The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Tree on Boston Common

As we begin to move out of February and, hopefully, leave behind the worst of winter, I’d like to reflect back on a historic Boston storm that had a strong impact both on Boston’s landscape and its mythology. February 15, 1876 was a stormy day at the start of the United States’ centennial year. It was also the last day that one of Boston’s first ‘residents’ would stand in Boston Common. This resident was known as the “Great Elm” (and later, the “Old Elm”) and it was one of the most prominent signifiers of Boston’s place in history, a silent witness to history called upon in many early accounts of the city.

The tree had a fabled history among Bostonians. Nehemiah Adams describes the tree in alternately flowery language: “That tree is to antiquity with us what a pyramid is in Egypt. It is like the pillars of Hercules, bounding the unknown ages which preceded the arrival of the Pilgrims” (Boston Common, 1842) and more bizarre turns of phrase: “vegetable patriarch” (The Boston Common: Or, Rural Walks in Cities). Adams’ assessment of the tree’s ancientness is largely in keeping with other Bostonian’s views. Although it was a long held belief that the tree stood in Boston Common even before the Puritans arrived, it was only when the tree fell and its rings were counted that residents definitively concluded that the tree had existed since at least the 1630s (Boston Common in colonial and provincial days by Mary Farwell Ayer). 

The tree had witnessed a number of types of events over the years, from public hangings and duels during the early days of Boston to local women laundering clothing by the tree and Frog Pond at the end of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, as Boston grew in size and the Common became more like a large public park, more common activities included people meeting at the Elm Tree or going skating on Frog Pond.

 

This nineteenth century print is one of many prints and artistic renderings that were produced of the tree and features Bostonians enjoying their time near the Great Elm, whether sitting under the tree, playing catch near it, or strolling by it. Although this particular print focuses on an idyllic depiction of the Common, it also reveals the age of the Great Elm, which is missing several branches and is fenced in by an iron gate in this depiction. The gate wasn’t installed until 1854, after a series of storms left the elm badly scarred. Over several hundred years, the tree sustained a number of injuries, including a large cavity that developed in the center of its trunk. When the tree finally did come down in 1876, struck by a strong gust of wind during a storm, Boston citizens rushed to the tree to claim branches and scraps of wood as souvenirs.

 

The tree was repurposed in a number of other ways by inventive residents, including creating veneered pictures of the tree made out of wood from the elm itself and growing a root of “The Old Elm” around a china dish cover. Part of the tree was also used to make a chair for the Boston Public Library (Boston Common: a diary of notable events, incidents, and neighboring occurrences by Samuel Barber). One of these keepsakes belongs to MHS’s own collection, a pair of “Old Elm earrings,” made by Benjamin F. Knowlton. The earrings are shaped like tiny liberty bells and are made out of elm wood, with tiny gold clappers, and red, white, and blue striped ribbon attached to the top of each earring.

From the days of Puritan society, when Boston Common was still a cow pasture, to the Revolution and into the nineteenth century, the Great Elm was a marker of time for Boston for many years. If you are interested in the Great Elm, or the history of Boston Common, please consider visiting the library to learn more! 

permalink | Published: Friday, 24 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

Comments 

Feb 27, 2017, 12:35 am

Annie Cheviron

What a great piece of nostalgic history this is. And so good that over the years, there were writers who had to way to express the stories.

Feb 28, 2017, 6:06 pm

Rose A. Doherty

Thank you for posting this great piece. As president of the Partnership of Historic Bostons, I frequently lead tours about the 17th-century town. The Great Elm has its part to play. I gather people around the plaque that marks the place the tree stood. While gathered around the plaque, people always want to know more about the tree. There is a 19th-century engraving of the fenced tree in winter being guarded by a policeman. I am going to share this blog with both our Facebook and Twitter supporters.

Mar 1, 2017, 2:00 pm

Christy Robinson

One of the MYTHS about the elm tree is that Mary Dyer and the other Quaker martyrs were hanged on it in 1659-1661. But that would have been a Victorian invention, because
A. Hanging executions were done on a gallows outside the town gate on Boston Neck
B. f there was an elm in that time, it would have been too short and flimsy.
Those Victorians!

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