This essay applies the idea of the witness tree to the Golden State. Reflexively, Californians turn their historical attention to giant sequoias, and wonder what these trees would say about the ancient past if trees could speak. The author argues that hang trees—sites of lynching in the settlement period—are better witnesses of California’s past. Lynching was common in frontier California, and native trees, mainly oaks and sycamores, were used by vigilance committees for extrajudicial executions. Once the Gold Rush was distant enough for commemoration, hang trees became objects of folklore, fakelore, and heritage. As sites of violence and collective memory, California’s trees speak truths and lies.
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