While General Sherman is the largest currently living tree, it is not the largest historically recorded tree. The Crannell Creek Giant, a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) near Trinidad, California, is estimated to have been 15–25% larger than the General Sherman tree by volume. That tree was cut down in the mid-1940s. Another larger coast redwood, the Lindsey Creek tree with more than 90,000 cubic feet (2,500 cubic meters) was reported felled by a storm in a 1905 Humboldt Times Standard article. It is estimated to be around 2,300 to 2,700 years old.
General Sherman was named after the American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. The official story, which may be apocryphal, claims the tree was named in 1879 by naturalist James Wolverton, who had served as a lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry under Sherman.
Seven years later, in 1886, the land came under the control of the Kaweah Colony, a utopian socialist community whose economy was based on logging. Noting the pivotal role that Sherman had played in the Indian Wars and his forced relocation of native American tribes, they renamed the tree in honor of Karl Marx. However, the community was disbanded in 1892, primarily as a result of the establishment of Sequoia National Park, and the tree reverted to its previous name.
In 1931, following comparisons with the nearby General Grant tree, General Sherman was identified as the largest tree in the world. One result of this process was that wood volume became widely accepted as the standard for establishing and comparing the size of different trees.
In January 2006 the largest branch on the tree (seen most commonly, in older photos, as an “L” or golf-club shape, protruding from about a quarter of the way down the trunk) broke off. There were no witnesses to the incident, and the branch — larger than most tree trunks; diameter over 2 m (6.6 ft) and length over 30 m (98 ft) — smashed part of the perimeter fence and cratered the pavement of the surrounding walkway. The breakage is not believed to be indicative of any abnormalities in the tree’s health, and may even be a natural defense mechanism against adverse weather conditions.
While it is the largest tree known, the General Sherman Tree is neither the tallest known living tree on Earth (that distinction belongs to the Hyperion tree, a Coast redwood), nor is it the widest (both the largest cypress and largest baobab have a greater diameter), nor is it the oldest known living tree on Earth (that distinction belongs to a Great Basin bristlecone pine). With a height of 83.8 meters (275 ft), a diameter of 7.7 m (25 ft), an estimated bole volume of 1,487 m3 (52,513 cu ft), and an estimated age of 2,300–2,700 years, it is nevertheless among the tallest, widest, and longest-lived of all trees on the planet.