The Curious Case of the Tree That Owns Itself

In the city of Athens, Georgia there exists a rather curious local landmark- a large white oak that is almost universally stated to own itself. Because of this, it is considered one of the more famous trees in the world. So how did this tree come to own itself and the land around it, and does the government agree with the general public’s sentiment that it legally does?

First the back story- sometime in the 19th century a Georgian called Colonel William Jackson, born all the way back in 1786, reportedly took a liking to said tree and endeavored to protect it from any and all danger. As to why he loved it so, the earliest documented account of this story is an anonymously written front page article in the Athens Weekly Banner published on August 12, 1890. It states,

Col. Jackson had watched the tree grow from his childhood, and grew to love it almost as he would a human. Its luxuriant foliage, and sturdy limbs had often protected him from the heavy rains, and out of its highest branches he had many a time gotten the eggs of the feathered songsters. He watched [its] growth, and when on reaching a ripe old age he saw the tree standing in [its] magnificent proportions, he was pained to think that after his death it would fall into the hands of those who might destroy it.

Towards this end, Jackson deeded ownership of the tree and a little land around it to the tree itself.  The news article states that the deed read,  “I, H. W. Jackson, of the county of Clarke, of the one part, and the oak tree of the county of Clarke, of the other part: Witnessed, That the said W. H. Jackson 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.”

In time, the tree came to be something of a tourist attraction, known as The Tree That Owns Itself. However, in the early 20th century, the tree started showing signs of its slow demise, with little that could be done about it. Father time comes for us all eventually, even our often long lived, tall and leafy fellow custodians of Earth.

Finally, on October 9, 1942, the over 30 meter tall and 200-400 year old tree fell, rumor has it as a result of a severe windstorm and/or via having previously died and its roots rotted.

About four years later, members of the Junior Ladies Garden Club (who’d tended to the tree before its unfortunate demise) tracked down a small tree grown from an acorn taken from the original tree. And so it was that on October 9, 1946, under the direction of Professor Roy Bowden of the College of Agriculture at the University, this little tree was transplanted to the location of its forebear. A couple months later, an official ceremony was held featuring none other than the Mayor of Athens, Robert L McWhorter, to commemorate the occasion.

This new tree became known as The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself and it was assumed that, as the original Tree’s heir, it naturally inherited the land it stood on. Of course, there are many dozens of other trees known to exist descending from the original, as people taking an acorn from it to grow elsewhere was a thing. That said, to date, none of the original tree’s other children have petitioned the courts for their share of the land, so it seems all good.

In any event, The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself still stands today, though is often referred to as simply The Tree That Own Itself- we can only presume because you don’t want to go assuming the tree’s gender….

This all brings us around to whether Jackson ever actually deeded the tree to itself in the first place and, either way, if such a deed is legally binding.

Well, to begin with, it turns out Jackson only spent about three years of his life in Athens, starting at the age of 43 from 1829 to 1832, sort of nixing the idea that he loved the tree from spending time under it as a child and watching it grow, and then worrying about what would happen to it after he died. Further, an extensive search of land ownership records in Athens does not seem to indicate Jackson ever owned the land the tree sits on.

He did live on a lot of land directly next to it for those three years, but whether he owned that land or not isn’t clear. Whatever the case, in 1832 a four acre parcel, which included the land the tree was on and the neighboring land Jackson lived on, among others, was sold to University professor Malthus A Ward. In the transaction, Ward was required to pay Jackson a sum of $1,200 (about $31,000 today), either for the property itself or simply in compensation for improvements Jackson had made on the lot, presumed to be the house Jackson built on it.

In the end, whether he ever owned the neighboring lot or was simply allowed to use it while he allegedly worked at the University, he definitely never owned the lot the tree grew on, which is the most important bit for the topic at hand.

After Professor Ward purchased the land, Jackson and his family purchased a 655 acre parcel a few miles away and moved there.

Ten years later, in 1844, Jackson seems to have come into financial difficulties and had his little plantation seized by the Clarke County Sheriff’s office and auctioned off to settle the mortgage. Thus, had he owned some land in Athens itself, including the land the tree sat on, presumably he would have sold it to raise funds or otherwise had it taken as well.

And whatever the case there, Jackson would have known property taxes needed paid on the deeded land for the tree to be truly secure in its future. Yet no account or record indicates any trust or the like was setup to facilitate this. (And if you’re wondering, yes, we double checked and property taxes were a thing in Georgia at the time.)

On top of all this- shocker- there is no hard evidence such a deed ever existed, despite the fact that deed records in Athens go back many decades before Jackson’s death in 1876 and that it was supposed to have existed in 1890 in the archives according to the original anonymous news reporter who claims to have seen it.

As you might imagine from all of this, few give credence to this side of the story. So how did all of this come about then?

It is speculated to have been invented by the imagination of said anonymous author at the Athens Weekly Banner in the aforementioned 1890 front page article titled “Deeded to Itself”, which by the way contained several elements that are much more easily proved to be false. As to why the author would do this, it’s speculated perhaps it was a 19th century version of a click-bait thought exercise on whether it would be legal for someone to deed such a non-sentient living thing to itself or not. In fact, the very opening paragraph poses this question, stating: “A tree a property holder. What do you think of that? Is it legal? If so, when the tree dies, to whom does the land belong? If not, whose is it now?”

Whatever the case, the next known instance of the Tree That Owned Itself being mentioned wasn’t until 1901 in the Centennial Edition of the that same paper, the Athens Banner. This featured another account very clearly just copying the original article published about a decade before, only slightly reworded. The next account was in 1906, again in the Athens Banner, again very clearly copying the original account, only slightly reworded. The 19th century equivalent of re-posts when your audience has forgotten about the original.

It was this 1906 re-post that saw the tree’s future legendary status secured thanks to one George Foster Peabody, who paid to have a marble marker and granite post put in place commemorating the tree owning itself, as well as for some basic maintenance like extra soil added around it. No word on whether he got the tree’s permission first for this clear infringement on its property rights.

Fast-forward through today, and the Tree That Owns Itself and its child likewise being the master of its own fate is firmly entrenched.

So this all brings us around to what the government itself thinks and who records show owns the land the tree sits upon.

First, as many experts on law have pointed out in response to the notion of a tree owning itself, under Georgia State law, to inherit or otherwise receive property, you must have the legal capacity to accept it- something a tree obviously cannot do. Thus, even were such a deed to exist, it would not be valid, nor would the inheriting of that property to a similarly non-sentient thing be valid. One could setup an entity to fund the maintenance of the land and tree, as well as pay property taxes and the like, if one owned it, but that still wouldn’t be the tree owning itself.

No surprise from this and the fact that the tree has never paid property taxes, the city does not consider the tree to own itself. Deeds of the parcels on and around it do seem to indicate that the property is part of the half acre or so parcel of land at 125 Dearing Street in Athens, with the house that stands on that property today built all the way back in 1883 before the Tree That Owns Itself was a thing anybody apparently knew about.

So who owns that property? Because the future is now, a quick search of Clarke County records show that the lovely home is currently owned, or at least managed by a trust, with the trustees being listed as Hubert and Patricia McAlexander, who seem to have purchased it in 1996 and then created the trust in 2016 as something of a historic site.

The lovely couple are actually former English Department professors at the neighboring University, and both many time award winners for being outstanding professors apparently, with the female half of that distinguished literary duo actually about to come out with her first work of fiction, a historical work titled Second Wives.

All that said, while there is some evidence the McAlexanders own said tree, an important thing to note here is that the tree is growing right next to a road. Thus, while deed records may indicate the owners of 125 Dearing Street own the tree and land there, plat maps for that land used by tax assessors do not have it as anyone’s land, as it’s considered part of the right-of-way section next to the road, and thus has been owned by the municipality since that road was put there. As such, maintenance of the tree falls to municipal authorities who have noted in interviews that they mostly ignore the stories about the tree’s ownership and treat it like they would any other tree they have lining public roads.

The citizens, however, have chosen to ignore these minor legal hangups and have continued to operate under the assumption that the Unassumed Gender Offspring of the Tree That Owns Itself does indeed, well, own itself.

As such, the Junior Ladies Garden Club still tend to the tree to this day even though care of the tree technically falls to the city. Further, locals are known to celebrate the tree’s supposed birthday each year and decorate it for Christmas. And through it all, it remains a popular curiosity tourist attraction, with city officials none-to-keen on spoiling the fun for the foreseeable future.

So while the tree does not own itself, it is afforded some level of protection that other such trees adjacent to public thruways are not. Thus, given its age and how well it’s maintained, this tree will likely outlive us all, and potentially a few generations of our offspring. For reference, while there are certainly exceptions going all the way up to over 600 years old, most white oaks live about 200-400 years, with this one being around 75 years old.

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