Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the nomenclature: The Lee trees

The Lee trees
The Robert E. Lee Tree in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. (FamousRedwoods.com photo)

Monuments have come down throughout the nation during a worldwide wave of protests that began May 25, 2020, with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., by police. Along with the recent murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, these actions have sparked demands for sweeping changes and a nationwide uprising for racial justice. There is a re-energized movement that hasn’t been experienced in the U.S. since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and activists are calling for a just and sustainable future where Black Lives Matter.

With all eyes on Confederate symbols, from its flag to statues, it shouldn’t be lost on the residents of Kaweah Country that there are two living monuments within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks dedicated to Confederate General Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807-October 12, 1870). The Lee trees

Robert Edward Lee, Confederate general and slave owner
Lee, who was born in Virginia, attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated second in the class of 1829. Two years later, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a descendant of George Washington’s adopted son, John Parke Custis.  The Lee trees

Lee served 17 years as an officer in the Corps of Engineers, supervising and inspecting the construction of the nation’s coastal defenses. He first set foot on a battlefield during the 1846 war with Mexico. He quickly distinguished himself, earning three brevets for gallantry and emerging from the conflict with the rank of colonel.

From 1852 to 1855, Lee served as superintendent of West Point. In 1855, he left the academy to take a position in the Cavalry and in 1859 was called upon to stop abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.

In April 1861, as the Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the federal forces. Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army when the state of Virginia seceded on April 17, arguing that he “could not fight against his own people.” Instead, he accepted a general’s commission in the newly formed Confederate Army, fighting for slavery.

In February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis named Lee general-in-chief of all Confederate forces. Two months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee and his army surrendered to the Union’s General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the Civil War.

Lee returned home on parole and eventually became the president of Washington College in Virginia (now known as Washington and Lee University). He remained in this position until his death in Lexington, Virginia, at the age of 63. The Lee trees

During the Civil War, Lee was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they were black. And Lee was a slave master himself. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, Lee was described as cruel and heavy handed. 

Lee was especially vicious because he would separate slave families, which was a fate worse than death. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor creates a portrait of Lee through his writings, and said, “By 1860, he had broken up every family but one on the estate.”

A well-known story of Lee describes when two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured. Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, General Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with [salt] brine, which was done.”

LEE TREES

Robert E. Lee Tree
The most famous of the two Lee trees in the local parks is the Robert E. Lee Tree in Kings Canyon National Park. Located on the trail to the General Grant Tree and adjacent to the Fallen Monarch, this Lee Tree is, at 254.7 feet in height and 40,102 cubic feet in volume (sans burn scars), the 11th largest tree on the planet. It was reportedly named in 1875 by Richard Field, a former Confederate lieutenant, five years after Lee’s death and 15 years before General Grant National Park was established (Kings Canyon’s predecessor). The Lee trees

Currently, hundreds of people walk past this tree each day without knowing that it’s named for the Confederate general or realizing it’s one of the largest trees they will ever see. The tree is in decay, sort of like its namesake’s reputation, and, in July 2006, a limb came crashing down, narrowly missing three international tourists. A year later, tree-climbing scientists entered the tree and confirmed that it was compromised by fungus and rotted material.

At that time, the National Park Service removed the ROBERT E. LEE TREE sign for the reason of safety. Without a sign designating it as a named tree, the visiting public is less likely to pause and gather under the tree for photos. Because of the recent outcry against Confederate monuments, the tree’s moniker will most likely be allowed to fade into obscurity. The Lee trees

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The Lee trees

 

General Lee Tree
The other Lee Tree is in Sequoia National Park with no superlatives such as “largest” attached to it. It has a sign identifying it, but is not as noticeable as the other trees in the vicinity: President, Sequoyah, Congress Group.

“The one in Giant Forest, the General Lee Tree, still has its sign in place,” reported Sintia-Kawasaki-Yee, parks information officer. “[The Park Service is] having conversations about what the options are for that sign and what policies are involved as we’re getting asked to both remove the sign and also to leave the sign in place. I think this is going to take some public engagement, and we may not have a decision soon.”

“As far as removal of reference to Robert E. Lee, we’ve looked through our website and other materials and found one document that listed the Robert E. Lee Tree,” Sintia continued. “We’ve modified this document and updated the website. We haven’t found anything else yet, but we’re still looking.”

Next: Diving deep into the naming of the Big Trees.

Additional reading: Biggest of the Big Trees 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the nomenclature: The Lee trees

  • June 26, 2020 at 7:30 am
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    Unless someone can come up with a cogent justification for obscuring the less-comfortable elements of the nation’s history, the outbursts of hypersensitive emotion or, alternatively, the transparent virtue-signalling of the chattering groupies, that demand such masking of reality are counter-productive. Visitors to the Lee trees will be better served if NPS’ signage, while describing Gen. Lee’s positive contributions to the nation, also lends some perspective regarding the darker side of the man himself.

    I have personally experienced this insensitivity and actual ignorance that arises from the purposeful masking of embarrassing or damning history. Growing up in Tulsa and being required to study Oklahoma “history” in the 8th grade (1959), we never heard any mention whatsoever of the tragic and now-infamous Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921. So my schoolmates and I learned nothing that would cause any of us to think critically about our flippant joking about black people or about our only slightly- submerged actual racist attitudes, while we enjoyed the amenities of our all-white country club.

    Reply
    • June 26, 2020 at 10:58 am
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      Trying to think of Lee’s positive contributions to the nation. Benedict Arnold made positive contributions until he decided to turn traitor. I suppose we should celebrate those as well.

      Reply
  • June 26, 2020 at 9:56 am
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    This is a ridiculous idea to erase all of our history! This is history that reflects the actions that were taken during the Civil War on both sides; it can’t and shouldn’t be sugar-coated! The only way we can learn from our past mistakes is to recognize and acknowledge them in order to avoid repeating them! Let’s just take a step back, cool our jets so to say, and someday future generations may be glad to see these trees identified as reminders of our history – good and bad. One further note – Park officials won’t have to worry and stew about the tree that used to honor the “Father of Our Country” – also a slave owner – (aka the Washington Tree); it was destroyed several years ago by an out-of-control “control” burn.

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    • June 27, 2020 at 10:28 am
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      Respectfully, too many people are mistaking glorification for education these days.

      There are plenty of places in this nation – Civil War battlefields and sites of other significant historical events, museums, libraries – where we can preserve knowledge and learn about history in a way that provides context and multiple perspectives.

      We erect statues and name monumental natural features after important figures to honor to those people, not to provide a balanced perspective about our nation’s complex history.

      We can choose who – and who not – to honor in our public spaces.

      Reply
    • July 4, 2020 at 12:28 pm
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      Amen Mrs. Britten !

      Reply
  • June 26, 2020 at 7:06 pm
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    Was @ the Robert E. Lee tree surrounded by protesters attempting to topple it by using what looked like lassos made from parachute cord, and fortunately none of the rabble could toss said lariat the 256 feet needed to attain the top and were clearly frustrated by their inability to move the Floyd Otter tree into 11th place, overtaking the General.

    Reply
  • August 3, 2020 at 5:43 pm
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    Removing names, erasing history because the person is offensive to someone or some group is just as offensive as the act and reason for doing so. Besides all of that, this is not about racial injustice or racism, or being offended, it is a smokescreen for the real reason these thugs are perpetuating social unrest and terrorizing any and all citizens… it is all part of the plan to usher in Marxism. Divide the nation (again), citizens against citizens, neighbors against neighbors, family against family… Does this at all sound familiar to you? Are we so blind as not to see the formula being used again and again. Are we blind to history? This stuff is right out of the book Rules For Radicals and history itself! It has all happen before and is happening again now. We need to do our homework and stand up for our rights and our sovereignty as a nation. We need to stop reacting emotionally and use our brains. We must stand up to the thugs! Yeah, peaceful demonstrations my behind, they are there to provoke violence and division. You may feel like one ant, but as soon as the rest of the ants rally together, the enemy (communists, both foreign and domestic) will scatter like the rats they are.

    What’s in a name? The better question is what’s in the history of a name, especially when we are talking about monuments, any monuments. The primary reason of commemorating any side of a conflict is that there was a conflict and that people fought for what they perceived at the time to be right, otherwise there would not have been any struggle at all. In the Pre-Civil War south, the right to own slaves was to fuel the economic growth of the south and was perceived as a necessity and worth fighting for, as wrong as they were. This is how precepts and ideologies are worked out to the ultimate good and how the evils of wrong precepts are put to rest… even if the ultimate result is a war between the ideologies. The Civil War was more about economics than slavery, slavery was a means to an end for the south. But the battle cry of the north was to end human slavery, because it was wrong, regardless of the economics, and that was the ignition to the powder keg. The common denominator in all conflicts are economics, ideologies are the excuses for the conflict, whether right or wrong. For the north it was the line in the sand that divided the Nation. Like it or not confederate monuments were erected by our nation after the war to help reunite the nation, in which both sides fought heroically. They were not erected, or allowed to be erected, to promote slavery (they just fought the war to end that), but to commemorate our desire to acknowledge the fact that people did die on both sides, there was heroism on both sides, and that we need to reunite and move on as one nation again. Most of these commemorative monuments were not erected by the defeated south, but by the north to pave a path of reconciliation to bring the nation back together, just a part of their reunification strategy.

    So, to the thugs and the questionable loyalty of the citizenry involved in these “protests” (both foreign and domestic and/or paid mercenaries) that are pretending to be racially offended…. Bug off before the ants unite. We are not falling for your bait to divide us for your Marxist agendas. We now know who you are!

    Reply

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