Congressman Ted Poe (TX-02)
My grandfather, Theodore Otto Herman Hill, or “Thunderhead” as he was more appropriately known, was a hunter, a taxidermist and a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. He was the frontiersman type. He could tell the type of tree by looking at the bark or observing the leaves. He predicted the weather by watching the actions of animals. He found and collected arrow heads on his land in central Texas. His love of nature was impressed on me as a child.
Being born near where Texas Independence was declared, Washington-on-the-Brazos, he told me many stories of famous Texas trees. Two trees in particular stand out in my mind.
In Gonzales, Texas, stands the “Sam Houston Oak.” This tree was made famous 175 years ago this month during the War for Texas Independence. Before towns were settled, unusual or gigantic trees were often used as landmarks for people to gather under to worship, to hear campaign speeches or to prepare for battle.
William Barrett Travis and 187 volunteers sacrificed their lives on the altar of freedom after 13 glorious days at the Alamo. Sam Houston and his boys regrouped with Seguin and his company of Tejanos at this mighty oak. This tree became a rendezvous place for the new Texas Volunteers to organize and to later fight dictator Santa Anna.
The “Sam Houston Oak” site is considered by most historians as the beginning of the “road to San Jacinto” taken by General Sam and his ragtag bunch of freedom fighters on April 21, 1836, in the final battle for independence along the marshy banks of the San Jacinto River. Today, a historical marker along St. Louis Street in Gonzales recognizes this historical tree.
Another tree my outdoorsman grandfather told me about was the “Treaty Oak.” The Treaty Oak is an immortal symbol of Texas history that holds a special place in the hearts of all Texans. It is more than 500 years old. The Treaty Oak was a place of worship for the Comanches and Tonkawa Indians. The story goes that Stephen F. Austin signed the first boundary treaty with the Indians under the Treaty Oak, which is located in downtown Austin.
The Treaty Oak has endured multiple threats throughout its life. In 1920, the land that the Treaty Oak lives on was put up for sale, and the tree was almost cut down. There was a massive outcry to save the Treaty Oak. Texans felt a loyalty to this tree and so in 1947, the city of Austin purchased the land so that the Treaty Oak could remain untouched as a historic treasure for the state of Texas forever.
Back in 1989, a criminal by the name of Paul Cullen poisoned the great tree. In some sinister deliberate effort to kill the great tree, Cullen poisoned it with enough pesticides to kill a hundred trees. And as most outlaws do, he bragged about his crime, resulting in his swift arrest and incarceration. He was charged with felony criminal mischief.
Of course, I promptly volunteered to try that case while I was still a judge in Houston. Although I didn’t get to hear the case, a jury of 12 tree-loving Texans in Austin found him guilty and sentenced the culprit to nine years in prison for trying to kill the mighty oak. The nation was stunned that Texans would send a person to prison for so long for “just” trying to kill a tree. But this wasn’t any old tree. This tree was a symbol of Texas.
Amazingly, the Treaty Oak survived the attack, and her survival has astonished cynics who predicted the tree would certainly die. While she may not stand as mighty as before, she continues now to be a new symbol of Texas perseverance, ruggedness and determination.
Two mighty oaks of Texas … symbols of no place but Texas.
And that’s just the way it is.