Why the ruckus over a tree?

More commentary about Tumwater's Davis-Meeker Garry Oak tree


Tumwater’s Davis-Meeker Oak has been in the news lately, with passions running high on both sides. Here we are in 2024, hotly debating the value of a tree. We have millions of trees in Western Washington. Look out your window…and there’s a tree. Think beyond the ruckus and look further.

More than a dozen historically significant “Heritage Trees” exist in Tumwater, Olympia, and surrounding communities. Most of these aging relics, like the Chambers Cherry, were planted by early pioneers.

This is the David Chambers Black Heart Cherry tree in Lacey, Washington.
This is the David Chambers Black Heart Cherry tree in Lacey, Washington.
Chambers Black Heart Cherry

In about 1848, David Chambers left his home on Chambers Prairie and traveled by horseback to Vancouver, Washington. There, he purchased young fruit trees from Henderson Lewelling, including a Black Heart cherry sapling, which he carried home and planted on his homestead. Most of them are gone now, lost to time and development, but the gorgeously gnarled Chambers Cherry continues to thrive - cared for, cherished, and protected on the Panorama campus in Lacey.

Jesse Ferguson American Chestnut Trees
Jesse Ferguson American Chestnut Trees
Ferguson American Chestnuts

The Ferguson American Chestnuts were also planted by a pioneer. In 1845, the Simmons/Bush party ventured into our neighborhood and established the first non-native settlement in Washington State. The party had planned to settle in the Willamette Valley, but the provisional Oregon Territorial Legislature had recently passed the Lash Law, requiring all free black people residing in Oregon to report to the county courthouse every six months to be whipped.

George Bush was a highly respected Simmons/Bush party leader -  and he was an American of mixed parentage, part “black.” Without hesitation, his entire party of settlers turned north and eventually built their homes at what would become Tumwater and Bush Prairie.

Among them was a young man named Jesse Ferguson. Jesse claimed 320 acres of land for his homestead, and planted fruit and nut trees from seeds and cuttings, including American Chestnuts (Castanea dentata) - one of the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees in North America.

In the early 20th century, blight wiped out the immense American Chestnut forests that ran from Maine to Mississippi. More than 3 billion trees died. The species had survived all adversaries for 40 million years, then all but disappeared within 40 years. The blight thrives in warmer, humid regions, and chestnuts planted here in Washington State were spared.

Two of the noted survivors are trees planted by Jesse Ferguson in 1846. Today, they tower over 80 feet tall at the Mills & Mills Cemetery in Tumwater. They remain symbols of amazing people and a world that is forever changed.

This is The Amazing Pioneer Fir at Claquato, Washington.
This is The Amazing Pioneer Fir at Claquato, Washington.

Claquato Pioneer Fir

A few of our remarkable trees were thriving before settlers ventured west. The tree dubbed as the Pioneer Fir is an enormous Douglas fir of unknown age that stood next to the Cowlitz Indian Trail at Claquato (west of Chehalis). The area was named by the Native Americans before any pioneers appeared on the scene.

For generations, native people maintained a seasonal camp and burial ground a short distance from the tree. As pioneers ventured into the country, they followed the Cowlitz Trail – which became Military Road and then a stagecoach road – and the enormous tree became a landmark and a resting place. Claquato developed into a beautiful little town, with a church (the earliest surviving church in Washington), cemetery, stores and hotels. For a time, it was the Lewis County seat and for years, a hearty breed of travelers camped under the sheltering canopy of the gigantic tree, a way-stop between Longview and Olympia.

The Pioneer Fir finds itself today at the center of the Claquato cemetery - a magnificent living monument to a vanished time.

The tree known as the Medicine Creek Treaty Tree is shown at the center of this photo.
The tree known as the Medicine Creek Treaty Tree is shown at the center of this photo.

Medicine Creek Treaty Tree

Perhaps the most significant historic tree is the Medicine Creek Treaty Tree, witness to the signing of the first Indian treaty in Western Washington. This venerable Douglas fir stood in a grove beside Medicine Creek (now McAllister Creek) at Nisqually.

On Dec 26, 1854, the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed under its spreading branches. Thus the Puyallup, Nisqually, Steilacoom, and Squaxin Island Tribes ceded large portions of present-day western Washington to the United States. The treaty also granted invaluable rights to the tribes, and today it is honored as a living document outlining and protecting those rights. It also stands as a symbol of what was lost – as did the Treaty Tree.

In the 1960s, this legendary tree was smack in the path of the new interstate highway, then under construction. When calmer heads prevailed, I-5 was literally rerouted to spare the tree. The attempt failed, and the tree is now gone, but who and what would we have been if we had failed to try?  

Looking up into the living canopy of Davis-Meeker Garry Oak.
Looking up into the living canopy of Davis-Meeker Garry Oak.

Davis-Meeker Garry Oak

The Davis-Meeker Garry Oak is between 400 and 600 years old and sits at the northern end of the ancient Cowlitz Indian Trail. It may have been a sprout when Columbus arrived in America. For hundreds of years, it stood quietly beside the trail as native people from near and far conducted the business of their lives – hunting, gathering, traveling to visit family and friends, and sharing their resources and culture.

The trail grew a little wider with the coming of the Hudson’s Bay Company. And wider still when the pioneers arrived with their horses and wagons. And the great tree was always a friend in the wilderness - a resting place for one and all. Soon, there was a gravel wagon road and a two-lane highway. Now, a modern, bustling community surrounds the grand lady.

Our grandparents marveled at the ancient tree – honored it, cherished it, and passed down memories from their grandparents. It has always been recognized as something special, even here in the land of a million trees. Perhaps the road beside it will soon expand to four lanes. The question is, will there be a majestic ancient oak quietly watching over all?  

Take a moment to stand under the vibrant green branches of the Davis-Meeker Oak, and you too might feel her resonating force.

For more information:



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Hashtag: #SaveTheTree #tumwateroak 

           ~ Submitted by Elizabeth Munro Berry, Thurston County  

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of  The JOLT's staff or board of directors.  You're free to post your response below.  Otherwise, if you have something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents, send it to us, and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.  


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  • FirstOtter

    IF the Port of Olympia and the Mayor of Tumwater have their way, that magnificent old oak will be gone. In it's place will be room for over 500 cars that will carry people to jets making up to 600 landings and take offs at Olympia '''Regional"" airport every single day. THey are shoving this airport up our back ends.

    Monday, July 1 Report this

  • SheriB

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece of our treasured history! Progress/ change is often good. But in my opinion, we need to keep these parts of our past.

    Work around it bureaucrats!

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • fredfinn

    Niece letter!

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • OlyBrian2

    I don't know about the other trees, but the Chambers Black Heart Cherry is probably a descendant and not the original tree planted by David Chambers. There is a good video about the tree on the Panorama campus, but unfortunately, I can't seem to add the link here.

    This is the URL:

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • longtimeresident

    Thank you for doing the research on these "pieces of history" in our own little corner of the world. The more information provided, the more likely the Davis-Meeker Garry Oak Tree will survive for more generations to enjoy.

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • KellyOReilly

    Thank you for sharing information about these historic trees. I'm sorry the Medicine Creek Treaty Tree was lost and hope that the Davis-Meeker Garry Oak does not suffer the same fate. And oh my goodness, I'd never heard of the Lash Law--how horrible! That bit of history certainly gave me a Jolt!

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • griffithga

    Thank you for this interesting and thought provoking article, particularly in the context of the future of the threatened Davis-Meeker Garry Oak.

    This reminds me of how fragile these historic, cultural and natural resources are and threatened on a daily basis from countless threats, natural or man-made.

    That is why it is so important that we constantly work to preserve and protect these resources for as long as we can to enhance our quality of life, conserve resources, enjoy, learn about, and pass to future generations.

    This and other articles about our cultural and natural environments are helpful in preserving and sharing this heritage.

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • PamelaJHanson

    You have just filled my morning with amazing research, an amazing writing style, and have renewed the opinion that appreciating the honest past can motivate future progress. Most people have a sense of right and wrong, and then there are those that can bring people together to make a difference. Then there are some people are great teachers - and you are one of them. Thank you! Tonight, July 2, 2024 at 7pm, is another Tumwater City Council meeting and this mother tree is on the agenda again... There is no special hearing opportunity, but there is the public testimony three minutes at the beginning of the meeting that is available for comment. Unfortunately, the current fence prevents us from gathering around this mother tree and placing a supportive hand on her trunk during her summertime of growth and renewal today. At least we have a picture of our support of her life on the Facebook page. Everyone have a wonderful day! Thank you The Jolt!

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • Yeti1981

    If the Davis-Meeker Oak is truly 400 to 600 years old, it is at the end of its lifespan. The oldest known White Oak on the planet is in Ohio and is 584 years old. Another great option to honor this tree would be to ensure its saplings have many places to go throughout the community.

    Tuesday, July 2 Report this

  • JJmama

    Lovely piece, and I now have more Heritage trees to visit. :-)

    I love being in the presence of these elders so humbling.

    Long life and protections for the Meeker Davis Garry Oak. She teaches us, as she has for generations now, what it means to care for our elders. We rally around and work hard to protect this beloved old Majesty who graces us each day with her presence and grandeur.

    She has a right to live out her natural life--however long that is.

    We become more human, and more 'real' by recognizing that right, and protecting it.

    The City of Tumwater injures itself in failing to recognize these many important principles. They deal in fears and miss the opportunities which hope and love engender in the community.

    Let the People, and this righteous Oregon White Oak, rule!!

    Friday, July 5 Report this