Ecs Reading Response


Tony Platt*

Ecs Reading Response

“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).

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