A Tree for the Ages

The Texas Story Project.

A true Texas survivor: Treaty Oak.
A true Texas survivor: Treaty Oak.

Like most cities with a long enough history, Austin has its share of legendary stories. Some take place in one of the many “only-in-Austin” icons– think Armadillo World Headquarters. Other stories are written in Austin– the UT Tower shootings, for instance– but are so large that they have become a chapter of our national history. But Austin has one particular story that is international in scope but so intensely personal that it lives closer to our community’s green-centric heart than others. It's a story that still makes the tellers and the listeners tear up a little. It's the story about the tree that was almost murdered.

That tree is known as Treaty Oak, and it stands bent but unbowed on Baylor Street, between busy downtown 5th and 6th Streets. Arborists estimate that the block-sized plot of land has been the tree’s home for over 500 years. A 1989 forestry report suggests that this particular oak (Quercus virginiana) may be the sprout of a common root system dating back thousands of years.

Legends about the tree are as expansive as its once-majestic 127-foot branch span. Treaty Oak is considered to be the last of a sacred grove of 14 live oaks that local American Indians called the Council Oaks. Stephen F. Austin himself is said to have signed a boundary treaty between his settlers and the Tonkawa and Comanche in the circle of this grove. (Hence the name, “Treaty Oak.”) Sam Houston supposedly stretched out under the tree’s deep shade to contemplate his future after he was removed as governor of Texas in 1860.

Generations of life have come and gone under the tree’s leafy gaze. By the 1920s, with the city of Austin growing around it, Treaty Oak stood as the lone survivor of the Council Oaks and was itself under threat of the chainsaw. Even then, something about the tree spoke to people’s hearts. In a plea to save it, Mrs. W.C. Stoner wrote in the Texas Garden Federation News, “No massive building, no marble shaft erected by man could ever compare to the beauty and grandeur of this natural, living monument planted by our Maker himself, and no hand should cause it to be brought low except the hand of Him who gave it. This mighty oak should be a tree of peace to all Texans and the tender sacred sentiments it arouses should inspire all posterity.” Perhaps thanks to Mrs. Stoner, the tree was saved. In 1927, the American Forestry Association named Treaty Oak as a U.S. historic tree. In 1937, the city of Austin purchased the Baylor Street lot so that the towering oak would forever “stand as a living and fitting symbol of the mighty state it has watched develop.”

And then 1989 happened.

On Texas Independence Day, March 2, a group of people attending a tree conference stopped at Treaty Oak. They noticed a swath of dead grass around its base and discovered that some of the leaves looked furled and brown. That was surprising. Maybe a city worker had been careless with chemicals during routine tree maintenance. The tree would probably be fine. It had lasted 500 years, after all. But thinking that the tree might be suffering from Dutch elm disease, and to be on the safe side, the State Department of Agriculture and Texas A&M conducted tests. The results were devastating– to the tree, and to the people of Austin.

Poison. Velpar, produced by DuPont. Barrels of it. Enough to kill 100 trees. This was no maintenance accident. This was intentional, attempted murder.

As the mighty Treaty Oak withered and died before the city’s eyes, Austin held vigil. Hundreds of school children placed cards, candles, yellow ribbons, and notes near the tree in attempts to somehow urge it to survive. American Indians and healers of all types performed cleansing rituals. Texas industrialist Ross Perot signed a blank check to fund a life-saving triage plan and DuPont posted a $10,000 reward for the poisoner's capture. Austin and the world watched and waited and followed the almost daily coverage provided by the cadre of national and international news media camped out in front of the wounded tree.

Treaty Oak had always been Austin’s tree. Texas’s tree. But in the spring and summer of 1989, it became the world’s tree. Outrage spread rapidly as an investigation revealed that it had been intentionally poisoned by an unstable man as part of a bizarre love ritual. The Treaty Oaks Task Force, a group of 22 national experts, worked feverishly to develop a series of complex, radical, and sometimes untested strategies that they hoped would save at least some part of the historic tree. A tree that, until this, most people had assumed was close to immortal.

In a report presented to the Fourth Urban Forestry Conference in October, 1989, John Giedraitis, Austin’s city forester at the time, said, “When it became clear that our efforts to help the tree rid itself of the poison were not as successful as we had wished, we started to hope for the best but plan for the worst. With all of its worldwide fame, the Treaty Oak has truly become a symbol of our time. Its poisoning begs us to consider not only the reality of its desperate plight but also the larger truths it represents. Just as many cultures have held the tree to be a symbol of knowledge and life, we today are being asked to believe in the tree once again.”

For years, Austin believed in Treaty Oak with all its collective community might. With the help of dedicated experts, 35% of the tree survived. The dead wood was cut away and made into commemorative souvenirs. The thinned-out, scraggly, lopsided tree hung in tenaciously– just as you would expect of a Texas icon– and in 1997, Treaty Oak gave Austin a reason to rejoice. Acorns.

Today, the beloved Treaty Oak leans a little in its patch of ground located on Baylor Street in Austin. But it also stands full and tall across the state as the many offspring saplings grown from those first post-trauma acorns.

Austinites feel that Treaty Oak pretty much sums up the story of who we are as a community: strong, resilient, courageous, a little off-center, and here to stay.

And, oh yes, we are also one other thing: Texas, right down to the ground.

L.M. Raff is a freelance writer and editor, and a native Austinite.

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