The Indian Tree Marker in 2010 showed how its unique shape caught the eyes of officials of the Texas A&M Forest Service. The three main branches grew in three different directions with one branch growing parallel to the ground. Forest officials believe Comanche Indians tied the tree to bend it to serve as a marker on their trail, which signaled an area that contained clean water to allow them to stay overnight. Photo courtesy of JoAnn Myers
JENNIFER FIERRO • PICAYUNE STAFF
BURNET — For almost 200 years, the Indian Marker Tree watched over the banks of Hamilton Creek, serving as a marker for Comanche Indians in its youth and growing into a beloved part of the Burnet community. Now, the tree is gone.
Mark Van Brocklin, owner of The Highlander restaurant and on whose property the Indian Marker Tree sat, found himself making the tough decision to remove the old live oak after it died. It wasn’t something he relished doing.
“My kids were raised climbing it,” he said. “It was sad for them to see it go.”
The Indian Marker Tree was believed to be about 200 years old, said Gretchen Riley, of the Texas A&M Forest Service. The tree had appeared in “Famous Trees of Texas, Texas A&M Forest Service Centennial Edition,” a book published by the forest service honoring 100 trees in the state. Many of those trees no longer exist, Riley said. They will keep their distinction, however, and that includes the Indian Marker Tree.
“It’s one of our family trees in Texas,” she said. “It’s a small ethnic group of trees that’s witnessed exciting eras in Texas history. It’s a tangible historic bridge to the past.”
The exact reason the tree died is unknown, though Riley and others believe it was probably several things coming together that led to its death. While it’s gone, others hope the loss of the Indian Marker Tree will spur interest in other historical landmarks in Burnet and Burnet County.
“The historical commission would like to see an emphasis on saving history of all kinds of things like trees, like buildings,” said JoAnn Myers of the Burnet County Historical Commission. “We’d like to see something, maybe on an ongoing basis, of preserving history in our town, or our history can disappear.”
One part of that is putting markers on historical pieces, she said. The challenge is getting owners to understand that historical markers don’t mean forfeiting their rights, she added.
“A lot of people have the mistaken idea that putting up a historical marker would limit what they can do on the property,” she said. “They’re afraid there are going to be some types of restrictions. That’s not true.”
Some might say the Indian Marker Tree is simply another victim of circumstances. But to those who love history and the outdoors, the loss can’t be measured.
Riley pointed out that the Indian Marker Tree was more than “another tree.”
She added that people can read about Burnet’s past at the library or listen to stories, but the Indian Marker Tree was a living example of the proud history of a community.
“People love their famous trees,” Riley said. “What we find are residents from the area all feel ownership of the tree and a connection. There are very few documents of marked trees.”
According to reports, the Indian Marker Tree was a living memorial to the Comanche Indians. The Comanches were known to spend their summers on the High Plains of the Panhandle and their winters in Mexico. But during the fall, they enjoyed camping at Hamilton Creek because of the sweet water, the pecan trees and flint and other hard rocks. Early settlers noted the Comanches would silently set up camp at night and pack up early in the morning, leaving just as quietly as they came. To help mark the better campsites on their trail system, Comanches would take a sapling-size tree, bend it to the ground and tie it in place.
But as the Indian Marker Tree grew, it kept its unusual shape by growing horizontally.
And because Native Americans aren’t known for keeping a lot of written records, Riley said, the few known parts of their culture are vital to historians.
“It really is something that can’t be duplicated,” she said. “It was a tangible connection to the past that’s irreplaceable. It’s a loss to all of Burnet County residents but also to all of Texas because it was part of all of us to some extent.”
The Texas A&M Forest Service was notified that the tree had “flamed out,” Riley said.
“When it does that, it usually means it looks like it’s on fire,” she said. “When it does that, it’s beyond repair.”
Under the right conditions, an oak tree can live for as long as 500 years, Riley said.
Neither Riley or Myers know what caused the tree to die. There’s speculation that underground trenching at the park and the severe drought might have contributed, they said.
Underground work that disturbs the roots can lead to a tree’s decline and death, the forester said.
People tend to simply look at the tree above ground, which isn’t an accurate examination of a tree’s health, Riley said. Sometimes, people believe they must water more during a drought and not realize they might be choking the tree’s roots. While pruning is good, she said, paying attention to the roots is the true indication of a tree’s health.
“There’s all sorts of things we do wrong in our ignorance or when we try to do the right thing,” she said. “There’s not one single event that contributes to that or causes that tree’s decline. Usually, you don’t have one factor, you have multiple factors. This tree had a lot going against it: not zoned, not protected during construction.”
Riley and Myers emphasized this isn’t about assigning blame to city officials who are charged with providing water and wastewater services; to a business owner who made a decision about removing a dead tree that most homeowners would make if a dead tree was on their property; or to history buffs and environmental lovers who talked to different groups about taking steps to preserve the natural habitat that allows nature to thrive.
“I don’t think it serves any purpose to find blame or fault,” Myers said. “It’s sad it happened.”
“It was a sad day for Burnet and a sad day for Texas,” Riley said.
Still, they hope residents remember the tree and learn from it.
“We just all need to enjoy that tree for the time we spent with it,” Van Brocklin said. “I got to enjoy it for 20 years.”