If reading the words “witness trees” causes you to pause for a moment and mull over its meaning, then you’ve come to the right place! You know how it would answer so many questions if we could just ask eyewitnesses to various historical events? Well, we might not be able to chat with someone who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg 160 years ago, we are fortunate in that there are some things that have stood sentinel at the time of the battle: Witness trees. Read on to learn more about the origin of the term; how they help reconstruct historical events and understand climate change; and how you can help these trees continue to thrive.
What is a witness tree?
Quite simply, a “witness tree” is a tree that was witness to history; it was alive during the time a historic event took place. Witness trees not only survived the event and lived to tell the tale, but they are also invaluable resources that are used by historians and scientists. While it is not always easy to determine whether or not a live tree was around during the time of a particular event - taking a core sample of the tree to count its rings can cause it tremendous damage - records like photographs, maps, paintings of landscapes, and eyewitness accounts can help prove its age.
Civil War Witness Trees
When something adapts to a new location, then it uses what’s available in order to survive. Similarly, battles can be won and lost simply due to the landscape and terrain on which they’re fought. The three-day battle of Gettysburg - the highwater mark of the Civil War - is certainly no exception to this rule. The cover provided by trees on the field was used offensively, defensively, and for rest and recovery by soldiers.
There are several Civil War witness trees that can still be visited today:
The Swamp White Oak/Sickles Oak
This tree would have watched Union General Daniel Sickles disobey direct orders and march his men from their assigned position. This left a large gap in the Union line and resulted in heavy casualties. This tree is considered to be one of the easiest to access in the Gettysburg National Military Park.
Several days after the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862, Alexander Gardner took a photo of the Burnside Bridge, a central area of the fight. The photo shows the Burnside tree as a sapling, and 160 years later, the gigantic sycamore can be visited at the Antietam National Battlefield Park.
White Oaks at Manassas
It is presumed that hundreds of witness trees exist in the Manassas National Battlefield Park. One particular white oak located by Stone Bridge witnessed both battles at Manassas. Since white oaks can live to be 500 years of age, it is possible that these witness trees could continue to observe historical events for centuries to come.
Famous Witness Trees in the United States
While we at Gettysburg Sentinels tend to focus on witness trees found on the battlefield, there are plenty of examples of witness trees that live or lived all across the United States. Many of these trees are so old that they would have been alive during multiple historical milestones.
From the Methuselah to the Liberty, there's some pretty amazing trees that hold incredible stories, all across the country! Click here to explore them (premieres this Saturday!).
Witness Trees uncover the past
Why does the National Park Service make such a concerted effort to protect witness trees? One major reason is because witness trees can help us understand history. For example, the location of a witness tree can help establish boundaries of historic areas and properties. For instance, if historians look at the location and size of a witness tree, then that means that they have data about the original size of a property. Examining a witness tree can also demonstrate how the land used nearby has changed over time.
Witness Trees help us understand past climates
Witness trees can be used to study past climates by analyzing the tree’s growth patterns and characteristics. By looking at things like a tree’s rings, scientists can determine long-term precipitation, temperature, and drought. These records can help scientists understand how climate change might affect areas in the short-term and long-term.
Let's get scientific
For example, a study published in the Journal of Climate in 2022 examined witness trees that live in the western United States. By studying the width of the rings on these trees, the scientists were able to create a record of drought conditions in the area. The study showed that the western United States had experienced severe droughts in the 1800s and the 1900s.
Studying witness trees has also helped scientists understand fire activity in an area. In one study that was published in the Journal Ecology in 2005, scientists looked at the width of tree rings from trees in the Great Basin area. With the tree rings, they were able to identify fire events that were caused by both drought and human usage.
Legal protection of Witness Trees
Typically it is prohibited from cutting down witness trees in national parks, which is where many witness trees can be found. In fact, Gettysburg Sentinels wooden pieces made from witness trees are so unique because the wood can only be acquired from tree removal services contracted by the Gettysburg National Military Park itself.
The Witness Tree Protection Program
However, the National Park Service preserves more than national parks. For example, in Washington D.C., the National Park Service established the Witness Tree Protection Program in the summer of 2006 to preserve trees with national significance in and around the capital. Some of these trees include President Andrew Jackson’s Magnolia trees. Jackson planted the Magnolia trees on each side of the south portico of the White House in 1829 in memory of his wife. Since one of these trees has been around for almost 200 years - one was removed in 2017 and replaced with a magnolia grown from a seed from the original - it would have witnessed things like inaugurations and speeches.
How you can help
Interested in supporting the preservation of these living wooden witnesses to history?
Advocate for legislation: People can contact their representatives to push for laws and regulations that protect areas where witness trees are located. This is especially helpful for witness trees that are not under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
Donate: Make financial donations to parks and historical sites where witness trees are located.
Educate others: While the trees can’t talk, you certainly can share their stories with friends, family, and local residents in your community!
History in your hands
Witness trees serve as a way to connect us to our past. While there are several witness trees that were identified to have been alive since the Civil War, witness trees can be found in various places across the country. With their contributions to the study of history and science, it is easy to see why witness trees are protected by the National Park Services and may even be incorporated in memorials. Visiting one of these giants just might make you wish that those trees could talk!
Take a look at our unique hand-crafted items made from the wood of the Battle of Gettysburg. Each piece is made with care and attention to detail and is a perfect addition to any history enthusiast's collection. They also make wonderful gifts!
Order now and own a piece of history!