This country is full of any number of unique and interesting folk legends. Some are persistent but completely fictional, like Sasquatch or the Jackalope. Then, there are others, people like John Chapman, who really did exist and found their way into our collective imagination
This legend is nothing like those. It’s the story of an unusual tree and an unusual circumstance in a very usual place that ended up bringing a whole community together…
The Jackson Oak
According to the legend, the Jackson Oak, which sits on the corner of South Finley and Dearing Streets in Athens, Georgia, United States, is not the ordinary eight foot white oak tree that it appears to be at first glance. Mainly because the tree itself owns the land it currently sits on.
Otherwise known as the “Tree That Owns Itself” the oak, and all land within eight feet of its base, is the legal property of itself. That’s right, in every literal sense of the word, the tree has complete ownership of itself it’s property. Yet how such a thing came to be is a story in and of itself…
The Tree’s History
The original tree is thought to have started life between the mid-16th and late 18th century. That means that the oak predated the transformation of the area into a residential neighborhood in the beginning of the 19th century. In avoiding the axe, the tree would eventually become a mainstay of the area and a legend all it’s own.
The earliest-known telling of the Jackson Oak’s story comes from a front-page article printed in the Athens Weekly Banner on the day of August 12, 1890. The article is aptly titled, “Deeded to Itself” and explains the tree’s history and that of the man who once owned: Colonel William Henry Jackson…
William Jackson was the son of James Jackson, a soldier in the American Revolution who went on to become a Congressman, U.S. Senator, and eventually the Governor of Georgia. His son, another James Jackson would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps serving as a Congressman and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia.
But William wasn’t like those others, he chose to follow his dreams in academia and ended up becoming a professor at the University of Georgia. William recalled a number of pleasant childhood memories of the tree as a child, which had been on the property as long as he could remember. So fond was he of the tree, that he wanted to make sure it was protected in perpetuity…
According to the newspaper article, the deed was written between 1820 and 1832 and read: “I, W. H. Jackson, of the county of Clarke, for and in consideration of the great affection which he bears said tree, and his great desire to see it protected has conveyed, and by these presents do convey unto the said oak tree entire possession of itself and of all land within eight feet of it on all sides.
That’s right, desiring to protect his cherished tree, William deeded to it the ownership of itself and its surrounding land. There are many accounts that question whether or not the above deed was real, but even if it isn’t entirely true, it’s the element of modern folklore that the tree represents which draws us here today…
No Legal Standing
Such a deed, even if it did exist, would have no legal standing of course. This is chiefly due to the fact that in order to be considered to own property, one must be a human being. The Jackson Oak, being a nonhuman entity, wouldn’t be able to own itself, even at William Jackson’s bequest.
That being said, under common law, the “person” receiving the property in question must have the legal capacity to receive it. Also, the tree would have had to “accept” itself. Which, everyone sort of presumed it did. Thus, the tree became the most famous tree in the US. But It’s future as “The Tree that Owns Itself” was not going to be an easy one…
By 1906, soil erosion at the base of the tree had become pretty severe. Still, the tree was such a curious mainstay of Athens, Georgia, that people wanted to make sure it stayed where it was and healthy. A man named George Foster Peabody paid to have not only new soil, but also a commemorative tablet added to the tree. He also had a chain barricade supported by eight granite posts installed around it to keep it safe.
Despite Mr. Peabody’s altruistic efforts, the Jackson Oak was still heavily damaged by an epic ice storm of 1907. Attempts were made to preserve the tree afterwards, but rot had already set in and the tree’s many long years had left it permanently weakened. It’s days seemed numbered…
It was a cold, October evening in 1942 when the original Jackson Oak finally fell. At the time it fell, it was said to be over 100 feet tall, and was estimated to be between 150 and 400 years old. The town had known about it’s damaged condition for years, but despite their best efforts, the steady decline took hold.
Other reports indicate that the ancient oak officially fell on December 1, 1942 during a violent windstorm that had wrecked its way through much of north Georgia. The storm caused many casualties including the taking of several human lives, but was the Jackson Oak one of them?
There were some, however, who believe the tree actually died many years before. One account even suggested that the Jackson Oak was the victim of root rot and that is what led to its collapse. The people of Athens rallied however, and within days of it’s fall, a plan was put into motion, though it would take a while.
The Legacy Continues
For four long years, the small plot remained vacant. Yet no one would dare plant a thing there. It belonged to the Jackson Oak after all. Finally, Dan Magill, the son of Athens’ Junior Ladies Garden Club member Elizabeth Magill came up with a plan. They would replace the fallen tree with a “son” grown from one of its acorns….
At this point, there were several Athenians in the Garden Club who had cultivated seedlings from acorns of the original tree. One of them, growing, in the yard of Capt. Jack Watson, was five feet high already by that point. It was the perfect candidate for transplantation. They even called in the College of Agriculture at the University of Georgia to perform the transplant.
The new tree was trimmed back to a slim 3 feet when it was transplanted, but thrived in it’s new locale. It seemed the soil that the original Jackson Tree still owned was as healthy as it ever was. The Jackson Oak had unintentionally, with it’s own demise, bequeathed itself to its rightful heir…
Son of an Oak
Today, the Son of the ‘Tree that Owns Itself’ is considered the heir of the original tree. Many people still call it by the name of its progenitor, however. As of 2006, the tree has grown to over 50 feet tall, half as big as it’s famous “father”.
All that remains of the original deed is a small, weathered and mostly illegible plaque that sits idly beside the tree. Then again, in the end it doesn’t matter if the deed ever existed or not. What matters is how the legacy of the ‘Tree That Owns Itself’ helped a community come together.