Previously: Mae Nak.
Type: AE (Autonomous Entity).
Period/location of origin: 16th-18th century, Athens, Georgia, United States. Note: Identifying subject’s period of origin is a complex puzzle; the period stated here has been pinpointed due to the fact that it is the earliest applicable date. See: Additional notes.
Appearance: Subject, known as “The Tree That Owns Itself,” appears to be a white oak tree approximately 80 years of age planted on a small median between Dearing and Finley Streets in the U.S. city of Athens, Georgia. Since at least the late 19th century, and possibly earlier, subject has been understood to have legal autonomy over itself and all land within an eight-foot radius of it. The eight-foot radius is denoted by a stone and chain fence surrounding subject; additionally, a stone plaque bearing a quotation from the deed intended to grant subject ownership of itself is positioned alongside the fence.
Note: The current tree located within the fenced enclosure is not the original tree, hence the discrepancies between its age, its period of origin, the date it acquired legal autonomy, and the date by which it became apparent that subject had acquired legal autonomy. See: Additional notes.
Modus operandi: None. It just… exists. It should perhaps be noted that there is some debate over whether the “deed” that allegedly grants subject its ownership status is, in fact, legally binding; however, it is the policy of the city of Athens to treat it as such, and the public generally recognizes it so.
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Containment: None required, although the previously-described fencing indicating the eight-foot radius surrounding subject does effectively function as “containment” of a sort.
Additional notes: Subject was reportedly granted ownership of itself by William Henry Jackson, who is believed to have created the deed accomplishing this action sometime between the years 1820 and 1832. At the time, Jackson owned the land on or around which subject stood; having grown fond of subject, he therefore reportedly enacted the deed to ensure that subject would remain standing and unendangered by possibly future development.
“I, W. H. Jackson, of the County of Clarke, State of Georgia, of the one part and this oak tree — giving the location — of the County of Clarke, of the other part, witness, that the said W. H. Jackson, for and in consideration of the great affection which he bears said tree and his desire to see it protected, has conveyed and, by these presents, does convey unto the said tree entire possession of itself and of the land within eight feet of it on all sides.
Subject and its deed were reported upon by the Athens Weekly Banner on Aug. 12, 1890, some 60 to 70 years following the alleged deed’s enactment. This article, titled “DEEDED TO ITSELF,” is the earliest known surviving record of subject’s existence; the original deed is no longer extant — if, it should be noted, it ever existed in the first place. As the Georgia Historical Quarterly observed in 1962, “no such deed was ever recorded in the archives of Clarke County,” casting into doubt the veracity of both the story and subject itself.
Indeed, other elements of the story as detailed in the Athens Weekly Banner are also doubtful. The article claimed, for example, that Jackson had “watched the tree grow from his childhood, and grew to love it almost as he would a human”; it then waxed poetic for several sentences as it continued:
“[The tree’s] luxuriant foliage, and sturdy limbs had often protected him from the heavy rains, and out of its highest branches he had many a time gotten the eggs of the feathered songsters. He watched its growth, and when on reaching a ripe old age, he saw the tree standing in its magnificent proportions, he was pained to think that after his death it would fall into the hands of those who might destroy it.”
However, Jackson grew up not in Athens, where subject is located, but in Jefferson County, only moving to the Athens area as an adult. He could not, therefore, have “watched the tree grow from his childhood.” Subject’s origin story is likely more legend than fact — and, truthfully, is entirely likely to be a piece of local lore, possibly even invented courtesy of the Athens Weekly Banner article. Jackson died in 1875 and was therefore unable to contribute to the article itself.
Still, though, subject has become a beloved fixture within its region of origin — so much so that, after the original tree fell on Oct. 9, 1942 at an estimated age of 200 to 400 years of age, another tree was planted in its place to carry on the tradition. This tree, which remains standing to this day, is, in fact, the offspring of the original tree, which has led some to refer to the current iteration of subject not as “The Tree That Owns Itself,” but as “The Son Of The Tree That Owns Itself.” It was dedicated by the city of Athens on Dec. 4, 1946. As of 2006, it measures 50 feet in height.
At this point, it may behoove us to definitively state subject’s timeline. The list of all possible dates which might be referred to as subject’s “period of origin” is as follows:
- 16th-18th century: Subject is first planted, and/or begins to grow.
- 1820-1832: Subject is allegedly granted rights to its own ownership.
- 1890: Subject’s alleged rights to its own ownership are first reported upon/possibly invented.
- 1942: Original subject falls.
- 1946: Subject’s current incarnation is planted and dedicated.
Subject’s true legal standing is up for some debate. It is generally acknowledged that the alleged deed — which, again, is not extant — is not, and perhaps never has been, valid in the eyes of the law; however, as the Athens, Georgia tourism website notes, “no one has ever contested the tree’s property rights.” It is maintained by the city of Athens as a public street tree.
We would be remiss in our documentation of subject if we did not mention the following: There are some obvious ideological issues with a tree located in this particular spot being granted the rights to its own ownership by this particular person. The Jackson family were historically plantation owners, and William Henry Jackson’s father, politician James Jackson, was opposed to emancipation and actively worked to maintain slavery in the United States. W. H. Jackson himself also purchased a plantation of his own after moving away from Athens circa 1834. Furthermore, although Athens was not the site of any major battles in the American Civil War, seeing only one skirmish, it was a significant Confederate supply point.
Taken within this context, the optics of giving a tree legal autonomy — particularly at the point in history when the bequeathal is said to have occurred, i.e., a time during which actual humans in this geographic area were considered to be property — are… not great.
Nonetheless, the “Tree That Owns Itself” remains a popular tourism site, as well as a much-loved local landmark.
It is also worth noting that subject is not the only tree that owns itself in existence. Another, separate Tree That Owns Itself is located in the city of Eufaula, Alabama, where it was granted that status in 1935. Similar to its Athens counterpart, the current Eufaula tree is not the original tree; that tree, also an oak, toppled during a storm in 1961 at the age of 200. A second tree was planted on the same spot a mere 10 days following the felling of the original tree, and the same ownership rights conferred upon it.
Recommendation: Visit, if you like. But be respectful. Subject has not yet shown signs of sentience — but the key word here is “yet.”
It owns itself, after all.
Who knows what other ideas it might start to develop as a result?
The Tree That Owns Itself – Athens, Georgia at Atlas Obscura.
The Tree That Owns Itself at Visit Athens.
A Tree That Owns Itself? at the Farmer’s Almanac.
The Story Of The Tree That Owned Itself in the Georgia Historical Quarterly.
The Tree That Owns Itself on Google Maps.
The Tree That Owns Itself – Eufaula, Alabama at Atlas Obscura.
[Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]