A Spiritual Treasure—Angel Oak

Angel Oak Park
3699 Angel Oak Road
John’s Island, South Carolina

N.B. This article was revised and updated 13 January 2019. I revisited the oak in 2019, read about my experiences

Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
The massive Angel Oak. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The city of Charleston incorporates not only the bustling peninsula where the city was originally built, but it now encompasses parts of some of the surrounding barrier islands like James and John’s Islands. Until fairly recently, John’s Island has been somewhat rural. Following the Civil War it was home to communities of freed slaves and their descendants, but developers have begun turning the island into a bedroom community for the city of Charleston. This has caused quite a stir among locals as the quiet nature of the island has rapidly changed with sprawling commercial and residential developments. The magnificent Angel Oak, whose leafy branches have provided shade and solace for centuries, is now at the center of one of the controversies over the island’s development.

Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
The massive limbs seem to reach out towards visitors. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.
Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Angel Oak is considered to be the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi. However, dating a living tree can be difficult. Signs posted around the tree give the age at between 300-400 years old, though many other sources estimate it to be in excess of 1500 years old. This tree has withstood hurricanes, war, pestilence and small, screaming children climbing its branches and yet continues to provide a gentle, loving embrace to thousands of visitors year after year.

The tree is a remarkable sight. Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) are not known for their height–this tree is only 65 feet high–but for their sprawling branches, which, in this case, loll over an area of some 17,000 square feet. The massive trunk is over 25 feet in circumference with the largest branch being 11 feet in circumference. During a performance under the oak, the Charleston Ballet Company was able to fit its entire company, 19 dancers, behind the trunk. To prevent the massive limbs from breaking off, wooden and metal posts have been erected along with steel wires to help support some of the larger, more unstable branches. Walking near the tree and under its massive branches is a memorable experience. 

Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
Centuries of branches rise out of the massive trunk. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.
Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
Looking into the tree’s canopy. Note the steel wires supporting limbs on the right of the pic. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

There is a marvelous energy here. The atmosphere is calming and moving, like being in the presence of an enlightened being, I felt protected and supported by this massive thing, it’s almost god-like; it’s divine. The spiritual energy is just as strong. This spot naturally offers a plethora of legends and stories. The most common stories involve the spirits of slaves appearing among the leafy branches. It should be noted that the tree’s name is a reference to the Angel family who once owned the plantation that surrounded this massive treasure.

Author Denise Roffe in her Ghosts and Legends of Charleston, South Carolina, interviewed an elderly African-American woman who was descended from the slaves who once toiled on the island’s plantations before the Civil War. She recounted the legends of the tree including that the tree was once home to huge birds (probably vultures) who would feast on the bodies of slaves hung in there. The old woman continued saying that many people were buried under the tree including Native Americans who met under its shady branches before the area was settled by the white man. She stated that these spirits are still experienced around the oak and that they also work to protect the tree. Certainly if there are bodies under the soft ground around the tree, it’s not hard to imagine that the tree has fed off of the remains, adding to the tree’s allure.

Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
Branches, like fingers, intertwine. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Besides the spirits there, the mission of protecting the tree has become part of the lives of many living beings who have organized to fight development of the area. The development threat does not directly affect the Angel Oak itself but the land surrounding Angel Oak Park. The park is owned by the City of Charleston, but outside of the few acres that comprise the park, the now wooded property is privately owned. Recently, a developer proposed constructing a residential development that would contain around 600 housing units, thus destroying the peaceful sylvan atmosphere of the area. The fear of many of those working to prevent this development is that while the oak is untouched, the destruction of the surrounding forest would eventually lead to the demise of the tree itself. The woods surrounding the tree are believed to be one of the reasons for the tree’s survival as it provides protection from high winds and destructive flooding. The fight is still being waged for this peaceful place with the spirits standing behind those of us who would see the tree protected for generations to come.

UPDATE: Preservationists with Save Angel Oak and the Lowcountry Open Land Trust purchased the surrounding 18 acres in 2014 sparing the tree from development.

 Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
The intrepid Southern Spirit Guide poses with the mighty trunk. Photo 2011, all rights reserved.
Angel Oak John's Island South Carolina ghosts haunted
All around the tree are posted signs in hopes of protecting the tree. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Sources

  • Angel Oak. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 14 December 2011.
  • Angel oak saved from development.” ABC News 4. 14 March 2014.
  • Jones, Jessica. “Exposing the Angel Oak in Charleston, South Carolina.” com. 29 May 2011.
  • Moore, Andrew. “Battle swirls around fate of the East Coast’s oldest tree.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 17 April 2011.
  • Roffe, Denise. Ghosts and Legends of Charleston, South Carolina. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2010.
  • Save The Angel Oak. Savetheangeloak.com. Accessed 14 December 2011.
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22 Replies to “A Spiritual Treasure—Angel Oak”

    1. I first saw a picture of this ethereally magnificent Angel Oak tree on TV in an ad for Allstate as well as a salute to the Carolinas for their resiliency. I was immediately struck by it’s awesome massiveness and beauty. So much so that my husband printed a picture for me which will be framed and hung up to be always be admired.

  1. I just looked at a picture that I took while visiting SC this past November. You can clearly see a shape of a male in some type of period costume. I can e mail it to you.

  2. hi ! I just saw the tree on a carolina tv show an did a little serching an at first i thought the tree was nice til i found out that alot of black slaves and indians where kill there, so now i wish the tree whould die,,,,,,,,,

    1. it is our history it cradle the suffering it brought comfort, it was there for those in need , it is a good tree in the mist of some bad memories

    2. As long as that tree lives the spirits cannot rest in peace. It lived off the blood and rotting flesh of those killed there. Seems like it still carries their spirits trapped inside.

  3. The tree represents the majestic wonder that is apart the seduction of the south….the Angel oak tells a story of centuries….and the sacrifices made, the glory of overcoming defeat…and the purdge of predjudice. The massive size and its enormity rich with hundreds of years of historical truth will hopefully live a few more centuries undisturbed and preserved in its surroundings for everyone to experience the story unspoken of the giant tree and its southern rooted splendor.

  4. The tree represents the majestic wonder that is apart the seduction of the south….the Angel oak tells a story of centuries….and the sacrifices made, the glory of overcoming defeat…and the purdge of predjudice. The massive size and its enormity rich with hundreds of years of historical truth will hopefully live a few more centuries undisturbed and preserved in its surroundings for everyone to experience the story unspoken of the giant tree and its southern rooted splendor.

  5. Interesting post. I thought you accurately captured the peace of an old southern live oak; they are my favorite trees. However, Angel Oak is not the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi. Lady Liberty is a 2,000+ year old bald cypress in Florida. At the time of its demise in 2012, its companion tree, the Senator, was estimated to be 3,500 years old!

  6. Please never touch this tree it is a sacred being….It marks the history of slaves and native americans, We must honor and protect it. It holds the secrets of our souls. Hallowed ground.

  7. Hi im from England. Never heard of the tree, till a friend mention that she would love to live in a tree house on angel oak. Thinking it was a name of an oak tree you might find in England. It got the wow factor from me. So much history. I hope it lives forevever. Pity it couldnt tell us its self its histroy.

  8. The Angel tree is a magnificent natural phenomenon. It was difficult for me to take in all the wonder of the tree. I hope the tree and its history are well preserved. Please do not let people develop this area for their own selfish reasons.

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