At one time, Indiana, like much of the United States east of the Mississippi River, was covered in virgin timber, a scene hard for us to imagine today. Pioneer accounts of the old growth forests tell of trees with enormous girths. Their descriptions are truly remarkable. A traveler in 1802 saw sycamore trees on the banks of the Ohio River with circumferences of 44 and 47 feet. A narrative from the 1830s describes poplar, oak and walnut trees with trunks from ten to fifteen feet in circumference.
The trees were gradually cleared for farming by the industrious settlers, a laborious process. By the late 19th and into the 20th century, the few giant remnants of these forests had become landmarks, some even achieving a level of fame, many times due to their connection to historical events.
The Goodspeed Publishing Company’s book History of Knox and Daviess Counties, Indiana, published in 1886, devotes a full paragraph describing an enormous pear tree that once grew in Busseron Township, having been planted early in the 19th century. It stood 120 feet high, had a circumference of 12 feet, and, it was claimed, produced some 50 bushels of pears annually. This tree was destroyed by lightning a few years before publication of the book.
Vincennes had immense trees noteworthy in history. The Treaty Tree, which stood on First Street on the block between Shelby and Hart streets, was said to be the last of the grove of walnut trees where William Henry Harrison and the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh held their famous council in 1810. In 1920, the Francis Vigo Chapter DAR was successful in preserving the tree, which was on property belonging to the Indiana Standard Oil Company. The DAR even attached a bronze plaque to its trunk explaining the tree’s significance. The Treaty Tree blew down in a storm in March 1948, but the plaque was preserved and is now housed at Grouseland.
A second notable tree in Vincennes was the Walking Stick Tree on the southwest corner of Fourth and Vigo streets. This was an Osage orange tree, 10-feet in circumference, with a height of 35-40 feet. Legend has it that it grew from a cane stuck in the ground by Francis Vigo in 1800. The tree was cut down in the 1950s to make way for a filling station, and today, a small brick monument with a plaque marks the place where it stood.
A mammoth Knox County tree was felled in September 1963, this one also sacrificed to the march of progress. Construction of the Highway 41 bypass around Vincennes necessitated removal of a massive tulip poplar tree east of the city on what was known as the Buena Vista estate. Five feet across at the base, the tree was believed to be some 200 years old. It would have a second life so to speak. A section of the trunk was acquired by Vincennes University, to be hollowed out and form the circular frame or curb of an old time well. Judge Curtis Shake, then President of the V.U. Board of Trustees initiated this project, which was completed in the spring of 1964. Many local people will remember the well, which for years stood near the old Territorial Capitol building.
For massive trees of great age, none in the county surpassed a bald cypress down in the “Neck” of Decker Township. Much of that part of Knox County was once covered by Little Cypress Swamp. Lumbermen began to make inroads into the swamp in the 1890s. The tree was at least 1,000 years old (perhaps much older). It suffered the ravages of time and although no longer alive, is still an impressive sight. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources placed its official circumference at 28 feet measuring at the point 4 ½ feet from its base.
Of course, the most famous tree in Indiana was the Constitution Elm in Corydon. In the sweltering month of June 1816, delegates writing the state’s constitution escaped the stifling indoor heat and gathered beneath the 130-foot canopy of the elm tree. In 1925, despite efforts to save it, the historic tree was killed by Dutch Elm Disease. Its branches were removed, and the wood used to craft mementoes. Part of the trunk was preserved inside a memorial, where it can be seen in Corydon today.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes and Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.