History of the Hale-Byrnes House and the George Washington Witness Tree of Delaware

An Amazing Tree... What did it witness?

One of, if not the first, mention of the land where the Hale-Byrnes House stands is mentioned on a land grant. Sergeant Thomas Wollaston, John Ogle, John Hendrick, and Hermann Johnston received a land grant at Fort James, in New York, on the Island of Manhattan in August 1668. At this time, it was almost certainly undeveloped land.

The land would pass through several owners. On November the 23rd, 1749, Warwick Hale, a millwright by trade, willed his property on the "South West Bank" of the creek to Samuel Hale, his son. David Finney then purchased the land. The house was built around this time, but we do not have a definite date. This is why we say circa 1750 for the original part of the house. We also do not know whether the house was built by Samuel or David. Something that is very interesting is one of the bricks in the "original" part of the house is carved "A Finney." It has been said Samuel had a pottery shop set up in the basement. The bricks constructing the house were most likely made on the property. The property was perfectly located close to the Red Clay, and White Clay Creeks, which is probably why David Finney purchased it, as he was a potter. 

Finney sold the land to a Quaker and preacher named Daniel Byrnes. Byrnes was also a miller by trade and a very educated man. As shown by a letter he wrote to Benjamin Franklin and the Philosophical Society on lunar instruments in 1788, according to the Library of Congress, "Byrnes also invented a wooden instrument (later produced in brass) for the purpose of taking lunar observations to measure the angular distance between the sun and moon including the attitudes of both at the same time." The house was purchased by Byrnes on January 16th, 1773, and had further additions, adding a two-story service wing, and very modern (for the 18th century) kitchen. At least one mill was built on that site, and many other improvements were made to the property. As to the question of if the tree was planted or naturally grew up in the front yard of the house, we will never know. 

There are a great many trees in the United States. Few of those trees are particularly old. Even fewer still are living witnesses to our Civil War, let alone our Revolution. However, extremely few other trees have the distinction of witnessing a historical decision that would so greatly affect the outcome of the birth of our nation. 

The Price Map 1777 with troop illustrations

The Red Clay Creek Behind the house facing north towards the dam

This ample waterpower was used to power the mills producing the flour

 Google Satellite Map showing Hale-Byrnes House and GWWT of DE

During the Brandywine Campaign in 1777, General Howe decided to fight a traditional European military campaign with the goal of capturing our nation’s capital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and, hopefully, capturing congress as well. From an 18th century European military mind, he would have thought that would have ended our revolution. Floating his entire army down by sea, he planned to march from the south and take our capital. This put Washington, the Continental Army, and our entire revolution at stake. General Howe and the British forces landed at Head of Elk, Maryland.

On September 3, 1777, the British and Hessian advanced guard fought continental regulars and militia, eventually driving them from their positions at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge in New Castle, Delaware. Now needing to create an almost emergency plan, Washington needed to choose a spot for the Council of War. The spot he chose was directly between the two opposing armies at the home of Reverend Daniel Byrnes. It is not mentioned what the Quaker Reverend, his wife Dinah Byrnes, or the children thought of this. From September 6-9, 1777, some of the greatest heroes of the Revolution, including the newly-arrived Marquis de Lafayette, anxiously debated over the strategy of that campaign, which ultimately led to the flawless overnight evacuation of our continental army from Wilmington, Delaware, to a locally known quiet country ford. This would soon become an internationally known and fateful battle: the battle of Brandywine. It is recorded that during that Council of War before the Battle of Brandywine, at the Hale-Byrnes house, Washington and his officers shaded themselves, partook of some refreshments, and argued underneath this venerable old tree. Perhaps His Excellency General Washington wished the Marquis de Lafayette joy of the day as Lafayette turned 20 years old (George Washington was 45) at the Hale-Byrnes House.

Washington's men were constantly hungry, as shown in the "General Orders Head Quarters, Newport, September 7, 1777," which is in the collection of the University of Virginia. It lists several officers and soldiers from the Continental Army being court-martialed for plundering food. Over 40 wagon loads of flour, meals, and grains were requisitioned by the Continental Army with a promissory note, as well as 8 large cheeses from the Byrnes Household. In 1793, Mr. Byrnes was still petitioning to be paid on that promissory note. Sadly, it is very possible he was never paid. In 1781, on the way to Yorktown, Virginia, the Continental Army marched past the front of the Hale-Byrnes House. This is why the Hale-Byrnes House is listed on the map by the National Park Service (Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, Delaware-Places To Go)

The Hale-Byrnes House and George Washington Witness Tree Circa 1900-1930 (Look at the George Washington Witness Tree in the right of the Picture)

The Hale-Byrnes House and George Washington Witness Tree December 9th, 2022 (Look at the George Washington Witness Tree in the right of the Picture)

Daniel Byrnes died on May 27th, 1797, in Ulster County, New York. According to the register of wills in New York State, he left the property to his sons, "Caleb and Joshua, their heirs and assigns forever as tenants in Common as aforesaid and not as joint tenants." Over the years it remained a private home as the land around the house was slowly sold off. The property was owned by Andrew C. Gray, Esquire, for a time. It was also owned by the Boyce family until the house was, finally, left derelict and abandoned. The empty house was still owned privately, but people would break in and cook meals in the fireplace after fishing. Purchased for preservation by the Cooch's Bridge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution it was given to the State of Delaware. To quote the application from the National Register of Historic Places received by them on March 9th, 1972, "The property eventually was acquired by the Delaware Society for the Preservation of Antiquities who were responsible for the restoration. On August 31, 1971, the property was generously given to the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs of the State of Delaware." With the house, came the tree!

The front of the Hale-Byrnes House, and part of the front garden in September 2021

The brick next to the back door marked "A. Finney."

Wilmington Morning News undated picture (included with Vol. 160-No.109) of H-B House from Hale-Byrnes House Archives

Wilmington Morning News January 6th, 1962, article on the H-B House

Wilmington Morning News Vol. 160- No.109, picture of H-B House from Hale-Byrnes House Archives

 The tree is an American Sycamore, which is sometimes called a Buttonwood tree. From the pictures we can see below, the tree trunk of the George Washington Witness Tree was whitewashed with lime around or after the turn of the last century. This was a very common practice at the time and is still done today. The reason you would paint a tree trunk is to protect it from sunburn. This is also sometimes called "overheating damage." This practice also helps protect from wood boring/damaging bugs, helps repel moisture, which causes wood to rot, and helps repel wood fungus. (Page with information on whitewashing tree trunks coming soon.) Looking at the photos below (assuming conservatively the oldest photograph is from the 1930s) from the 1930s to the 1980s (State of Delaware Forester/Bartlett Tree Experts/ Davey Tree Experts Documents), we see the entire center trunk of the tree rotted out in only 50 years. Now, unfortunately, the rot has spread to the entire tree interior. The Tidewater Oil Company donated money to save the George Washington Witness Tree in the 1960s. 

George Washington Witness Tree Circa 1900-1930-The trunk is whitewashed with lime (just like the chicken coop behind the tree to the left)

George Washington Witness Tree September 2022-The entire center of the trunk is gone. Only the shell of the tree remains intact

George Washington Witness Tree September 2022- Showing tree limb (recently removed for stability) interior rot. "This rot runs from the base of the tree throughout the tree, even into the limbs."

November 25th ,1987, Bartlett Tree Experts recommends drastic cutting back to reduce the weight of the tree and special care. Retrieved from Hale-Byrnes House Archives

January 30th, 1988, the State of Delaware Forester recommends removal of the tree. Retrieved from Hale-Byrnes House Archives

March 21st, 1988, Davey Tree Service further recommends removing more dead weight from the tree, and special care. Retrieved from Hale-Byrnes House Archives

 By the 1980s, the tree was in very bad shape. The State of Delaware recommended it be taken down due to the risk to the house, visitors, and power lines. The trunk had become completely hollow. At some point before this the trunk had been filled with concrete. This was popular at the time. However, we now know concrete filling only adds to weight stress and water retention. This further destabilized and rotted the tree. The concrete had been removed and 2 retaining bolts instead were inserted to the tree's trunk. However, they had started to wrench themselves free from the tree. The weight was getting to be too much, and the tree had to be further cut back.  Bartlett Tree Services said, "The existing screw rods are not supported on one side due to being anchored into deadwood." Davey Tree Expert Company said, "There is evidence of a concrete filling, but no concrete remains," and "uneven stress on parts of the trunk." 

The George Washington Witness Tree of Delaware still now proudly stands. However, every year more parts are pruned or removed to re-stabilize the tree, and remove the rotted/dead portions. This is a losing game. Eventually, the tree will not have enough leaf surface to produce food and die or a storm will cause the continually destabilizing trunk to collapse. As Historian Joshua Loper said, "As I give tours at the Hale-Byrnes House... To people who come and visit, it looks as if loyalty is the only thing still holding up the venerable old tree." With Mr. Loper's efforts to spread the word about the tree, he preserved the tree in cuttings, which lead to this museum being formed in December 2022. 

To see how the tree is being saved, please visit our webpage: George Washington Witness Tree of Delaware - Preservation of the George Washington Witness Tree  

National Historic Trail Sign marking the route taken by Washington and Rochambeau's Army to Yorktown at the Hale-Byrnes House

Heritage Plaque from the State of Delaware on the Hale-Byrnes House

State of Delaware Historic Plaque (NC-50) listing the Hale-Byrnes House as having been General Washington's Headquarters Sept. 6th, 1777

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