Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
I wrote the following piece many years ago, prodded by the knowledge that Andre’s Tree was a real, historic – though now extinct – landmark. My researches in local history taught me that many well-intentioned writers of the 19th and 20th centuries had, through ignorance and misinterpretation, consigned this important landmark to mythological status…
Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown once had an impressive, living landmark which stood near what is today the border of the two villages. André’s Tree was an ancient, enormous tulip or white-wood tree which towered over the Post Road until 1801. According to Washington Irving’s friend, James K. Paulding, it stood “About half a quarter of a mile south of Clark’s Kill bridge, on the high-road….” In other words, it stood roughly where Broadway passes Warner Library today.
The American Citizen newspaper of August 25, 1801, reported that the tree was destroyed by lightning on Saturday, July 21, 1801. It measured 29 feet around at the base, 111 feet in height, 106 feet in diameter at the crown. Some local folk preserved pieces of the tree as keepsakes. The newspaper also recorded that the lightening strike was said to have occurred on the day that news of Benedict Arnold’s death in England arrived at Tarrytown.
The tree is associated with several spurious traditions too, among them:
- That Major André was hanged at the tree
- That the tree was destroyed upon receipt of the news of André’s death in Tappan
- That the tree stood along André Brook.
The name, “Major André’s tree,” appears in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819). Washington Irving described the tree from first-hand observations made roughly twenty years earlier. It is not clear when the tree was first given the name, André’s Tree, but the name appears to have originated after the destruction of the tree itself. A remarkable feature of the tree is that it stood, literally, in the middle of the road. That is, the road split to either side of the tree, a unique circumstance even in that day.
The extensive description of the tree in the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may be well worth revisiting. “Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate André was taken.” Irving goes on, “The common people regarded it with a mixture of respect and superstition, partly out of sympathy for the fate of its ill-starred namesake, and partly from the tales of strange sights and doleful lamentations told concerning it.” The narrator of the story refers to it as a”fearful tree.”
When he was writing the story in 1819, Irving may have been unaware that the tree had been destroyed by lightning nearly twenty years earlier. If he was accurately describing the tree from his own youthful observations, André’s Tree had been the target of earlier lightning strikes: “As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree—he paused and ceased whistling, but on looking more narrowly, he perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare.”
It appears that the tree continued to serve as a convenient reference point even after it was gone. In 1845 a local Revolutionary War veteran, Samuel Lyon, recalled that he was in a detachment chasing enemy loyalist troops on September 4, 1781, when he observed the enemy troopers, “near André’s great white wood tree.” Lyon had seen them from the hill above the Old Dutch Church, but the enemy slipped away before he and his comrades could attack them.
The twentieth century nearly banished André’s Tree to the realm of myth. It was, however, a real, living and unique landmark coloring the life and traditions of this community in its earliest days, and even a monument of purely Native American times. A great part of what the tree really was, lives on. It’s image is stamped in the pages of one of America’s great works of fiction.
Copyright 2012, 2019 Henry John Steiner
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