When a heavy winter is approaching. All the signs point to it and the squirrels are busy gathering their harvest of acorns for the upcoming winter along the bluffs of the river. Rushing quickly to his hoard, a squirrel does not notice when one of his acorns falls free and rolls under some dead fall. Quickly buried by the falling leaves and the winter snows the acorn slumbers for the winter. The next spring a small Burr Oak seedling pushes up towards the light while its roots reach down towards water.
This particular tree was possibly a season tall as Columbus landed in the new world in 1492. Situated on the bluff looking over what is now the Illinois River the tree overlooked the coming and goings of the native people. Its acorns a prime source of food for both the Natives Americans and the wildlife.
Burr Oaks are often alone standing apart from the forest. Therefore, situated as it was on the bluff it could have provided shade for those surveying the river valley for food, shelter, and possible danger. It stood its vigil as Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet explored the shores of Peoria in 1673. Could you see Fort Creve Coeur from its vantage point as it was built in 1680 by Robert Cavalier Sieur de LaSalle and Henri de Tonti? In 1691 Ax blows echoed through the valley as Tonti and Francois Daupin de LaForest built Fort St. Louis II. Soon the Immaculate Conception mission was established and the first French village sprang up. The Great Burr Oak was witness to the comings and goings of the French fur trade. Surveys of the areas from the 1750’s referenced the tree. The French officially lost control of the area to the British in 1763 but as the Great Burr Oak survived so did the French Village. In 1778 George Rogers Clark took control of the Illinois Territory for Virginia. General Clark appointed Jean Baptiste Maillet military commander and the new village “LaVille de Maillet” (located approximately where downtown Peoria stands today) was built. In 1784 Virginia ceded control of the Illinois territory to the United States. The fortunes of war and politics shifted the official control of the area but to the Great Burr Oak and the inhabitants of LaVille De Maillet nothing much changes until the war of 1812. October 1812 the Great Burr Oak’s leaves tremble to the echoes of musketry as the militia destroys Black Partridges Village and kill or drive off the Native American in the area. Moving down stream they are fired upon from the bank. Believing that the inhabitants of LaVille de Maillet have been supporting the Native Americans, they take them captive, ship them down river, and put the torch to the village. As the ashes of the village settle on the Burr Oak’s leaves silence falls over the valley until 1813 when the Americans arrive again and build Fort Clark. Occupied off and on by garrisons of various troops, trappers, and Native Americans it was burned sometime in 1818. The Tree stood as a mute witness as Illinois becomes a state in 1818 and the first permanent American Settlers arrive at the ruins of Fort Clark in April 1819. Those settlers began the task of building what we now know as Peoria. Progress is swift. In 1825 the name is changed from Fort Clark to Peoria and the county is formed.
In 1835 Peoria is incorporated as a town. In 1835 as a city. In the 1850’s Dr. E.H. and Mrs. Maude Bradley purchased the land the oak stands on. The tree thrives as the city grows around it and the Civil War is fought. By 1930’s the Bradley family admires the great tree so much they purchase the house adjacent to it and have it razed so its root system can flourish. In 1968 Mrs. Bradley left a final request: save the tree.
On September 6, 1971 a park was established around the tree. In 1974 it was officially named Giant Oak Park. The park has changed some over time and the Majestic Oak has been damaged by pesticides and storms but its caretakers protect and heal it the best they can. Pruning, bracing, fertilizing, watering, installing lightning rods; whatever it takes to ensure the tree maintains its vigil over the city. In 1976 it was designated a bicentennial tree, in 1991 it was declared a tricentennial tree.
Its acorns have been cultivated and seedlings planted by schoolchildren on Arbor Day. Its acorns where shared all over the Untitled States by “Frankie Acorn” to be planted in special locations. No one will know for sure how old the tree actually is until its rings can be counted. However, Burr Oaks can live 500 years or more and are a slow growing tree. The Great Burr Oak measures 55 inches at its base and has a canopy spread of over a 110 feet. Stop by High street yourself and view something older than our country, something that has truly been a witness to history. Better yet take the Peoria Historical Society River City Trolley tour this summer (June through October) and not only see the tree but learn about some of the fascinating history the tree has witnessed.