Monday, April 9, 2018

The Great Elm on Boston Common

Did you know that the American elm (ulmus americana) is the official tree of Massachusetts?  Elm trees have played a significant role in Massachusetts history and folklore, many of which were venerated for their old age and associations with important people and events.  One famous American elm witnessed the founding of Boston, saw the excitement and violence during the American Revolution, stood through the city’s industrial age, and was finally felled by a winter storm in 1876—which caused an outpouring of sorrow in Boston and around the commonwealth.

A facsimile of a map drawn by John Bonner in 1722
 providing an early depiction of Boston, including
the Great Elm. (Source:  Library of Congress).
The “Great Elm” was considered old even as far back as the early 18th century, and it was estimated to have been planted sometime between the 1620s-1670s.  It stood in a central location on the Boston Common and later in its life drew many visitors due to its age and unusually large size; in 1855 the City Engineer measured it as “height, seventy-two and one-half feet; girth one foot above the ground, twenty-two and one-half feet; girth four feet above the ground, seventeen feet; average diameter of greatest extent of branches, one hundred and one feet.” (Source, p. 51)  In fact, one of the tree’s earliest depictions is on a 1722 map of Boston by John Bonner, which reveals it as being much larger than other trees in the area.

An engraving, circa 1792, that shows the Great Elm
centered on the Boston Common (Source). 
The Boston Common, founded in 1634, is a historically rich location, and it goes without saying that the elm bore witness to many events throughout its lifetime.  The British Red Coats encamped on the Common for eight years starting in 1768, and the colonial militia also mustered here; it is also said that the Sons of Liberty often met in the neighborhood near the tree during the Revolutionary era.  Methodist Episcopal clergyman Jesse Lee delivered a sermon under the Great Elm in 1790, and some believe that this was the origin of Methodism in New England.  A memorial of Jesse Lee’s sermon, published in 1875, traces the history of the elm and describes a duel that occurred nearby in 1728 between Benjamin Woodbridge and Henry Phillips.  The elm is also believed to have been the site of public executions, including the hangings of Quakers William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson in 1659, and Mary Dyer in 1660.

Over time, the effects of age, its size, weather-related events, and constant visitors caused the tree to weaken; Jerome V. C. Smith, the mayor of Boston from 1854-1855, took special interest in its care and preservation and built an iron enclosure around it—upon which was a tablet that read:

This tree has been standing here for an unknown 
period.  It is believed to have existed before 
the settlement of Boston, being full
grown in 1722.  Exhibited marks of
old age in 1792, and was nearly
destroyed by a storm in 1832.
Protected by an iron
enclosure in 1854.
J. V. C. Smith, Mayor

A photograph of the 1866 New England Centenary Convention,
with the Great Elm pictured in the background.(Source)

The elm weathered a damaging storm in 1860 and stood for another 16 years until a strong gale took it down on February 15, 1876.  People sought to collect pieces of its wood as mementos, and some even repurposed the wood to build various items, such as a chair that can be found today in the Boston Public Library’s rare book department.

For more information about the Great Elm and other famous trees in Massachusetts history, check out the following resources below.

Resources and Further Reading

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department