Author: Dan Cadzow
Conventional Buffalo lore is that the massive sycamore on Franklin Street is the city’s oldest tree (lead image). According to the plaque on the tree, it was 250 years old in 1960. That makes the tree 308 years old with a birth date of 1710. So when the Village of Buffalo was first settled by immigrants from Europe, that tree was already 90 years old. While it’s amazing that the tree survived so long, it is even more amazing that it happened to have taken root in the space that ended up exactly between the sidewalk and street that were probably laid out in the 1830’s when the tree was well over a century old.
Researchers from Team Cadzow Research Station (a small North Buffalo homeschooling community in the self-directed-learning tradition) have concluded that The Meadow in Delaware Park contains trees from that same era. This is because The Meadow was one of the many “oak openings” described by early European immigrants (e.g., Smith (1884 V 1:17-18). We now know that these oak openings were actually relic Iroquoian agricultural fields. When clearing fields to grow their food, Native Americans preserved oak trees because, once the acorns are ground up and the tanins leached out, they make a flour that can be used to make breads, thicken soups, etc., and the flour has a great shelf life. We also know the bounty of acorns also fed squirrels, turkey and deer. That means these animals would always be available in large numbers should people need food, furs, or other animal-based materials, like the sinew and tendons that were used to lash the arrowheads to their shafts among other things. Unlike Europeans, who domesticated and cohabited with the animals they depended upon (the source of many illnesses and plagues), Native Americans “wild managed” the animals upon which they depended. It is amazing to think about that going on right here in The Meadow in Delaware Park.
On this Christmas morning, two of Team Cadzow Research Station’s top unpaid interns went into The Meadow to calculate the age of the great White Oak of the Meadow (because that’s just how nerds celebrate stuff). With a circumference of 200 inches, it has a diameter 64 inches, putting the age at 318 years. That means it was born around 1700 -a decade earlier than the sycamore on Franklin.
Disclaimer: Neither method of tree age estimation is likely to be terribly accurate. The only way to get the exact date of a tree’s birth is to count and measure the tree rings and compare the sequence to established tree ring sequences from the same species and region. This can be done with living trees by extracting cores, but with trees this age it can be risky to the tree’s health. And, it is also very common that the center of such ancient trees have already died and rotted out. Without the center, you will never know the exact age, just that it is older than the last identifiable tree ring. So, we’re going to have to suffice with estimates.
It’s amazing to think that the great White Oak in The Meadow we generally take for granted witnessed a century of Native American habitation before the first European immigrants visited the area. That and earlier activities left numerous archaeological sites around the park, in the surrounding Parkside neighborhood, and in Forest Lawn cemetery. Our tree saw the men clearing the fields by girdling the bark and burning the understory. And it saw generations of women and children maintaining, planting, and harvesting the bountiful varieties of corn, beans, numerous cucurbita (pumpkins, melons, gourds, and squash) and countless other cultivars. It witnessed the building of camps and houses as well as the many trapping, hunting, and raiding parties that were common during the era of the fur trade. You can learn a lot about this era and the life-ways of the Iroquois by visiting the Rochester Museum and Science Center*. Incidentally, Iroquois is the French word for these people -they call themselves HauDeNoSauNee, or People of the Long House.
When the War of 1812 soldiers camped beneath the tree in the winter of 1812, then part of Grainger’s farm, this White Oak was 112 years old. The following spring it solemnly bore witness to farmers Chapin and Cotton as they buried the 300 soldiers that died from cold, malnutrition, and disease over the winter there. Yes, the remains of those soldiers are still there, but you have to play a round of golf to see the solitary grave marker or the remaining hummocks from the shallow graves.
When Fredric Law Olmsted visited Buffalo in 1868, he declared The Meadow was essentially already an Olmsted Park due to its natural beauty. He likely stood in the shade of this same tree -then 168 years old. Much of the “natural” beauty he saw was actually the result of Native American stewardship, luckily little harmed, or maybe even improved, by the early European farmers and those War of 1812 soldiers.
Surprisingly, the significance of Olmsted’s work in Buffalo is often underappreciated. This is because it was really kind of a fluke that he and Calvert Vaux won the contest to design Central Park in NYC. However, because their designs were so wildly popular, they were soon invited to do the same with Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Buffalo was the third project Olmsted took on, but it was to become the WORLD’S FIRST park system, interconnected with parkways. Olmsted went on to design a few more parks, but the landscape engineering firm he established with his family went on to design hundreds if not thousand of parks and park systems across the nation based on the designs and ideas that were established and improved right here in Buffalo.
Up to this point, nature, prehistory, and history layered meaning upon meaning on this landscape. Sadly, that tradition came to an end due to humanity’s usual vices. The first real harm to this historic landscape happened in the 1920’s when the titans of Wall Street discovered they could funnel much more of the nation’s dollars upward in a debt-based, investor-driven economy than in the preceding cash-based, consumer-driven economy. The episode of PBS’s American Experience called the Crash of 1929 documents this era nicely. Among the many excesses of the “roaring ’20’s” era was the construction of the golf course in The Meadow. This once democratized landscape was now restricted to a small percentage of park goers -and they have to pay for the experience. With Delaware Park now boasting three and a half million visitors annually, the 52,000 rounds of golf mean that only about 3% of park goers get to enjoy The Meadow and its historic past. Olmsted himself warned about such things: he cautioned that we would have to cherish and protect the open spaces his parks provide and resist the attempts of small minded people to fill them up with frivolity. PBS has some wonderful documentaries about Olmsted and his impacts to the historic and cultural fabric of the American landscape, including Olmsted’s warning about things like golf courses:
The second major blow came to The Meadow when the New York State Department of Transportation built the Scajaquada Expressway (NYS 198) in the early 1960’s, despite the vocal and persistent protests of affected residents. The unwanted and unneeded expressway inflicted the historic landscape with the induced traffic’s excessive noise, light, and air pollution, litter, crashes, and all the tensions associated with poorly designed roadways in urban environments. It severed The Meadow, Delaware Park’s largest single feature, from the rest of Delaware Park and destroyed Humboldt Parkways’ connection to The Parade (now Martin Luther King Jr. Park). It also cleaved several surrounding neighborhoods apart. The one pedestrian bridge that was built is far from American Disabilities Act compliant and it is very difficult for the elderly and infirm to traverse. Unlike the park and neighborhood appropriate roads NYSDOT’s expressway destroyed, it does not accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, or even mass transit stops.
Taken together, we can see that The Meadow is an incredibly rare relic of an ecosystem that was managed by the First Americans over two centuries ago. It also contains a palimpsest of historic events that have occurred there since; wondrously leaving their marks without destroying the remains of the events that occurred before. It is part of the worlds first park system and is listed on the Nation Register of Historic Places. It was an archetype for parks and park systems across our nation. To better honor and make better use of this incredibly historic place in Buffalo, we need to remove two great symbols of our city’s social and economic inequality, racism, and horrible environmental stewardship -the expressway and the golf course.
This space would better serve the city as an outdoor museum and classroom; as a safe and health-giving space where city residents can enjoy nature; and as a tourist destination for history and prehistory buffs that might also be lured to the region to to visit Niagara Falls, family, or business trips. It’s a rare, meaningful, and beautiful resource that really should be accessible to everyone. We should all be able to enjoy the shade of Buffalo’s oldest tree in a relativity safe and peaceful manner.
The author is a full time stay-at-homeschooling father of four with a Master’s degree in archaeology and over a decade of experience as a professional archaeologist filling the roles of field and lab technician, crew chief, field director, project historian, and project manager.
Smith, Perry, H., 1884, History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. In Two Volumes. D. Mason and Company, Syracuse, New York.
*People can gain free admission to the Rochester Museum if they are Members of the Buffalo Museum of Science.