Big Tree Walk sheds light on local history, geography

Members of the Geneseo village and campus community gathered on Sunday Sept. 17 at the site where the “Big Tree” stood more than 100 years ago. The Big Tree Walk provided a glimpse into the history, cultural roots and environment of Geneseo and Livingston County. 

Located on property formerly owned by William Wadsworth, the “Big Tree” once boasted a circumference as large as 27 feet and stood taller than any other recorded trees of its species in the region. A flood in 1857 caused the tree to topple.

The tree lent its name to the Treaty of Big Tree, which codified the cession of 3.5 million acres of Seneca land to the early American government. Much of the Genesee Valley was even originally known by the name Big Tree.

Assistant professor of geography Stephen Tulowiecki ’09 and Livingston County Museum Administrator Anna Kowalchuk both gave presentations about the impact of the tree’s legacy on the region. 

Kowalchuk specifically spoke about the various ways that the museum and the Genesee Valley Conservancy are trying to preserve what remains of the tree. The museum currently has a 7-foot tall chunk of the tree, but this portion has sat in an enclosure that is susceptible to insects and poor weather conditions. The museum and other organizations raised $23,000 from the community to clean, protect and preserve the tree in a museum exhibit. 

Tulowiecki detailed more about the Big Tree’s history and environmental significance during the walk, including some of the myths that developed around the tree. He and associate professor of geography Dave Robertson are currently researching oak trees in Western New York for the National Science Foundation. Tulowiecki, therefore, connected the discussion of the Big Tree to the vital role that oak trees play in the Genesee Valley today.

“Oak forests are a very important ecological forest community; it’s economically important and it’s one of the most spatially extensive forest community types,” he said. “However, today, oak forests in general are declining and we find that they’re not regenerating as they should. Part of the reason we were awarded the research grant was probably because this is such a concern.”

Discussing both past and present, Tulowiecki demonstrated the different ways townspeople have depicted the tree, including some of their exaggerations. After his brief lecture, the event opened for questions from the audience. Questions ranged in topic from other tall trees in the area to the age of the Big Tree itself. 

With an attendance of around 40 people—including Geneseo town supervisor William S. Wadsworth, a local Boy Scout who had helped raise money for the preservation of the tree and a group of around 10 college students—the event proved to be a successful presentation about the intersection of history, ecology and the local community. History major junior Krista Borst agreed and thoroughly enjoyed the presentation.

“It was such a rewarding experience because it brought people of all ages together to take a detailed look at the history and importance of the Big Tree, an icon of this county that many of us don’t know as much about as we should,” she said. “I enjoyed learning about the geographical significance of oak and other trees in this region as well as … how [the tree] related to the relationship between settlers and native tribes such as the Seneca.”u

 The Big Tree Walk featured presentations pertaining the location’s history and symbolic significance. Presenters addressed members of the community, as well as students from the Geneseo campus. (Kara Burke/Staff Photographer)

The Big Tree Walk featured presentations pertaining the location’s history and symbolic significance. Presenters addressed members of the community, as well as students from the Geneseo campus. (Kara Burke/Staff Photographer)