Rooted in history

A detail of the Clapp pear tree

As a genealogist, when I hear the word “tree” I typically think of family trees, not the outdoor variety used for shade on a sunny day. However, I came across an interesting newspaper article about a gentleman named James Raymond Simmons who gave a lecture on trees at the New England Historic Genealogical Society one hundred years ago. Simmons, who served as secretary-forester of the New York State Forestry Association and assistant state forester of Massachusetts, described trees as “the oldest living witness of our past history.”[1] He compiled a list of Massachusetts trees and their connection to people and historic events, which he included in his book The Historic Trees of Massachusetts.[2] Although a few of his examples have tenuous connections, I appreciate the message Simmons attempted to convey to his audience.

On 5 November 1919, members of NEHGS attended Simmons’s lecture “Three Centuries of Historic Trees in Massachusetts.”[3] He began by providing several examples of trees from around the world with ties to people or events of interest, such as the Royal Oak, located in Shropshire, England. King Charles II hid in this oak tree in 1651, eluding capture after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester, the final battle of the English Civil War.[4] Simmons then touched upon trees located in the United States, drawing from his book The Historic Trees of Massachusetts.

Simmons noted that several Massachusetts trees held connections to writers: the ancient oaks mentioned in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn; Hawthorne’s grove in Concord, listed as the favorite walk of Nathaniel Hawthorne; and the Louisa May Alcott Elms, also located in Concord, which Simmons noted “stand before the door of the Alcott house near Hawthorne’s grove.” Other trees held connections to early residents of various towns: the Sheffield Elm, where the first settler reportedly camped and where some of the early town meetings were held; and the Charlemont Buttonwood, where the first settlers slept when they first arrived. Simmons also provided examples of connections between trees and military figures, including General George Washington.

This tree was ... the site of Pastor John Brown’s sermon to minutemen from Cohasset in 1775.

As I reviewed Simmons’s list, I found myself stopping frequently to look up additional information about the trees contained in his book. One of the trees on the list, the Cushing Elm in Hingham, Massachusetts, sparked my interest because my husband Paul’s maternal line includes members of the Cushing family. This tree was located on the Cushing homestead, and was the site of Pastor John Brown’s sermon to minutemen from Cohasset in 1775. Unfortunately, this tree was cut down in 1949, but I located a photograph collection online that included a fantastic image of the Cushing Elm. This collection, part of the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library’s holdings, contains photographs of notable New England trees taken in the mid-1920s by a photographer named Ernest Wilson.

One of the trees on Simmons’s list has been the subject of debate. The Washington Elm in Cambridge was reportedly the site where General Washington “first took command of the American Army.”[5] It was first discredited in 1925 as a “myth,” and no documentation has been located that proves the event took place at that location. The tree was removed in 1925 due to disease, but a plaque marked where the tree once stood. Although the story behind the tree is viewed as myth, the tree “remains a symbol of patriotism in Cambridge.”[6]

Although a few of the connections noted on Simmons’s list may be debatable, I still found it interesting to think about trees as memorials to one’s family history or the history of a community. I noted in a previous blog post that my husband and I are live-in caretakers at the William Clapp house in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Four generations of the Clapp family resided in the house, from 1806 through 1953.

William Clapp was involved in agricultural pursuits with sons Thaddeus, Lemuel, and Frederick in the mid-1800s. They experimented with the hybridization of fruit and produced a variety of items, including a pear they named Clapp’s Favorite. This pear received recognition at area agricultural events in the nineteenth century, and is still associated with the William Clapp family to this day. Currently there are several pear trees dotting the front yard that were planted well after the last member of the Clapp family resided on the property. However, behind the house stands a single Clapp’s Favorite pear tree, likely planted by a member of the Clapp family, possibly by the grandson or great-grandson of William Clapp. For me it now serves as a fitting reminder of those who lived and worked on this property close to two hundred years ago.


[1] “Centuries of Historical Trees: Strength of a Nation May be Measured Largely by the Extent and Quality of its Forests According to Forester,” Pasadena [California] Evening Post, 22 November 1919, 4.

[2] James Raymond Simmons, The Historic Trees of Massachusetts (Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1919).

[3] “The Report of the Committee on Papers and Essays,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Proceedings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society at the Annual Meeting, 4 February 1920 with Memoirs of Deceased Members 74 [Supplement to April 1920]: xviii.

[4] After years in exile, Charles II returned to England in 1660 and was proclaimed king by the English Parliament. The restoration of the English monarchy was commemorated with a public holiday on May 29 named “Restoration Day,” also known as Royal Oak Day. The holiday was celebrated until the mid-1800s. The original oak tree was destroyed in the 18th century by people removing parts of the tree for souvenirs. A tree believed to be a descendant of the original oak, known as “Son of Royal Oak,” is currently located at the site, although it has become significantly weakened in recent years from storms and age.

[5] Simmons. The Historic Trees of Massachusetts, 139.


Eileen Pironti

About Eileen Pironti

Eileen graduated with a B.A. from Saint Anselm College, and received an M.S. from American University. She wrote about her ancestors’ participation in the colonization of Nobles County, Minnesota in “‘An Invitation to the Land’: Reconstructing James and Eliza Conlon’s Migration to Minnesota,” which was published in the Summer 2011 issue of American Ancestors magazine. Eileen's interests include Irish and 19th century New England research.View all posts by Eileen Pironti