by Stephen Messenger, Science/Natural Sciences
August 24, 2013
© Doug Peabody
When the first European settlers stepped foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620, the landscape they encountered must have felt like the epitome of wildness. In time, of course, cottages and farmhouses, roads and footpaths would sprout up even there as ‘civilization’ took root. But little could they have guessed, from those fragile early shoots, that the whole wild continent would be tamed in just a few short centuries.
It may be hard to believe, however, but one of America’s earliest settlers is still alive today — and still bearing fruit after 383 years.
Among the first wave of immigrants to the New World was an English Puritan named John Endicott, who in 1629, arrived to serve as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Charged with the task of establishing a welcoming setting for new arrivals upon the untamed land, the Pilgrim leader set about making the area around modern-day Salem as homey as possible.
In approximately 1630, as his children watched on, Endicott planted one of the first fruit trees to be cultivated in America: a pear sapling imported from across the Atlantic. He is said to have declared at the time: “I hope the tree will love the soil of the old world and no doubt when we have gone the tree will still be alive.”
The tree did outlive all witnesses to its planting — as well as generations and generations that followed.
© Danvers Library
By 1763, colonists noted that the tree, dubbed the Endicott pear tree, was already “very old” and showing signs of decay. But yet it persisted and continued to bear fruit. In 1809, the tree had such notoriety that even President John Adams is said to have received a special delivery of its pears.
After holding fast through three strong hurricanes which battered the region in the first half of the 19th century, the tree became a cherished fixture; a fence was even put up to protect it. As early as 1852, folks were already proclaiming Endicott’s pear tree as “probably the oldest cultivated fruit bearing tree in New England.”
For Arbor Day in 1890, poet Lucy Larcom composed about the old tree so long rooted in American history:
Such a wonder you may see;
For the patriarchal tree
Blossoms still, — the living thought
Of good Governor Endicott.
Fruit again this year to bear;
Honor to that brave old pear!
Through the 20th century, Endicott’s pear tree endured as the United States — the nation it predates by 146 years — continued to grow up around it. Through several more strong hurricanes, and even a vandal attack in the 1960s, the tree never stopped bearing fruit.
Although its pears have been described as “medium in size, unattractive, and coarse textured”, the tree’s shortcomings have been more than made up for by its resilience — a legacy that will carry on even after the sands of time eventually wither its branches. The USDA’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository, a seed bank, successfully produced a clone of Endicott’s pear tree.
There are few surviving remnants of those earliest days in American history, when European settlers arrived to the wild lands of the New World. But as their centuries-old headstones have weathered and crumbled with time, and their names and stories have become lost to the ages, it’s reassuring to know that history is rooted by more than human memory and fading ink — and that a living monument has been fruitful through it all.
Stephen Messenger, Writer / Porto Alegre, Brazil
Stephen is a freelance writer and linguist based in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He covers issues related to the environmental movement in South America, as well as to the political and social challenges of sustainable development in the region and throughout the world. Stephen’s work has appeared in numerous publications both online and in print, including the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, and the Huffington Post.