BANGOR, Maine — As a historian of the Maine woods, Charles Cogbill had read about plenty of witness trees in the records stored in the Registry of Deeds Offices around the state, but he had only seen one.
Cogbill never expected to be able to hold in his hands wedges taken from trees bearing the original blazes, or marks, left by axes in trees to denote property lines. During a visit last year with his colleague Allan White to the deeds office at the historic Penobscot County Courthouse in Bangor, he was able to do just that.
Cogbill, a resident of Plainfield, Vt., who teaches graduate students at the University of Maine and Allan White, a professor of forest ecology at UMaine, tell how they stumbled over pieces of real witness trees while looking for references to them on paper. The two wrote about the encounter in a short piece to be published this winter in a book about the history of Maine’s forests.
“As is customary, we asked the Registrar of Deeds, Susan Bulay in this case, if she had any records that might contain ‘witness tree’ references,” they wrote. “Expecting the usual quizzical response, ‘What is a witness tree?,’ we were astonished as she replied, ‘Do you want to see an actual witness tree in the land records room?’”
While leading the researchers to a glass case, Bulay told the pair that as far as she knows the samples are the only examples of witness trees in any deed office in the country.
“Amazingly, the case contained several blocks of wood with large resin-
filled scars deeply buried among the annual rings,” Cogbill and White wrote. “These were the remains of an axe cut (or blaze) that sliced the bark and a strip of wood off the tree. It turns out that in 1878 there was a dispute over the ownership of recently logged land on the north line of Sebois Plantation, and a surveyor, Noah Barker, testified that the true line had been marked by Samuel Weston in 1794.
“He substantiated his declaration by cutting out three ‘chips’ containing the blazes covered with overgrowth,” the story continued. “These wood blocks were entered as ‘evidence’ in the case.”
The chips taken from trees that then measured about 2 feet in diameter “vividly show” the methodology surveyors used to mark witness trees on town and private property lines when setting out municipalities in northern Maine, according to Cogbill.
Two of the three chips are spruce and one is a hemlock, according to White.
Although “witness tree” is the name often given to trees that were in the area where certain historic events took place, such as the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, their fame in New England is for their roles in marking boundaries.
The idea of individual, private land ownership registered with a governmental entity, now called a register of deeds, was new when Europeans began settling the Americas, according to Cogbill.
“This was a new concept — keeping records on paper that showed a connection between ownership and land,” he said. “Witness trees were used to designate property boundaries by towns, farmers and developers. Blazing with an ax or chiseling the name of the owner into prominent trees on properties was very common.”
And lasting, he said in a telephone interview earlier this week.
Using the original survey notes stored at the Maine State Archives in Augusta, Cogbill and White determined that the marks they had been shown by Bulay originally were placed on the trees in 1794 and survived a forest fire in 1795 and hurricane in 1815 before the pieces were removed in 1878 and used as evidence in a trial. During the intervening 85 years, the tree grew 3¼ inches over its original “wound,” according to Cogbill.
Information about witness trees in Maine helps researchers understand what the composition of the early forest was, White said earlier this week. By counting the species of witness trees recorded on a number of deeds in a certain geographic area, researchers can determine which types of trees grew in a certain area of the state during a certain time frame. That can be compared to more recent surveys of Maine’s woods.
White saw a lot of witness trees during his graduate students days in Montana in the 1970s.
“Then, I saw many witness trees standing and alive but not as old [as the witness trees in New England],” he said. “I assumed most of the witness trees in Maine had died or been cut down. To have them sitting in a registry of deeds office is a pretty good find.”