News and Blog Articles
News and Blog Articles
If you’ve lived in the Athens area for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of the Tree that Owns Itself. The stately white oak, located on the corner of Dearing Street and South Finley Street, is said to have legal ownership of itself and the land within 8 feet of its base, thanks to its previous owner, Colonel William Henry Jackson, who deeded the tree and the land to itself. Colonel Jackson supposedly noted in his will that he holds a “great love” for the Tree, as well as a “great desire…for its protection for all time.”
According to legend, the Tree was a staple in Colonel Jackson’s childhood, and he had many memories associated with it. Some argue that, as Jackson actually spent most of his childhood in Jefferson County, and not in Athens, this claim is baseless. However, as his family did indeed own the property for a time, it isn’t impossible that he visited enough to form fond memories of the Tree.
The History of The Tree That Owns Itself
The Tree that Owns Itself is thought to have started life in the mid-16th century. It was established well before the area was developed into a residential neighborhood in the mid-19th century, and is thought by some to have been the biggest tree in Athens. It lived to be approximately 400 years old before tragedy struck.
By 1906, notable erosion had exposed the base of the Tree. A commemorative tablet, chain barricade, and new soil were all installed by a George Foster Peabody in efforts to maintain the Tree’s integrity, but these efforts were in vain, as an ice storm in 1907 caused permanent damage and allowed rot to set in. Many believe the tree died many years before its collapse due to root rot.
On the evening of October 9th, 1942, the Tree that Owns Itself, then standing at over 100 feet tall, fell to the ground. Some accounts claim that only part of the tree fell on this date, and the rest was taken down by a vicious storm on December 1st of the same year, but newspaper articles only support the tree’s demise in October.
The Son of The Tree That Owns Itself
The Tree’s delicate condition was known by the community for years before it fell, and efforts were made to cultivate a “son” of the Tree from one of its acorns. These efforts unfortunately never saw fruition, and the plot of land where the Tree stood remained empty for 4 years.
It wasn’t until 1946 that a member of the Athens' Junior Ladies Garden Club named Elizabeth Magill suggested the club find a replacement for the Tree, at the behest of her young son. Many Athenians had taken it upon themselves to grow seedlings cultivated from the original Tree’s acorns, and so Magill went on the hunt for a suitable candidate. A seedling of approximately 5 feet in height, belonging to one Captain Jack Watson, was chosen for transplantation, and in the fall of 1946, this Son of the Tree that Owns Itself was relocated to its current home by Roy Bowden of UGA’s College of Agriculture and a few assistant students from the Department of Horticulture.
On December 4th, 1964, a ceremony was held to officially dedicate the Son of the Tree that Owns Itself. It was at this event that representatives of the Garden Club announced their intention to take full responsibility for the maintenance of the Tree and its plot. A similar ceremony was held on the same day (December 4th) of 1996 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Son’s planting.
To this day, the Son of the Tree that Owns Itself (often referred to just as the Tree that Owns Itself), stands proudly at heights over 50 feet tall. As the original Tree’s progeny, it is locally believed to be the legal heir of the Tree and therefore the current owner of the land within 8 feet of its base in all directions.
Where Does the Legend Come From?
The earliest known mention of the Tree is from the Athens Weekly Banner.
On August 12, 1890, the Banner printed a front-page article called Deeded to Itself; the article detailed that the tree resided on property formerly belonging to Colonel Jackson, and described the Colonel’s father, James Jackson, who was an American Revolution soldier, congressman, US Senator, and governor of Georgia. The article also discussed Colonel Jackson’s son, who was also named James Jackson, and was a congressman and Chief Justice on Georgia’s Supreme Court.
According to the Banner article, Colonel Jackson’s will reads:
“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” .
Can a Tree Own Itself?
While native Athenians often quote this as fact, a deed granting the tree ownership of itself has never been found, and many historians doubt it ever existed. Even if the deed did exist, it’s unclear whether or not it would be considered legally binding.
Under Common Law, deeds granting land or property (along with the land and/or property) must be delivered to and accepted by the recipient, and the recipient must have the legal capacity to possess it. Most discussions of the Tree conclude that it does not meet the legal requirements to possess ownership of itself nor any land, and therefore, cannot actually own itself.
What Do the Records Say?
Property records confirm that one William H. Jackson did actually own property located on the opposite side of Dearing Street from where the Tree stands. In the early 19th century, that plot of land was designated as Lot #14; the plot of land including the land inhabited by the Tree was known as Lot #15. Both plots were owned by the Jackson family until 1832, when the family sold Lot #15 to a Doctor Malthus Ward. Interestingly, 1832 is also the year noted on the Tree’s commemorative plaque as the year it was deeded to itself.
More recent property records for 125 Dearing Street (then Lot #15) do describe a section of land that fits the description of the odd-shaped corner that houses the Tree; actual plat maps, however, draw the property line approximately 10 feet to the west of the tree’s location. This means that, as far as tax assessors are concerned, the tree and its land are not a part of 125 Dearing Street.
So Who Owns the Tree?
While this does seem promising for the Tree, Athens-Clarke County has confirmed that the land is considered to be within the “right-of-way” along Finley Street, and is therefore under the county’s jurisdiction. City-county officials have stated that the owners of the property at 125 Dearing Street are “jointly stewards” of the Tree’s care; the primary advocate for the tree is the Athens’ Junior Ladies’ Garden Club, who adopted the tree in 1946.
But, according to the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government in a statement from the early 20th century, “However defective this title may be in law, the public recognized it." So, in spite of the questionable legality, Athens declared the Tree the true legal owner of itself, and maintains a policy to treat the Tree as a public street tree and take care of it as such.
After the Tree’s replacement in 1964, this declared legal ownership was transferred to the Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.
Emily Casuccio is sister and sister-in-law to Rebekah and Scott Rushing, and has over half a decade of experience in copywriting, copyediting, proofreading, and developmental storyboarding. She's worked with both published and undiscovered authors on both fiction and nonfiction, and takes pride in supporting local businesses. Her passion lies in the written word and helping authors of all capacities realize their dreams and achieve their fullest potential. To learn more about her, read samples of her work, or contact her, visit her online portfolio.
The Athens Weekly Banner
Atlas Obscura: The Tree That Owns Itself
Original Stone Monument
Postcard: The Tree That Owns Itself
Son of The Tree That Owns Itself
The Tree That Owns Itself
The Tree That Owns Itself (Original)
The Tree That Owns Itself Plaque
Visit Athens Georgia: The Tree That Owns Itself