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10. Big Tree

New York and Erie Railroad organizational diagram

Daniel McCallum & George Holt Henshaw, "Diagram Representing a Plan of Organization" for the New York & Erie Railroad, September 1855

“There is always something genealogical about a tree. It is not a method for the people. A method of the rhizome type, on the contrary, can analyze language only by decentering it onto other dimensions and other registers... A new rhizome may form in the heart of a tree, the hollow of a root, the crook of a branch”—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

When it comes to local history, how do we make sense of too much information; organize uncountable moments into coherent narratives and innumerable micro-locations into recognizable places? How do we sort out contradictory perspectives? This essay is about two Big Trees that have served this function. The diagram to the right, which represents the New York & Erie Railroad as of September 1855, has been called the first modern organization chart (Rosenthal). It was designed by a Scottish immigrant to Rochester named Daniel McCallum, who learned the trade of carpentry as a young man but soon was designing innovative truss bridges for the railroad. His logistical skills were such that, during the Civil War, he was appointed military director of the Union railroad and later had the sad task of arranging the journey for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865. McCallum's diagram responded to the challenges facing an extensive corporation by envisioning disparate "branch" lines, divisions, and employees as a single entity. It can be considered a Big Tree not just for its organizational function but also its form--according to one argument based upon Salix caprea, a variety of pussy-willow (Wrege and Sorbo).

The other Big Tree was a famous swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) that grew alongside the Genesee River for hundreds of years before its banks were undercut and the dying tree was washed away by an 1857 flood. Big Tree gave its name both to a Seneca village located nearby and its chief, Ni-ho-ron-ta-go-wa. In 1797 the Treaty of the Big Tree, convened figurativey in the oak's shadow, formalized under massive compulsion Seneca relinquishment to all lands west of the Genesee river save for a few reservations.  A century later, the Livingston County Historical Society convened a gala centennial of the treaty, among whose prayers, toasts, and speeches were included these typical remarks: "It was the closing of the deep and solemn reign of the civilization of Nature. It was the passing of this valley into the hands of the white man, who should cause it to teem with busy towns and fruitful fields" (A History 49). The Big Tree therefore stands as a portal between the region's primordial / indigenous past and its colonial / civilized future.

Nowhere is the logic of tree-genealogy more schematic than in a pair of poems from 1843 concerning the Wadsworth family, as rendered by Hartford's Lydia H. Sigourney and Avon's William H. C. Hosmer. Legend has it that in 1687 Capt. Joseph Wadsworth saved the colony of Connecticut’s royal grant from repossession by hiding it in the hollow of the Charter Oak; his grandsons James and William, or scions rather, moved to the Genesee Valley in 1790 and managed a 200,000-acre estate overlooking the Big Tree. Such is the backdrop for the Hosmer and Sigourney's poems, which set the oaks into literal dialogue with each other

Glorious Patriarch of the West!
Often have mine ears been blest
With some tale from traveller wight.
Of thy majesty and might,
Rearing high, on column proud,
Massy verdure toward the cloud,
While thy giant branches throw
Coolness o’er the vales below.
Humbler rank, indeed, is mine,
Yet I boast a kindred line,
And though Nature spared to set
On my head thy coronet,
Still, from history’s scroll I claim
Somewhat of an honoured name;
So, I venture, kingly tree,
Thus to bow myself to thee.
—Lydia H. Sigourney, from “Letter from the Charter-Oak, at Hartford, to the Great Oak of Geneseo” (1842)
I stand, a melancholy tree,
In valley of the Genesee—
My throne is on the river bank,
Once dark with oaks the, rank on rank,
Raised their proud, rustling plumes on high,
Encased in barken panoply.
From acorns, sown by me, they sprung,
For the bright axe their knell hath rung,
And scarred and lonely I am left,
A king of realm and subjects reft.
Unsound am I at heart— and clay
Is crumbling from my roots away,
As if my mother earth would shun
In his decline her royal son.
—William H. C. Hosmer, from “Reply of the Great Oak at Geneseo to the Charter Oak at Hartford” (1843)
 It’s not difficult to think of either Big Tree, according the critique of Deleuze and Guattari, as an organizing center for Genesee Valley genealogy and its (white) founding fathers. Yet underneath the structure of lineage or classification or history, the logic of points and positions, lurk any number of rhizomic lines displacing language, “decentering it onto other dimensions and other registers.” Consider Bernard Lossing’s portfolio of nineteen “American Historical Trees” appearing in Harper’s Magazine amidst the Civil War in 1862, the ostensible logic of which appears to be analogies between these massy Patriarchs—“about which memories cluster like the trailing vines”—and historical forefathers like George Washington or William Penn.

Works Consulted

—Hosmer, William H. C. "Reply of the Great Oak at Geneseo to the Charter Oak at Hartford." Graham's Magazine 23.1 (July 1843): 271-272.

—Livingston County Historical Society. A History of the Treaty of Big Tree : and an Account of the Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Making of the Treaty, Held at Geneseo, N.Y., September the Fifteenth, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-Seven. Dansville, NY: LCHS, 1897 (?)

—Lossing, Bernard. "American Historical Trees." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 24.144 (May 1862): 721-740.

—Sigourney, Lydia H. "Letter from the Charter-Oak, at Hartford, to the Great Oak of Geneseo." Graham's Magazine 22.6 (June 1843): 349-350.