When our homesteading family built their first home (a log-lined dugout in the side of a hill) in the nineteenth century 150 years ago, it was located near a big old tree that stood alone on the prairie. That “Lone Tree” gave the Farm its name and is an important part of our family tradition. But, that tree also seemed to provide subject material for local journalists and historians who were subsequently weaving the American “Legend” during the twentieth century.
A friend recently shared an article from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that she found while doing research for the Rock County Historical Society. It includes this picture of my grandpa (namesake) standing in front of the Lone Tree. The article also describes the fall of the old dead tree and outlines several of the myths surrounding it. The date on the Sioux Falls newspaper article is September 3, 1930; the local Ellsworth News, which could provide more specific details, had the exact time as a Tuesday noon at 12:10. “The ‘Lone Tree,’ long a familiar object and landmark on the landscape of Kanaranzi township, has surrendered to the ravages of time and crashed into the Kanaranzi Creek from its site on the south bank of the stream. The tree—a majestic cottonwood—stood alone on the Minnesota side of the Iowa-Minnesota state line. The crash brought the George Shurr family from the dinner table and they found the big tree shattered into hundreds of pieces and scattered in the stream over which it had stood so majestically for more than 100 years.” Dad confirmed that the family actually did hear the noise.
The newspaper accounts are rooted in the language of the standard American Mythology and actually add to the foundations of the legend. “The lone tree has had its mark in history. Fifty years ago when the first settlers pioneers trekked into the wilds of southwestern Minnesota, this gnarled giant cottonwood stood on the bank of the then broad stream known as the Kanaranzi creek. No other trees dotted these virgin prairies and for a distance of from five to ten miles in every direction the lone tree loomed as a guide post to all incoming settlers.” Our family matriarch, who had emigrated from Wales as a child, did an oil painting of this view of the Lone Tree sometime in the 1920s.
In addition to settlers, all of the characters that are usually part of the standard “textbook histories” are mentioned in the articles. That includes Indians: “In its shade was buried an early trapper; within its scope of view the prairie wilderness has passed from the hunting grounds of the Indians into the grasp of civilization and progress.” The tree supposedly had bullets embedded when Indians killed the trapper. The narratives also include outlaws: “Local historians claim the lone tree sheltered the notorious Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers in the days following the now famous Northfield bank robbery.” This photo of the Lone Tree was used to do an oil painting in 1978 by a family friend who emigrated from China by way of Viet Nam.
One of the stories written by E. E. Lovrien, who was the editor of the Ellsworth News, described a unique interaction between settlers and Indians. In contrast with the standard narratives, there was cooperation instead of fighting: “Once again, within the shadow of the Lone Tree a number of pioneer settlers came across a huge elk, dropping from shear exhaustion. They struck him a blow on the head and had hardly cut his throat when a Winnebago Indian came up. The Winnebago stated his case quickly and right to the point. The elk originally had been the game of a Sioux, who had gone for a companion. The Winnebago had stepped in and pursued the elk for a day and a night. He was now in enemy territory and the white men were welcome to the meat if they would only give him the head. He was given the trophy and lost no time in leaving the land of the Sioux behind him.” A fictionalized version of this story is included in the Ellsworth Centennial Volume and was probably written by George P. Heikes.
It was a big tree and it was apparently a “famous” tree, but in the end it died and fell into the Creek: “Split from top to bottom in its crash from the upper bank, the tree in death disclosed what was never suspected by anyone familiar with its history. Instead of being only one tree its wreck discloses it was a joint tree formed by the intergrowth of two separate seeds. Five feet in diameter at its base, it was supported by side roots measuring a foot across. Two years ago the passing of this monster tree was indicated when leaves and shoots failed to put forth and during these two years it has stood a grim caricature of its former greatness.” The still-standing dead tree is shown in the previous photo from 1928.
There’s a children’s book called “The Tree on the Trail” by Holling C. Holling that tells a story that’s very similar to our Lone Tree, except that it’s located in Kansas. Written in 1942, this book lays out all of the elements of the American Myth in a way that’s very much like the newspaper accounts of our Lone Tree written a few years earlier. These views through the prism of the dominant white culture all conform to the basic assumptions that underlie the great American Myth. That includes the old accounts of the Lone Tree that named our family farm.