The Legend of the Sycamore on the Grotto Lawn
The Purdue Extension information regarding the aging of the legendary sycamore finally arrived from Dr. Harvey Holt, Professor of Forestry at Purdue University. The following information is from his letter and the literature he sent to me:
. . . You will note in the enclosed material that 2-3 inches of growth in 10 years is not unusual. Given a diameter of 7.1 feet (22' 4"), the tree would be 426 years old, at 3 inches / 10 years the tree would be 284 years old. This is, of course, pure conjecture. As you will also see in the enclosed literature, a sycamore can get to be very large.
The unusual shape of the tree reflects the presence and absence of buds and growing points when the tree was very young. I would consider it a happenstance of nature.(258)
His above estimates were taken from a table of trees of average growth which he had enclosed. Earlier we had discussed the favorable growing conditions on campus (water, fertilizer, pest control, close to lake moisture and having room to spread, as this one did) and the fact that, being fertilized by campus care, might double the growth of the tree in a period of ten years. In a crowded forest, sharing sunlight, rain and space with other trees, it would grow slower. At the time, over the phone, 200 to 220 years was mentioned as the youngest age it might be. To arrive at an approximate 200 year age (1794 or a bit earlier which would have fit the legend) the tree would have to have grown from 4 l/2" to 5" in ten years.
[At this moment of editing, March, 1997, four years after its first measurements were taken, in June of 1993, the tree's measurements are approximately the same: 244" or 20' 4" in circumference (20' 4" divided by 3.14 = 6.4768) or approximately 6 feet 6 inches or 78 inches in diameter.]
Using Dr. Holtz's calculations (2-3 inches in ten years is not unusual) if the Notre Dame's 20 foot 4 inch sycamore grew 2 inches in ten years (78 divided by 2 X 10) it would be 390 years old ; if it grew 3 inches in ten years, it would be 260 years old; if it grew 4 inches in 10 years, would be 195 years old. And at its most conservative estimate of 5 inches in 10 years it would be 156 years old which would mean it would predate the University's founding in November of 1842.
Below the average growth chart was a 4-1/2 to 5 inches per 10 years example of unusual growth for a sycamore:
Sycamores in a 17-year-old North Carolina stand had an average breast high diameter of more than 9 inches which would be approximately 4- 1/2 to 5 inches per 10 years. A sycamore in Indiana was 33 feet in circumference and 168 feet tall. Open grown sycamores have a large, irregular crown that may spread 100 feet in diameter [such as the one at Notre Dame], whereas, under forest conditions the tree has a relatively small crown and a long, slightly tapered pole that may be clear of branches for 70 or 80 feet.
The branches on the Notre Dame sycamore are waist high making it a most unique example, whatever its true age. I had reasonable proof. At its earliest age, 5 inches in 10 years it would predate the University's founding in late November of 1842. Four inches in 10 years (still a conservative estimate) would date it to the late 1790s at a time when hostility with the Indians was still much in evidence. The sycamore would have been up to 50 years older than the campus when it was founded in 1842. Which would mean it could have been here at the time the legend was born.
Even if that were not true, and it was much older, that alone would make it an historic landmark tree -- the oldest tree on campus. Something, early on, besides its unusual shape, and the fact that it is at the heart of the original campus had to have singled that particular tree out for attention.
The Legend . . .
Before I go any further, I think the time has come to let the reader decide for himself, whether the story behind the fabled sycamore is fact or fiction, history or legend. So here's the story and here's what I've learned about it:
My special thanks to the unknown writer who penned his version in the 1926 Dome. It was the earliest one I found on record at the time. The surprise of finding something I wasn't even looking for made my day. It was like finding a needle in a hay-stack. Several months later, while searching for something else in the Scholastic, I stumbled upon yet another hidden version, an even earlier one. Neither of them were indexed. Had I not been paging through the books I would never have known they existed.
I am quoting the earlier, slightly longer, 1917 legend of the sycamore which stands on the Grotto lawn in the rear of Corby Hall. It was penned by William E. Farrell. Anyone taking pleasure in reading it, I am sure, will understand my fascination in trying to trace its origin.
The Brother Frederick Kraling, William E. Farrell speaks of below, was also a glass cutter. He was known to etch important dates on a pane of glass. Evidence of this can still be seen today at the old St. Joseph Farm. A pane of glass on the farm is etched with the date of the main building fire in 1879. Brother Frederick was a glazier working for Notre Dame. He was washing a window at the farm. When he heard of the big fire on campus, he scratched the memo on the pane that remains clear today: "23 of April 1879, College on Fire."
Between 1879 and 1886 it was announced in the Scholastic that Brother Frederick "and his faithful assistants were kept busy painting, graining and otherwise decorating the new building," the Minim's Hall, and Washington Hall. His artistic work in St. Edward's Hall is also described: "The walls of the study-hall are of a most pleasing shade of green which is both beautiful and pleasing to the eye. The walls are painted in oil, and stippled so as to represent pressed leather." The corridors of the Infirmary were "handsomely frescoed by Bro. Frederick." As well as the small parlor in the Main Building. "He also painted, in new and artistic designs, the hall of the Culinary Department."
His multi-talented craftsmanship and his attention to detail is affirmed in this piece that appeared in the June 14, 1884 Scholastic :
Among the contributions lately placed in the Cabinet of Curiosities are mounted models of cathedrals of Cologne, Strasberg, and St. Peters at Rome. These are a gift from Bro. Frederick who skillfully constructed the models and the glass cases which surround them.
The 1886 Scholastic also reports on the first gilding of the dome:
Brother Frederick and a capable assistant have been actively engaged for the past weeks in the work of gilding the grand dome of the main building.(259)
The University Archives has the windowpane upon which Brother Frederick recorded the dates and cost of the gildings up until his death. The top of the transcript reads:
Notations on gilding of the Dome as etched by Brother Frederick in the windowpane in the old boiler room, behind the administration building of the site where the natatorium was later erected:
The last one he recorded is in 1904 (Brother Frederick died January 4, 1917) three years before the 1920 gilding. Several items of particular interest were in the transcript of those etchings. It records the cost in detail (850.50 for the 1886 gilding) and the dates, July 3 and September 9, it was completed. He also adds this mention: 22nd Sept. '86, Hail Storm. In the last entry recorded in 1904, Brother Frederick includes "Gold scrapings net 162.42" and adds a note of humor: "P.S. John had charge of sizing, Steave [sic] of the gold and Jack of the winch and whiskey.(260)
William E. Farrell, a Professor of History at Notre Dame in 1917, explains his reason for writing, "The Legend Of The Sycamore:"
The death last week of Brother Frederick(261) of this community, will be learned with sincere regret and kindly memory by those who enjoyed an intimate acquaintance with him and who understood and appreciated his rare personality. For years, he was a familiar figure on our campus, where he could be seen frequently in animated conversation with one or another of those who found him congenial. Few men about Notre Dame possessed such a store of historical incident and legend associated with the grounds and environs of the University. He had read much and had talked frequently with the brave pioneers who had preceded him in the community, about the interesting places for miles around. He was equally familiar with the written sources and the oral Indian legends pertaining to these places.
Before age and ill health had made inroads on body and mind, he was remarkably gifted with clear memory and poetic insight. It was my privilege to know Brother Frederick well and I recall with 'fragrant retrospection' the incidents and legends related by him several years ago in our occasional talks or on long walks through pleasant places. One legend with which, so far as I have been able to learn, he alone was familiar, I shall endeavor, as he often requested, to tell.
The Legend Of The Sycamore
A little to the west and to the rear of Corby Hall stands an old, impressive-looking sycamore tree. If one is at all observant of nature's manifold beauties, those that appeal to the sense of grandeur, as well as to the sense of delicacy, this noble tree, especially in the season of foliage, cannot but arrest attention. Its majestic proportions are in themselves enough to command admiration: it towers above its fellows, and gazing calmly down upon them, seems like a tall, white-haired seer, who quietly regards the youthful lives about him and gravely recalls the memories and associations of his own springtime of life. From its sturdy trunk, huge limbs shoot at symmetrical angles in every direction, ever widening as they rear higher. The grandeur and symmetry of it all is truly striking.
The physical beauty of the tree is, however, incidental only to the chief interest that is attached to it. If you examine the outlines carefully, you will detect an almost exact formation of the human hand projecting from the ground and lifted as if in appeal, the trunk forming the wrist and the five limbs into which the trunk divides, forming the fingers.
For some years after the founding of Notre Dame, it was not uncommon to see an Indian moving about the grounds, revisiting old haunts and enjoying the natural beauty which then, as now, was very great. One old chief, in particular, was observed coming here several times. He seemed most interested in two places; one along the shore of the lake, where, usually in the evening he would stand with arms folded, silently contemplating the waters with their peace and beauty at sunset; the other was near the sycamore, then in its youth. He would linger at this spot for a long time with head bowed or with eyes raised to heaven, as if in silent prayer. One of the brothers who had observed this several times became interested and inquired from the Indian why he spent so much time near this tree. The Indian did not speak for a few seconds. His face was calm, yet revealed his suppressed grief. Then he lifted his hand impatiently as if to wave the matter aside, but when the brother spoke again in a tone of sympathy, the old chief told his story.
In the earlier days, when raids between the white men and the Indians were frequent, one white settler, who had lost a friend he cherished greatly, swore eternal enmity against every Red-skin. On one occasion this man, while hunting, was passing through what are now the grounds of Notre Dame, when he caught sight of an Indian, fishing peacefully on the shore of the lake. The Indian was unarmed and suspected nothing. He was a Christian convert, a man of peace and had always sought friendship with the white man. At the sight of the Indian, however, the Indian-hater could not restrain his feelings. He crept up softly toward the shore of the lake and, springing suddenly from the bushes, drove his hunting knife into the back of the fisherman. The Indian with a yell, started up and ran eastward from the lake, but when he reached the spot where now stands the great sycamore, he fell exhausted. Here his assaulter reached him again, and in spite the Indian's supplications and protestations of innocence, attacked him a second time.
The Indian in agony cried out, saying: 'What have I done that you should kill me in this way?'
But the white man, answered, 'You are an Indian, and Indians have killed my dearest friend.
The Indian, then on the point of death, exclaimed: 'I am innocent of the blood of any man. I appeal to God for vengeance.' With these words on his lips, the Indian died.
Some time after this occurrence, a little tree of strange shape sprang up where the Indian's blood had trickled into the earth. Later the chief, who knew the circumstances of the Indian's death, on passing that way was struck by the peculiar shape of the tree, a miniature of its present form. Its signification then dawned upon him. Here was the hand and wrist of his dear friend extended to heaven. As the sapling grew it still retained its strange shape and the hand remains to this day lifted in appeal to God as a warning to all who might put to death an innocent man.
* * *
No one will doubt, probably, the wholly legendary character of this story, yet it is not lacking in naive creation. It resembles in some respects a Grecian myth -- the story of Apollo and Hyacinthus, or of Daphni. As with most stories of this kind, it may have had its origin in some fact and was then embellished by the Indian imagination.(262)
Such is the tale told by the old chief to the brother, and the brother, who loved such beautiful things as legends, passed the story on to us. Call it a tale of fancy, invented by an over-vivid imagination; call it an unbelievable dream; but the huge old sycamore, remains to this day on the Grotto lawn, a relic of the romantic days of Notre Dame, a record of a day long since passed, and as such, its story will continue to live with us.(263)
I have reflected upon the legend many times in the process of looking for evidence to support it. Reading everything I could find on the settlement of the Midwest has enriched my understanding of the history of Indiana. It has left me with mixed emotions regarding the conflict between the early white settlers and the Indians. I found myself in sympathy with both sides of the issue. The struggle of the pioneer white settlers to tame the wilderness of the western frontier is awe inspiring in that they paved the way for those to follow.
We are all, the University included, enjoying the fruits of their labors and sacrifices. Yet the cost to the Indians in the loss of their homelands and way of life cannot be measured. Eva McCombs whose home for 99 years was taken away in the name of progress in 1953, to make way for the Toll Road, also must have been devastated. The Toll Booths of the South Bend Toll Road Exchange now occupy the land where the family's early 1800s homestead once stood. Most of the rest of her surrounding land is now owned by St. Mary's.
In reviewing the hostility on both sides of the issues, I found even more evidence during those times to explain the legend.
. . . The situation was complicated by the fact that squatters had invaded Indian lands and now demanded immediate removal. Several resulting clashes between whites and Indians seemed to confirm predictions of imminent bloodshed if something was not done soon.(264)
The Potawatomis, Keepers of the Fire, by R. David Edmunds, covers very thoroughly both the plight of the white settlers and the Indians during those early times. Indiana, the land of the Indians, could not have been more appropriately named. The line in the legend about hostility among the whites and the Indians was amply explained and the timing coincided with the probable age of the tree. The problem between the whites and the red-skins escalated throughout the Old Northwest in the late 1790s:
In October, 1795, Anthony Wayne built Fort Wayne at the headwaters of the Maumee, and during the summer American troops occupied Detroit. But American influence diminished further west. Among the villages scattered along the Tippecanoe and across the prairie to the Illinois, Potawatomi warriors realized that the Americans now were the dominant power in the region, yet they were not intimidated by American forts and garrisons. Unlike the Potawatomis near Fort Wayne and Detroit, the western tribesmen were isolated from American military power and continued to act independently of American policy.
. . . Intertribal conflict [with the Osages] often spread into indiscriminate attacks upon whites unlucky enough to encounter Potawatomi war parties returning. Warriors who had been unsuccessful against the Osages hated to return to their villages empty-handed and sometimes substituted white scalps for those of the Osages.
. . . Solitary travelers feared for their lives upon meeting mounted parties of Potawatomis, and isolated farmers paid a heavy price for venturing away from the populated American Bottom.
Over the next decade hostilities escalated. Wiser chiefs not only sought to keep liquor from their warriors, but blamed the Americans for their corruption. The decisive American victory at Tippecanoe in 1811 did not diminish Potawatomi hostility. Frustrated by the steady loss of Indian land, many young Potawatomis no longer followed their traditional village chiefs, who continued to cooperate with the Americans. They were well stocked with trade whiskey, and angered over the sight of white men establishing farms in an area they believed their own.
Young warriors continued to ambush and kill white settlers and the whites retaliated by burning Indian villages.
Times had been changing long before Father Badin conveyed the ownership of the tract of land known as St. Marie des Lacs to Brute in 1835. Badin had turned over the cabin and the 500 acres to Bruté on condition that he assume some trifling debts incurred in building it. A year earlier, in the spring of 1834, Bishop Bruté accompanied Father DeSeille to visit the Indians of his own diocese at the village of Chief Chechaukkose on the Tippecanoe River. More evidence of the ongoing friendliness and generosity of the Christian Indians toward the French missionaries is noted in the overwhelming welcome the "chief of the Blackrobes" received. Word had been passed and even Indians from surrounding villages were waiting to greet him. The following day they assembled once more to witness a formal ceremony of welcome. Sixteen persons were confirmed and their chief, Chechaukkose offered the bishop a section of 320 acres of land.(265)
Although the Potawatomis had ceded all tribal lands in Michigan, (1837) many Indians held individual reservations, and other tribesmen still wandered through the Saint Joseph Valley.(266)
Father Arthur Hope in his book, Notre Dame 100 years, speaks of those early years before and after the time of Sorin's arrival:
In the north (northern part of Indiana) where the Catholic Indians were rapidly becoming victims of the white settlers, to whom they eventually lost everything, there was urgent need of a priest who could be their champion and consoler [Benjamin Petit] . . . .
It was always true that the poverty and ignorance of the Indians, their lack of union, their simplicity, their taste for liquor, made them easy victims of white supremacy (Manifest Destiny).
Father Hope also speaks of Father Cointet who became, in Sorin's time, another champion and consoler of the downtrodden:
It was to the sons of the forest, the remnant of the red race passing from the plains of Indiana and to the advanced guard of civilization, the poor Irish laborers of the railroad that he delighted to break the bread . . . . Now riding at nightfall over wide extent of country to reach some Indian wigwam, or seated in a shanty, by the side of an unfinished railroad, hearing the confessions of the poor Irish women.(267)
The Indian chief's words in the legend, "there was bad blood between the early white settlers and those of the Red-skin race," aptly describe those hostile times during the late 1790s and the early 1800s when the legend was born and the sycamore is most likely to have taken root.
As the story goes, the innocent Redman being unable to reap human vengeance for his death entered in spirit into the tree and stretched its branches to heaven in supplication for God's justice. Legend holds that this event actually happened though it cannot be confirmed from surviving records.
There was only one other aspect of the Notre Dame Sycamore and its legend that puzzled me. I had to admit the term vengeance and the tree being labeled The Vengeance Tree was foreign to my experience. I couldn't grasp the vengefulness on the part of the white man toward an innocent Indian, or on the part of the Indians toward innocent white settlers and each other. Until their conversion, the savagery of bloodthirsty vengeance seemed almost inborn in the Indian culture.
This aspect of the Indian belief warranted a more thorough examination. I wondered how to go about it. I didn't have to wonder very long. I was doing a final editing on this part of my story, and not having found any further explanation, I was preparing to move on in my narrative, when fortuitously another of those timely archival treasures crossed my path.
In it, was not only the Indian explanation of vengeance I was seeking but also an eye-witness description of the Ste. Marie des Lacs mission before Father Sorin's arrival. Out of the blue, I was given another unique postscript to add to the Notre Dame Indian era and the Legend of the Sycamore.