The Sayante tribe, a subgroup of the Ohlone culture, lived in this area before Spanish rule. Their proximity to the San Lorenzo River enabled them to exchange steelhead and salmon with neighboring tribes for acorns, obsidian, and other resources.

In 1821 Mexico became independent from Spain and ruled this area until 1846. Portions of Alta California were divided into land grants and "sold" for small fees to Mexican citizens. Ownership of the land changed hands many times as more pioneers arrived—introducing logging; a sawmill; a grist mill; gold mining; whiskey stills; tanoak-bark harvesting; and paper, gunpowder, and lime manufacturing. There were three Mexican land grants in what is now Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: Rancho  Rincon, Rancho Carbonera, and Rancho Zayante. 
Rancho Cañada del Rincon en el Rio San Lorenzo de Santa Cruz was granted to Pedro Sansevain in 1843. Granted initially for 8,800 acres by Mexico's governor, the claim later came before the U.S. Land Commission and the courts finally patented it at 5,827 acres. Originally a French immigrant named Pierre, Sansevain adopted the Spanish name Pedro along with the necessary citizenship to qualify as a land grantee.
In 1855 gold was discovered in a small creek opposite the present picnic area. That summer, miners earned three to ten dollars a day for their efforts. This area is known today as Gold Gulch. 
Sansevain went into the lumber business; his mill seems to have been near Gold Gulch and the San Lorenzo River. A large section of the Rincon Rancho was traded in 1859 to the Davis and Jordan Lime Company for their $150,000 coastal steamer, The Santa Cruz. The vessel had proven to be too large for use by the lime company. Sansevain tried the steamer on a coastal run but sold it to new owners, who took it across the Pacific. It burned on the Yangtse River in 1861. 
Then came Henry Cowell in 1865. Davis and Jordan had established their kilns in Santa Cruz and had previously deeded the Paradise tract to the California Powder Works, with right of way for dams, flumes and a tunnel. After Cowell bought into the company, lime quarries were developed at Rincon and the kilns were moved from Santa Cruz to what is now Henry Cowell State Park.
The southern section of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was within Rancho Carbonera, a large tract of land bordering the San Lorenzo River north of Santa Cruz and at the entrance to the San Lorenzo Valley. The rancho was granted by Governor Alvarado to Jose Guillermo Bocle in 1838. Bocle was a man of many aliases: Boc, Bocle, Bucle, Thompson, and Mead to name a few. He and his brother Samuel came to California in 1823 and were naturalized in 1841. Bocle took the name of Thompson after the American occupation of California. Guillermo, or William, was an English sailor who came to California and married Marin Antonia Castro, a member of one of California's first families. 
Within half a mile of the present southern boundary of the park, what is claimed to be the first paper mill in California was established on the San Lorenzo River in 1860. With an abundant supply of pulp and water—and nearby ocean shipping—the mill produced a ton of coarse brown paper daily. It survived only two years because of two calamities: a flood and the death of its superintendent, Henry Van Valkenburg.
In 1864, California Powder Works started production of black powder (gunpowder) on the paper mill site, which became known as Powder Flat. Its 1,300-foot water diversion tunnel has since collapsed, but parts of its flume and diversion dam remain. When shipping moved from ships to railroads, it became more economical to manufacture powder elsewhere, so the plant moved to Hercules, California, in 1916. 
Granted to teacher and former Santa Cruz mayor Joaquin Buelna in 1834, Rancho Zayante consisted of 2,658 acres near (and possibly partly in) the northern section of today’s park. The next year Buelna let his claim lapse, after giving his timber rights to Ambrose Tomlinson and Joe Dye, thus starting a settlement of “foreigners" or non-Mexican citizens.
Isaac Graham, a frontiersman, had come from Hardin County, Kentucky, in 1833. Three years after his arrival, he assisted Juan B. Alvarado in expelling Governor Guiterres with the understanding that California should be free from Mexican domination. However, shortly after Alvarado came to power, Graham and his associates were arrested as dangerous foreigners and placed in confinement on a boat in Monterey Harbor. A few of the group were released before Don Jose Castro sailed with the prisoners for Mexico; all were released by Mexican authorities after their arrival. It was reported Isaac Graham received $36,000 as indemnity for the outrage done to him. 
With this money, Graham cast his eyes on the Zayante Tract. Graham, along with his friend Henry Neale, induced Joseph Majors, who was a Mexican citizen, to apply for the grant. Majors was named as grantee of Zayante and the adjoining San Augustine Rancho of 4,326 acres. Majors actually procured the land for a syndicate of "foreigners" who declined to become Mexican citizens. 
In 1841, Majors, Graham, a German named Frederick Hoeger, and a Dane named Peter Lassen, agreed to erect a mill on Zayante Creek near its entry to the San Lorenzo River. This was reputed to be the first power sawmill in California. Graham and Neale took over their partners' interests in 1843 and built a larger mill on the east bank of the San Lorenzo River below the entrance of Fall Creek. 
The Colony of British and American "foreigners" at Zayante, of which Graham was an influential part, attracted many of the pioneers who came over the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830s and across the plains in the 1840s. Run by Joe Dye and Joseph Majors, the "muley" sawmill, a grist mill, and a still which made mountain whiskey formed the center of a group of cabins which spread into what is now Mount Hermon and down to the present Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
In 1867, Joseph Warren Welch Sr. purchased 350 acres here. Although much of the surrounding land had been logged, the large tract of old-growth redwoods we enjoy today still stood. He advertised the grove of uncut giants, and the Welch Big Trees Grove became a famous tourist destination. After his death in 1876, Welch’s widow, Anna Isabella, leased the land to entrepreneur J.M. Hooper, who ran the resort that included a small hotel and dance floor near the Frémont Tree. Famous people such as Andrew Carnegie and Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt visited.

Gen. Fremont family and friends showing circumference

The Creation of the Park

FromHenry Cowell History - by Former Henry Cowell SP Supervising Ranger Jeff Jones
It could be said without too much exaggeration that a British magazine was responsible for the creation of the California State Park system. Furthermore, it was because of photographs not taken of a famous grove of majestic old-growth redwood trees near Felton that the preservationist movement began which eventually established California's first State Park. A British magazine and photographs never taken? These are a part of the interesting and varied history of what is now Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

By the year 1899, California's redwood trees were internationally famous. In that year an English publication hired Andrew P. Hill, San Jose artist, photographer, and writer, to do a story on the huge redwoods of the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Hill packed his equipment in a trunk and traveled by narrow gauge railway over the summit and down to Big Trees Station just outside of Felton. There he found the perfect subjects for his magazine piece--magnificent virgin redwoods, some approaching 300 feet in height. However, he had hardly set up his camera when the owner of the grove, Joseph Welch, came and chased him off. Welch did not want commercial photographs taken of his trees unless he received payment. Hill went back to San Jose without any pictures to accompany his article. Instead he carried only anger resulting from his confrontation with Welch. Hill thought it unjust that these beautiful redwoods were not available for everyone to experience.

On his next trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains, Andrew Hill avoided Welch's grove and went deeper into the back country to the Big Basin area. There he photographed extensively and became so inspired by the ancient majesty of the trees that he and friends formed the Sempervirens Club. The members dedicated their organization to the preservation of redwood trees for all to enjoy. They attracted wealthy and influential people who raised funds and convinced legislators to purchase Big Basin and establish California's first State Park. All this was set in motion by a British magazine and some photographs not taken.

Joseph Welch cannot really be faulted for running Andrew Hill off of his property. Welch had owned the grove since 1867 and had worked very hard to build a comfortable and popular resort amidst the redwoods. By the turn of the century, it was complete with train station, hotel, dining hall, cabins, and dance pavilion. Dignitaries from all over the world came to marvel at the trees. In 1888 John C. Frémont visited a tree named in his honor. Three years later President Benjamin Harrison walked through the grove, and a picturesque group of redwoods was named after him. Welch's Big Trees Resort was on the itinerary of practically every touring visitor to the general San Francisco area.

At the same time that Welch's enterprise was flourishing, another Santa Cruz pioneer businessman was also enjoying remarkable success. Henry Cowell had arrived in the Santa Cruz area in 1865. He had already demonstrated his business acumen by establishing a successful drayage company in San Francisco. In Santa Cruz, he diversified by ultimately entering the limestone quarrying and processing business. He acquired thousands of acres of land and ultimately gained control of two lime-producing companies. The Santa Cruz area was blessed with many natural outcroppings of limestone. During the years of highest demand, nearly 80% of lime for the state came from Santa Cruz county. Intense heat was used to convert the quarried rock into usable material. Kilns were built in several locations including the North Fork of Fall Creek and in the Rincon area of the San Lorenzo River. Hundreds of thousands of cords of wood were burned over the years to keep the kiln fires burning. The Cowell family's ranches and lime operations prospered, and eventually the Cowell name was on the title of 6,500 acres of Santa Cruz County land. The holdings included over 1,600 acres of forest and river frontage adjacent to Welch's Big Trees Resort.

As the twentieth century progressed, the Welch family began to look for a buyer for the resort and surrounding property. Welch's son and the County worked toward a purchase that would make the grove a county park, thereby preserving the beautiful redwoods. Many local people were excited by the prospect, but others were worried about the strain on the County budget such a purchase and subsequent operation would be. In the end the park advocates prevailed, thanks largely to the indefatigable efforts of former Lieutenant Governor William Jeter. Though elderly and confined to a hospital bed, Jeter wrote letters, made phone calls, and most likely twisted a few well-chosen arms on behalf of the park idea. In 1930 Santa Cruz County paid $75,000 for 120 acres, which included the incomparable 40-acre Big Tree Grove. For the next 24 years, the County managed the area; it continued to be a favorite setting for picnics, walks, and swimming for local and out-of-town visitors alike.

By 1950, there was only one member of the Cowell family left. Samuel "Harry" Cowell was nearly ninety years old. He had long been an outdoorsman, and he was especially fond of the family's property next to Welch's grove. In 1952, he decided he wanted to give that property to the State for a park in memory of his father. His idea was to have the County give up ownership of the Grove to the State at the same time so that it could all be managed together. Cowell's representatives met with State and County officials, and negotiations were successful. On August 18, 1954, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was formally dedicated as a new unit in California's State Park System.

The park today is a wonderful combination of unique natural features, comfortable facilities, and easy accessibility. The Henry Cowell and Fall Creek units combine to comprise over 4,000 acres. Thirty miles of hiking trails wind through five distinct plant communities. Native wildlife abounds, from the commonly seen jays, squirrels, and deer to more elusive ringtails, bobcats, and occasional golden eagles. The 0.8-mile main Redwood Loop Trail circles through trees that have stood well over a thousand years and are as fine a grove of redwoods as can be experienced anywhere. Facilities include a 112-unit developed campground and a large picnic area along the San Lorenzo River. In addition, a group picnic area can accommodate up to 400 people; it is frequently reserved for company picnics, family reunions, and by many clubs and organizations.

In a real sense, the present park is carrying on the tradition of its historical use. Though the cabins and dance pavilion are gone, the intrinsic beauty endures. Thousands of people visit each year for the same reasons people have always come—to relax with friends and family; to breathe in the reassuring peace and beauty of the redwoods; and to be renewed by personally reconnecting with the fundamental and abiding glory of nature.

Who was Henry Cowell?

In 1849 Henry Cowell and his brother John left their home town of Wrentham, Massachusetts when the lure of gold was drawing the adventurous to California. John returned to Boston because of poor health. Henry, 30 years old, began a successful drayage business that soon grew to include routes to Stockton and the gold country. Henry's knowledge, attained from his wealthy family, paid off and soon his empire grew to include property and business interests from San Luis Obispo to Washington State.

With the population boom of the Gold Rush came the construction of towns and cities. Lime, made from processing limestone in wood-fired kilns, was in high demand for brick mortar and soon attracted the attention of Henry Cowell.

In the early 1850s, Albion Jordan and Isaac Davis seized the opportunity to replace the lime shipped from the East with limestone they would quarry and process in kilns locally. They found that Santa Cruz had almost unlimited deposits of high-quality limestone, plentiful wood to fuel the kilns, and proximity to San Francisco via ocean schooners. By the 1860s, brick had replaced lumber as the building material of choice. In 1865, annual production of lime reached 78,580 barrels.

In 1865, Henry Cowell bought half ownership of the Santa Cruz lime business from Albion Jordan for $100,000. The other half still belonged to Isaac Davis. By 1868, Davis and Cowell were exporting more than a  thousand barrels of lime each week. In 1888, Isaac Davis died, and Cowell purchased complete control for $400,000. He worked hard to build up the business, and quarried limestone from several locations throughout Santa Cruz. Cowell bought ships, established a cement trade with Belgium ,and bought large land holdings, ranches, and limestone deposits in 23 California counties.

In the early 1900s, Cowell operated lime kilns at four locations in Santa Cruz County.  There was a lime works on Adams Creek (now part of  Wilder Ranch State Park), on Fall Creek (now part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park), and in Santa Cruz (at what is now the entrance to the University of California campus). In 1907, a new lime-making plant that used oil for fuel was built along Highway 9 at Rincon (now part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park). The oil-burning kilns replaced the dwindling local wood supplies to fuel the kilns.  It was built near the railroad, which delivered oil for fuel and hauled the finished lime to market.  Eventually the other plants closed, leaving only the Rincon Plant with its seven kilns. It, too, closed in 1946.  

Testimony to Cowell's success in the lime industry lies in the fact that in 1886 he was reported to have the highest income in Santa Cruz County, in addition to owning 6,500 acres of land in the area. This property included over 1,600 acres of forest adjacent to Welch's Big Trees Resort.

Cowell supplemented his lime industry business with his businesses in cattle, logging (for lumber and to fuel the lime kilns), and continually purchasing property. By 1899, he owned 10,000 acres of land.

By 1900, the demand for lime began to decline. The wood supplies near the kilns were almost gone. This forced the lime companies to buy expensive imported oil for fuel. Henry Cowell's death in 1903 put the burden of business on his sons Ernest and Harry. In 1906 the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company opened a plant in Davenport, and cement began to replaced lime with its superior building capabilities. The 1906 earthquake proved that brick was not the best building material and further decreased the demand for lime. By 1925, there were only 35 employees at the Cowell Ranch (for lime and cattle production), and Harry Cowell closed the business in 1946 .

Henry Cowell's everyday life was a mystery. Not much is known because he hated publicity with a passion and went to almost any length to avoid it. His family life was tragic. He had five children (plus a son who lived only one year). Sarah (1863 - 1903), died in a buggy accident on Cowell's Ranch. Henry died the same year. The accident upset Sarah's sisters Helen (1865 - 1932) and Isabella (1857 - 1950) to such an extent that they refused ever to set foot on the Ranch again. They lived as inseparable recluses in Atherton in the later portion of their unusual lives. After Helen's death in 1932, Isabella had the Atherton house torn down and left the ruins behind a locked gate. The gardeners kept the grounds as beautiful as they had been, with the demolished house lying in rubble in the center.

Ernest (1858 - 1913) was the only son to marry—against his father's wishes—and was temporarily disowned. Henry felt that would-be spouses were just after the family money.

The youngest son, Harry (1860 - 1955) was the last link in the Cowell family line. In his will he saw to it that 21 faithful employees were provided for, then gave the rest of the money for the public good; the giving was to be governed by the Cowell Foundation. The Santa Cruz Sentinel estimated the dollar amount to be over $14 million. Some Santa Cruz locations that benefited from the Cowell Estate include the University of California at Santa Cruz (the former Cowell Ranch), Cowell Beach, First Congregational Church on High Street, and a large addition to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Other recipients of substantial gifts were Mills College, Stanford University, and the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.