Environmental science

Tony Platt*
“The past is everywhere.”

(David Lowenthal, 1985)

“History is what gives a place meaning.”

(Rebecca Solnit, 2004)

National Geographic recently identified California’s northern coast as ninth in the world out of 115 tourist destinations that remain “unspoiled” (Vogel, 2004: 3). Unspoiled as long as you don’t leave the coast road and head in-land through back roads to see the spectacular results of clear-cutting practices. Unspoiled if you don’t look too closely at the motivation of the men who campaigned to “save the redwoods” early in the 20th century.
For those of you visiting the north coast, there are some gorgeous places to visit near here, especially if you are interested in redwood forests. Up the coast near Crescent City is the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Closer to Eureka is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. And you’ll find some old growth redwoods here, but be prepared to exorcize some ghosts.
There is now a sizable public and academic literature on the history of efforts to save the redwoods in California. And if you visit old redwood groves, you’ll find historic markers and capsule histories on site. A recent book, for example, describes the founders of the Save-the-Redwoods-League as innovative conservationists who in 1918 “agreed to form a new organization that would conduct an intelligent, thoroughly informed, and ongoing campaign to save the redwoods” (Noss, 2000: 36). Similarly, Coast Redwood characterizes the founders as “enthralled by the fabulous trees” (Evarts and Popper, 2001: 139). If you drive to the 1,600-acre Madison Grant Forest and Elk Refuge, an impressive plaque informs you that it was dedicated in 1948 to Grant’s memory (1865-1937) in honor of his work as “conservationist, author, anthropologist, a founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League.”

What you will not find in books and brochures about the redwoods, or on markers and plaques in redwood forests is any mention of the important connection between the conservation and eugenics movements. No public recognition of the fact, for example, that the three men who founded the Save-the-Redwoods-League in 1918 and many of their supporters were central actors in the American eugenics movement.

Before exploring this connection, let me give you a quick overview of American eugenics.

Eugenics was a complex scientific and social movement that emerged in many countries around the world at the turn of the last century. It was designed, in the words of one of its founders, Francis Galton, to give “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable” (quoted in Kevles, 1995: xiii). In the United States, eugenics enjoyed wide support between the world wars and drew upon a variety of ideological views, from the birth control movement to rightwing nativism. For Progressive activists and liberals, eugenics was tied to programs designed to promote infant and maternal health and to uplift the economic conditions of impoverished families. Many eugenics supporters, including conservationists, on the other hand, were associated with what Laura Briggs calls the “hard-line” position, a tendency which dominated the eugenics agenda in the 1930s (Briggs, 2002: 102)

The rightwing supporters of eugenics promoted “Anglo-Saxon” societies as the engine of modern civilization and advocated policies of apartheid in order to protect the “well born” from contamination by the poor, mentally ill, and “socially inadequate.” Its leaders believed that a variety of social successes (wealth, political leadership, intellectual discoveries) and social problems (poverty, illegitimacy, crime, mental illness, and unemployment) could be traced to inherited, biological attributes associated with “racial temperament.” Under the banner of “national regeneration” (Popenoe, 1934), tens of thousands, mostly poor women were subjected to involuntary sterilization in the United States between 1907 and 1940.

Eugenics was also a cultural vehicle for expressing anxiety about the “degeneration” of middle-class “Aryans,” perceived as resulting from a declining birthrate and, in the words of two leading eugenicists, the “evil of crossbreeding”(Popenoe and Johnson, 1918: 301). For eugenicists, sterilization was not so much a technical, medical procedure to enhance physical and mental health, as it was a way to cleanse the body politic of racial and sexual impurities. Eugenicists actively lobbied for restrictions on welfare benefits to poor families, bans on interracial marriage or “miscegenation,” and limits on immigration from non-European countries.

Eugenics and Conservation

The eugenics movement was also deeply involved in conservation issues. According to historian Alexander Stern (2004), an interest in the natural world was central to eugenics: it was the source of insights, analogies, metaphors, and parables about the social world. There has been a tendency to separate the bad racist eugenicists from the good pro-environment conservationists, but this sanitization of history misses the point: their efforts to save the redwoods were integral to their efforts to save the “Nordic race” from contamination and extinction.

Historians have noted the connection between the Progressive movement and conservationism at the national level, as exemplified in efforts to preserve wilderness areas and create public parks. Cultural theorists have focused, for example, on how the idea of “wilderness” was constructed and on the relationship between the crisis in masculine identity and the allegedly regenerative functions of Nature.

In California, the efforts of eugenicists and conservationists were closely intertwined with the heritage and tourism industries during the first half of the 20th century; many key organizers were active in all four movements.

Eugenicists were involved in founding, directing, financing, and promoting environmental organizations. The Save-the-Redwoods-League, for example, was founded by three leading figures in eugenics — John Merriam, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Madison Grant. Merriam, a paleontologist from Berkeley, was involved with the Carnegie Foundation’s Eugenic Records Office, the center of eugenics lobbying until 1940. Osborn, a comparative anatomist, was a member of the Galton Society, an influential eugenics organization. In 1916 Grant, a leading eugenicist, wrote The Passing of the Great Race, a widely read racist tract that promoted the “Anglo-Saxon branch of the Nordic race” as the best hope for civilization. Grant sounded the alarm that the “great race” was destined for extinction as a result of the declining Nordic birthrate and “race-mixing” (quoted in Stern, 2004: 138). Grant wrote one of the first influential articles about “Saving the Redwoods” for National Geographic in June 1920.

Charles M. Goethe (1875-1966), a leading eugenicist who admired Nazi racial policies, led the campaign to purchase and designate several memorial redwood groves in this area. [The Jedediah Smith Grove, the Mary Glide Goethe Grove, and the Drury Brothers Grove (Stern, 2004: 147). He was also involved in the establishment of the Luther Burbank Grove, the Aubrey Drury Grove, the Madison Grant Grove, and Madison Grant Forest and Elk Refuge.] In 1961, in honor of his 90th birthday, Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, acknowledged Goethe’s “contributions to the interpretation of America’s natural, historic and scenic wonders in the national parks” (quoted in Platt, 2004: 42). In 1966 Goethe left $80,000 and an endowment to the Save-the-Redwoods-League – the equivalent of about $400,000 in today’s money. In return, in 1977 the League named a grove after Goethe in Prairie Creek Redwoods Park (Stern, 2004: 147, 151).

Eugenicists also supported the state historic marker program, which remained largely unchanged until the 1960s. The program served three purposes: initially, to connect the descendants of white pioneers with their ancestors; in the 1920s, to articulate the ideological interests of nativist organizations; and with the birth of automobile travel, to develop tourist attractions selected by local chambers of commerce.

The selecting and naming of historically significant sites was first undertaken by pioneer and nativist organizations, such as the Native Sons of the Golden West (organized in 1875) and the Native Daughters of the Golden West (organized in 1886). The Daughters was the first group to identify historic places and preserve landmarks in 1898 (Glassberg, 2001: 177). In 1902 the Native Daughters joined with the Federation of Women’s Clubs and men’s groups to form the California Historical Landmarks League (ibid: 178-9). Their focus was on identifying landmarks of the U.S.-Mexican War, perhaps to compensate for the lack of Revolutionary War and Civil War sites (ibid: 181). Around the turn of the century, especially as a result of the promotional efforts of Charles Lummis — editor of Land of Sunshine, and founder of the Historical Landmarks Club of Southern California in 1896 — the missions were resurrected as examples of California’s mythic roots in a white, Spanish aristocracy (ibid: 183).

California’s state government began to participate in marking historical sites and promoting tourism in the 1920s. In southern California, a therapeutic climate, exotic missions, and luxury hotels attracted wealthy visitors. The “redwood highway” was promoted in the north for travelers who were attracted to the rugged outdoors and wanted to witness “true living fossils,” as a recent book describes the redwoods (Noss, 2000: 10).

Newton Drury, the first executive director of the Save-the-Redwoods-League (and later head of the National Park Service), played a key role in promoting tourism and California’s public image, as well as saving redwood groves. Together with his brother Aubrey, who organized the state’s first inventory of historical resources, and his father Wells (who headed the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce), he was a pioneer in the emerging field of public relations. In 1913, Wells and Aubrey Newton co-authored the California Tourist Guide and Handbook.

The Drurys’ clients included the Ford Dealers Association, Southern Pacific Railroad, Save-the-Redwoods-League, and businesses that were connected to the emerging tourist industry. Aubrey Drury regarded “historic sites primarily as resources for tourists,” comments historian David Glassberg. The Drury family worked closely with automobile associations and local chambers of commerce to make sure that places designated as historic sites, including redwood groves, were accessible to tourists. Drury was put in charge of the Legislature’s state historical marker program in 1931. “It was a public program in name only,” observes Glassberg; “in reality, control remained firmly in the hands of the state chamber of commerce. … The state’s only historic landmarks to be registered would be those accessible from the road that offered tourists something to see” (Glassberg, 2001: 195-197).

Redwoods and the Eugenic Imagination
The redwoods were not only important to eugenicists in instrumental ways. They also figured in the eugenic imagination, as The California Story became “popularized and embedded in the landscape” (Glassberg 2001:199). Let me suggest three aspects of this process of cultural production.

First, the redwoods were evoked anthropomorphically, as historical precursors to California’s incorporation into the United States. As John Merriam noted in 1934, the redwoods represented a “living link with history” (quoted in Glassberg, 2001: 186). We can see this tendency to romanticize redwoods in some current literature. A recent Save-the-Redwoods League publication refers to the “venerable lineage” of redwoods as “relics of an ancient lineage extending back to the age of the dinosaur,” as “true living fossils” and “isolated remnants of a once robust lineage” (Noss, 2000: 2-3, 10). You can hear eugenic echoes in this imagery – “robust lineage.”

The early architects of the California Story preferred not to examine the state’s bloody origins or look for living ancestors in the multiplicity of Indian and Mexican communities. The first Indian settlers of the region were regarded as inherently unfit to civilize the wilderness. And Mexicans were similarly characterized as sluggish and unproductive. “The economic backwardness of Mexican California invited outsiders,” is how one historian put it — in 1990, not 1890 (Douglas Kyle’s introduction to Hoover et al., 1990: xiii). Many eugenicists and environmentalists preferred to emphasize California’s continuity with the redwood — “the pioneer of pioneers,” in the words of nature writer Enos Mills — than with groups regarded as incapable of appreciating the tall trees’ ecstatic beauty (quoted in Glassberg, 2001: 186). Supporters of eugenics helped to promote “modern myths of virgin lands, untouched forests, and the sacred quality of nature free from people” (Stern, 2004: 137).

Secondly, the redwoods were promoted in eugenics as exemplars of the racial purity of sturdy pioneers. It was quite common for eugenicists to compare “the Anglo-Saxon race” with redwoods or vice versa (Stern, 2004: 140). Eugenicists projected their hereditarian and evolutionary ideas into the official narratives of the American West. “Extinction always fascinates eugenicists,” noted C. M. Goethe in 1946. “The near-extinction of the sea otter, its comeback under a biologically-sound conservation policy, can be paralleled as to the precious American pioneer stock. At present that stock is race-suiciding” (Goethe, 1946: 74).

For eugenicists, the survival of the old growth redwoods was turned into a parable about the need to preserve Anglo-Saxon and Nordic stock from “mongrelization” and extinction. Rightwing organizations in the heritage industry, such as the Native Sons and Daughters and Daughters of the American Republic, and the growing tourist industry were more than willing to insert the redwoods into their racialized worldview (Glassberg, 2001: 193). The definitive guide to Historic Spots in California – first published in 1937 and “extensively rewritten” in 1990 (Hoover et al.: xiii) — still retains several references to “the first white man to cross the Sierra Nevada,” “the first white man to come overland to California,” and “the first journey … by a white man from California into Oregon” (Hoover et al., 1990: 198, 209, 286, 501).

Thirdly, the redwoods were incorporated into the state’s list of historically significant sites – preferably on the coast and accessible to tourist routes – and imbued with sacred meaning. California’s nativists and eugenicists took cultural possession of redwood forests and left their mark on the landscape by naming groves after their heroes and framing their survival in Darwinist terms (Stern, 2004:138). Goethe’s main hero, for example, was Jedediah Smith (the river was named for him in 1851). For Goethe, Smith was the quintessential white pioneer, mountain man, and trapper (his reputation was made when he was killed in a Comanche raid). In the 1940s, Goethe lobbied Aubrey Newton to commemorate a grove after this “great pathfinder and explorer, who was the first white man to cross the Sierra Nevada” (Stern 150). Goethe wrote the text and chose the spot. Today the plaque still reads: “To Jedediah Smith, referred to as ‘Bible-Toter,’ First white man to cross from the Mississippi to the Pacific, thus starting the train of events which made California the 31st star in our flag” (Stern, 2004: 150). Goethe was also successful in getting my university, then Sacramento State College, in 1955 to name a street after Smith and commemorate him in a plaque as a “brave mountain man” (Hunt, 1959: 20).

Eugenicists also left their mark literally upon the remains of redwoods. It became quite common after World War II to transform a section of a redwood tree into an historical artifact by using its rings to designate important stages in Anglo-Saxon progress, such as the birth of Christ, signing of the Magna Carta, inauguration of George Washington, and so on (Glassberg, 2001: 186-187). The redwood slab on my campus, installed in honor of C. M. Goethe in the 1960s, starts with the Vikings and includes the date of the banning of the Communist Party.

In sum, as Alexandra Stern notes, eugenicists “inscribed their names and priorities into California’s geography and at the same time invented and legitimized certain versions of the Golden State’s historical memory, lending their expert knowledge, professional authority, and financial resources. Their presence is apparent, on plaques and maps, in forest groves and refuges, atop mountains and among the pantheons of founders and firsts that circulate in textbooks and brochures” (Stern, 2004: 152).

Past and Present
In part, my reason for telling this counter-story about the redwoods’ eugenic connection is to correct the historical record and encourage an interdisciplinary understanding of the state’s conservation past. The eugenics movement opens a window into the contextual politics and priorities of conservation, its selection and naming of sites, and how images of the landscape became incorporated into mythic accounts of The California Story.

But there are also pressing reasons in the present for exploring these issues. Most people do not make or get their history from the classroom or textbooks. They get it as consumers in potted forms from television and movies, in their personal lives from stories, photo albums, and gossip, and everyday in their contact with statues, memorials, markers, signs, and exhibits. A visit to a redwood grove is one of the ways that we accumulate the minutiae of historical knowledge. History, as the English historian Raphael Samuel (1996: 8) observed, is a “social form of knowledge,” typically the product of “a thousand different hands.” Visitors to the redwood forests not only experience ecological wonders, they also receive history lessons from “the peculiarities of the landscape,” where rituals and stories embedded in nature are imagined and elaborated (ibid: 11). It is here that public histories are told. “We are constantly reinterpreting the past in the light of the present, and indeed, like conservationists and restorationists in other spheres, reinventing it,” says Samuel (1996: 430).

California’s public historians have not done a very good job of communicating the state’s sorrowful origins, or deconstructing the nativist and racist origins of its official markers and memorials. We have put too much energy into glorifying or justifying atrocities past, or practicing evasion and amnesia. California’s roots, suggests Rebecca Solnit (2004: 33), are “in some strange way in the future” as though we exist in an “eternal present tense.” So it should be no surprise that parks and other public places avoid controversies that might trouble visitors. But history is never neutral; it is always implicitly “an argument about the past, as well as the record of it” (Samuel, 1996: 430). The decision to name a river after an Indian hunter or an elk reserve after a racist ideologue or a redwood grove after rightwing eugenicists are not neutral acts of commemoration. And the decision to leave them in place, undisturbed, is troubling more than comforting.

So, I invite you to discuss the choices that face us. We can continue to practice amnesia or evasion, as we’ve done for the last century. We could leave the existing signage and imagery in place as curiosities of the past. Or we could remove any traces of references to names that are associated with racist eugenics. Or we could open up a public discussion about how we should commemorate these sites that resonate with great beauty and great tragedy. I prefer a public history that introduces tourists and students to the controversies that are at the foundation of the places they visit. After all, isn’t the purpose of a memorial to get people engaged by what they experience (Kimmelman, 2002: 2, 1)?


Briggs, Laura

2002 Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Evarts, John and Marjorie Popper (eds.)

2001 Coast Redwood: A Natural and Cultural History. Los Olivos, Ca.: Cachuma Press.

Glassberg, David
2001 Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Goethe, Charles M.

1946 War Profits and Better Babies. Sacramento: The Keystone Press.

Hoover, Mildred Brooke, Hero Eugene Rensch, Ethel Grace Rensch, William N. Abeloe

1990 Historic Spots in California. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Revised by Douglas E. Kyle. Originally published 1932-1937. Fourth Edition.

Hunt, Rockwell D.

1959 Fifteen Decisive Events of California History. Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California.

Kevles, Daniel

1995 In The Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kimmelman, Michael

2002 “Out of Minimalism, Monuments to Memory,” New York Times, January 13, section 2, 1, 37.

Lowenthal, David

1985. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Noss, Reed F. (ed.)

2000 The Redwood Forest: History, Ecology, and Conservation of the Coast Redwoods. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. Publication of Save-the-Redwoods League.

Platt, Tony

2004 What’s In A Name? Charles M. Goethe, American Eugenics, & Sacramento State University. Unpublished report.

Popenoe, Paul

1934 “The German Sterilization Law,” Journal of Heredity vol.. 25, no. 7, 257-260.

Popenoe, Paul and Roswell Hill Johnson

1918 Applied Eugenics. New York: Macmillan.

Samuel, Raphael

1996 Theatres of Memory, vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London: Verso.

Solnit, Rebecca

2004 “Check Out the Parking Lot,” London Review of Books, July 8, 32-33.

Stern, Alexandra Minna

2005 Eugenic Nation: Medicine, Race, and Sexuality in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, in press,.

Vogel, Meghan
2004 “North Coast Tied as an Unspoiled Destination Point,” Humboldt Times-Standard, May 8, 2004, 3.

· Notes for talk given at 24th annual conference of the California Council for the Promotion of History, Eureka Ca., September 23-26, 2004. Tony Platt (amplatt@earthlink.net) is professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento, and a member of the editorial board of Social Justice. This talk draws upon the work of Alexandra Stern (in her forthcoming book, Eugenic Nation) and of David Glassberg’s Sense of History, and my own research on the eugenics movement in California.

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