Hidden History: the Tree That Owns Itself

Mon Feb 04, 2019

Intellectual property laws can be a tricky field to maneuver around, especially with the advent of the digital world. Who owns what, who can use what, and who created what can be (and often is) lost in a sort of fog of ownership ambiguity. And all this confusion is just when we consider intellectual property in the context of people. What about when we add trees into the mix? What if a tree, through a unique series of traditional and legal developments, comes to own its own property? What if the property it owns is…wait for it…itself?

This week’s Hidden History takes us to Athens, Georgia in the early 1800s. According to a front-page article with an anonymous author in the Athens Weekly Banner in August 1890 titled “Deeded to Itself,” there existed a white oak tree located on the property of Colonel William Henry Jackson. Supposedly, Jackson had many cherished childhood memories of this tree, to the point that he saw it fit to protect this tree by granting it legal ownership of both itself and the land surrounding it. This article some decades later claims that the official deed, believed to have been officiated sometime between 1820 and 1832, as following:

“For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides—William H. Jackson”

Unfortunately, given the long delay between this initial article and the officiation of the deed, few living people at the time could confirm or deny it. In either case, this article led to the popular acceptance of the Tree That Owns Itself.

The Tree That Owns Itself is estimated to have started life at some point between the middle of the 1500s and late 1700s and predates the transformation of Athens into a residential area in the 1800s. It continued to stand upright for a full century after Jackson’s deed granted it legal ownership before it finally fell in late 1942.

After its demise, the small plot remained vacant for a period of four years until the Athens’ Junior Ladies Garden Club gathered seedlings from acorns of the original tree and planted them in the same plot in an operation directed by the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Department of Horticulture.

This new tree, named Son of The Tree That Owns Itself, currently stands at the southwest corner of the intersection of Dearing and Finley Streets in a residential neighborhood outside of downtown Athens. Regardless of the historical integrity of its story, the tree is now one of the most popular symbols of Athens, proudly standing on its independent ground to this very day.



Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



Appears in
2019 - Spring - Issue 2