Many American Indian societies inhabited the region of Redwood National Park for thousands of years before Euro-American settlers came, living in tandem with nature and its resources. The animism central to their religious beliefs held that even fallen trees and the traditional dwellings that the people made from their planks had powerful spirits. A house itself was thought to be alive, the body of a guiding Spirit Being.
While anthropologists have described the North Coast Indians as tribes, their societies were more or less independent villages that shared social, economic and religious ties, with no one group exerting dominance over others. Today, the descendants of these people constitute the Yurok, Hupa, Tolowa and Karuk tribes.
While these peoples lived in relative harmony for millennia, their interactions with white settlers were brutal and bloody. Newcomers violently forced the native inhabitants from their ancestral lands and were rewarded for it by the state government. While the state usually drew up treaties with American Indians, such arrangements were never ratified in this part of California. This loophole robbed the tribes of their sovereignty, thus clouding their legal rights even to this day.
Early settlers’ treatment of the area’s resources were about as fair and judicious as their dealings with the North Coast tribes. Westward expansion — particularly after California’s mid-19th century gold rush — fed the need for lumber, and the giant trees in the region were seen as a logical source. Large-scale logging operations sprouted up on the North Coast, with nine sawmills operating out of the boomtown of Eureka alone. By the end of the century, large tracts of redwoods had disappeared, and this trend only worsened with the introduction of new technology. An estimated two million acres of old-growth redwood forest was reduced to only hundreds of thousands of acres in the space of 60 years. In many cases, ownership of public lands were fraudulently transferred to private industry for the purpose of logging.
To enact some sort of protection for the trees, concerned citizens — several of them prominent East Coast academics who were interested in the region mostly for paleontological research — formed the Save-the-Redwoods League, which purchased tracts of land with matching funds from the state. These tracts would form four state parks in the 1920s that laid the foundation for the establishment of Redwood National Park. The national park was founded in 1968, and the state and federal parks were administratively joined in 1994.