Not Too Long Ago, Families Living in Trees Was Not Too Uncommon

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Photo: circa 1920, The Family of James and Caroline Shelton pose by a large dead Chestnut Tree in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Photo: circa 1920, The Family of James and Caroline Shelton pose by a large dead Chestnut Tree in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As autumn sets on the hills and hollers of Appalachia, thousands of tourists are flocking to the Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge Parkway and the ridges of West Virginia to catch a glimpse of the colors of fall.

As magnificent of a spectacle as the dizzying and colorful trees may presently be, they pale in comparison to the towering behemoths which once reigned supreme in this part of the world.

Long before Interstates and chain restaurants, there were only trees. Big trees.  Huge trees, in fact.

With the forest canopy considerably larger and thicker than today’s covering, the Appalachian mountains were far darker than visitors to modern woodlands know.  Additionally, a variety of long gone species made their presence felt throughout the region: The beautiful multi-color Carolina Parakeet soared through the air, the Eastern Bison roamed the mountain balds and the preying Eastern Mountain Lion (the fourth largest cat on the planet) stalked its prey.

Among the early Europeans to observe the majestic wonder of Appalachia’s virgin forests was a  surveyor name George Washington.

On November 4, 1770, while plotting the Kanawha River, he wrote in his journal, “Just as we came to the hills, we met with a Sycamore… of a most extraordinary size, it measuring three feet from the ground, forty-five feet round, lacking two inches; and not fifty yards from it was another, thirty-one feet round.”

Many of Appalachia’s white oak and hemlock trees were more than half-a-millennium old – an unimaginable spectacle for the white colonists who first laid eyes on the trees.

With an eye ever pointed to the west, as early American settlers moved into the region, they often arrived with very little possessions and there were certainly no homes awaiting them.  Thus, many of them did what made sense at the time: moved into the hollowed inside of dead and dying behemoth trees.

According to the 1833 book, A History of the Valley of Virginia, in 1744 a father and his two sons came from the eastern shore of Maryland to settle in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  The author writes that the trio “lived the greater part of the year in a hollow sycamore tree. They enclosed a piece of land and made a crop [prior] to the removal of the family.”

This account is just one of hundreds of early settlers living in hollowed trees.

The West Virginia Encyclopedia states that the first white residents of the Greenbrier Valley, in modern-day Pocahontas County, also lived inside a tree.  According to historians, the men “had built a cabin together, but later argued over religion and separated. By the time [others] found them, [one of the men] had moved from the cabin to a nearby hollow sycamore tree as the best way to avoid further dispute and preserve his friendship.

Stories abound of disserting soldiers taking refuge in hollowed tress — often through entire winters.  Among these is that of Frederick Stiltner, a Hessian mercenary in the British army during the Revolutionary War.  According to historians, Stiltner deserted his army and made his way to the area of present day Grundy, Virginia. “He is said to have reached Sword’s Creek in Russell County where he spent a few weeks with a widow and her two children. When he left there, he crossed the Sandy Ridge and traveled down the Levisa River to the lower end of where Grundy now stands… Local legend is that Stiltner, spent the winter in a hollow poplar tree, with his rifle, and two hunting dogs. He survived until spring when he returned to the widow and married her, and brought her and her children back to Watkins Branch where they built a cabin.”

Early families along the Tug River in modern-day Kentucky and West Virginia are said to have lived inside hollow trees while awaiting their permanent cabins to be built.  According to contemporary records, it was apparently not all too uncommon for young married couples in this region of Appalachia to live inside a large, hollow, sycamore while the permanent homeplace was being constructed.

The May 22, 1885, edition of the The Atchison Globe, described one such Kentucky family who lived inside a tree:

“He settled on Crank’s Fork of Cumberland River, fourteen miles south of Harlan Court-house, and with his family took shelter in an enormous hollow sycamore tree. By the way, Harlan County is not wholly unlike the big-tree district of California. This tree was forty-five feet in circumference, and necessarily fifteen feet in diameter. In this romantic abide he and his wife and the five children had beds, tables, chests and such other furniture and things as a wild mountain house usually contains.

As a young child seated in Mrs. Montgomery’s fifth-grade class, I remembering reading the 1959 instant-classic children’s adventure book, My Side of the Mountain, a fictional book which detailed a 14-year-old boy who left home to live in the mountains, inside a hollowed old tree.

As a young boy, the book made my mind run wild at the thought of people living inside trees, though at the time it seemed too far fetched to believe.  Fascinatingly, living inside trees isn’t the stuff of fiction, but is truly a forgotten piece of Appalachian history.

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