Friday, October 20, 2017

Texas Trees, Witnesses to History

Trees have often served as landmarks along pioneer trails including in Texas, and some special trees have witnessed historic events. Today I'll share a few of their stories. Most of the information comes from a book I picked up years ago at a used book store. Titled Famous Trees of Texas, it was published by the Texas Forest Service, part of the Texas A&M University system.

The Hangman's Oak 150-Year Memorial, AP photo/San Antonio Express-News; Edward A. Ornelas

Several hangman's trees are mentioned in the book. The Hangman's Oak is located in a pasture on a ranch about two-and-a-half miles southwest of Bandera, a small town in the Texas Hill Country. In July 1863 eight men and a boy were on their way to Mexico in order to avoid conscription in the Confederate Army. Unfortunately, they were overtaken by a troop of 25 Reb soldiers who had been sent to capture the escapees and bring them back for trial. However, when they camped under a large live oak southwest of Bandera, the soldiers decided to hang the "traitors" - which they proceeded to do, letting each man slowly strangle, dangling from the tree. Not a pretty picture! No one knows what happened to the boy.

The Rough Riders Pecan is located two block north of  the San Antonio River, near the Central Bexar County office of the Highway Department. This is where twelve companies of mounted cavalry were organized and trained during May 1898, about three months after the battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, and one month after the U.S. declared war against Spain. On July 1, 1898, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, to victory.

The Runaway Scrape Oak stands about ten miles east of Gonzalez in south central Texas. General Sam Houston and a force of less than four hundred Texans camped at the foot of this giant live oak on the night of March 13, 1836, after retreating from Gonzalez, an action referred to as the Runaway Scrape. The Alamo had fallen a week before, and many of Houston's men were panic-stricken. However, the next morning, March 14th, the general mounted his horse and told them to either follow him or stay behind and face the consequences. He led 374 men east then south to engage Santa Anna's army at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, winning Texas independence just 46 days after the fall of the Alamo.

Treaty Oak, Photo by Larry D. Moore; Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

The Treaty Oak survived an intentional poisoning in 1989 to become one of Texas's most beloved icons. Standing in a small park near the east bank of the Colorado River in Austin, the state capital, this majestic live oak is estimated to be over 500 years old. It's the last survivor of the Council Oaks, a grove of 14 trees that served as a sacred meeting place for Comanche, Apache, Tonkawa and other Tribes. Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas," is said to have signed the first boundary-line treaty between whites and the Indians under the tree.  Before it was poisoned, the tree's branches had a spread of 127 feet. In 1927, it was nominated to the American Forestry Association's Hall of Fame for Trees and was pronounced the most  perfect specimen of a North American tree.

From Wikipedia:
"Lab tests showed the quantity of herbicide used would have been sufficient to kill 100 trees.[1] The incident sparked community outrage, national news reports, and a torrent of home-made "Get Well" cards from children that were displayed on the fence around the park. Texas industrialist Ross Perot wrote a 'blank check' to fund efforts to save the tree.[2] DuPont, the herbicide manufacturer, established a $10,000 reward to capture the poisoner. The vandal alleged, Paul Cullen, was apprehended after reportedly bragging about poisoning the tree as a means of casting a spell.[3] Cullen was convicted of felony criminal mischief and sentenced to serve nine years in prison.
The intensive efforts to save the Treaty Oak included applications of sugar to the root zone, replacement of soil around its roots and the installation of a system to mist the tree with spring water. Although arborists expected the tree to die, the Treaty Oak survived. However, almost two-thirds of the tree died and more than half of its crown had to be pruned.
 In 1997, the Treaty Oak produced its first crop of acorns since the vandalism. City workers gathered and germinated the acorns, distributing the seedlings throughout Texas and other states.[4] Today the tree is a thriving, but lopsided reminder of its once-grand form. Many Texans see the Treaty Oak today as a symbol of strength and endurance. In January 2009 the Texas chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture teamed up with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department to do maintenance pruning on the Treaty Oak."
The Boat-Landing Cottonwood is located in Stephen F. Austin State Park, about half a mile north of the town of San Filipe on the west bank of the Brazos River in southeast Texas. This site is where riverboats loaded and unloaded passengers and goods, playing an important role in the development of Austin's original colony. The most famous boat was the Yellowstone, which served Sam Houston and his troops during the Texas fight for independence. The venerable cottonwood tree is the last of a group still standing. Badly damaged by fire, its crown was destroyed, yet it clings to life just as those Texas patriots clung to their longing for freedom.

The Washington Elm standing on the State Capitol grounds in Austin, was planted in 1932 to commemorate the 200th birthday of George Washington, who took command of the American Army on July 3, 1775, under this tree's grandparent. The young offspring was raised and given to Texas by the Maryland DAR.

The Heart O' Texas Oak lives on a farm near the town of Mercury, in the geographical center of Texas, as determined by a U.S. Geodetic Survey, published in 1922. Its coordinates divide the state into four e qual parts. The maximum distance from north to south is 801 miles, from east to west it's 773 miles.

The Witness Tree stood on the south side of Arlington, east of Fort Worth, on the old Bardin family farm. The tree was a 200-year-old post oak, over 60 feet tall. In early days, the tree was used for hangings and for signing official documents (why it was call the Witness Tree.) My husband and I lived in Arlington at the time and witnessed the tree's tragic end in 1992-93. Here is a 2003 account published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper:

"The late Bill Bardin so fretted about the tree that when he sold the farm for retail development, he required Kmart to issue a $50,000 bond that the post oak would survive at least seven years after the area was developed. In what turned out to be a vast overestimation of a post oak's vigor, Kmart officials in 1992 decided to uproot the tree and transplant it to a site behind and just south of the shopping center. That turned out to be a $50,000 error."

Witness Tree Memorial Gardens

Witness Tree Memorial Gardens The tree died the following year, and was cut down. Bill Barden used some of the bond money to fund a small memorial park at the location.  A weathered section of the tree trunk rests on a metal stand in the park. A children's book, Billy Bardin and the Witness Tree, was inspired by the tree's destruction. Because of this shameful episode, the city now prohibits trees the size of the Witness Tree from being cut down to make way for development.

Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and romantic suspense novels, all spiced with paranormal elements. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West Begins” - with her husband and a gaggle of very spoiled cats. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged children.

Amazon Author Page:
Newsletter:  Lyn’s Romance Gazette
Website:  Lyn Horner’s Corner 


  1. I love trees. We live on 3 acres of native Texas trees and bushes and flowers. We bought this lot because of one tree--the one we call Big Oak. It is huge, and I wish someone could tell us how old it is..without harming it. It's a live oak, native to the Hill Country.
    I do have a bit of knowledge about trees, and really hate to see someone cut it down or abuse it.
    The Treaty Oak is one of the more famous ones.
    The Runaway Scrape Oak is certainly famous and really the most special tree of all.
    Thanks..I don't think anyone has thought to do a post on did a good job!

  2. Celia, you are so lucky to live on such a beautiful piece of land. When we lived in Arlington, we planted a red oak in our front yard. It's over thirty years old now and has grown into a beautiful, tall shade tree. We drive by there every so often just to see it.

    I should have mentioned how the Treaty Oak was saved. I just edited my post to include the amazing explanation.

  3. Interesting post, Lyn. I love trees. There are some old trees on the campus of St. Edward's University in /Austin amd also on the Alamo's grounds. Their branches are so huge and cumbersome that braces have been made to help support their weight and prevent breaking or damage. I support any effort to keep these historic, old trees. There are several on Glade Road in Colleyville that have been saved from being removed for widening the road. Citizens protested the Town Council to keep the road more rural and the trees are protected. Hope it lasts.

    1. Thanks, Ashley. I've seen the big live oak in the Alamo courtyard. It's awesome, and I applaud the efforts to brace the spreading branches. That tree is a treasure!

      I will have to take a drive down Glade Road and see the trees over there. So glad the people spoke up and saved them from destruction.

  4. I had no idea there were so many famous trees or that these trees still stood today. If I could have one symbol for my life it would be a great oak tree, tall and wise. Wonderful post, Lyn.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Yup, there lots more well known trees I didn't touch upon. Texas has everything from tall pines in the in the east to mesquite and cactus the dry western plains.

  5. Finally got a chance to read your post, Lyn. I, too, love trees and didn't want to miss reading this very interesting article. Our neighborhood streets are lined with large oak trees that make a beautiful canopy to drive through. However, it does require raking the leaves and debris quite often, but not complaining!


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