How the Giant Sequoia Came to the Pacific NW, and to the World

For a note on First Nations people, see below..

Revised: February 25, 2023

The Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Sequoia) was first discovered by the explorer Zenas Leonard, who recorded the description in his diary in 1833. His discovery went unacknowledged until years later. The trees were rediscovered in 1850 by John M. Wooster, who carved his initials and date in the bark of a tree.

Augustus T. Dowd, an employee of the Union Water Company of Murphys, California came upon a grove in Calaveras County in 1852. Dowd is credited with making the presence of these gigantic trees known to the outside world.

The Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) had been discovered a century earlier. The Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher is credited with classifying the new genus in his taxonomic work of 1847. Endlicher, also a linguist, named the genus in honor of the American Cherokee Indian linguist Sequoyah.

2013; Gayle in the grove discovered by Augustus Dowd in 1852

The Giant Sequoia is among the most limited in range and number of individuals of any of the major tree species. It grows naturally only in a narrow 60-mile band of mixed conifer forest on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California.

The natural distribution of giant sequoia is restricted to 75 groves;1 only 33 of those groves are protected in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Groves range in size from approximately 2,470 acres with 20,000 giant sequoias to small groves with only six living trees.

The total area occupied by the giant sequoia groves probably does not exceed 15,000 acres.2 The Castle Fire of 2020, part of the larger SQF Complex fire, swept through 20 Sequoia groves. The most recent estimates indicate that 7,500 to 10,000 mature trees were lost.3

We’ll describe how the sequoia came to the Pacific NW, but before we get there we’ll take two diversions, one along the Oregon trail and one to the United Kingdom.

The wellingtonia scandal

We should not be surprised that the discovery of the world’s tallest tree was accompanied by international intrigue. In 1853 the newly formed California Academy of Science invited Augustus Dowd to describe his discovery of the previous year to the members. Dr Albert Kellogg, the academy’s founder, also invited William Lobb, a horticulturist from the UK, as a courtesy.

It was Lobb’s good fortune that he happened to be in San Francisco at the time of this meeting. Lobb had spent the years 1845 through 1848 in South America as a plant explorer, sending home dozens of new plants. After a brief return to England Lobb returned to North America in 1849. His plant collecting trip to North America was cut short in 1853 by the discovery of the Giant Redwood.

Dr Kellogg and his colleagues chose not to classify the Sequoia until they could get complete samples the following year. Lobb immediately recognized the importance of the tree to British gardeners. After the meeting he quickly headed to the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he collected as many seeds, cones, vegetative shoots and seedlings as he could carry back to San Francisco. He cut short his trip to America and returned to England on the first available boat, arriving back in Exeter on 15 December 1853.

Upon arrival in England Lobb gave a part of his collection to John Lindley, professor of Botany at the University of London. Soon after he got the material, on December 24, Lindley made an official, formal description of the species, which gave him naming rights. He named the tree Wellingtonia gigantea in honor of Arthur Wellesley, the British duke of Wellington, who had defeated the French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte in Waterloo, Belgium and had died the previous year.

The Americans were furious that an American tree was named after a British war hero. They successfully argued that the tree was related to the already classified Coastal Redwood, and the tree has since been reclassified several times. The Wellingtonia scandal deepened when it was discovered that John D. Matthew, a Scottish explorer in North America, had sent seeds to his father, Patrick Matthew of Gourdiehill Estate near the village of Errol in Perthshire, Scotland. The letter along with the first ever packet of seeds of Giant Sequoia were delivered to Patrick Matthew in August of 1853, at least four full months before Professor Lindley published his description on Christmas Eve.

Lobb and Lindley may have the last laugh, as the tree is still often referred to as the Wellingtonia throughout the United Kingdom. And through their efforts, British (and European) estates and gardens were growing the Giant Sequoia years before their American counterparts.

The 1847 Wagon Train

On September 12, 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman arrived at Fort Vancouver, The Hudson Bay outpost near the mouth of the Columbia River in the Oregon Territory. The Whitman’s and their three companions left Angelica, NY, 207 days earlier and travelled more than 3,000 miles to establish a mission. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first white women to cross the continent.

The Whitman party were the first settlers to bring a wheeled vehicle over the mountains and into the Oregon Territory. The vehicle which arrived on the Oregon plains, originally a covered wagon, had been modified into a 2-wheeled cart. The trail they followed, first established by Indians and fur traders, would come to be known as the Oregon Trail.

Fort Boise was the last stop on the trail before settlers entered the Alkali flats in southeast Oregon, then headed north towards the Columbia. Those who needed supplies, or were too exhausted to continue, could take the Whitman Mission route. (See map below.) It was here that the Whitman’s and eleven members of their Mission were killed on November 29, 1847.

Much of what has come down to us over the years is the result of deliberate myth-building. The Cayuse had lost nearly half their population during the measles epidemic of 1847, and may have held the missionaries and emigrants responsible.

The mission had been sheltering 74 people, most of whom were emigrants from the wagon trains. The Indians captured 49 people, mostly women and children. Two of the young girls died, and Peter Skene Ogden, a Hudson’s Bay Company official, ransomed the rest the next month. The attack on the Whitman Mission horrified Americans and changed the lives of all people, both Indian and white, of the Columbia Plateau for decades afterwards.

Below: The Whitman Trail, one of the alternate trails on the Oregon Trail

Current view of the Oregon Trail through the Whitman Mission

John R. Porter

Most of the emigrants on the trail had reached their destination in the Willamette Valley by October, 1847, a month before the killings. Among them were Reverend William Porter, a Methodist minister, and his wife Susannah. The Porters, from Holmes County, Ohio, brought with them their children, including their 20 year old son, John Ramsey Porter.

John Ramsey Porter

The younger Porter struck out for the gold rush, and acquired enough gold dust to fill a cigar box. This began a period of commuting between his family’s land claim in Oregon and the home he built in California. In 1854 he married Permelia Ann Leverish in Forest Grove, Oregon, and for over a decade the couple moved between their homes in California and Oregon.

In 1869, while the Porters were in Oregon, their home in California burned and they finally settled in Oregon for good. On their final return they brought gunny sacks full of Giant Sequoia cones and began propagating them in the family nursery. The seeds from these cones became the first giant sequoias grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Two rows of Giant Sequoia line the entry to the Porter Nursery, north of Forest Grove, Oregon

Among the thousands of Giant Sequoia in the Pacific NW that grew from Porter’s seeds are the trees at the Washington County Courthouse, a short distance from the Porter nursery. The moment is recalled years later by Rebecca Goodin in a letter to the Hillsboro Argus dated October 6, 1927:

The day Mr Porter gave those trees to the County he drove by our home and gave my mother a Paul Neron rose, which is still growing here on the farm. I happened to be in the yard with mother when Mr Porter drove up to the gate. After handing her the rose he told her he had these trees and was taking them to Hillsboro to be planted in the courtyard.

He was a sick man at the time and seemed to want to leave something in the way of a perpetual gift to the County. Mr. Porter passed away in 1886.

Washington County Courthouse Sequoias; Photo courtesy of Dirk Knudsen

OTHER Cultivation outside the Sierra nevada

During his time in America Lobb was working under contract to the Veitch Nursery near Exeter. Lobb collected a large quantity of seeds from Calaveras County in 1853, and gave only a small portion of his seeds to Professor Lindley. It was from this sample that the Wellingtonia Scandal ensued.

But Lobb delivered the remaining seeds to the Veitch Nursery, and it was seed from this batch that was widely distributed throughout Europe. Within a few years Giant Sequoia were growing throughout Europe and the Commonwealth, everywhere it would grow.

The tallest giant sequoia ever measured outside of the United States is a specimen planted near Ribeauvillé in France in 1856 and measured in 2014 at a height between 189 ft and 191 ft at the age of 158 years. A number of trees in New Zealand exceed 150 years, and at least one is believed to be 160 years old.

In Canberra, Australia, city planner Walter Burley Griffin planted an astonishing 122,000 Giant Sequoias in the Pialligo Redwood Forest in 1918. An estimated 3,000 survived the creation of the airport and urbanization.

For a more complete list of distribution outside the US see the Giant Sequoia page on Wikipedia.


  1. Recent reports list only 68 groves.
  2. Distribution of the Giant Sequoia, National Park Service
  3. The SQF Complex, Wikipedia

notes on first nations

This page refers to the discovery of the Giant Sequoia by white European settlers, who followed the Native Americans by thousands of years. Most scientists believe the “Native Americans” migrated from Asia around 20,000 years ago. Others claim that the Miwok and other California tribes descend from people who arrived later by coastal migrations.

History has a way of shifting beneath our feet. For additional information about the killing of Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa Whitman, and 11 others on November 29, 1847 by Native Americans of the Cayuse tribe, consult the following titles:

Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and Its Shifting Legacy in the American West
Sasquatch Books, November 17, 2020
by Cassandra Tate

Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West
Viking, April 27, 2021
by Blaine Harden

Primary sources

Sequoiadendron giganteum in Oregon: Its History and Potential
Thomas Buckeridge Burns, Jr.

This remarkable document was prepared as a Master’s Thesis at the University of Oregon (Eugene). The author died at the age of 45, three months before the degree was awarded in December 1971. The thesis director, Dr. Johannessen, sponsored the completion of the thesis, which was written by Martha F. Burns, the author’s wife.

The Oregon Territory and its Pioneers
Stephenie Flora

This unique internet resource is an endless reservoir of information. In addition to emigrant lists for every wagon train from 1839 through 1855, Flora provides 18 chapters on related topics.

Giant Sequoia News
Claudia Elliott

The only publication dedicated to news and information about the giant sequoia and the perils they face. Elliott provides penetrating articles about grove management, climate change, wildfire, drought and related topics.

other resources

Forest Grove, Oregon Historic Context, Historic Preservation NW

Sequoiadendron gigantium; USDA FS FEIS

The Redwoods of the Coast and Sierra, NPS

History of the Giant Sequoia, Monumental Trees

William Lobb, Wikipedia

Oregon Historic Trails Report

A Caravan on the Oregon Trail, Whitman Mission National Historic Site


Tree People owes a special debt to the following individuals.

Heidi Mair, for genealogy and for the rare image of John Ramsey Porter. See Heidi Lynne Yoga and Wellness for a wealth of health information.

Dirk Knudsen, for the letter from Rebecca Goodin and the image of the Courthouse trees, as well as other assistance. Mr Knudsen is President of the Hillsboro Historical Society as well as Broker and Founder of Dirk Knudsen Real Estate, Hillsboro OR.

Mary Jo Morelli, Board Member Friends of Historic Forest Grove and the de facto tree historian.

David Pinyerd and Bernadette Niederer of Historical Preservation Northwest. In addition to their document “Historical Context”, they provided useful tips in my search for John Ramsey Porter.