There are hundreds of old trees all across the state, but many are dying or are being snapped off by our recent powerful windstorms. One such special tree is the Medicine Creek Treaty tree in the Nisqually Basin just a few miles north of Olympia.
We could always see the top of this tree when we traveled down I-5 and could visualize the treaty signed under it in 1854. In the recent December storm, thirty-five feet of its top fell to the Basin floor. It is no longer visible from the freeway.
Then there are the witness trees. One hundred fifty years ago a survey was happening across the state. In 1848 the British in the Oregon compromise gave up claims to the land below the present border with British Columbia. More and more Americans were traveling the Oregon trail. While many of them stayed in the more civilized Willamette Valley, a few hardy souls ventured into the roadless forests of the land north of the Columbia River. They needed the survey to legally identify their property. The survey was part of the Donation Land Act passed by Congress on September 29, 1850. This act was lobbied by Samuel Thurston, our first territorial delegate in Washington D.C. He pressed for free homesteads for those already settled here and those coming before December 1, 1855. Only 986 Donation Land Claims were filed by that date in both Oregon and Washington Territories, although it was a great incentive in bringing people here despite the hardships of the Oregon Trail.
In the summer of 1851 a survey team began the work of dividing up the territory into a grid of 640-acre squares. Blocks of 36 squares were called townships. They started at a point near Portland and moved both north and south from there. The surveyors worked under private contractors who were paid $8 per mile. This amount had to cover all the costs-crew, equipment, food, and horses. They marked the squares with stakes and named them according to the township number and square number. Notes were kept and exist today in the State Archives.
The natural prairies, although few, in Western Washington were among the first lands to be settled because the land could be tilled for food and crops. Schneider Prairie about 10 miles northwest of Olympia along Eld Inlet was one of those. According to the survey notes of Thos. F. Berry made on June 4, 1855, it was Township 18, Range 3.
On Schneider Prairie during the summer of 1855 there were two oak trees about 18 inches in diameter. The surveyors "marked" or recorded the first quarter corner of section (square) 2, on Township 18 between these two trees. One of them still stands close to the intersection of Highway 101 and Steamboat Island Road. It is now about five feet in diameter and knarled and knobby. Jim and I braved the underbrush to see this tree. It is amazing to think of what it has witnessed. It probably started growing about the time Lt. Puget visited an Indian village about half a mile away on the beach of Eld Inlet. It was there during the territorial survey the men walked, rode, and camped through the Puget Sound. It witnessed the survey of 1917 when a new stake was put between the two trees. It was placed on the Thurston County Historic Register on November 16, 1990.
One of the old oaks is gone now, but one survives and witnessed us getting wet and muddy to take pictures of it. It's another piece of our history and another story of the work and sacrifice it took to settle here.
Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside, provides her Across our State column as a way to keep local readers informed on what is currently happening in Olympia.