The Tree That Owns Itself

Bloodofox, Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Bloodofox, Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain / Bloodofox, Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Just a short walk from downtown Athens, Georgia lives The Tree That Owns Itself. The stately white oak is beloved by Georgia residents and visitors, who don’t seem to mind that it’s not the Tree … and it doesn’t own itself. 

Early in the 19th century, a University of Georgia professor named Colonel William H. Jackson had a crush on a tree. The 350-year-old white oak had been a part of the Jackson family’s property since William was a boy, and he loved it. As an adult, he was determined to protect it—forever.

Jackson drew up a deed that granted the tree its autonomy. The original deed is lost to history, but a plaque at the foot of the tree reads:

"For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides" 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

But “for all time” was not meant to be. The oak survived until 1942, when it was felled by a thunderstorm. By this time the tree had become a local landmark, and the community rallied to replace it. Four years later, the Junior Ladies Garden Club planted a new tree using one of the tree’s acorns. The newcomer would be named “The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself”—a name that would be quickly forgotten. To locals and tourists alike, the white oak at the corner of Finley and Dearing Streets is simply The Tree That Owns Itself.

But this tree doesn’t own itself—not legally, anyway. For starters, the original deed is missing, and it only applied to the original tree. What's more, common law of the state of Georgia dictates that any person or thing receiving property must have the legal capacity to accept the delivery of said property. Even Colonel Jackson’s beloved tree couldn’t do that.

More than half a century later, The Son of the Tree reigns over its corner. Regardless of legal status, the oak has become a celebrated member of the community. The Junior Ladies Garden Club still cares for the tree. Locals throw tree birthday parties and decorate it for Christmas, and in 2008, a sponsor donated a lightning protection system.

The tree’s fame continues to grow. The Tree has been memorialized in children’s books, and a poem, titled “I Am So Great,” begins:

That the tree that owns itself is not itself might disappoint you like it disappointed me.

Every Arbor Day, local schools plant seedlings from The Son of the Tree, and community foresters have propagated dozens more. Unassuming scions of Colonel Jackson’s celebrated tree dot the map, quietly making their city a better place.