Area History

Smoke rises from a lumber mill on a beach
A 1960s lumber mill on Freshwater Beach. This now is the site of the Kuchel Visitor Center.
Then And Now Photo Project

In 2022, photographer Ted Barone worked with Redwood National Park staff to create a series of photo montages that show some of the historic sites along the whole redwood coast. It is fascinating to see how these places have changed over time.
Edwin C. Bearss: "Redwood National Park:  History / Basic Data"

"Redwood National Park: History Basic Data".
Access a full version of Edwin C. Bearss' 1969 (reprinted in 1982) history of Redwood National Park, available from the NPS's History E-Library. From the title page, click "Table of Contents" to get started.

Please note: This book contains occasional historical quotes and language that is offensive. The NPS and CDPR recognizes the language is not appropriate today and does not condone the use of that language.


Indigenous People

Assorted groups of indigenous people of the North Coast region have made the redwood forests and associated ecosystems their home since time immemorial. These Native Americans spoke many different languages and held numerous and distinct identities. Today, the descendants of these people continue to live on and off reservations and rancheria across the redwood region.

Prior to Euro-American contact, Native Americans had adapted well to this bountiful environment. Their profound religious beliefs, extensive knowledge of the natural world, languages, customs, and perseverance continue to be a source of admiration for other cultures.

Native Americans in the region belonged to many tribes, although no one tribe dominated. Indeed, the concept of "tribe" does not describe very well the traditional political complexity of the area. There were scores of villages that dotted the coast and lined the major rivers; each of these villages was more or less politically independent, yet linked to one another by intricate networks of economic, social, and religious ties.

Food sources important to the native peoples included deer, elk, fish from the ocean, rivers, and streams, nuts, berries, and seeds. Efficient and reliable hunting, fishing, and gathering methods were always paired with a deep spiritual awareness of nature's balance.

American Indian plankhouse
Redwood plankhouse

Traditional homes of the region's American Indians usually were constructed of planks split from fallen redwoods. These houses were built over pits dug beneath the building, with the space between the pit and the walls forming a natural bench. A house was understood to be a living being. The redwood that formed its planks was itself the body of one of the Spirit Beings. Spirit Beings were believed to be a divine race who existed before humans in the redwood region and who taught people the proper way to live here.

Once gold was discovered along northwestern California’s Trinity River in 1850, outsiders moved into the area in overwhelming numbers. The initial contact with native peoples was gruesome.

Anglo settlers and immigrants pushed the indigenous people off their land, hunted them down, scorned, raped, and enslaved them. Resistance – and many of the Native Americans did resist – was often met with massacres. Militia units composed of unemployed miners and homesteaders set forth to rid the countryside of "hostile Indians", attacking villages and, in many documented cases, slaughtering men, women, and even infants. Upon their return, these killers were treated as heroes, and paid by the state government for their work.

Treaties that normally allotted Native Americans' reservations were never ratified in this part of California. Although treaties were signed, the California delegation lobbied against them on the grounds that they left too much land in Indian hands. Reservations were thus never established by treaty, but rather by administrative decree.

To this day, the displacement of many tribes, the lack of treaty guarantees, and the absence of federal recognition of their sovereignty continue to cloud the legal rights of many American Indians.

*Text based on Living in a Well-Ordered World.

American Indian basketweaver

Indigenous People Today
Over the passage of time, some aspects of northwestern indigenous California cultures began to merge. Many customs, beliefs, and ceremonies grew similar, but the languages have remained distinct. Four of them – Tolowa, Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk – are still living languages, spoken yet by a handful of cherished elders. Encouragingly, in a revival that is now sweeping the area, these languages are once again being learned by members of the younger generation.

Despite dreadful events of the past 150 years, the indigenous community of northwestern California has persisted. It has, in fact, done more than persist. Whether in politics, art, religion, or any other area of life, the community exhibits great variety and vigor.

There is currently no one in the area who is living the way Native Americans did prior to 1850, any more than there is a member of an Anglo culture who is living the life of a mid-nineteenth century miner, farmer, or merchant. While some Native Americans in the country do live on reservations, near or on the land of their ancestors, others live in local towns and cities. Culture is not a "museum" set in time and statically preserved. Living cultures grow, change, and adapt, and this has certainly been the case with Native American culture. The people of northwestern California form a vital, changing community, whether Yurok, Hupa, Tolowa, or Karuk.

Yurok and Tolowa ancestral territories include land and resources now contained within Redwood National and State Parks. Tribal Councils and Park management work together on myriad of government to government programs like habitat restoration, the returning of California condors, protection of archeological sites, the use of prescribed fire, and the beneficial sharing of staff and agency resources.

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Since time immemorial, indigenous people used fallen redwoods or redwood trees washed up on beaches for canoes and housing materials. The old-growth redwood trees were essentially too big to log.

There was about two million acres of old-growth redwoods in Northern California when Euro-American immigrants arrived in large numbers in the mid-18th century. They needed raw material for their homes, commerce, and lives. Commercial logging followed the expansion of America as companies struggled to keep up with the furious pace of progress. Timber harvesting quickly became the top manufacturing industry in the American west.

When gold was discovered in northwestern California in 1850, the rush was on. Thousands of immigrants crowded the remote redwood region in search of riches and new lives. These people were no less dependent upon lumber, and the redwoods conveniently provided the wood the people needed. The size of the huge trees made them prized timber, as redwood became known for its durability and workability. At first, axes, saws, and other early methods of bringing the trees down were used. It could take weeks for a hand crew to fell, cut, and transport one redwood tree. By 1853, nine sawmills were at work in Eureka and large stands of redwoods began to disappear by the close of the 19th century.

Land fraud was common, as acres of prime redwood forests were transferred from the public domain to private industry. Although some of the perpetrators were caught, many thousands of acres of land were lost in land swindles.

By the 1910s, some concerned citizens began to clamor for the preservation of the dwindling stands of redwoods. The Save-the-Redwoods League was born out of this earnest group, and eventually the League succeeded in helping to establish the redwood preserves of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

As early 20th century technology evolved from steam and then to motorized engines, the efficiency and scale of logging greatly increased. The largest redwood trees could now be felled much more easily. Transportation also caught up to the task of moving the massive logs. The locomotive replaced horses and oxen.

The development of chainsaws and tracked bulldozers in the 1930s led to the massive increase in the rate of logging of redwood trees. Acres of ancient redwoods could now be cut down in just days.

It was the post World War II housing and economic boom caused the majority of old-growth redwoods to be clear cut. In just a few decades, hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth redwoods on private lands were logged. By the 1960s, industrial logging had removed almost ninety percent of all the original redwoods.

The environmental and cultural battles of the 1960-1990s were basically about what to do with the last 5% or so of old-growth redwoods that were left on private lands. In the 1960s Lucille Vinyard, Dave Van De Mark, and others from local chapters of the Sierra Club were instrumental in the fight to finally create a national park.

It wasn’t until 1968 that Redwood National Park was established, which secured some stands of uncut old-growth redwoods near Orick, CA. This included protecting ancient redwoods found in what is the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, the Trillium Falls Trail, and a narrow section of Redwood Creek that included the "Tall Trees Grove". But this initial park boundary did not protect the whole watershed, and clear-cut logging around the new national park continued for another ten years.

After legal battles and continued public pressure, in 1978, the US government purchased from logging companies over 10,000 acres more land in the Redwood Creek watershed to add to the national park. This expansion included large sections of recently clear-cut hills along the length of Redwood Creek. Today, these lands and watersheds are undergoing large-scale restoration by the Parks and it partners.

Management and logging of second-growth redwood forests continues on privately-held lands nearby and throughout the redwood region.

Today, only 5% of the old-growth redwood forests remain. The majority of these 100,000 acres of remaining forests are found in assorted sections of different California state, local, and national parks.

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Save the Redwoods League

When redwood logging reached a fever pitch by the 1890s, most of the redwood forests had become privately owned. Though some people had previously proposed the idea of preservation, the huge demand for lumber in America made it impossible at the time.

By the late 1910s, it became obvious that many stands of old-growth redwoods were about to be logged. Because the trees had been linked with fossil records millions of years old, they were looked upon as a living link with the past. Thus, the urge to protect these stands came not from an aesthetic concern, but rather a scientific one.

Paleontologists Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, Madison Grant of the New York Zoological Society, and John C. Merriam of the University of California at Berkeley founded Save the Redwoods League in 1918. The League was formed as a nonprofit organization dedicated to buying redwood tracts for preservation. Through donations and matching state funds, the League bought over 100,000 acres of redwood forest between 1920 and 1960.

The majority of these purchases consisted of North Coast redwood groves. The California Department of Parks and Recreation created Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the early 1920s with these lands.

The Memorial Grove Program of Save the Redwoods League was started in 1921 when the first large donation was given to the League to purchase and dedicate a redwood grove. Now more than 700 memorial and honor groves, named for individuals and organizations, have been established in California State Parks and Redwood National Park, with more being added each year.

Some of the founders of Save the Redwoods League (like Madison Grant) wrote about the the supremeacy of the white race and believed in eugenics. These beliefs are clearly racist. The Save the Redwoods League and Redwood National and State Parks have long denounced these views.

Today the League continues its valuable work. In the 21st century, Save the Redwoods League remains involved in buying last stands of redwoods across the CA coast to be protected, purchasing parcels of lands and then donating it to Redwood National and State Parks, fundraising for park efforts like the "Grove of the Titans Trail", and being a vital partner in massive habitat restoration programs like Redwoods Rising.

Learn more at

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Thanks to the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) and the National Park Service (NPS), citizens of the world will always have the opportunity to experience the majestic coast redwood ecosystems at Redwood National and State Parks. The stories of the two agencies is one of cooperative management at RNSP, because they now work side by side to maximize protection of the parks’ natural resources.

When redwood harvesting began in the early 1850s, over two million acres of old-growth redwood forests existed. But Euro-Americans took less than 60 years to reduce this number into hundreds-of-thousands of acres. By the late 1910s, a preservationist group called the Save-the-Redwoods League began purchasing large tracts of redwood acreage in an effort to save the quickly disappearing forests. The State of California pledged to match funds put forth by the League, and between 1920 and 1960, over 100,000 acres were set aside through this partnership.

In the early 1920s, the state of California established the three state parks, as well as Humboldt Redwoods State Park to the south, with the purchased lands. Since these early days, the state park system has protected the parks’ natural and cultural resources while welcoming visitors to explore the redwood groves and surrounding ecosystems.

However, logging continued outside the state parks, and as the years passed by, conventional thinking about the environment changed as well. In the 1960s, more emphasis was placed upon the importance of preserving whole ecosystems as opposed to just portions of ecosystems. Aided by the Sierra Club and the National Geographic Society, the Save-the-Redwoods League now called for Congress to create a national park that would include land in the Redwood Creek area adjacent to the state parks.

By this time, 90 percent of the original redwoods had been logged. After much controversy and compromise with timber companies, Congress finally approved a federal park, and on October 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the act that established Redwood National Park. The new preserve placed 58,000 acres in the care of the NPS.

Some of Redwood National Park included state park lands, which were still under state jurisdiction. Also, NPS land included the Tall Trees Grove along Redwood Creek, which remained at risk from upstream logging. As the logging continued into the 1970s, sediment loads increased dramatically along Redwood Creek, threatening the health of the streamside redwoods.

In 1977, Representative Phillip Burton introduced legislation to expand the federal park. Despite much opposition from the timber industry, in March 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the addition of 48,000 acres to Redwood National Park. This addition widened the protection in Redwood Creek, although 39,000 acres of the addition were already logged over. Restoration of these lands commenced and continues today.

And then, in 1994, the NPS and CDPR agreed to jointly manage the four parks for the best resource protection possible. RNSP today form a World Heritage Site and are part of the California Coast Range Biosphere Reserve, designations that reflect worldwide recognition of the parks’ natural resources as irreplaceable.

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Area History Timeline

Last updated: November 23, 2022

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