Finding the Witness Tree
June 6, 2013
History buffs always love a good mystery. Especially when you find a treasure in the end.
Our first clue in the mystery of the Witness Tree came in the shape of a map. Not just any map, mind you; this was a typewritten list of landmarks, arranged in the order that a traveler would find them. Compiled more than 50 years ago by Woodfords resident Grant Merrill, this “written map” contained a number of fascinating tidbits. Woodfords, for example, once was home to an old cooper shop and an “Indian ball park.” Who knew?
But it was one cryptic reference that especially caught our eye. Sandwiched between the entries for the old Lincoln Schoolhouse and Snowshoe Thompson’s Diamond Valley home was a notation: “Latter Day Saints’ Baptismal Pond.” What was the meaning of that? And most of all, where was it?
Yes, indeed, many early settlers in Diamond Valley during the 1860s and ’70s were Mormons, local historian Laurie Hickey confirmed. Rancher Henry Wells, for example, was known to have carried a Mormon Bible with him through the Civil War. And other Diamond Valley families of the Mormon faith included the Singletons, Vallems, and Trimmers. The reference to a baptism site began to make sense. But where in the vast expanse of grass could it have been?
A second clue emerged unexpectedly months later: another map. This time, a friend with an interest in local history found a sketch by her grandfather in the back of an old book, and immediately recognized its value. The sketch had been drawn by Harry Hawkins, a life-long Woodfords resident. And it, too, offered a small glimpse of Diamond Valley in days gone by. Featured prominently were the roads to Clogston’s Ranch and Markleeville – and a small, branching icon marked “Witness Tree.”
Clearly, this tree had been an important Diamond Valley landmark. Our friend, who has hiked nearly every inch of the area over the years, knew right away which tree must have been the mysterious Witness Tree. And she recalled there had once been a pond right beside it.
And so one recent morning we drove out to see for ourselves. There on the south side of Diamond Valley Road, just past the cluster of trees on the north marking the Ellis and Johns homesteads, one solitary tree stands out. This is more than a tree; it carries itself with silent dignity. Here was our Witness Tree.
Just to the south are remains of an earthen dam, built to channel and contain the water. And under the tree, the outline of a good-sized pond remains visible. We’d found the long-ago baptismal pond! For all the sea of grass, this small piece of history was still there.
Karen Dustman is an Alpine County resident.