105a Syca Fulton Jpg
Robert Fulton Birthplace, 1932 Robert Fulton Highway (Rt. 222), Quarryville (New Britain) PA

This tree, about 85 feet tall and 17 feet in trunk circumference, was estimated to be 275 years old a decade ago. Robert Fulton of steamboat fame was born in 1765, so if the estimate was correct, the tree was alive during Fulton’s residence. 

​The fourth photo shows members of the Joseph Swift family in 1898, and the Sycamore was already a large tree those 120 years ago.  (The house looks different because it was covered in stucco then; it has since been restored to how it looked when Robert Fulton lived there.). Swift, related to the Fultons, moved into the New Britain house in 1772 when Fulton’s family moved to Lancaster.  

According to Alice Crary Sutcliffe (Robert Fulton, 1915), the “buttonwood tree is said to have grown from a riding-whip which Joseph Swift’s daughter, Esther, stuck into the ground one day as she dismounted from her favorite pony” during a visit.  

This story, while perhaps apocryphal, could actually be true.  Sutcliffe was Fulton’s great-granddaughter and thus may have had fairly reliable information about the episode.  Moreover, a branch used as a whip would have needed to be supple and hence a softwood cutting which, in Sycamores, can indeed sprout when “planted” if conditions (wetness, etc.) are right.  And thirdly, this sort of story has been heard before:  Charles Fergus, in Trees of Pennsylvania (2002), writes that in Bucks County a boy named William Rodman in 1745 “plucked up a little sycamore to use as a riding whip. Finishing his ride, he stuck it into the ground next to a spring.  The tree supposedly grown from that riding crop became a leviathan with a girth of 29 feet.  A storm felled it in 1984, 239 years after it was planted.”   

If Esther Swift did in fact plant the Fulton tree when she was, say, about 8 or 9 years old (she was born in 1761), the tree would be closer to 250 years old today rather than the 285 indicated above.

​This sycamore has been nominated to America’s registry of historic trees.

​This amazing species, although long-lived, can rapidly grow to a mature height of 100 feet within a mere 20 years.


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