Given the drastic transformation of Indiana’s landscape over the course of its settlement, it seems unlikely that a single tree might serve as a bridge from the seventeenth century to the present. Just such a memento remains, however, in a massive stump in South Bend’s Highland Cemetery. Having endured two substantial lightning strikes in the twentieth century, a giant oak there was rumored to be 400 years old when it was felled by tornado winds in 1991. According to that estimate, the Council Oak would’ve been a centenarian, when it served the function for which it is memorialized.
While exploring Lake Michigan’s southern shores Frenchman Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle came upon the mouth of the St. Joseph River, and made his way down to its south bend by 1679. Here, the first white man on Indiana soil would have easy passage by land to the Kankakee River, which ultimately feeds into the Mississippi. But first, La Salle had to seek protection from the natives. The Council Oak provided the setting for the signing of two peace treaties with Miami, Illinois and Potawatomi chiefs, who pledged to join forces with the white settlers to fight the Iroquois. Pledge in hand, LaSalle was free to explore the Mississippi, and claim new territory for France. What’s sometimes called the Treaty Oak or the Witness Tree continues to mark the historic spot in the form of Council Oak, Jr., planted in the 1960’s from one of its namesake’s acorns.