Cave of Candles
A Cave of Candles / by Dorothy V. Corson

Chapter 22

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:"

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 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:

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)

Father Arthur Hope in his book, Notre Dame 100 years, speaks of those early years before and after the time of Sorin's arrival:

Father Hope also speaks of Father Cointet who became, in Sorin's time, another champion and consoler of the downtrodden:

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.

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