An Archival Mys-Tree

by Hannah Elder, Library Assistant

Happy spring, everyone! In honor of this new season, I’d like to share a bit of an arboreal mystery that I recently uncovered. While thumbing through Volume VII of the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, I discovered a series of letters exchanged between the MHS and Mr. D. McConaughy, in Pennsylvania, following the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The letters, transcribed in full in the Proceedings, were related to the transportation of the trunk of a white oak tree, riddled with bullets, from the forest of a hill on the battle site. I was immediately intrigued.

The first letter, addressed to Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, reads:

Gettysburg, Penn., August 7, 1863

Hon. John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts.

Governor – I have selected from the forest upon Wolf Hill, at our breastworks, a trunk of a white-oak tree, fearfully riddled with bullets, so as to exhibit the effects of the withering musketry fire in the action of the 2d and 3d of July ult., when the enemy were so terribly repulsed on our right. In that wonderful strife, the Second Massachusetts Regiment bore a conspicuous and honorable part, as the thick graves of its noble dead eloquently attest. This scarred memento I desire to present to the Massachusetts Historical society; and have it now at the depot of our railroad, ready for shipment. Will you make the necessary arrangements for its transportation to Boston, and advise me of your readiness to receive it? For the life of your brave sons, poured out freely upon our soil, Pennsylvania sends this outgrowth of the life of her soil, eloquent of the dauntless strife and the glorious triumph here achieved.

With sentiments of high regard and esteem, yours truly,

D. McConaughy

Later that month, the Society replied:

Historical Rooms, Boston, Aug. 27, 1863

Dear Sir – Your eloquent and acceptable letter addressed to Governor Andrew has by him been forwarded to the Massachusetts Historical Society; in whose behalf I have the honor to communicate the wish, that you would add to the sense of obligation already conferred upon them, by transmitting by express, if no other means offers, the memorial of Gettysburg and its historic days which you have been kind enough to offer for their acceptance.

If directed to the Massachusetts Historical Society, Tremont Street, Boston I have no doubt it will duly reach its destination.

As I cannot speak authoritatively in the name of the Society, there have been no opportunity for them to act upon the matter, I shall not attempt to express, in such terms as I know they would desire, cordial response with which they would reciprocate the generous and patriotic sentiments with which you proffer this memorial of the great battle in this new war of independence. I hope a more formal recognition of these will be forthcoming when this shall have been added to the valued historic memorial which it is the purpose of this Society to collect and preserve.

Very respectfully your obedient servant,

Emory Washburn,

Chairman of Committee, &c.

The letters then tell the story of the tree’s journey from Pennsylvania to Boston over the course of September 1863. From Gettysburg, the tree traveled in an open-topped railcar to Philadelphia, where it was temporarily under the care of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which received a similar tree from Mr. McConaughy. While it was stopped in Philadelphia, it was under the guard of a police officer and a travel case was created for it. Next, the tree was placed on a steamship and it sailed to Boston, where it was received with excitement by the Society. After receiving the tree, the Society unanimously resolved to thank D. McConaughy for his donation of the tree, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for caring for the tree, and the Northern Central Railway and the Pennsylvania Railway, along with the steamship Saxon, for transporting it free of charge.

After reading this, I had so many questions – was the tree still in the collection? What exactly did “trunk of a tree” mean? How had we stored and preserved it? So I took a look through our catalog, ABIGAIL, and asked a few members of the MHS staff, but was unable to locate the tree. It seems that it left the collection at some point, but no one is sure when. It was time for some digging through the institutional archives! I looked through the library records; the “Library Letters,” correspondence detailing gifts to the library; the Cabinet Book, which recorded the donations of artifacts to the collection; and curatorial records, but had no luck.

Page of Cabinet Book
Page of the Cabinet Book where I hoped to find record of the tree

Next, I tried the various catalogs of the collection created in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. And I found it! In the 1885 Catalogue of the paintings, engravings, busts, & miscellaneous articles belonging to the cabinet of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the tree is listed as Entry 119. The catalog record quotes directly from the initial letter from Mr. McConaughy and notes its presence in the Proceedings. I was excited to find the tree in the 1893 version of the catalog as well, but that catalog was just an annotated version of the 1885 catalog. The entry for the tree was unchanged.

1885 Catalog of the Cabinet
The tree in the 1885 catalog of the Cabinet

That’s where the tree’s documented journey ends, at least for now. I’ll keep searching, and I’ll be sure to post an update if I find evidence of the tree somewhere else in the collection.

In the meantime, in ABIGAIL I found records of other tree-related artifacts you may want to check out:

Fragments taken from the roots of the Liberty Tree

Nail and tree bark

Triangular piece cut from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree

Wood from the mulberry tree in the manor garden, Scrooby, England

Painted bark doll

Piece of wood from a tree reportedly used to hang witches

Oak leaves

If you want to view these artifacts or any of our other collections, please consider visiting the library!