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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Who Danced around the Mulberry Tree?

Written by Mary Alves, Historic St. Mary's City

Descirbe the Picture and set alignment above
An illustration by artist Gordon Michael Selckmann'10 shows Morus rubra, the native Red Mulberry. Most mulberries in the area are now hybrids of M. rubra and M. alba, an oriental species.

Although our fabled mulberry has not stood since sometime around 1876, the tree that witnessed the birth of Maryland still commands respect and is held in fond remembrance. Lumber from the venerated tree was used to build part of the communion rail, pew crosses, and a bishop’s chair in the sanctuary of Trinity Church, and its name graces the College’s alumni publication; however, there are still numerous questions surrounding its various associations.

The first historical reference to the mulberry comes in testimony by Garrett Van Sweringen, who, in a deposition taken before the Lower House on August 29, 1681, says: “That on Saturday last in the afternoon he came by the Mulberry Tree where he Discoursed with one of the Burgesses about Repairing the house for the Committee to Sitt in.” This entry verifies that a mulberry existed near the 1676 State House and implies that the tree was a landmark even then.

The first romantic reference comes from author John Pendleton Kennedy in his 1838 novel, Rob of the Bowl. In searching for traces of the old city more than 140 years after the capital had moved to Annapolis, Kennedy notes the “mouldering and shapeless ruin of the ancient State House” and then waxes poetic about the mulberry:

Over these ruins a storm-shaken and magnificent mulberry, aboriginal, and contemporary with the settlement of the province, yet rears its shattered and topless trunk, and daily distills upon the sacred relics at its foot, the dews of heaven, - an august and brave old mourner to the departed companions of its prime.

This tall, wide-spreading, broadleaved tree (Morus rubra can reach 70 feet) was first honored specifically as a witness by William Cullen Bryant and Sidney H. Gay who wrote a Popular History of the United States in 1876. Describing the tree as large even in 1634, they note that “under this tree, according to well-authenticated tradition, Leonard Calvert made a treaty with the Indians of the village.”

William B. Marye, who wrote an article about the mulberry for Maryland Historical Magazine in 1944 (reprinted in 2005), remarks that Bryant and Gay do not inform us as to how this legend was authenticated, although they did speak with John Brome who at that time owned Church Point and had “carefully preserved many local traditions.” Unfortunately, the anonymous author of the 17th-century account, A Relation of Maryland, makes no mention of the tree.

A chunk of the original trunk with a nail still imbedded.Among the liveliest of the legends described by Bryant and Gay was the mulberry’s function as a bulletin board of sorts, having nailed to it “the proclamations of Calvert and his successors, the notices of punishments and fines, the inventories of debtors whose goods were to be sold, and all notices calling for the public attention.” They even describe relic hunters digging “rude” nails from its trunk. (At left is a chunk of the original trunk with a nail still imbedded.)

Years after the mulberry had been replaced by the Leonard Calvert Monument in 1890, the tree was still being memorialized. In 1900, James Walter Thomas, in his Chronicles of Colonial Maryland, picks up the language of earlier writers, describing the tree in human terms as it “watched over the city…witnessed its battle with adversity and its downfall…mourned the departure of nearly every symbol of its existence.” Finally it stood as a “silent sentinel of time” telling the story and marking the spot of the fi rst capital until 1876 “when, like the almost forgotten city—the companion of its prime—its time-worn and shattered trunk laid down to rest."

An eleven-verse ode written by D.H. Maddox in 1919 retains the sentinel image, perpetuating the tree's "witness" status:

It stood and watched through centuries A silent sentinel throughout the changing years,
It saw a city's birth, and rapid growth, Felt its power, and increasing cares.

Continuing this tradition, Henry Chandlee Forman in 1938 mentions the tree in Jamestown and St. Mary's, Buried Cities of Romance. According to his account, the tree not only served as the place where the treaty was signed but also as the spot where the "pilgrims" met to hear the Royal Charter read.

Whether these historic events took place beneath the mulberry's limbs is beside the point and perhaps unknowable. The fact that the tree was a co-inhabitant of the city and managed to survive for so long is a large part of its appeal. As author Michael Pollan has observed, trees become imbued with meaning – “our thoughts and metaphors cling to them like iron fi lings to a magnet.”

When you visit St. Mary’s City, step into Trinity Church, place your hand on a pew cross, and picture the tree. Appreciate the idea of standing steadfast against the ravages of time and fortune, long past the ability of mere humans, and remember the mulberry.