American Sycamore: So Curious an Apartment
The Pringle brothers were weary of the French & Indian War, nor did they care for the uneventful life of a soldier on garrison duty at Fort Pitt. Had they been born two centuries later, they could have watched a Pirates game, but in 1761 their options for excitement were limited. So they decided to desert the British army, heading upstream along the Monongahela River, avoiding wolves, bears, Indians, and the military until they found a ready-made hideout: the hollow of a giant American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). They lived inside the eleven foot-deep cavity for several years, hiding from the authorities, hunting and fishing for their sustenance, and obviously not terribly afraid of spiders.
In an age when most people prefer houses, living inside a tree seems rather crowded and uncomfortable, not to mention the difficulties that accompany arranging furniture in a round room, something to which Rapunzel could attest. But the early settlers of the Ohio valley didn’t expect to be comfortable. They were tough, rugged, hardened, and smelled bad enough to be oblivious to discomfort. Furthermore, it took time to clear land and build a cabin. They needed a place to live in the meantime. Sycamores, most of which become hollow as they age, were more than accommodating.
If it wasn’t for the multitude of accounts of monstrous sycamores one could easily dismiss the reports as exaggeration, tall tales having by then already
become an American tradition. There are numerous anecdotes of the hollow trees being used as smokehouses, granaries, living quarters, stables, and dining rooms. For example, in 1749 a Frenchman, Monseigneur Bonnecamps, and his party dined inside a sycamore tree. Sure, they could have had a picnic but eating outside wasn’t as much fun when there was no proper inside for contrast, so they entered the tree, said their blessing, and had their feast. This particular tree being so commodious, Bonnecamps would later write that 29 men were “ranged side by side” within the trunk, an unusual after-dinner diversion but illustrative of the size of the cavity. Unfortunately, as the camera had yet to be invented, he was unable to take a photo of the event. One rarely gets to see 29 Frenchmen inside a tree.
Pittsburgh printer and publisher Zadok Cramer, a Quaker with business interests on Little Beaver Creek, wrote the following in his Cramer’s Ohio & Mississippi Navigator, a popular 19th century travel guide:
“The Sycamore seems to be the king of the forest on the banks of the Ohio. Their monstrous growth, towering height, and extended branches really fill the beholder with awe and astonishment. Between Wheeling and Marietta I measured several from 10 to 16 feet over [diameter], four feet above ground, and this seems to be their common size…In the fall of the leaf, and when the year’s growth of bark begins to peel off these trees, the rays of the bright moon playing through their white branches, form a scene uncommonly brilliant, and quite cheering and amusing to the nightly traveller.”
And if a Jesuit priest and a Quaker are not convincing enough, George Washington, who as everyone knows was made of marble and incapable of telling a lie, was so impressed with the size of the sycamores that he took time to record the dimensions of several specimens near the mouth of the Kanawha river in present-day WV, on a Sunday no less, colonial Sabbath strictures obviously not applying to running up and down the riverbank measuring trees. Washington wrote in his diary:
“…we met with a Sycamore abt. 60 yards from the River of a most extraordinary size it measuring (3 feet from the Gd.) 45 feet round, lacking two Inches & not 50 yards from it was another 31 round…”
As the 19th century progressed and the upper Ohio Valley became more settled, rugged pioneers turned into sturdy farmers who no longer needed to share houses with owls and spiders and by the 1830s, sycamore living was a thing of the past.
The French & Indian war concluded in 1763 and the Pringle brothers, no longer wanted for desertion, left their tree in 1767 and returned to civilization. They never did get to see a Pirates game.
After various posts in Canada and France as a missionary and professor of mathematics, Joseph-Pierre de Bonnecamps became a précepteur des enfants (a cooler way to say private tutor) in France, where he died in 1790, presumably never again having dinner in a tree.
Soon after having returned from the Ohio valley to Mount Vernon, his estate in Virginia, George Washington was too busy founding a country to mess with measuring trees. He continued to tell the truth.
“[A tree]…in Scioto county, Ohio, on the land of Mr. Abraham Miller, into whose hollow thirteen men rode on horseback, June 6, 1808, the fourteenth did not enter, his horse being skittish, and too fearful to advance in so curious an apartment, but there was room enough for two more.” Cramer’s Navigator, 1821
In most of the world, sycamores are known as plane trees.
Due to the peculiar seed balls, it is often called a buttonball or buttonwood.
A sycamore tree can live for 500 years and reach heights of over 120 feet.
The largest known living specimen is in Jeromesville, Ohio; a monster measuring 129 feet high, nearly 49 feet in circumference, and with a crown spread of 105 feet.
The sycamore trees common on the streets of E. Liverpool and other towns are a hybrid known as the London Plane Tree, a cross between the American Sycamore and the Oriental Plane Tree. They are more tolerant of air pollution and may be distinguished by the presence of seed balls in pairs, not singly as in the American sycamore.
In the Bible, Zacchaeus climbed a tree known as the sycamore fig, unrelated to our sycamore trees.