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A 230-year-old Mount Vernon tree, a witness to history, is no more

Dean Norton, director of horticulture at Mount Vernon, chisels away an area on the trunk of a 230-year-old tree that fell at the home of George Washington.

GEORGE WASHINGTON'S MOUNT VERNON

By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: November 23, 2019

It was probably a sapling when George Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1783, triumphant after his victory in the Revolutionary War.

It was probably there on the Virginia estate in 1787 when he left for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and it grew during his terms as the country's first president. It was there when he came home for good, and when he died in 1799.

Droughts came and went, along with two centuries of American history. (Civil War soldiers carved insignia in its bark.) Then, late one night earlier this month, the tired old white oak gave out and came crashing down across a road in the woods.

Caretakers on the grounds of Mount Vernon heard it fall just before midnight on Nov. 4.

"Middle of the night," Dean Norton, Mount Vernon's director of horticulture, said Thursday. "No wind. It just falls over."

It was about 115 feet tall, 12 feet around, and at roughly age 230, it was almost as old as the United States.

Witness to so much history, "trees just give up, on occasion," Norton said. It wasn't sick. "It just was its time."

The tree dated at least to 1780, he said. Once it had fallen, and was cut, he was able to carefully measure the tree rings that help date a tree and tell its story.

"Oak tree rings are probably some of the easiest rings to count," he said. "They're really distinctive." He said his count is conservative. "The tree could be older than 1780, but I can honestly say that it at least goes back to that."

George Washington owned the Mount Vernon plantation, along with its home and more than 100 enslaved people, from 1761 until he died. He and his wife, Martha, are buried on the property, which is on the Potomac River about 15 miles south of Washington.

Norton said there is also a possibility that Washington had purposely transplanted the tree from the local woods. It had stood in what looked like a man-made triangle of three trees, all the same age, all the same kind, and never cut down.

"To me, they were intentionally, not only planted, but saved," he said.

The other two are already gone. The first fell about 40 years ago; the second in August of last year. The three were near a road about a half-mile west of the mansion, Norton said.

Mount Vernon said the wood will be used by its preservation department to make repairs.

In addition to their lineage, the trees were notable because of unique carvings in the bark that dated to the 1861-1865 Civil War, or just afterward.

The markings were a cross and a five-pointed star, apparently the insignia of two Union Army corps, George Washington's Mount Vernon said in a statement Thursday. Each Union army corps, made up of about 12,000 men, had a distinct insignia that its soldiers wore on their caps.

Both emblems are still faintly visible in the bark, and more visible in a photo of the tree Mount Vernon has from the 1930s.

Although fierce battles raged across Virginia, and several Union regiments visited, the estate was considered neutral territory during the war, the Mount Vernon statement said.

And just after the war, two Union regiments are known to have passed through around the time of the army's huge postwar victory parade in Washington in May of 1865.

"It was incredibly sad," Norton said of the fallen tree.

"It was the last living witness that had not only the history of George and Martha Washington, but also the Civil War," he said. "It had kind of this double bit of history."

Washington headed the American army during the Revolutionary War, presided over the convention that drew up the U.S. Constitution, and served two terms as president, from 1789 to 1797.

But he returned to Mount Vernon whenever he could.

"No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this," he once said.

"I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe."
 

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