Remarkable Trees of Virginia: The Wilson Oak

The second tree we hoped to find and visit while in Highland County, was a giant old Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor,) dubbed the Wilson Oak.  This tree is in fact the state champion swamp white oak. We had vague directions, only knowing that it was somewhere on the Bath County line in a tiny speck of a town called Bolar.  Had we remembered our Remarkable Trees of Virginia book on this trip (which also mentions the Midway Grocery store that is next to the field where the tree resides), we wouldn’t have had any trouble finding the tree, but of course I had left it behind.  So going on what we did know, we set out Sunday morning in search of a tree on roads that were pretty near vacant.  The countryside was beautiful, and every big branchless oak in a field was speculated on:  “Do you think that’s it?”  We did a good bit of driving and listening to Seth sigh over and over that we would “never find it.”  Then finally we passed a house with a young man just climbing into his pick up truck out front.  Jonny pulled over and asked the man if he could direct us to Bolar, and more specifically the Wilson Oak.  Evidently this tree is well known, as he knew exactly what Jonny was talking about and told us just how to get there.  He told us that if we have ever seen a picture of the tree, that we couldn’t miss it.  He was right.
We did find the tree, but it and the pasture surrounding it were quite different in the stark winter landscape than in the summertime photo in our Remarkable Trees of Virginia book.  Of course that photo was also taken a few years back, and since then the tree has lost it’s top; now more of a monument than the great tree it once was.
We got permission to climb the barbed wire fence (tricky tricky for this pregnant lady!) and headed across the pasture to visit the tree.  The lone cow in the field watched us with interest.  Gabriel and Beatrix had a great time talking about cow “poo” and doing their best to avoid the abundant patties.
Seth reached the tree first, exclaiming the fact that it truly was a giant tree.  How sad though to see the last of it’s crown in a pile a few yards away, and the many branches rotting in the muddy soil around it’s base.  One local legend regarding this tree is that it hosted the last hanging in Highland County, and then dropped it’s branches in shame over this less than admirable past.  Other stories, passed down orally through the generations include the tree having witnessed Indian attacks and scalpings.  The only verified tale is the one that gave the tree it’s name.  Apparently the Wilson family, who lived in a cabin close to the oak, was attacked by Indians in 1763, and the details are ugly.  The official account of local historian Hugh Gwin, contains no scalping, and no hangings, though.
Swamp white oaks, as their name suggests, prefer moist sites, and this tree grows in what is described as a swale that captures water flowing off Jack Mountain into the Jackson River.  It’s definitely a muddy swamp spot.  I just wish we could have seen the tree a few years ago…
I am just glad we found it, and glad that it is still standing.  There is something truly fascinating about the history of an old tree.


  1. It is so cool to see The Wilson Oak on your blog! I am a descendant of the Wilson lady that was allegedly scalped under the tree during the Indian raid. My grandmother passed that story down to me. This tree is definitely an iconic one in the county. Thank you for teaching your children about the history of Highland County and the history of its great trees – both Oak and Maple! 🙂 Hope you can come back to Highland County again soon! It sure is a magical place. 🙂

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