The grand oak tree that stands along Harris Street on the edge of Courthouse Square has stood watch, as a “sentinel,” for many years. Its neighboring trees are young, nowhere near the size of this tree. It has surely seen a lot of Charlotte and Eaton County history in its nearly 250 years, which means it probably sprouted from an acorn around 1770.
When the tree was just a seedling the Revolutionary War had not been fought. The state of Michigan was not settled, although French explorers had been here.
Native Americans lived in the area. Edward Foote, an early Eaton County settler, said “The whites, who settled here previous to 1840, found the country inhabited by some of the Pottawatomie and Chippewa—or properly, Ojibwa—tribes.” The county was a vast forest with all the usual forest animals living here.
The area that would become Charlotte was owned by the U.S. Government until 1832. Michigan became a state in 1837—the tree was over 60 years old then, and very tall. As the county grew, so did the oak.
Charlotte was incorporated into a village in 1863 and incorporated into a city in 1871. It became the county seat around 1835.
In 1840, Edmund B. Bostwick bought an acre of land where Courthouse Square is today, intended for the county buildings and a jail. The tree was about 70 years old then and wasn’t felled for the building.
The first jail was opened in 1846 on the property. The Sentinel tree stood and watched the comings and goings of lawbreakers, the sheriff, and his family. Picnics were probably held under the deep shade of the oak tree.
A small wooden courthouse was built in the square. This building was moved in 1872. In 1883 the cornerstone for the current courthouse at Courthouse Square was laid.
The oak stood alongside the jail and sheriff’s residence, which probably provided some fascinating stories to tell. Its sentinel services were probably in high demand with a jail next door.
In 1873 a large and elegant new jail was constructed.
The oak tree even survived the fire that gutted the courthouse in 1894.
“With all its history,” said Courthouse Square president Rod Weaver, “it’s only fitting that the members of the Courthouse Square Association recognize the ‘Sentinel Oak’ this Arbor Day.