is uncertain.

An example first page of one of many old field reports and data summaries involved

An example first page of one of many old field reports and data summaries involved

We, and others, are interested in these data for estimating landscape scale forest conditions before they were heavily altered by humans via changed natural fire regimes, logging, and grazing (primarily). These changes began in earnest after about 1850, and have generally increased with time. This knowledge can help inform some important current questions involving forest restoration and general ecosystem stability, including fire and hydrologic regimes, timber production potential, biological diversity, and some spin off topics like carbon dynamics. They can directly address some claims that have been made recently regarding the pre-settlement fire regimes in California and elsewhere, in certain papers.

The data assembly was much slower and more aggravating than expected–I won’t go into it but I’ll never do it again–but the analysis is, and will be, very interesting for quite some time, as much can be done with it. Some of the summary or explanatory documentation associated with the data is entirely fascinating, as is some of the other old literature and data that I’ve been reading over as part of the project. In fact I’m easily distracted into reading more of it than is often strictly necessary, but so doing has reminded me that a qualitative, verbal description can be of much greater value than actual data, scientific situation depending. Possibly the most interesting and important aspect to this is the degree to which really important information has been either lost, completely forgotten about, or never discovered to begin with. This is not trivial–I’m talking about a really large amount of detailed data and extensive, detailed summary documentation. Early views and discussions regarding fire and forest management, and the course these should take in CA, are extensive and very revealing, as we now look back 100 years later on the effects of important decisions made then. There are also lessons in federal archiving and record keeping.

I’ll be posting various things as time allows, including discussions of methods and approaches in this type of research. I’m also applying for a grant to cover the cost of free pizza at the end, although to be honest I’ve not had great success on same in the past. You might be surprised at the application numbers and success rates on that kind of thing.

Range o’ Light

Not sure I ever needed to be reading anything else really, although I have pulled some rather great historical stuff out of Google Books recently so hurray for the internet I guess. And I don’t know what hoops Stephen Whitney had to jump through do to get that picture of lodgepole pine bark on his cover but man do I love it.


“Fearfully wild, with a blaze of quick electric light in his dark eye”

Never in several lifetimes of dreams and visions will I ever tire of reading the works of this man.

Visalia is the name of a small town embowered in oaks upon the Tulare Plain in Middle California, where we made our camp one May evening of 1864. Professor Whitney, our chief, the State Geologist, had sent us out for a summer’s campaign in the High Sierras, under the lead of Professor William H. Brewer, who was more sceptical than I as to the result of the mission.

Several times during the previous winter Mr. Hoffman and I, while on duty at the Mariposa gold-mines, had climbed to the top of Mount Bullion, and gained, in those clear January days, a distinct view of the High Sierra, ranging from the Mount Lyell group many miles south to a vast pile of white peaks, which, from our estimate, should lie near the heads of the King’s and Kaweah rivers. Of their great height I was fully persuaded; and Professor Whitney, on the strength of these few observations, commissioned us to explore and survey the new Alps.

We numbered five in camp:—Professor Brewer; Mr. Charles F. Hoffman, chief topographer; Mr. James T. Gardiner, assistant surveyor; myself, assistant geologist; and our man-of-all-work, to whom science already owes its debts.

When we got together our outfit of mules and equipments of all kinds, Brewer was going to reengage, as general aid, a certain Dane, Jan Hoesch, who, besides being a faultless mule-packer, was a rapid and successful financier, having twice, when the field-purse was low and remittances delayed, enriched us by what he called “dealing bottom stock” in his little evening games with the honest miners. Not ungrateful for that, I, however, detested the fellow with great cordiality. “If I don’t take him, will you be responsible for packing mules and for daily bread?” said Brewer to me, the morning of our departure from Oakland. “I will.” “Then we’ll take your man Cotter; only, when the pack-saddles roll under the mules’ bellies, I shall light my pipe and go botanizing. Sabe?”

So my friend, Richard Cotter, came into the service, and the accomplished but filthy Jan opened a poker and rum shop on one of the San Francisco wharves, where he still mixes drinks and puts up jobs of “bottom stock.” Secretly I longed for him as we came down the Pacheco Pass, the packs having loosened with provoking frequency.

The animals of our small exploring party were upon a footing of easy social equality with us. All were excellent except mine. The choice of Hobson (whom I take to have been the youngest member of some company) falling naturally to me, I came to be possessed of the only hopeless animal in the band. Old Slum, a dignified roan mustang of a certain age, with the decorum of years and a conspicuous economy of force retained not a few of the affectations of youth, such as snorting theatrically and shying, though with absolute safety to the rider, Professor Brewer. Hoffman’s mount was a young half-breed, full of fire and gentleness. The mare Bess, my friend Gardiner’s pet, was a light-bay creature, as full of spring and perception as her sex and species may be. A rare mule, Cate, carried Cotter. Nell and Jim, two old geological mules, branded with Mexican hieroglyphics from head to tail, were bearers of the loads.

My Buckskin was incorrigibly bad. To begin with, his anatomy was desultory and incoherent, the maximum of physical effort bringing about a slow, shambling gait quite unendurable. He was further cursed with a brain wanting the elements of logic, as evinced by such non sequiturs as shying insanely at wisps of hay, and stampeding beyond control when I tried to tie him to a load of grain. My sole amusement with Buckskin grew out of a psychological peculiarity of his, namely, the unusual slowness with which waves of sensation were propelled inward toward the brain from remote parts of his periphery. A dig of the spurs administered in the flank passed unnoticed for a period of time varying from twelve to thirteen seconds, till the protoplasm of the brain received the percussive wave; then, with a suddenness which I never wholly got over, he would dash into a trot, nearly tripping himself up with his own astonishment.

A stroke of good fortune completed our outfit and my happiness by bringing to Visalia a Spaniard who was under some manner of financial cloud. His horse was offered for sale, and quickly bought for me by Professor Brewer. We named him Kaweah, after the river and its Indian tribe. He was young, strong, fleet, elegant, a pattern of fine modelling in every part of his bay body and fine black legs; every way good, only fearfully wild, with a blaze of quick electric light in his dark eye.

Shortly after sunrise one fresh morning we made a point of putting the packs on very securely, and, getting into our saddles, rode out toward the Sierras. The group of farms surrounding Visalia is gathered within a belt through which several natural, and many more artificial, channels of the Kaweah flow. Groves of large, dark-foliaged oaks follow this irrigated zone; the roads, nearly always in shadow, are flanked by small ranch-houses, fenced in with rank jungles of weeds and rows of decrepit pickets.

Our backs were now turned to this farm-belt, the road leading us out upon the open plain in our first full sight of the Sierras. Grand and cool swelled up the forest; sharp and rugged rose the wave of white peaks, their vast fields of snow rolling over the summit in broad, shining masses. Sunshine, exuberant vegetation, brilliant plant life, occupied our attention hour after hour until the middle of the second day. At last, after climbing a long, weary ascent, we rode out of the dazzling light of the foot-hills into a region of dense woodland, the road winding through avenues of pines so tall that the late evening light only came down to us in scattered rays. Under the deep shade of these trees we found an air pure and gratefully cool.

Passing from the glare of the open country into the dusky forest, one seems to enter a door and ride into a vast covered hall. The whole sensation is of being roofed and enclosed. You are never tired of gazing down long vistas, where, in stately groups, stand tall shafts of pine. Columns they are, each with its own characteristic tinting and finish, yet all standing together with the air of relationship and harmony. Feathery branches, trimmed with living green, wave through the upper air, opening broken glimpses of the far blue, and catching on their polished surfaces reflections of the sun. Broad streams of light pour in, gilding purple trunks and falling in bright pathways along an undulating floor. Here and there are wide, open spaces, around which the trees group themselves in majestic ranks.

Our eyes often ranged upward, the long shafts leading the vision up to green, lighted spires, and on to the clouds. All that is dark and cool and grave in color, the beauty of blue umbrageous distance, all the sudden brilliance of strong local lights tinted upon green boughs or red and fluted shafts, surround us in ever-changing combination as we ride along these winding roadways of the Sierra.

We had marched a few hours over high, rolling, wooded ridges, when in the late afternoon we reached the brow of an eminence and began to descend. Looking over the tops of the trees beneath us, we saw a mountain basin fifteen hundred feet deep surrounded by a rim of pine-covered hills. An even, unbroken wood covered these sweeping slopes down to the very bottom, and in the midst, open to the sun, lay a circular green meadow, about a mile in diameter.

As we descended, side wood-tracks, marked by the deep ruts of timber wagons, joined our road on either side, and in the course of an hour we reached the basin and saw the distant roofs of Thomas’s Saw-Mill Ranch. We crossed the level disc of meadow, fording a clear, cold mountain stream, flowing, as the best brooks do, over clean, white granite sand, and near the northern margin of the valley, upon a slight eminence, in the edge of a magnificent forest, pitched our camp.

The hills to the westward already cast down a sombre shadow, which fell over the eastern hills and across the meadow, dividing the basin half in golden and half in azure green. The tall young grass was living with purple and white flowers. This exquisite carpet sweeps up over the bases of the hills in green undulations, and strays far into the forest in irregular fields. A little brooklet passed close by our camp and flowed down the smooth green glacis which led from our little eminence to the meadow. Above us towered pines two hundred and fifty feet high, their straight, fluted trunks smooth and without a branch for a hundred feet. Above that, and on to the very tops, the green branches stretched out and interwove, until they spread a broad, leafy canopy from column to column.

Professor Brewer determined to make this camp a home for the week during which we were to explore and study all about the neighborhood. We were on a great granite spur, sixty miles from east to west by twenty miles wide, which lies between the Kaweah and King’s River cañons. Rising in bold sweeps from the plain, this ridge joins the Sierra summit in the midst of a high group. Experience had taught us that the cañons are impassable by animals for any great distance; so the plan of campaign was to find a way up over the rocky crest of the spur as far as mules could go.

In the little excursions from this camp, which were made usually on horseback, we became acquainted with the forest, and got a good knowledge of the topography of a considerable region. On the heights above King’s Cañon are some singularly fine assemblies of trees. Cotter and I had ridden all one morning northeast from camp under the shadowy roof of forest, catching but occasional glimpses out over the plateau, until at last we emerged upon the bare surface of a ridge of granite, and came to the brink of a sharp precipice. Rocky crags lifted just east of us. The hour devoted to climbing them proved well spent.

A single little family of alpine firs growing in a niche in the granite surface, and partly sheltered by a rock, made the only shadow, and just shielded us from the intense light as we lay down by their roots. North and south, as far as the eye could reach, heaved the broad, green waves of plateau, swelling and merging through endless modulation of slope and form.

Conspicuous upon the horizon, about due east of us, was a tall, pyramidal mass of granite, trimmed with buttresses which radiated down from its crest, each one ornamented with fantastic spires of rock. Between the buttresses lay stripes of snow, banding the pale granite peak from crown to base. Upon the north side it fell off, grandly precipitous, into the deep upper cañon of King’s River. This gorge, after uniting a number of immense rocky amphitheatres, is carved deeply into the granite two and three thousand feet. In a slightly curved line from the summit it cuts westward through the plateau, its walls, for the most part, descending in sharp, bare slopes, or lines of ragged débris, the resting-place of processions of pines. We ourselves were upon the brink of the south wall; three thousand feet below us lay the valley, a narrow, winding ribbon of green, in which, here and there, gleamed still reaches of the river. Wherever the bottom widened to a quarter or half a mile, green meadows and extensive groves occupied the level region. Upon every niche and crevice of the walls, up and down sweeping curves of easier descent, were grouped black companies of trees.

The behavior of the forest is observed most interestingly from these elevated points above the general face of the table-land. All over the gentle undulations of the more level country sweeps an unbroken covering of trees. Reaching the edge of the cañon precipices, they stand out in bold groups upon the brink, and climb all over the more ragged and broken surfaces of granite. Only the most smooth and abrupt precipices are bare. Here and there a little shelf of a foot or two in width, cracked into the face of the bluff, gives foothold to a family of pines, who twist their roots into its crevices and thrive. With no soil from which the roots may drink up moisture and absorb the slowly dissolved mineral particles, they live by breathing alone, moist vapors from the river below and the elements of the atmosphere affording them the substance of life.

Memories of Marshall

From Memories of Marshall by Bro. J.R. Smith
The Grizzly Bear (1908) Vol. 4, no. 2, p. 4

While as Native Sons and Daughters we are very proud to respect and revere and ever keep in memory the good deeds of General John A. Sutter, I sometimes feel that we forget one who performed a most prominent part in the history of this great California — and that one was James W. Marshall — when on the 24th day of January, 1848, he picked up a nugget of gold in the millrace at Coloma, El Dorado County, California. This act is one that can never be repeated, for it opened to the world the greatest gold fields ever known … I sometimes think we as Native Sons and Daughters fail to return our gratefulness to him who first discovered gold in California…

Marshall was an eccentric sort of a man and he often drank to excess, and when under the influence of liquor was considerable of a bore, but when sober was a man of few words and one that read a great deal. He was continually chewing tobacco and when he would get a stranger in the corner, he began to so spray him with tobacco juice the fellow would have paid almost any price for an umbrella. He was a great believer in spiritualism and when he got the spirits out of the bottle mixed with the other ones he was a source of amusement for us boys, who all were his friends.

Marshall was never married and usually did his own cooking. I never knew of him preparing a banquet, but some of the dishes he cooked would have puzzled a chemist. He usually had an old butcher knife which he preferred to use at home or abroad and which he carried in a scabbard in his belt. I have known him to boil a salted codfish and take about the same amount of cheese and put into a crock, mix in some onions and cover the whole mess with wine, and after it got to thoroughly working it would make a tannery blush with shame. I have seen him, when drinking, dip his hands into this crock and put a handful of the mixture on some bread, and he seemed to enjoy it as he would a week-cooked meal…

Although Marshall was the first person to pick up gold, he never did but very little, if any mining. At his death he owned some mining property which he claimed the spirits said was very rich, and after his death the parties that purchased it took from it quite an amount of gold. He was a wheelwright by trade and often in his latter years did odd jobs at carpenter work. At his death he was penniless, having a little property, but no money. On one or two occasions the boys gave a benefit dance to keep the old fellow from suffering. The last two or three years of his life he drank very little and I often think that sometimes he suffered for the necessities of life, for he was a man of very proud nature — rather give than receive. He was kind hearted to a fault and believed that right never wronged any one. His word was as good as gold and if any one failed to keep a promise with him that would put an end to his friendship forever.

For a couple of years the State gave him $200 per month; then the next Legislature cut it to $100, and the next discontinued it entirely, the report going abroad that he squandered it all for liquor, which was not true, for he loaned considerable money, some he spent in writing a book of his life, that proved a failure, and some he spent in hiring men to prospect for him. In his later years he applied to the Legislature by petition for a smalt amount, but a representative from his own county fought the measure and it was defeated. When Marshall was told that such was the case, he said: “I have asked for bread and they gave me stone.” After his death the State erected a monument at Coloma costing several thousand dollars, and ever since they have kept a man at a cost of $50 per month to care for it.

If we are to believe…

…the contents of a manuscript found in 1879 in a tree on the Middle Fork of the Feather River, the first persons of Caucasian blood to penetrate the Butte County area were two soldiers who had wandered from the army of Cortez while the latter was in Mexico, in 1519. The story of the finding of this manuscript is a most interesting one. In the month of April, in the year 1879, a tree was cut down by two miners on the Middle Fork of the Feather. The outside appearance of the tree indicated that it was solid throughout. The tree however, proved to be hollow inside, and in this hollow a roll of manuscript was found, written in Spanish and wrapped in such a manner that the writing was preserved. The hole in the tree had grown over with the lapse of years. The manuscript purported to give an account of two men who had strayed from the army of Cortez and who had made their way north as far as the place where the manuscript was deposited. The date of the deposit was not given, the two soldiers apparently having lost track of time. The manuscript was written in old Spanish, and was finally sent to Madrid for interpretation.

Mansfield, G.C. 1918. History of Butte County, California, p.36. Historic Record Company, Los Angeles CA.

The Indian system

Just about as prescient, and early, of a description of the California wildland fire and forest development problem as you will find:

As regards the growth of young timber—save only among the heavy redwood forests—the number of young trees which within the last decade or two has sprung up, is very great. All the open pine forests, back of the coast, are becoming rapidly stocked with young trees, and much of the open grazing land is rapidly being converted into brush or becoming covered with young saplings—generally Douglas spruce [Douglas-fir] or yellow [ponderosa] pine.

The cause of this increase is unquestionably the cessation of the old Indian practice (formerly general) of running fires through the country to keep it open to facilitate hunting, or in driving game before the flames into enclosures set with snares. Under this system about half the ground was burned over each year, in alternate halves; thereby the open lands were kept free of brush and all growth of young trees was checked in the forests. The older, well matured trees, however, suffered very little, as so little undergrowth could mature between one fire and another, that sufficient heat was not developed to hurt older trees, fairly covered with bark and with limbs some distance above the ground. In fact, the Indian system became in some sense a method of forest preservation, and to it we undoubtedly owe the noble forests which were transmitted to our hands.

We may acknowledge this debt to the red man, although his methods may no longer be available in a growing country studded if only sparsely with improvements. The Indian’s method may not have been an ideal one, but it was a better one in his day and generation than our lack of all method is in ours.

The very growth of young trees, left uncared for as at present, must be to those with the good of the forest at heart, a source of concern rather than of satisfaction. With forest fires running—often twenty in a county at one time—and public sentiment dormant to the extent that, save where individual property is at stake, few take the trouble to put out even such incipient fires as might be killed with little effort, there can be no question but that in the growth of young trees lies the certain guarantee of total extermination of much of our best forest land, within a few years, unless some effectual methods of protection are inaugurated.

Thirty years ago fires ran yearly through the woods, but forest conflagrations were unknown; the large trees standing sparsely scattered, say five to ten to the acre, were unable to transmit fire, and there was little on the ground to burn. Now thousands of young trees fill the open spaces, and a fire started not only destroys the young trees but the patriarchs of the forest also.

As yet the evil has attained no very serious proportions; but so surely as the young growth is permitted and fires not kept out entirely (which will be found a simply impossible matter) fires will occur, which will sweep everything in their path out of existence.

The longer the matter is left to find its own solution the more difficult and expensive of application remedial measures will become. As a means of protection against fires, one effectual method, and only one, suggests itself—the isolation of such forests as it may be deemed essential to preserve, into blocks of moderate area, separated by strips of waste land, wide enough to insure no spread of fire from one belt to another. This done, the forests may be left to grow up densely, if desired, without fear of extensive damage.

Topographical conditions would generally suggest the location of these waste strips. Ridge summits and canon bottoms (especially the former) are natural barriers to fire, being only crossed with difficulty by flames, when free of brush and litter. The lines of watershed on spurs are generally sparsely timbered, and could be easily maintained free of undergrowth, even if not denuded of their trees. As regards the strips which have been designated as waste, they might in many cases be capable of sodding or being maintained in grass, producing range and pasture, and for the rest, the authorized use of fire by duly commissioned persons, duly provided with adequate means of checking the spread of flames, might suggest itself as the simplest, cheapest, and most efficient method.

Of course these proposals only have reference to the public lands, private holdings must remain subject to private management, and such forests as now are held in private hands must survive or perish, as the owner elects. In any event, private holdings, when lying within the lines of districts which it might be wished to treat on the basis proposed, will always cause complication. If anything is to be done at all, it is time to do it now, while the Government owns whole districts free from settlers, and consequently, in this respect, at least, need have nothing but the public interest to consider.

First Biennial Report of the California State Board of Forestry, 1886-1888

Around Yosemite walls and through Yosemite forests

So, I’ve been entering bearing tree data collected by land surveyors inside what is now Yosemite National Park, for work on estimating historic forest conditions in the Sierra Nevada. Bearing trees were designed to “bear witness” to the location of on-the-ground survey markers, in case something should happen to them, and several pieces of information on them were recorded in the field notes (previous post here). So up comes the next Township on the list: Township 2 South, Range 21 East, Mt. Diablo Meridian, or T2SR21E MDM in surveyors’ shorthand, an area now inside YNP, surveyed under authority of the General Land Office (GLO) in 1880, 10 years before YNP came into existence.

An original (1880) YNP bearing tree, in 2005, with blaze partially exposed.

An original (1880) YNP bearing tree, in 2005, with blaze partially exposed.

Well, damned if that isn’t a pretty good place to run into the man, Clarence King, and thereby to slow down the scientific progress on which society so utterly depends. Once I start reading King’s writings it’s all over in terms of getting things done. He’s done it to me before, and he will do it again.

Continue reading

Douglas’ “Multnomah pine”

Sugar Pine

…August 19, 1825 Mr. Douglas, who had been exploring the upper country of the Columbia, started from his headquarters at Vancouver to proceed southward, ascending the Multnomah towards the mountains at the extreme (south) end of the Willamette Valley. After a perilous three days’ trip he reaches the natives of the region and finds in their tobacco pouches “seeds of a remarkably large size, which they eat as nuts”, and which he knew to be pine seeds. He learns that the tree grows on the mountains to the south—that is, down nearly to the present California line.

“No time was to be lost,” he writes, “in ascertaining the existence of the tree,” which he at once, with only a few imperfect seeds in hand, names Pinus Lambertiana, in honor of his friend, Aylmer Bourke Lambert, the distinguished Vice-President of the Linnaean Society of England. But sickness and inclement weather, also Indian hostilities, prevented further search southward for that season. However, he explores other regions eastward, discovering two new species of pine, which he names Pinus nobilis and Pinus amabilis (now well known firs, but then included in the genus of pines), making headquarters for the winter at Fort Vancouver. During the spring and summer months of the next year, 1826, he makes various extensive journeys, rewarded constantly by important discoveries, for the country was all unknown then. In February a hunter brings him a cone of his Multnomah pine. It “was 16 inches long and 10 in circuit” and he was assured that “trees were met with that were 170-220 feet high, and 20-50 feet in circumference”.

In June, while at the junction of the Lewis and Clarke Rivers, he planned a long trip southward to the Umpqua River, in search of “the gigantic pine”, but could not get off in that direction until October. On the eighteenth Douglas, with a companion, “set off due south through the dominions of the Chief, Center-Nose, and having climbed wearily a high divide, we were cheered by the sight of the broad Umpqua River in the valley far below”. A raft was necessary for crossing it, and in its construction Douglas “grievous blistered his fingers”..October 23rd they reach the headwaters Of the Umpqua, guided by the son of old Center-Nose, and still “intent upon finding the Grand Pine so frequently mentioned in my journal”.

…Early in the morning of the same day (October 25th) Douglas quitted camp, and “after an hour’s walk met an Indian, who, on perceiving me, instantly strung his bow, then slung his raccoon skin of arrows upon his left arm, and stood on the defensive. Being quite sure that he was not hostile, but prompted by fear only, I laid my gun at my feet and beckoned him to approach me, which he did slowly and with many precautions. I then made him place his bow and quiver beside my gun, and, striking a light, gave him a smoke out of my pipe. Then with pencil and paper I drew a rough sketch of the cone and tree which I desired to find, and exhibited the sketch to him, when he quickly pointed towards the hills, fifteen or twenty miles distant, and southward.”

Hastening on, at midday Douglas “reached the locality of my longwished-for pines, and lost no time in examining them, and endeavoring to collect twigs, specimens, and seeds. “New and strange things,” Douglas pauses here to remark, sententiously, “seldom fail to make strong impressions, and are, therefore, often faulty or overrated; so, lest I should never again see my friends in England, to inform them verbally of this most beautiful and grand tree”.

“I shall here state the dimensions of the largest found among several that had been felled by the wind. At three feet from the ground its circuit was fifty-seven feet nine inches (that is, nearly nineteen feet in diameter). At one hundred and thirty-four feet it was seventeen feet five inches. Extreme length, two hundred and forty-five feet. The trunks are uncommonly straight, the bark smooth, the tallest stems unbranched for two thirds of their height, the branches outreaching or pendulous, with long cones hanging from the points like sugar loaves in a grocer shop. The cones are borne only by the largest trees, high suspended in air, and the putting myself into possession of three of them, all I could procure, nearly brought my life to a close.”

“As it was impossible either to climb the trees or to hew one down I resorted to knocking them off by firing at them with ball. The report of my gun almost instantly brought into view eight Indians, all armed with bows, bone-tipped spears, and flint knives. I endeavored to explain to them what I was doing there and what I wanted, and they seemed satisfied, sitting down to smoke with me; but presently I perceived one of them to string his bow, and another to whet his knife with a pair of wooden pincers. Further testimony of their intention was unnecessary.

“To save myself by flight was impossible, so without hesitation I sprang backwards about five paces, cocked my gun, drew one of the pistols from my belt, and showed myself determined to fight for my life. As much as possible I endeavored to preserve coolness, and thus we stood facing each other without the slightest movement or uttering a word for full ten minutes. At last the leader dropped his hand and made signs for tobacco and pipe. I signified that they should have a smoke if they would fetch me a quantity of cones. They went off immediately, and no sooner were the out of sight than I picked up my precious cones and made the quickest possible retreat.”

Poor Douglas never saw his “Grand Pine” again, and upon his second tour of western exploration the next season, after visiting Monterey Bay and vicinity, where he discovers Pinus insignia and P. sabiniana, he sailed for the Hawaiian Islands, and while exploring there he fell into a pit prepared for capturing wild cattle, and was trampled to death by an entrapped steer.


The Fire Next Time

A short and well-balanced summary of the drivers and repercussions of the present and future wildland fire problem in the western United States. Discussed using 2013’s Rim Fire as a focal point, the enormous and highly unnatural and destructive fire that burned through the Stanislaus National Forest and western Yosemite NP, including an area containing 20 long-term forest monitoring plots of mine. Found at Wildfire Today, which is a great site for all things fire, especially w.r.t. California.