Witness Trees

In the 1800s, when public land was being surveyed for Euro/Yankee settlement, surveyors marked the corners of sections and quarter sections. In prairie landscapes, they pounded posts into the corners. In woodlands, surveyors marked blazes on “witness trees.”

In more recent times, historians have named specific old trees in certain places as witness trees. For example, a small honey locust sapling was growing on a Pennsylvania field during the Battle of Gettysburg  in 1863, and it stood about 150 away from the speakers’ platform when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The tree survived for 145 more years, providing visitors a tangible living link to those desperate days. Only a handful of such trees survive on the battlefield.

The honey locust is in the center. Gettysburg National Military Park photo, 2008, taken shortly after the storm that severely damaged it.

I’m always on the lookout for grand old trees. Recently, while trying to meet multiple deadlines, I holed up for a few days at Holy Wisdom Monastery near Middleton, WI. The 138-acre grounds include restored prairies, woodlands, a small glacial lake…and several witness trees.

A stunning old oak.

None are famous, as far as I know. But I find it impossible to contemplate these ancient trees without wondering about all they have seen. Pre-historic mound builders and Ho-Chunk travelers likely hunted here. Perhaps a young couple’s long wagon journey ended when they decided to build their cabin nearby. Maybe a family farmed this land, managing to hang on during World War I, the Great Depression, World War II.

It's hard to get a grasp of scale, but this is one of the largest maple trees I've ever seen.

In the 1950s, land was purchased by a community of Sisters of St. Benedict. Today the Benedictine Women of Madison, an ecumenical community, lovingly maintain the prairie and oak savannah. And through all the changes, a few magnificent trees have remained.

Trunk of the maple shown above.

As I worked to finish the first draft of my next Chloe Ellefson mystery, I found that thinking about these trees and the lives they’ve witnessed was somehow inspiring.  People continue to visit this landscape, each with their own story. Two weeks ago one of those travelers was me. I pressed a couple of autumn leaves to bring home. Maybe my brief stay left an ephemeral imprint in the continuum, too.

How about you? Any witness trees in your area?

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8 Responses to “Witness Trees”

  1. Heather Says:

    Great post, Kathleen. It instantly brought to mind the 200+ yr old Jackson Oak at the UW Arboretum (western edge of Curtis Prairie and Leopold Pines). Although the tree is dead now, it is still standing tall. The naturalist on a recent guided walk told us that noone wants to be the one to cut it down, and it is still quite impressive.

  2. Jean Says:

    Loved this as I also love trees and all they stand for and do for us and yes, witness. I have also been to the Monastery over the years a time or two. What a great spot to ‘hole up’ and write!

    I am looking forward to the next Chloe mystery, so am glad you found a spot.

    Jean, sister of Dee Martin

  3. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Heather. I think I know the tree you mean at UW Arboretum. I’m glad the staff is leaving it.

    And Jean, I appreciate your comment! Isn’t HWM a lovely place?

  4. Meg Says:

    I was fortunate enough to see both giant sequoias (in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove) and coast redwoods (along the Avenue of the Giants and in Redwoods National Park) on a trip I took last summer. If those are not witness trees (most of them are 2000+ years old), I don’t know what is.

    They are incredibly awe-inspiring.

  5. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Meg, seeing the sequoias is high on my still-to-do life list. Two thousand plus years? It’s mind-boggling.

  6. Brenda Visser Says:

    I LOVE big trees too! Yes, there are some witness trees just around the corner from my house. They are massive maples, and I always wonder how old they are, and if they are the same ages as the houses on that street which were built in the 1860s. Thankfully, the township has formed the sidewalk to go around the massive trunk. I love walking by that tree!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Running sidewalks around the trees says good things about your town, doesn’t it? If only those trees could tell you about the people they’ve seen come and go in those homes…

  7. Harvey Burgess (@HarveyBurgess) Says:

    Thank you for this article! I love finding stories from history, such as this one, to reference in my books.

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