Spanish Imperial Law specified that Texas colonists must be Roman Catholic. By 1850 however, Texas boasted 328 churches comprised of a total of 60,000 worshipers among 21 denominations. Many colonists and immigrants did not have a roof to worship under, in turn leaving them under the branches of nature.
These 9, historic trees were the starting point for most of the religions we have in Texas today.
Choctaw Robinson Oak
At one time, Hazel Dell was the toughest settlement in Comanche County. It has been said that only one of the first 10 settlers there, a preacher, died with his boots off.
That preacher’s name was William “Choctaw” Robinson. Robinson was noted for his long sermons, which often lasted three or four hours. He earned the nickname “Choctaw” while he was serving as a volunteer chaplain at Camp Colorado, in Coleman County, Texas.
Some Choctaw Indians, invited to attend one of his services, sat patiently for a long time but finally withdrew one by one. From then on Robinson was Choctaw Bill. It is fully understandable why his congregations were usually small. But in his later years, Robinson shrewdly chose a place to preach where he was sure to have an audience. He would ride up to a certain forked oak in Hazel Dell, dismount, tether his pony and lay his rifle in the crotch of the Choctaw Robinson Oak.
After invoking the blessing of the Almighty, he would begin preaching. Besides affording shade, the Choctaw Robinson Oak stood opposite a saloon, a store and the post office and so Robinson was always assured of an audience.
This historic tree still stands in Hazel Dell in Comanche County. Read more about the Choctaw Robinson Oak here.
Panna Maria Oaks
In 1854 on Christmas Eve on a small hill in central Texas overlooking the junction of the San Antonio and Cibolo rivers. Assembled under these live oak trees on a broad, almost treeless plateau, a strangely garbed group of seven or eight hundred settlers bent in prayer as a young priest conducted Mass before an altar set under the Panna Maria Oaks.
After the service, a few spent the night huddled together under the oaks, while others slept amid their belongings in shallow trenches or in the profusion of tall grass. Thus, with little more than a spark of hope and the Holy Spirit to comfort and sustain them, the first emigration of Polish settlers to America passed their Christmas Eve in a strange land.
Despite their many hardships and a dwindling population, the deeply religious people made plans to build a church that first spring. Work began in the summer, and the first Polish church in America was built beside these historic live oaks, which sheltered the first Mass.
The Panna Maria Oaks can be found on the north side of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, in Panna Maria. Click here to learn more.
Old North Church Oak
This historic post oak, known as the Old North Church Oak, once played an important role in the religious life of early Texans, for it was under its spreading branches that the settlers secretly met and worshipped.
Under Mexican rule, religious freedom was denied those of a faith other than Catholicism, the state religion. Consequently, until the defeat of the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, Texans of other faiths were forced to meet in secret.
As early as 1832, settlers in the Nacogdoches area met and worshipped under this historic post oak tree, which was somewhat removed from the settlement, but which had nearby a good spring of water.
In 1835, a 10-acre site around the tree was donated for use as a graveyard and church site by Dr. John M. Sparks, son of Richard Sparks, the last alcalde of Nacogdoches. The first use of the graveyard came when a child from a passing wagon train was buried.
All that remains of the Old North Church Oak in a historical monument where the tree once stood. Click here to read more on the Old North Church Oak.
This live oak tree, though affected by the ravages of nature, is revered by Texas Masons for the part it played in Texas’ Masonic history.
Nine years after Stephen F. Austin was granted permission by the Mexican government to establish a colony in Texas, the rapid Americanization of the area and growing anti-Mexican sentiment for suppression of civil and religious liberties gave rise to the passage of a law on April 6, 1830, which forbade further immigration of Anglo-Americans into Texas.
In the winter of 1834, Anson Jones, who was to become the first Grand Master of Texas Masonic lodges and later the third president of the Republic of Texas, met with five other Masons and took measures to establish a Lodge of their order in Texas.
The meeting was held under the Masonic Oak, at the back of the town of Brazoria, near the place known as General John Austin’s, which had been selected as a family burial ground. A petition was in due time forwarded to the Grand Lodge of Louisiana and dispensation granted for the formation of a Grand Lodge in Texas.
The tree still stands today, located on the south side of Pleasant Street, in Brazoria, across from Masonic Oak Park. Click here to read more about the Masonic Oak.
Under the spreading branches of the Baptist Oak, twelve early settlers of Goliad met on May 7, 1849, and organized the first Baptist church west of the Guadalupe River.
Two years before, the Reverend John Freeman Hillyer arrived from a pastorate in Galveston. He was a college-trained man from Georgia who had four academic degrees. In addition to being a preacher, he was also a physician and an educator. Hillyer’s objective in coming to Goliad was to establish a college for women.
Under this learned man’s leadership and with the support of the Baptists in Goliad, the doors of Hillyer Female College opened February 1, 1849. Three months later, Reverend Hillyer, acting as moderator, met under the Baptist Oak with eleven of his followers and organized the first Baptist church.
The Baptist Oak stands in front of 248 South Chilton Avenue in Goliad. Read more about the Baptist Oak here.
Beside the Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in New Braunfels stands a sturdy live oak, known as the Church Oak, whose history is lost except for the legend on a large concrete marker.
The memorial was placed at the base of the tree by the Texas Historic Landmarks Association. The Association’s secretary, Miss Adina de Zavala (daughter of the provisional vice president of the Republic of Texas) spoke at the dedication in November 1917.
Inscribed on the marker are the following words: “Folklore says that here, in the dawn of Texas history, stood an Indian village in which one of the early missionaries lingered many days; that here a vision of the chief’s daughter freed the first German in Texas. Tradition says that under this tree Mass was offered by the Abbe Em Domenech in 1849.”
The Church Oak still stands today, in the parking lot of Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church in New Braunfels. Click here to read more about the Church Oak.
Waugh Campground Oak
Until it died in the late 1990s, the Waugh Campground Oak, a post oak, was the only surviving witness to events that occurred on the historic site. Sheltered by the small hill above it and nourished by rich, sandy loam soil and an ever-running spring at its feet, the Waugh Campground Oak stands as a proud memorial to one of the earliest camp-meeting grounds in Texas.
The 10-acre plot on which this tree grew was donated by Isaac Addisons to the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The campground was named in honor of Bishop Beverly Waugh, who in 1840 organized the Texas Conference at Rutersville, in Fayette County.
The first camp meeting held at Waugh Campground was in 1841. From 1841 through the early 1890s Waugh Campground was used, not only for religious meetings, but for political meetings as well. At a rally under this tree on July 16, 1857, U.S. Senator Sam Houston, while campaigning for governor, faced Caldwell’s Judge Andrew S. Broaddus in a debate.
This famous post oak tree stood near the spring in Waugh Campground, northeast of the town of Caldwell. For more information on the Waugh Campground Oak click here.
In 1854 John Wiemers, a German by birth, came to New Fountain, near the present town of Hondo. There he settled, bought land and married. At one of the early church services, held under the shade of the Wiemers Oak, by the Reverend F. A. Shaper, a Methodist minister who had moved to New Fountain in 1858, John Wiemers was converted.
At the next night’s services his wife, too, was converted. They became charter members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South at New Fountain. Weather permitting, many of the pioneers’ summer and mid-week prayer meetings were held under the shade of the Wiemers Oak.
It still stands near the site of John Wiemers’ house. In 1862, the New Fountain Methodist Church was built on land donated by the Wiemers, well within sight of the oak under which the two had been converted. Read more about the Weimers Oak here.
Bloys Symbolic Oak
The first “cowboy” camp meeting took place on October 10, 1890, under this ancient oak tree, known as the Bloys Symbolic Oak.
The Reverend William Benjamin Bloys, a Presbyterian home missionary who had devoted himself to the camp meeting idea for nearly 30 years, conducted the three-day meeting. Camp meetings became ecumenical shortly after the first meeting, and by 1904, when the organization was chartered as Bloys Camp Meeting Association, it was composed of four religious’ denominations—Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and Disciple.
The venerable oak under which the first service was conducted is sometimes referred to as the Symbolic Oak. About two feet above ground its four main limbs are united to form a single stout trunk, one which symbolizes the union of the four Protestant churches which have participated in the camp meetings these many years.
Each of the four denominational ministers preaches once each day in a planned rotation. In addition to the preaching, special music by outstanding musicians and congregational singing makes for seven days of inspirational experiences for the campers.
The Bloys Symbolic Oak still stands today, located on private property near Fort Davis. Click here to read more about the Bloys Symbolic Oak.