The post oak tree in front of Paces Ferry United Methodist Church in Buckhead is close to 300 years old, maybe even older.
It is a living sentinel, a tree identified, studied and categorized by the Buckhead Heritage Society as among the oldest in the area.
The church itself dates back to 1877, but its age pales in comparison to the knobby, gangly oak. Native Americans, Civil War troops and cars worth several hundred thousand dollars have passed beneath its outstretched branches.
John Beach, the president of the society, lives less than a mile down Paces Ferry Road from it. He is overseeing the society’s Living Sentinels Historic Trees program, as well as an open online database of Buckhead cultural sites. Someone made an entry for an “Indian” tree on the church grounds.
An Indian tree is distinct and important. Native Americans — in this case, the Creek — would bend young trees to create permanent trail markers through the woods. The post oak tree has a distinct gigantic elbow jutting north at the top of its trunk.
If it were an “Indian” tree, it would date back further than 1821, when the Creek ceded the land to Georgia through the first Treaty of Indian Springs.
Following the treaty, Georgia divided the land into 202.5-acre lots. Surveyors used chains — literally 66 feet of metal rods strung together. They physically dragged these chains through the forest, over hills and across streams. A 202.5-acre land lot was 45 chains by 45 chains.
Maps from these surveys show the landscape crisscrossed with a series of diamond-shaped squares bordered by tree types.
About three years ago, Beach, who has been studying maps a long time, had a feeling about those trees. He envisioned overlaying the historical map on a map of present-day Buckhead to see if any were still around.
He recruited society advisory board member Chris Hastings, a board-certified master arborist and the owner of Arbormedics, a tree preservation company, to help.
When Beach looked at the maps, “Oak” appeared in the approximate location of the church’s “Indian” tree on the survey. Hastings brought in a dendrochronologist— a tree-ring scientist — who carefully cored the tree with Hastings’ assistance.
The rings showed the tree likely took root in 1730, give or take a decade. Throughout its long life, it has imperceptibly reached ever further into the empty expanse, eventually filling the sky on the hilltop.
The discovery is the first of hopefully many through the Buckhead Heritage program. It seeks to identify trees that have stood for 200 years and longer. The grassroots effort will require the community to get involved; look at the maps and hunt around their backyards for the living sentinels.
The program is in its early stages. Soon residents will be able to look at buckheadheritage.com and see the survey overlaid on present-day Buckhead.
According to Beach, the church’s tree was on an Indian trail connecting the village of Standing Peachtree with another village on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in the Palisades area. However, there is disagreement about whether or not the post oak with the distinct elbow is an “Indian” tree. Experts Beach talked to doubt it.
Regardless, the church’s members are celebrating their grand old oak April 30 for Arbor Day. The community is welcome to attend. The church has raised funds to install professional lighting.
The tree is now lit at night, an illuminated beacon on the hill.
Member Harriett Adams bestows upon the tree sentience when she talks about what it means to have a tree that old in front of her beloved church.
“I think about what that tree has seen,” she said.