Native Peoples

Before European contact, the lives of the Tolowa people, along with their neighbors the Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, and Chilula, were secure and well ordered. New settlers depleted natural resources, causing radical environmental changes and cultural conflict. European diseases to which the Tolowa had no immunity decreased their numbers, and many were sent to the reservation at what is now the Smith River. Part of the site of Camp Lincoln, built in 1862 as a buffer between the native people and the settlers, is located in the park. Tolowa descendants still live in northern California, and many continue to practice their traditions.

Who Was Jedediah Smith?

Jedediah Strong Smith was the first non-native known to have traveled overland from the Mississippi River across the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific coast. In 1821, at age 22, he came west and joined the fur-trapping party of General William Ashley. By late 1826, Smith and two partners had bought out General Ashley. Smith led his trappers across southern Utah, Nevada, Arizona, the Mojave Desert, and Cajon Pass to Mission San Gabriel, where they rested for two months.

When Mexican governor José María Echeandía ordered them to leave, Smith headed north into the San Joaquin Valley. In May 1827 he went to Utah to recruit more trappers, but as they re-crossed the Colorado River, the formerly friendly Mojave Indians attacked, killing 10 men. When Smith and his surviving men reached Mission San Jose, Smith was arrested and sent to Governor Echeandía in Monterey.

Again ordered out of the province, the party went north through the redwoods, reaching what is now called the Smith River in June 1828. Two years later, Smith and his partners sold their business and returned to St. Louis. In 1831, Smith felt the lure of the Santa Fe Trail. While seeking water during his last wagon train west, he was killed in a Comanche ambush along the Cimarron River.

Jedediah Smith’s wish was to be “the first to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that run through a new land.” His reports on the geology and geography of the western territories appeared in newspapers of the day, and proved that the Sierra Nevada could be safely crossed to reach California. In a remarkably few years, his travels, observations, and notes filled in many blank spaces on the country’s map.

Saving the Redwoods

California’s redwood parks are monuments to those whose vision preserved them. In 1900, concerned citizens formed the Sempervirens Fund to help save the coast redwood groves at Big Basin near Santa Cruz, and Save the Redwoods League was formed in 1918.

The names of several memorial groves at Jedediah Smith reflect the generosity of lumbermen who donated them or preserved them until the League could purchase them. When the park was established in 1929, the Frank D. Stout Memorial Grove became its first dedicated grove. The 5,000-acre National Tribute Grove, dedicated to those who fought during World War II, was purchased largely  with League funds.

In May 1994, Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Prairie Creek Redwoods state parks joined with Redwood National Park in a cooperative management effort, forming Redwood National and State Parks. Today, the four parks’ combined 133,000 acres contain 45 percent  of California’s old-growth redwood forest, an area of primeval splendor almost four times as big as Manhattan Island. These parks have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and form a portion of the protected California Coast Ranges Biosphere Reserve.