Oak at Wawashkamo Is Witness To Battle of 1814
A large red oak that was felled by a storm this summer has proven to be a longtime survivor of the War of 1812. The oak, growing to impressive size on the site that is now Wawashkamo golf links on Mackinac Island, has been authenticated as a “witness tree” to the Battle of Mackinac in 1814. A decisive moment in the conflict, the battle was fought on this very ground and saw Indian and British forces beating back American forces trying to recapture Mackinac Island. The battle was pivotal for control of the Great Lakes.
Even as the state is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the war, the tree splintered and crashed to the ground in strong winds July 19, two centuries and two days after the date that the War of 1812 came to Mackinac Island when the British captured the fort. Pete Pellerito, a Mackinac Island resident and a member of Mackinac Associates, was among those interested in finding out whether the tree could really be more than 200 years old. Was it possible, he wondered, that this very tree could be a witness to the battle, or just a flight of fancy?
“When you’re golfing, you’d see that huge tree and wonder how old it is and whether it was alive during the Battle of 1814, but we never did anything about it,” said Mr. Pellerito. “Then, when the tree fell down, I thought we could finally figure out if it was there or not.”
Two large slices were cut from the red oak, about 10 feet from its base. One of the “cookies” of wood was transported to the Dock 3 Arnold warehouse for analysis.
Mr. Reid and Mr. Pellerito met Saturday, September 29, to verify the age of the tree. Mr. Pellerito explained the history of the site and the potential connection the fallen tree had to Michigan and national history when they met at the dock to determine its age by counting the rings.
If the tree was alive during the battle, Mackinac State Historic Parks could use the tree as a timeline of history, marking when the Treaty of Ghent was signed to end the war in December 24, 1814, when the state joined the Union in 1837, and a number of other historical moments in the state.
“We want to use the tree to commemorate the War of 1812,” Mr. Pellerito told Mr. Reid. “We’re asking for affirmation from a third party expert, just to be sure.”
Judging from the size of the tree and some interior cracks and rot found in the tree, Mr. Reid said the tree looked “over-matured.”
Mr. Reid counted the rings of the tree, marking every 50 years with a small pin, to help him keep track. As a tree grows each summer, its trunk forms a ring. Foresters can determine by the spacing between the rings the amount of growth in a particular year. Good growth is also an indication of favorable climate.
Foresters often conduct their measurements from chest-height, Mr. Reid said. Since a tree grows with a wider base to support its weight, measuring from chest height, or four feet from the base, gives a more accurate measurement. The tree splintered right at the base, however, making a standard measurement impossible. But knowing that the cookie he was measuring was taken 10 feet from the ground, he was certain he could get a fairly accurate age.
“I’m not sure if it’s going to reach 200,” Mr. Reid says before starting the count, “but we’ll see.”
With a magnifying glass in hand, he starts from the center, counting each ring by following the ridges. Everyone by the warehouse dock falls silent, hoping not to distract him while he works. He moves to adjust to the light, using the pin as a placeholder, and finally sticks the pin into the wood.
“That’s 50,” he said.
His wife, Susan, hands him another pin, and he starts again.
The second series takes a little longer. Since the cut to the tree isn’t perfectly straight, Mr. Reid has to follow along the rings before counting the next, making sure he doesn’t skip a line. He guides the pin meticulously across the wood, places the second pin in the wood, and reaches for a third pin. By now it seems that he is well past the halfway point, and looks as if the old tree isn’t quite old enough to have seen the historical battle. He places the pin, and starts to count once more.
Finally he reaches the end, and sitting up straight, still looking down at the count, he announces the last result.
The tree has 195 rings.
“Well, we were trying for 198,” Mr. Pellerito said. It’s not hard to hear the disappointment in his voice.
“Wait,” Mr. Reid said, “I thought you needed the tree to be 212 years.”
Mr. Pellerito explained that this was the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and the Battle of Mackinac happened 198 years ago in 1814.
“Well then, I’m fairly certain this tree was there,” Mr. Reid said.
It would take 12 years, he explained, for a red oak to reach the height of 10 feet, where the sample of the tree was cut. If it were from the standard four feet from the ground, the measurement would be different. He determined that the tree was about 207 years old.
Hearing this news, Mr. Pellerito could hardly contain his excitement. He thanked Mr. and Mrs. Reid for their help, asking them to come to Mackinac Island to see the historic tree.
During the War of 1812, Mackinac Island saw two battles that were significant for control of the Great Lakes region, the capture of Fort Mackinac in 1812 and the Battle of 1814 on the site of Wawashkamo. Bicentennial commemorations of the war are planned from 2012 through 2015. Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter chairs the Michigan Bicentennial Commission for the Commemoration of the War of 1812. Mr. Porter was happy to hear the news.
“I’ve got to give Pete a lot of credit,” Mr. Porter said. “When that tree fell, he was the one who said ‘This tree may have been around during the battle.’ Because of Pete’s interest and commitment to it, now we know.”
This also documents that the wooded area at the golf course was also a wooded area when it was farmland owned by the Dousman family.
The remains of the fallen tree are stored away, and while it’s unknown what the state park will do with the tree, its past can now be verified. Mr. Porter said that they are discussing ways to incorporate the tree into the bicentennial celebration, but no plans have been set. He did say that a number of people are interested in using the rings of the tree to show a natural timeline.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in having something like that done,” he said.