In the nineteenth-century American West, colonizers created many instant “historic trees.” The typical specimen was the “lone tree.” Such a plant—most often a pine or a cottonwood—did not grow in a grove or a forest, but rather in relative or total isolation from other large trees. In other words, settlers chose this organic landmark to become historic based on its prior visual prominence.
For example, outside Helena, Montana, “Hangman’s Tree,” a big ponderosa pine, grew by itself along Dry Gulch, making it a convenient place for rough justice, and, after it was cut down in 1875, a temporal landmark of the state’s “vigilance days.” As souvenirs, the lone pine proliferated: “That tree became as famous for the number of canes in produced, as it had been, for the number of persons that had cast their last look up among its branches.”
The regional genre of the lone tree included a few Spanish-named specimens (notably El Palo Alto) as well as French. The “Pathfinder” John C. Frémont reported how he “looked in vain for a well-known landmark on Powder River,” the “l’arbe seul,” and eventually “found a fine tall pine stretched on the ground, which had been felled by some inconsiderate emigrant axe.”
The Oregon/California/Mormon Trail, like all western wagon routes, once had multiple solitary trees, described in guidebooks, that emigrants used as landmarks and mile markers. A couple of them went on to be marked with historic plaques in the twentieth century, but most died before the closing of the pioneer period. The very process that made the trees markers of national history killed the trees. Or, rather, the killing of the “trail tree” was the U.S. historic event. A historian of the Platte River wrote about one specimen: “Like all Lone Trees, it was gradually hacked at and dismembered even as it was being admired.” In 1911, in Central City, Nebraska, locals erected a trunk-like monument to the “original,” and planted a new cottonwood next to it.
From the prairie-and-plains states to the Pacific Slope, pioneers named a few dozen towns “Lone Tree,” “Lone Oak,” “Lone Elm,” or “Lone Pine.” Since tree-planting was one of the first things settlers did in the West—the inverse of the East, where settlers began by clearing—these names quickly began anachronistic. That may have been the deeper point of such literal place-names. The eponymous plant became a kind of historic tree as it witnessed the leafy colonization of the landscape. In twentieth-century Mormon Country, the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers explicitly made the connection by marking “Lone Cedar,” the juniper that, according to myth, had been the only tree growing in Great Salt Lake Valley before Latter-day Saints made the desert blossom as the rose.
The genericization of the western treescape was sometimes successful to the point of bewilderment. In William C. Morrow’s Blood-Money (a novel about California’s Mussel Slough conflict that predates The Octopus), the protagonist looks for stolen treasure buried under the “only original Lone Tree,” only to find that “the Lone Tree had been multiplied indefinitely.”
After 1869, settlers and tourists alike mostly took the train to the Far West, and early rail riders marked the passage of time and space at a “lone pine” in the narrows of the canyon of Utah’s Weber River. Purportedly it was the sole tree on the Union Pacific route, and it marked, more or less, a thousand miles from Omaha. A swinging signboard—”1,000 Mile Tree”—hung from one of the lower branches. Trains frequently stopped here to let passengers picnic and pose. Gun-toting travelers liked to shoot at the tree as they passed.
Many tourists who passed this way continued westward to Yosemite, where the adventurous ones posed—making personal history—beside or atop the “Lone Pine” (a specimen of Pinus jeffreyi) clinging to the rim of Sentinel Dome. This rugged individualist was for a time the most photographed tree in the American West, before the heavily promoted “Lone Cypress” near Monterey supplanted it.
The U.S. West contains the oldest trees in the world, but most of its “historic trees” have short lifespans. More to the point, the process of turning lone trees into landmarks endangered them. For example, the 1,000 Mile Tree perished in the late nineteenth century after being riddled with bullets, and the Lone Cedar of Salt Lake City was felled in 1958 by a nighttime vandal. Even the iconic Lone Cypress has endured multiple arson attacks. In the Mojave Desert, the process recently repeated itself: The solitary Joshua tree made historic by U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987) was partially dismembered in 2015.