Circles of Commerce, Circles of Life

Like all great migrations it began slowly, in fits and starts, ebbing back toward the known, the comfortable and familiar before once again surging forward into uncertainty.

Driven by curiosity as well as by commerce, enticed by rumor or persuaded by reason, traders and caravaners, mountain men, shopkeepers and scouts followed in the footsteps of men like Zebulon Pike, overcoming first one obstacle and then another as they created the collection of loosely-bundled routes we know today as the Santa Fe Trail.

On July 17, 1825, thirty-three men on horseback and seven others driving horse-drawn baggage wagons left Fort Osage, Missouri, “running a line” to measure distance as they traveled to Santa Fe. By August 5, having achieved 145 miles and having come into Osage territory, they stopped for breakfast in a grove of trees on the Neosho River – a spot that later would become the town of Council Grove, Kansas.

George C. Sibley, one of three commissioners appointed to survey the road to Santa Fe, noted their intentions in his journal.

“Here we find most excellent pasturage, and a large and beautiful grove of fine timber; and we determine to wait here for the Osages, who are expected in two or three days.”

Three days later a party of Osage chiefs, headmen and warriors numbering about fifty arrived at the camp. The morning of August 9, a first meeting was held and recorded in Sibley’s journal.

“The Commissioners explained to them fully and clearly what they desire respecting the road, and proposed to give them $800 as compensation for the privilege of marking it through their land, and the free use of it forever.
After a few minutes’ conversation among themselves, the chiefs declared their assent to the proposition and expressed their readiness to execute a treaty to that effect. And they were told that the Commissioners would neet them again tomorrow, prepared to conclude and sign the treaty as now agreed on.”

On the next day, August 10, the Osage and the Commissioners, the Commissioners’ Secretary, Archibald Gamble, and translator “Old Bill” Williams met at the base of what now is known as The Council Oak, where the treaty was read and signed. Three hundred dollars of goods were given immediately to the Osage, along with an order through trader Auguste P. Chouteau for five hundred dollars in ammunition, knives and  assorted other goods.

Today, the remains of that Council Oak and a sign indicating its significance lie alongside U.S. Highway 56 where it follows the Santa Fe Trail through Council Grove.

While the August 10th Council which opened the route for development was important, the grove in which it was held was no less so. 

From the western border of Missouri to Council Grove, passage was relatively easy.  Few travelers experienced difficulties with the Indians, water was consistently available, and the well-wooded countryside provided adequate fuel for cooking fires.

West of Council Grove, there was little timber to be found for repairs or fuel. The elm, oak, ash, walnut, hickory and cottonwood trees of the grove constituted a rich and necessary resource. By 1831 Council Grove had become a rendezvous point, a place for traders and caravaners to rest and graze their animals as they made repairs, repacked wagons, agreed on travel rules and elected caravan officers.

Despite the rigors of cutting and preparing timbers for wagon repairs on the trail, the record reveals a remarkable appreciation on the part of caravaners for the beauty surrounding them. Walker D. Wyman, in an article on “Freighting” written for a 1931 volume of the Kansas Historical Quarterly, cites a brief description from the September 28, 1850 issue of the Missouri Republican.

“The oppressive monotony of the wide prairie is broken by gentle slopes and deep ravines, well-wooded with groves of stately oaks and walnuts, which form promontories of woodland, jutting out into the open-prairie sea… graceful elms, tall cottonwoods and stately sycamores adorn the margins of the streams.”

One Council Grove elm gained particular prominence after General George A. Custer and a portion of his troops set up camp beneath its canopy.

In the reorganization of the U.S. army after the Civil War, Custer had been assigned to the 7th Cavalry with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He remained the acting commander of the Regiment until his death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Clearly, Custer’s final troubles at Little Big Horn were far from his first. In 1867, the same year he camped in Council Grove, he was court-martialed and removed from command for leaving his post at Fort Wallace, Kansas without permission.

Reinstated in September, 1868 after efforts on his behalf by General Philip H. Sheridan, Custer moved on to the Battle of the Washita in November, 1868, where numbers of Cheyenne and their allies were either massacred or defeated, depending upon your point of view. Custer himself was accused of abandoning a small detachment of his men at Washita, and this so-called Elliott affair divided the Regiment until it met its end at Little Big Horn.

All of this may help to explain Custer’s interest in farming. U.S. Army Brigadier General Amos Kimball had served with Custer in the 1868-69 Winter Campaign against the Plains Indians, and the thought of a peaceful retirement may have appealed to them both. But it was not to be. After Custer’s death in 1876, his wife, Libby, and Kimball went on to sell the 120 acres in 1881.

At least one other tree in Council Grove, the so-called “Post Office Oak” has attained nearly mythological status. Crouching under its sun-and-rain-shielding canopy like a leprechaun under a toadstool, it’s surrounded by assorted plaques, markers and signs attesting to its significance as a cache for messages left by travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.

Storm-damaged and aged, the tree was declared dead in 1990. On September 9, 2008, the remaining trunk was cut down and divided, with the portion shown below returned to its place of honor before the Hebrank family home, a native stone structure erected in 1864.

This photograph from 2006 shows the tree just two years before its removal.

And this even earlier view shows the tree in full leaf, very much as it might have looked to travelers along the Trail.

As for the caching of letters, the specifics of that practice seem uncertain.

There are reports of a stone cache built at the tree’s base, but just to the east the Neosho River flows and floods, so caching near the ground seems unlikely. Others have suggested that mail was hidden away in a natural hollow, and there are reliable reports such a hollow branch existed, but whether it was used for mail service is debatable.

An intriguing discussion of the matter is offered by Derrick Doty, a Council Grove resident (and founding member of the Tallgrass Express String Band) who happens to have a pechant for history.

In this c.1900 photograph, a woman presumed to be Mary Metzger stands next to the Post Office Oak on the steps of the Hebrank home. 

In a March 29, 2013 blog entry, Doty explores the possibility that the tree never functioned as a postal drop, and adds this tantalizing detail.

Mary Metzger, who lived in the stone house near the tree, expressed her disappointment when the “decision was made to recognize the oak tree on the Crum property as the Council Oak Tree and they called the oak tree on her property the Post Office Oak.  She deeply felt the decision was the wrong one.”  Apparently Metzger had reason to believe that her tree was the Council Oak.  I won’t go there.

And neither will I.

Despite the compelling histories associated with these remnants of Council Grove trees, I confess my favorite is a Bur oak known primarily for the fact that it’s still alive.

Standing only a few feet from the elm marking Custer’s campground, it has sheltered no Generals and played no particular role in great historical events. It exists only as a reminder of that mile-wide stretch of hardwoods which allowed Council Grove to play such a significant role in the development of the Santa Fe Trail.

Its given sprout date – 1776 – resonates with significance, making the tree contemporaneous with America’s beginnings as a nation. Tree dating being a somewhat inexact science, it’s true the tree could be either younger or older than indicated. Still, “Sprout Date – 1772″ or “Sprout Date – 1785″ doesn’t have quite the same ring.  If the year 1776 was selected for patriotic effect there’s no real harm done, and similarities to the famous Liberty Tree certainly are evident.

The tree itself is beautiful, a tall complexity of branches and leaves. Despite its age, it continues to produce acorns, albeit with year-to-year variations in crop size.

When I met the tree in the fall of 2011, only a few of its fuzzy-capped gems were hidden in the grass. Amazed by their size, I brought home two caps and hoped for a better harvest in 2012.  That year, I did find a small clutch of beautiful specimens, enough to satisfy my collector’s heart.

When an artist and blogging friend in the Pacific Northwest mentioned in passing that she’d never seen Bur oak acorns, I said I’d try to gather some for her on my trip back to Council Grove last fall. She was delighted, and suggested that a few leaves would be nice, too – if it wasn’t too much trouble.

It was no trouble at all, particularly since the crop was abundant. I filled a bag with acorns and laid the delicate leaves across the back seat of the car. Once I returned home, green leaves and brown, fuzzy caps and smooth, glossy acorns set off for Seattle – tokens of friendship and mementos of the Trail.

Some weeks later, my acorns and leaves returned, transformed by Rosemary’s talent and brush into this delicate watercolor.

Bur Oak, Nov 2013 – Rosemary Washington (click to enlarge)

My first impulse was to laugh with delight at these peripatetic acorns – collected in Kansas, carried to Texas, sent to Seattle – which unexpectedly had circled back to me in such a wondrous way. Clearly, Rosemary had captured some of the flavor of their “great circle route” in the composition of her painting.

Still, looking at this circle of acorns and leaves over time, I found myself seeing even more. 

I see not only one tree and one grove, but also the life that took shape there. I see great, wooden wheels circling as surely as the seasons, creaking their wagons across the plains. I see the wagons themselves, circled together for comfort and defense, secure beneath the stars of the vast prairie night. I see the great circle of commerce, imprinted into the deeply-rutted earth from Independence to Santa Fe and eastward again.

Above all, I see the great circle of life and of death, played out in the journeys of those who perished and those who trekked on, part of that great American migration that never truly ended but only was transformed, in time, by history itself.

Comments always are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, just click below. Please, no Reblogging. To see more of Rosemary Washington’s art, and photography or to enjoy her general musings on the creative process, click here.
Published in: on January 13, 2014 at 7:55 am  Comments (78)  
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  1. Your words “those who perished and those who trekked on” incorporate an interesting parallel. The verb trek on is similar to pass on, which we use as a euphemism for die. The verb perish comes from Latin per + ire, which meant literally pass through, but perish became and has remained a “soft” way of saying die.

    • That is interesting, Steve. And there’s another construction that seems related – to “carry on”. I hear both “pass on” and “carry on” quite often, but “trek on” seems infrequent, except in sources detailing wagon trains and caravans from the 1800s.

      I’ve always thought of a “trek” as a slow and arduous journey. When I looked at Merriam-Webster, I saw the first definition referred to “travel by ox wagon” and a South African origin. That suggested Dutch roots, and sure enough – the Afrikaans “trek” is rooted in the Dutch..

      I noticed that the Boer “Groot Trek” was occuring at the same time as the opening of the Santa Fe Trail. It’s fascinating to think of those simultaneous journeys by ox-cart, geographically so far apart.

  2. Just one big Ahhhhh. I love all the old place names as there were always stories and people attached to them. Nice retelling – and sliding into comment of life. (The watercolor is a naturalist study as well as an observation – beautiful.)

    Too many people forget /don’t know that many Indian tribes lived among settlers (respect and harmony on both sides) – some of the migrating ones both groups feared for good reason.

    Those burr acorns are such little dandies among acorns. Who could resist gathering those?
    Enjoyed this one a lot.

    • phil,

      Particularly during the Civil War, there were bands of freelancing marauders who created terrible problems both for the settlers and the tribes. I’d known a bit about the Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers, but I didn’t realize there were essentially criminal elements who used them as cover for their own misdeeds. In Council Grove, there apparently were townspeople and Native Americans who helped one another struggle against those forces – but that’s another story, for another day.

      The story-telling is so important. It’s one thing to see a sign at the side of the road with a few names and dates, and quite another to understand – to the degree possible – the motivations of the people involved and the circumstances surrounding them.

      It’s one reason that, wonderful as the Wikis are, there’s no substitute for original sources and real books, with footnotes and bibliographies and an index.

      How else would I have known that after the James Webb caravan left Council Grove in 1845, they stopped down the road at Diamond Springs (on the map above) where they “partook of mint juleps and passed a vote of thanks to the public benefactors who some years before had transported and set out some mint roots at the spring, which by this time had increased to a bountiful supply along the Trail.”

      Happy hour on the Santa Fe Trail! Who knew?

      Linda

  3. That’s a very interesting story. I enjoy reading about those past encounters and how they link us to the past. I do genealogy for my family tree branches and have seen a lot of those past-present connections.

    Part of this story of trails and Indian encounters involves the sad stories of their demise.

    Thank you for your post.

    • Jim,

      I was thinking last night – not even two hundred years have passed since these events took place. It’s not simply that things have changed, it’s that the rate of change is increasing – a reality that makes understanding the past even more difficult.

      Reading Custer’s Journal entries about Washita, and then reading first-hand accounts from those who were in Black Kettle’s village, can induce a kind of mental whiplash. The same’s true when only whites are involved. An internet search for “Bleeding Kansas” will turn up quite a different story than a search for “Missouri Civil War”. The truth isn’t always in the middle – but finding where it lies can be tough.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s a rich, rich history we have.

      Linda

  4. WOW! Such a great and very interesting story. Thank you dear, love, nia

    • Thanks so much, nia. I do love history, and find it great fun to write about. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Linda

  5. Fascinating era and what a very well told tale! I love how the bur oak leaves and acorns became such a delightful memento in the hands of your talented friend.

    How brave our ancestors must have been, making their way across this great expanse of land without knowing what lay ahead! I suppose back then (as today) it was a valuable asset to be able to trade.

    • Debbie,

      One of the most interesting details I found while doing some research was a listing of goods carried to Santa Fe in 1848 by a St. Louis merchant named B. Frank Coons. The list is too long to include everything here, but you might have been interested in some of the silk, flannel, ticking, ribbon or cambrick he carried.

      In addition, he carried cotton hose, cotton and wool socks, candle wicking, blankets, suspenders and silk hose.

      In the grocery line, you could purchase Rum, Gin, Peach brandy, white and brown sugar, raisins, mackerel, cinnamon, pepper, tobacco and playing cards.

      And if there was work to be done, you certainly could replenish your stock of nails and screws, files, chisels, hitches, hammers, coffee mills, axes and spades, pistols, rifles and hunting knives.

      There were boots and shoes, and ready-made clothing as well.

      And here’s the best. In 1847, Coons had made another trip to Santa Fe and didn’t start back until January. According to the records, they were traveling through deep snow. After the mules pulling his wagons died, he and his companions walked the last two hundred miles to Missouri.

      And we think we’ve got it tough!

      Linda

  6. Funny how trees have played roles in much of our history. I recall the the Liberty Tree in Annapolis, MD. We lived about five miles from it. It stood on the campus of St. John’s College. The Sons of Liberty met there for public meetings and protests. It was a tulip poplar tree. It died about thirteen or fourteen years ago, and it was removed. They’ve since planted another tree in the same spot.

    I visit Rosemary’s blog, too. I saw her painting of the acorns and leaves that you sent to her. Beautiful. She is so gifted.

    • Bella Rum,

      Now that you mention the importance of trees… Remember?

      “Under a spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands…”

      And, “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pine and the hemlock…”

      Even the phrase “shade tree mechanic” attests to the importance of trees for people who lived in a world without air conditioning and online car service appointments.

      There’s our Ghirardi oak that got moved, and the Evangeline oak in Acadiana. Johnny Appleseed planted trees, and so did NASA in their Moon Tree project. Whatever did or didn’t happen with Council Grove’s post office oak, we had an old willow where we’d leave messages for one another in grade school, and where great, romantic 7th grade trysts took place.

      And yes, Rosemary’s photography and art are splendid. I really find a lot of inspiration in the quotations and short pieces she posts, too. Action and reflection – another circle.

      Linda

  7. Austin used to have a grove called Council Oaks, named that way for the same reason as the tree you’ve described. Only one member of the Austin group is left, the Treaty Oak, which managed to survive a notorious arboricide attempt in 1989:

    The Treaty Oak, Austin, Texas

    • Steve,

      I’ve known about the Treaty Oak, of course. But I had no idea (or had forgotten) that it was part of a “Council Oaks” grove. I remember Paul Cullen, too. It’s one of the few times in my life I’ve been utterly enraged at a person I’d never met.

      All things considered, the tree survived remarkably well. I smiled at this line from the Wiki page: “Today the tree is a thriving, but lopsided reminder of its once-grand form.” That could be said for a lot of us.

      Linda

      • I couldn’t resist googling Treaty Oak and Paul Cullen. What a bizarre tale.

        • It did get bizarre. Some people even held the New Age equivalent of prayer vigils for the tree.

    • I’ve been snooping around the Online Etymology Dictionary this morning and happened to land on its home page for the first time. I had to smile at the very first sentence: “This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.”

      • That is a good way to put it. Down those ruts have gone the wheelwrights and wainwrights and cartwrights, the people as well as the words that designated them.

  8. Well if I had known about Bur oak acorns I would’ve been drawing and painting them like crazy! I’ve never seen one. Incredible.

    Do the acorns ever germinate naturally near the tree? I wonder if anyone lucky enough to have a few has personally tried, or if any of these trees generated progeny that still exist.

    I’ve read about a small number of trees on the planet that are thousands of years old–what is amazing to me is not so much their longevity but that they were never chopped down for firewood.I guess that’s why there are only a few.

    • Find an Outlet,

      Actually, there are Bur oak trees all over the place – but not where you are. Here’s a map that shows their distribution. It’s not strange that you haven’t seen them, but it’s a little strange that I never ran across them before. It’s entirely possible I just wasn’t paying attention.

      One reason they’re so noticeable around the prairies and in the Flint Hills is that their thick, heavy bark makes them more fire resistant. Very often, when I would see a single tree in the middle of grassland, it would turn out to be a Bur oak.

      Of course, I may have been around them at times other than acorn season, too, and assumed they were just another oak.

      Whether there are descendants of these trees around, I can’t say. It’s an interesting question. But there are people dedicated to propagating famous trees – here’s a book I found that describes one group’s work.

      Acorns do germinate like crazy under the right conditions. When I was in the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas I came across great falls of a different kind of acorn. There had been rain, and sunshine, and they were splitting and putting down taproots for all they were worth. There had to be hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of acorns. Even allowing for deer, squirrels, insects, birds and other hungry critters, some of them were bound to make it.

      Linda

  9. A fascinating and well-written story Linda. I also loved the delightful painting showing the life-circle of the oak. I visited Rosemary’s blog, and look forward to reading more.

    Trees play a big part in our imaginations. Remember Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”? Or the scary trees in “The Wizard of Oz”? There are historical trees all over the world, each telling a story of the area in which they are found. Think of the amazing redwood trees found only in certain parts of California. A 2,000 year old olive tree made me speechless in France.
    This post is one of your best.

    • Kayti,

      I was going to add the terrifying trees in Disney’s “Fantasia” to your list, but when I went looking, I couldn’t find them. Perhaps I dreamed them, or perhaps my child’s mind misplaced the “Wizard of Oz” trees into the wrong film. In any event, remembering Dorothy and those trees is especially appropriate, since she was from Kansas.

      Your mention of the California redwoods reminded me of one of the most “mysterious” and (in)famous groves of all – the Bohemian Grove. That place presents another instance where history can wear quite different faces, depending on whether you’re reading the “Washington Post” or the Sonoma County Free Press.

      I suspect my introduction to the redwoods was similar in some ways to your experience of the olive tree. The world is filled with wonders, just waiting to be seen.

      Thanks for your complimentary words on the post itself. I very much appreciate them.

      Linda

  10. Linda, What a delightful surprise to see my watercolor painting reproduced in your post today. It is so interesting to me to read your interpretation and levels of meaning and metaphor of the circle. And here I was just trying to make a pretty composition on the blank page.

    Next week I hope to see some giant and old coastal redwoods. Yea for these ancient trees.

    • Rosemary,

      I had wanted to do a post on Council Grove’s three most famous trees, but your watercolor gave me a way to include my favorite tree in the mix and to broaden the perspective a bit. It was terrific fun to do.

      You’ll be interested to know that the “circular” nature of the painting and the use of the circle as an image didn’t arise until I was well into the writing. In the beginning, this post had an entirely different title and direction. When I realized it had wandered off on its own, a few sections, the original conclusion and a terrific title got excised. The good news is that they’re back in the files, ready for use another day.

      Time in the redwoods always is time well spent. Have fun!

      Linda

  11. I have so many deep personal feelings and thoughts about this area and what you continue to report on that I can’t even collect myself enough to make any other comment than this!

    I thank you, again, for sharing your trip with us.

    • Martha,

      I must say, it was quite the experience to open Dary’s book and find a photo of the Pioneed Store operated by Van Camp, Keith and Tenney. It was a good reminder that however fragmented and even Balkanized this nation can seem these days, we do share a common history, and are connected in ways we can’t begin to imagine.

      I’ve been sitting on a post about the Terwilliger House since 2011. I have the photos, and some documents, and an outline, but I just didn’t have enough “feel” for the area to get on with it. I think maybe I’ll do that now.

      Linda

  12. As always, Linda, you fill your posts with fascinating information. I always felt I could have been an explorer or mountain man had I lived in that era, depending on the circumstances.

    Certainly in my lifetime, few things have given me greater pleasure than wandering off into the wilderness. I have two sets of great, great grandparents on my mother’s side buried within 30 miles of where I presently live. Both came across the country in wagon trains. Even earlier ancestors were associates of Daniel Boone. So, had the opportunity presented itself… :) –Curt

    • Curt,

      I hate to be the one to point this out, but you are an explorer. They may not call you a mountain man, but the spirit’s pretty much the same.

      I love that part of your past is so near, at the graves of your grandparents. And as for Daniel Boone…

      When I was in Council Grove last fall, I finally ate at the Hays House, the longest continuously-running restaurant and tavern west of the Mississippi.

      In 1847, Albert Boone and James Hamilton, businessmen in Westport, Missouri, opened a store in Council Grove. They sent Seth Hays, a native of Kentucky and a great-grandson of Daniel Boone, off to the frontier to operate the store. When he got there, the only other structure in town was a blacksmith shop. Hays got busy, and built the business.

      His own story is fascinating – he was a good businessman but community-minded as well. When the ladies of the church needed a place for “an occasion”, Hays draped everything in the large tavern with cloths (so as not to offend) and offered the space. Eventually, the ladies accepted, and a good time was had by all.

      There’s a fellow in town named Ken McClintock who portrays Hays in historical re-enactments. I’ve spent some time talking with him, and with his wife Shirley. Getting into character is one thing, but there were times I felt as though I might have been talking to Hays himself, in the person of Ken. Very interesting.

      Linda

      • Great follow up, Linda. And I can see the bar owner covering everything up to avoid offending the ladies. –Curt

  13. It took those pioneers 19 days to go 145 miles — a journey we could make in our cars — in air-conditioned comfort — in three hours. It’s hard to imagine how time consuming the westward journey was. There may have been horses and wagons involved, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse drawn wagon over relatively smooth level ground, you’d know that most of the people involved walked beside the wagon. (Can you imagine walking from Missouri to California — crossing the Rocky Mountains on foot?!) It was hot, dusty going. The shade of Council Groves must have seemed like an oasis in the desert. To have firewood to burn — instead of buffalo “chips.”

    Out on the Great Plains, the settlers quickly learned that trees (usually cottonwoods) meant water. Only where streams cut through the sod was there bare soil for a seedling to take root. Only by a stream was there water enough for a tree to grow.

    Living as I do at the southern end of the Great Plains, I have come to appreciate trees. If you were to fly over my city in a helicopter, or look down on it from one of our tall buildings, the first thing that would strike you is that the residential sections are hidden in a veritable forest of trees. But once you leave the city, the first thing that you notice is the land is unbelievably flat in all directions, as far as the eye can see. In such a landscape (or lack of), something like a tree stands out immediately.

    Out here, trees mean people. They aren’t there by accident. Around here, every tree was either planted by man or is a seedling of one such tree. A stand of trees means there is (or was) a house there. One thing I’ve noted is that on the roads between my city and the outlying small towns, about every mile or two there will be a pair of trees beside the road. I often wonder. Were they planted to provide a resting place for the horses? A place for farmers to take a noonday break from working in the fields? Or to provide line of sight to mark the road in what could be a trackless landscape?

    Your friend Rosemary is a very talented artist. Her watercolor might be called “Circle of Life.”

    • WOL,

      The word that occurred to me while reading your comment was “windbreak”. Where I grew up, in Iowa, and also in Nebraska and Kansas, a line of trees often was planted to protect the farmhouse from the wind. In some places, old chimneys or rock walls mark the place of a now-disappeared home, but in the midwest those windbreaks are a sure sign.

      I don’t remember seeing those pairs of trees when I drove through the Panhandle. Of course, it was my first trip through, north to south, and I was astonished by so much (cotton! horizon! sandhill cranes! horizon!) that I surely missed some details. I did notice a significant difference in gates. Those Panhandle ranch gates are pretty darned impressive.

      I don’t think I mentioned to you the neat highway overpass I saw. I think it was east of Amarillo, where I-40 crosses US 83. All I’m sure of is that it was in the Panhandle. Instead of being plain stone, or having just a Texas star, the supports were marked with all of the local/famous ranch brands. How cool is that?

      Something else just crossed my mind. If those pairs of trees are along crop fields rather than pasture, could they be markers for plowing?

      I think “Circle of Life” is perfect. I’m glad I picked up both green and brown leaves.

      Linda

  14. Linda, thanks for this fascinating glimpse into a piece of history unknown to me. I loved the photos, and the watercolor. In my estimation we need to revisit the importance of the circle, and the theme of “cycle.” Our sense of self is so invested in narratives of progress that we too readily forget that life, like the seasons that bear it, comes around again and again.

    I find that circles reframe how I see the world, my own sense of purpose, and even Scripture. I am learning to look for balance – something that these mighty oaks know so well! Allen

    • Allen,

      Truth be told, a good bit of this was unknown to me until I got back home and started researching. Many of us wander around with names in our head – Custer, Black Kettle, Santa Fe Trail – but we have little understanding of how they’re connected, or what makes them significant. I’m trying to remedy a bit of that for myself, and share what I find with anyone interested.

      I think the circle (or, perhaps better, a spiral) is a wonderful metaphor for the educational process. One way or another, we visit and revisit areas of interest, each time gaining new insight and asking new questions based on previous experience. As understanding deepens, we come around again, and the process continues.

      Bookshelves may begin to grow crowded, too, but that’s another issue!

      Linda

  15. Wonderful story Linda. I do hope there are younger groves being planted, across the globe, for those who come after……

    • eremophila,

      I think the appreciation for the value of trees has grown immeasurably in this country, even in my lifetime. From what I see, homeowners and those responsible for public plantings have learned enough about what’s suitable and what isn’t that the invasives very slowly are being beaten back – at least in small areas.

      What really is interesting is the relationship of trees to the prairie, and the role of fire in preventing trees from taking over. On the one hand, more trees are good. On the other hand, creeping woodlands can take out a parcel of prairie in a very short time. We not only need trees, we need a lot of smart people who can figure these things out and keep them in balance.

      Linda

  16. I really loved this piece. I have a sort of reverence for trees and the influence they have had on how we shorter-lived beings have conducted ourselves over the centuries. They rightly deserve a prominent place in any story of history!

    • montucky,

      They certainly do deserve a place in the story – not just the famous ones, but also the hidden, perfectly ordinary ones like those old, old trees up on the mountain. They’re not useful for anything, they don’t get any publicity, they don’t really “do” anything except catch a little snow in their branches, but they’re just as valuable as the Council or Post Office Oaks.

      Another tree that really deserves a place in these stories of Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas is the Osage Orange, or Bois D’Arc. Apparently several tribes used its wood for bows because of its strength and flexibility – and one fellow I met uses what he called a “bowdark” wedge for splitting wood!

      Linda

  17. Linda, I absolutely love your writing space! Great article which is very well written and interesting!

    • Patinspire,

      How nice of you to stop by – I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece, and I appreciate your kind words.

      I noticed you’re following my blog now. I try to post once a week – sometimes it’s six days between posts, sometimes eight. In any event, you’re always welcome to stop by, and to comment if you like.

      Linda

  18. Beautiful story, Linda. Until recently two bur acorns sat in a dish on my kitchen windowsill, collected from an old Cajun man who had a bur oak tree. I’d never seen them before, so he gave me a couple. What a neat water color, too!

    • Bayou Woman,

      I just remembered that you have quite a tree in your area, too – the Youngsville Heritage Oak near Lafayette. I just checked and found that it’s a live oak rather than a bur, but it’s a fine tree, nonetheless. That’s the one that George Rodrique got involved with when they were trying to save it from being cut down for a traffic roundabout. (It was saved.)

      I love that you had some acorns just knocking around your place, too. One of the shops in Council Grove had a few that had been turned upside down and transformed into tiny bird-nest decorations for Christmas trees. I don’t usually get crafty like that, but it’s not a bad idea. It would look good with my gar scale snowflake!

      Linda

      • And from whence came your gar scale snowflake?

        • I got the snowflake and a crawfish claw poinsettia at a gas station just off I-10. I’m pretty sure it was Grosse Tete. I actually found the very ornaments online – they’re made in Lafayette. You can see them here. I think I might even have sent the link to Kim last year, but I can’t remember. I certainly thought of her.

  19. You are right indeed about the circle of life. What a fascinating story. I’ve never seen the bur oak acorns, either. Oh — that watercolor by Rosemary is indeed a treasure. But I see what you mean about seeing far more — you know the story behind it. And that makes it all the more meaningful!

    • Jeanie,

      Here’s a link to a USDA map showing which counties in Michigan have bur oaks. As you travel about, especially in the fall, you might well find some acorns. I can see the caps tied with little vines to wine bottles for one of your cork-poppers parties. You could put a little scroll in each one with information about the wine!

      All of this talk of circles and things that are round has reminded me of one of the happiest songs “around”. I suspect you’ll remember it – not as old as the oaks, but certainly vintage.

      Linda

  20. If you could write the history books all students would like history. This is another marvelous post. So much research went into this. You should be worn out by the time you have answered all the comments.

    The Bur Oak grows in my town. Several huge trees grow on the university campus. And there are other trees scattered about town.

    The acorns have to be gathered when they are still fresh – that is, before the weevils burrow into the acorn. The acorn should be planted quickly thus enabling a higher germination rate. I never planted a Bur Oak. Just could not find a spot since there are so many trees on this property.

    Again, I loved this post. Learned a lot from it.

    ~yvonne

    • Yvonne,

      You’re exactly right about the acorns having to be gathered quickly. When I still was collecting them for the pet squirrel, I would get out as soon after a good windfall as I could. If they laid on the ground for even a day, they would have holes in them from the tiny critters. While freezing them with the bugs intact seemed theoretically possible, Mr. Squirrel never would eat them if they were damaged. I don’t know if that’s the way it is in nature, too, of if he just was exhibiting the consequences of being pampered.

      I do enjoy history, and responding to comments is pure pleasure, because it’s a great excuse to dig a little more! I was so taken with Mr. Doty’s description on his blog of what it is that historians actually do.. It’s short, but such fun – you can read it here.

      Linda

  21. What a wonderful illustration – subtle, delicate, fanciful, realistic. The cyclic composition reflects the cycle of life, of growth, of history, of the voyage the little acorns took.

    Can a person do anything else but ‘meet’ a tree? They protect us, inspire us, give us comfort, and make us feel deeply. Their endless depths, shadows, complexions and complexities can make us disappear into the natural world – a wonderful feat. As is this post.

    • aubrey,

      Given your tender and magical post about our Christmas trees in the “days after”, I’m not surprised you’d find some resonance here – not in my words, so much, but in the trees themselves, and Rosemary’s delicate rendering.

      Einstein once said, “God is subtle, but he is not malicious”. I think we could say the same of trees. The depths, shadows and complexities they exhibit can be exceedingly subtle, but I don’t think they have a malicious limb in their bodies.

      Linda

  22. This was such a rich and marvelous post, my dear….I know so little about the History of this part of the country—only what I know from films and we know how inaccurate they can be—I feel so very grateful to you for sharing so much wonderful information, PLUS pictures, plus that LOVELY colorful gentle drawing done by your dear friend…..I thank you, my dear, for once again, opening my heart and my mind to another gem of History in this GREAT GREAT country of ours…..

    • Naomi,

      Sad to say, I don’t remember much of what I learned when I was taking Iowa history in school. I’m not even sure whether it was in junior or senior high – probably junior high. But what did stick with me was my teacher’s conviction that what happened in my state was as important as what happened anywhere else. Every “place” has a history, and doing a little digging to find bits and pieces of that history can be wonderful fun.

      What tickled me about following the Santa Fe Trail through Kansas is that so much of it truly is off the “beaten track”. Various groups and history buffs have published little pamphlets with driving directions (often in tenth-of-a-mile increments) that allow getting up-close and personal with history. And in this age of smart phones and GPS, what’s more fun than coming across a stone marker in the middle of nowhere – with a clutch of printed pamphlets nearby to guide the traveler on?

      Of course, such exploring can have its hazards – as I learned at Pawnee Rock, where I had to change clothes on the road before I could get back into the car. But more about that later. There’s still a bit of Council Grove to explore!

      Linda

  23. Hi Linda:

    I almost missed your blog post. Normally I receive an e-mail indicating that you have written a new post. However, something happened and WordPress didn’t send me the usual smoke signals.

    By chance I clicked your link and saw your exceptional history of the trees of the Santa Fe Trail. Herodotus would have been fond to read the history of your country in such extraordinary detail.

    In Panama we don’t know what happened in the past. We don’t have people dedicated to capture history the way you do. I’m trying to photograph buildings and sites before they disappear beneath the massive body of a Caterpillar machine. If we don’t capture our history, in the future we will be a country with a severe case of collective amnesia.

    I love your historic and artistic work. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    Best Regards,

    Omar.-

    • Omar,

      There have been some scattered reports of little WP glitches here and there. I’ve been having trouble with pages loading – they do, but it takes forever. I’ve had some strange things show up on my dashboard, too. I think they may be messing around with things again.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the trees. Actually, the rocks are equally interesting. Out on the prairies and plains, landmarks are hard to come by, so trees and rocks are even more important than usual. Teter Rock, Pawnee Rock and Point of Rocks all have wonderful histories associated with them, and some amusing and interesting stories from my trip, too!

      I’d never thought about it, but that is what you’re up to with your camera. It’s important work, because once those buildings and sites are gone, they’re gone. Trying to save them is good, but just in case – getting a record of them is important, too.

      I’m curious – are there museums or archives that are engaged in such work, too?

      Linda

      • I’m sorry to say that the interest is not there to preserve history in museums and archives. Museums are slowly dying across the nation and little is written about our history. I’m sure will be suffering from amnesia in the future.

        Nothing, or very little has been written about the military coup of 1968 and the twenty years that followed under their control. I’ve decided to write my own history through snapshots from a humble camera.

        Regards,

        Omar.-

  24. There’s so much history in a trail, a tree, and even an acorn. This is just amazing. And thanks to you, Linda, we get to know them from a leisurely manner by reading your informative posts. Thanks again for another one.

    Interestingly, there’s a current movie that’s adapted from a play of the same name, it’s called “August: Osage County.” That’s when I first heard of the word ‘Osage’. In the movie, that Osage County is in OK. I just wonder if there’s any relationship with the Osage mentioned here. BTW, it’s a hilarious and yet poignant movie you might like to add to your TBW list. ;)

    • Arti,

      There is so much history, so much to know. And the more I explore – both the territory and the history – the more I realize that relationships with a place develop very much as relationships with people do: over time, and by increments.

      As it happens, “August: Osage County” is playing here now, and I’m going on Saturday. And yes, there is a relationship. The Osage Indian tribe was fairly widespread – in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas. Osage County, Oklahoma, is their home, and there’s an interesting museum in the county seat, Pawhuska. You can get a quick overview of the history here

      I saw the trailer when I went to see Philomena. I’d not even heard of the film at that point, but decided on the spot that I had to see it. I hate to say it, but I’ve known some of those people. ;)

      Linda

      • The film is adapted from the 2008 Pulitzer winning play of the same title by Tracy Letts. Critics are divided on its movie version. Mind you, the playwright wrote the screenplay, so can’t blame it for not being as good as the stage production. I’m planning a post on it. Curious to know your thoughts after you’ve seen it.

  25. “and neither will I,” made me laugh!
    I really appreciated seeing the majestic 1776 tree – what power it has/had!
    The acorns had quite a journey, and the painting is beautiful! what a great way to keep a part of that tree alive forever!

    • Zeebra,

      The power of understatement is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

      When I was browsing around, looking at trees that are famous for age, size, local significance and so on, I was amazed how many are along the Gulf Coast. That’s one of the saddest results of hurricanes – the loss of those trees. But there’s a cycle there, too. After the great 1900 storm in Galveston took all of their trees, they replanted the oaks. Then, Hurricane Ike destroyed most of those. Now the city’s replanted (although not solely with oaks), and the cycle begins again.

      History and artists belong together, don’t you think?

      Linda

      • oh yes, they certainly do (belong together!) – artists often record the history through visual channels, even if it’s a hiccup of a sketch of a special moment between friends!

  26. Linda….as ever, beautifully writ’! History is always engaging to historians, but for the rest of us you put personality into what might otherwise be dry facts and dates! I lived in Ft Riley and in Ft Leavenworth as a kid but remember most snow angels, trudging to school wearing snow pants in winter, and hunting for arrowheads. Thanks for the reminder and the acorns!

    Lovely watercolor by Rosemary Washington and I love the way she wrote the title,date and initials around the curve of her design.

    • Judy,

      Story’s another word for personality, don’t you think? It’s the story-telling that makes history come alive, whether it’s the story of a general, a homesteader or a tree. Don’t I wish I’d encouraged more story-telling on the part of my mother. She was reluctant to tell some stories, especially of the Depression, but what I managed to pry from her was so interesting – and sometimes funny as could be.

      Snow pants. Oh, my, yes. I suppose you had the same experience I did. I remember getting wrapped up like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”. We hardly could move. Then, once we got to school, there was that wonderful smell of wet wool on radiators as our mittens dried.

      That name placement is perfect, isn’t it? If she’d put it straight across the bottom it would have detracted from the painting, I think.

      Linda

  27. Custer’s “final troubles” (as you so well put it) were indeed far from his first. History tends to focus, of course, on the troubles Custer experienced, rather than the troubles he caused. Being a Virginian, my blood pressure rises a little whenever I see a reference to him.

    I enjoyed your post. I know very little about the history of that time and place. Glad to now know more.

    • Bill,

      Prior to writing this, I associated Custer with the Indian Wars and knew almost nothing of his Civil War service. One of the most interesting (and not at all hidden) tidbits I found was that he graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point. I suppose that fact could be open to differing interpretations, too.

      I suspect I’m going to be learning more about your fair state in the coming months. I’ve recently learned that some of my ancestors actually began their journey west from Virginia. While I can’t imagine some aspects of the Santa Fe Trail being of equal concern to them – water, for example – it’s going to be interesting to see what I find about their life in the wagons and on the flatboats.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I thought about you a time or two as I was making my way through footnotes and endnotes!

      Linda

  28. Remarkable post, with so many trails to follow, I don’t know where to begin.

    I do love reading these old historical accounts. Their language alone is of course so redolent of the time in which they were written that one feels dropped down into history by that alone. It’s the use of such historical marginalia, as she might call it, that attracted me to the work of poet Susan Howe. The PO oak of course reminds me of Boo Radley and Scout.

    The watercolor is so, so lovely, and I loved learning how it came to be. Wonderful post.

    • Susan,

      What is most instructive about the journals kept and the letters sent during those times is what I only can call their sheer literacy. Even the letters written by unschooled women and men making their way west are filled with lovely turns of phrase, intimately detailed descriptions of the landscape and so on. They’re far more a pleasure to read than a good bit of what’s sitting on the NYTimes best seller list.

      I dearly love the watercolor. Let’s see – a coffee mug with a Council Grove logo, a postcard of the Council Oak or the watercolor? Clearly, the best souvenirs always come with a story, too.

      Linda

  29. What a terrific story – part history, part travel writing, part recollection and part art making it a whole lot interesting. The bur acorns watercolor by Ms Washington is also lovely. I have not seen these acorns, but living in Georgia I do not think they are in our area.

    I have been interested by the Osage Nation for a long time. It must have been something for them to go to Paris in 1725. They even saw an opera and hunted with King Louis XV. They also visited Versailles, Fontainebleau and other places. They have quite a history. On another subject, I had never seen what is called an Osage Orange until I took a walk with my grandson near Nashville, TN. I was so taken by this fruit that I wrote a post on it (it is here if you’d like to see it http://avagabonde.blogspot.com/2010/11/blog-intermission-no-6-entracte-osage.html written on Nov. 20 2010.)

    • vagabonde,

      I just had a look at the USDA site, and you’re correct. The Bur oak is absent or unreported in Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. It’s also absent in much of the west. It’s territory is a broad swath through the middle of the country, reaching into the Northeast and Canada in its upper reaches.

      I had no idea of the Osage trip to France. Now, I at least know it happened – and what an intriguing trip it must have been! In the process of doing a big of exploring, I found this paragraph:

      “In 1804, after the United States made the Louisiana Purchase, the wealthy French fur trader Jean Pierre Chouteau, a half-brother of René Auguste Chouteau, was appointed the US agent assigned to the Osage. In 1809 he founded the Saint Louis Missouri Fur Company with his son Auguste Pierre Chouteau and other prominent men of St. Louis, most of whom were of French-Creole descent.”

      I lived in Kansas City for a short time, back in the late 1960s, and visited family there from childhood. Many of the familiar names, like Chouteau Trafficway, I’m just now beginning to place into a proper historical context. Those names didn’t just appear out of thin air.

      I love the Osage orange, and always have. This years’s crop in Kansas was phenomenal. I’ve never seen so many. And one of my favorite passages in Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” involves an Osage orange tree filled with blackbirds – invisible, until they flew.

      How wonderful that you’ve written of it, too. I’m looking forward to reading your entry.
      Linda

  30. What a deep feast for tree lovers, amongst whom I most certainly include myself! I thought you and your readers might like to read about and admire the Fortingall Yew, here in Scotland and reckoned to be the oldest tree in the British Isles and possibly Europe.

    • Anne,

      Of course you’d be the one to bring forward the yew. When I first read the name, I thought of druid-ish things, spells and charms and such. From what I’ve read now, following links, the yew may well have had a place in centuries-old rituals.

      Apparently we have yew trees here, too, but from what I read of the American yew, there’s a reason I don’t recall running into it: “The American yew is normally an understory plant in dense, moist forests”. Not many of those around here. I’ll have to see if I can find a variety that’s native to Texas.

      Linda

  31. I love stories about the past and the little bits of trivia that weren’t told in the history books we studied in school.

    I love Rosemary’s burr oak leaves and acorns watercolor.

    • Gué,

      It’s the details – the little bits of trivia – that make history so rich and interesting. The fellow I quoted above, Mr. Doty, says on his blog that history’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone has a piece, but some people lose their pieces, misplace them, don’t want to help with the puzzle, and so on. By the time the puzzle’s done, there may be a few holes, but the picture’s just as great. I thought that was a wonderful analogy.

      Rosemary’s such a delight. Have you read her latest post about her hearing issues? You’d be interested.

      Linda

  32. Such a lovely watercolor. History is so much more personal when we react to it in such a creative way. One thing I treasure from the moon walk era, July of 1969, is a watercolor rendered by a Portuguese Angola reporter who I met during that time. In the short time we visited, he pulled out his watercolor materials and presented me with a treasured memento of that time.

    I love that you thought to gather the acorns, place the brown and green leaves carefully on your back seat and then mail them to her.
    And this line I love. It’s what makes your writing so deliciously important in my book. “Some weeks later, my acorns and leaves returned, transformed by Rosemary’s talent and brush into this delicate watercolor.”

    Besides this story behind Rosemary Washington’s painting, I love that you remind us of the history and importance of trees. The drought of 2011 saw the loss of so many trees at our country property, and before that we lost three grand oaks pulled out of the ground and toppled by two different tornadoes. It’s extraordinary that the historical trees survived such decades and centuries. You make me want to find other historical figures that provided more than oxygen to our air. Wonderful post. I want to have a conversation with my grandson about trees, now.

    • Georgette,

      I just love the interactions of blogging. I love the way people respond to one another, and I love the way off-handed comments can lead to a new post, or a sudden thought lead to something like collecting acorns for Rosemary. And always, there are new things to learn. For example: if you’re mailing fragile, dried leaves across the country, use cotton balls with a layer of bubble wrap below and above. Bubble wrap alone is too hard and will crush leaves. but the cotton balls did the trick. Now you know!

      Every time you mention this or that about the space program, I think about how special it must have been for you – as it was for so many people associated with it, even tangentially. And aren’t the personal mementos so wonderful? It’s not solely a matter of artistic quality (even though I’m sure your friend, like Rosemary, had more than a modicum of talent). It’s the human touch, the transformation of a moment in time into something that can be cherished.

      And yes – the trees are far more guardians and guideposts than they are simple decoration for our property. And it’s not just the large, tall, old ones. Last Sunday I came across a grove of trees I couldn’t identify. They reminded me of poplar or aspen – slender, tall, nearly leafless and almost identical. They were beautiful, and drew the eye, as though you could walk and walk and never get through them. Just splendid.

      Linda

  33. Not related to the post, but certainly to you. Just learned that Jeremy Irons is reading the Four Quartets on BBC4 Radio. You can listen via Internet 6 more days here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03q4pss

    • Oh, wonderful, Susan! Thanks so much. I’ve already clicked in just to be sure I didn’t have any problems with the recording, etc., and I didn’t. So – I have a chance to listen several times between now and the end of the availability.

      Speaking of Eliot – have you seen “August: Osage County”? You really must. I was impressed enough that I came home and pulled up the script to find a few lines that I wanted to remember, and the absolutely marvelous density of the plot was completely enthralling. Oh – did I mention I liked it? Any film that begins with a mashup of Eliot (“here we go round the prickly pear”) and Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally”) is fine by me!

      Thanks again!

      Linda

  34. “…When I met the tree in the fall of 2011…”

    That phrase says a lot, Linda. One of the things in this post that struck me was the facility with which some people refer to trees by name. Others, not caring to make the effort, just call them “trees,” similar to the tendency of humans to alienate unfamiliar groups by resorting to generalizations and stereotypes. When we look a little more closely, we see individuals, in all their wonderful variety. Thank you for the reminder, and for the fascinating history, too.

    • Charles,

      That’s a terrific observation. Even when we’re willing to press a little farther and make some distinction – oak, pine, cypress, ash – there are even more distinctions to be made. When I wrote this, I was amazed to stumble across a list of the oaks native to Texas. Some I’d never heard of, and all were beautiful.

      When you add history and individuality to the mix, it gets even better. There’s a huge difference between “that old tree in Council Grove” and “the bur oak next to the elm where Custer camped”.

      It’s the details that make the difference and that’s true in so many areas of life. You and I have different writing styles, but there’s one thing we share – lots and lots of details. You’ve been around long enough you surely remember my go-to Chekov quotation, but I’ll drag it out again: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

      Linda


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