How this beloved historic tree in Georgia was declared its own owner
Gotta love a white oak with property rights.
The concept of possessions isn’t rare across the animal kingdom. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows they have their favorite bones or chew toys they like to hide so no one steals them. Chimpanzees are known to craft tools for specific uses and keep them together in a kit.
But man is probably the only creature on Earth that dares to think they own a tree—an organism that’s usually a lot taller and lives much longer than the average homo sapiens.
That’s why the story of a tree in Athens, Georgia, is so touching. In the 19th century, a colonel loved a white oak so much that he liberated it from human possession and declared that it owns itself. The tree sits in downtown Athens on the corner of Dearning and Finley Streets.
Colonel William H. Jackson, the son of former Georgia Governor James Jackson, had fond childhood memories of a white oak on his family’s property. So he wrote up a will that gave it self-ownership. The will read, in part:
I, W. H. Jackson, of the county of Clarke, of the one part, and the oak tree ... of the county of Clarke, of the other part: Witnesseth, That the said W. H. Jackson for and in consideration of the great affection which he bears said tree, and his great desire to see it protected has conveyed, and by these presents do convey unto the said oak tree entire possession of itself and of all land within eight feet [2.4 m] of it on all sides.
The only tree in the world that owns itself
The first printed reports of the tree owning itself were published in a local newspaper on August 12, 1890. The article stated that Col. Jackson deeded possession of the tree to itself as well as the land within 8 feet of its trunk.
The tree is adorned with a famous plaque that 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
- WILLIAM H. JACKSON (c. 1832)
The older plaque at the site of the Tree That Owns Itself.
Sadly, in 1942, the tree fell over in a windstorm. To keep the tradition alive, members of the Junior Ladies Garden Club of Athens planted acorns from the original tree and began growing a second-generation white oak.
On December 4, 1946, the Junior Ladies Garden Club of Athens planted the sapling, which is often referred to as the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself. Today, it stands as tall as its father, rising 70 feet tall, and according to local tradition, it also owns itself.
\u201cThe story behind the Tree That Owns Itself in Athens, Georgia: https://t.co/fDskRNbAzq\u201d— Garden & Gun (@Garden & Gun) 1606920004
However, according to U.S. law, the tree has no legal rights.
"Trees have not been recognized as having legal rights in the U.S.," Mari Margil, associate director for Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) told How Stuff Works. "Some (trees) may have a certain level of protection that is different from other tree species, but that is not the same as having a legal right.”
But that hasn’t stopped the Athens community from caring for the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself.
"We ... like our quirky objects," says Steven Brown of the Athens Historical Society. "I think most Athenians genuinely love their city and love anything that stands out as symbolizing it."