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.
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 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.
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.
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. 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.