The Infamous Van Buren Elm Incident of 1842 (repost)

I posted about this incident almost two years ago. It seemed fitting that it make its way onto the blog once again. It only goes to show that not much has changed in politics or what we think of politicians.


This is the story as explained on the application to the National Register of Historic Places:

The Infamous Van Buren Elm (picture taken in 1926 (Courtesy, The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.)
The Infamous Van Buren Elm (picture taken in 1926 (Courtesy, The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.)
-In 1842, ex-president Martin Van Buren (in office 1837-1841) was campaigning in Indiana in preparation for the presidential election of 1844. Years earlier, Van Buren had opposed a bill that would have provided federal funding for the improvement of roads. Some residents of Plainfield decided to teach Van Buren a lesson by subjecting him to an uncomfortable ride over the unimproved highways. The driver of the mail coach which was carrying the ex-president from Indianapolis to Terre Haute who was a native of Plainfield decided to whip the team into a gallop during the last half-mile coming into Plainfield. As the coach approached a large mud hole — known as a wallow for hogs — the driver attempted to slow the team. The team reared and backed, throwing the coach out to the left, where it climbed the bank before running up against the roots of a great elm tree. The stage slowly turned over on its side, landing in the center of the hog wallow, as the driver jumped to safety. Van Buren climbed out the upward-facing side of the coach and waded through the mud to Fisher’s Tavern at what is now 106 E. Main Street. The road was lined with people from the surrounding county who had hoped to see Van Buren pass through. Mrs. Fisher helped clean the mud off of Van Buren’s pearl-gray trousers, frock coat, and wide-brimmed hat. This incident was long remembered as a moment when the people of Plainfield had made their point to the ex-president. One newspaper remarked that “the only free soil of which Van Buren had knowledge was the dirt he scraped from his person at Plainfield.” The large elm tree, located on the south side of Main Street in the Friends Meetinghouse grounds, became known as the “Van Buren Elm” and was the subject of souvenir postcards. A marker was erected on the site of the tree when it was cut down. An elementary school was later named for Van Buren, and the Plainfield High School yearbook was for many years called the Van Buren Elm.

Although this incident probably had little impact, Van Buren’s presidential ambitions following his one term as President did not fare well. He failed to gain the 1844 Democratic nomination. Later in 1848, Van Buren ran as a Free Soil 3rd party candidate. He collected 10% of the popular vote but no electoral votes. Furthermore, he probably siphoned enough votes in the north to ensure Whig Zachary Taylor’s Electoral College win over Democrat Lewis Cass.

The incident merited mention by President Ronald Reagan as he visited the County Seat in Danville in 1987:

The DAR presentation with the original memorial plaque in 1916.
The DAR presentation with the original memorial plaque in 1916.

– I was especially struck when, on the way in, someone mentioned that Hendricks County was also the home of the famous Van Buren Elm, a magnificent tree named for President Van Buren when he visited nearby Plainfield. I thought that naming a tree in honor of a President was a fine thing to do, and I even daydreamed for a moment about having a tree named after myself. [Laughter] And then I found out a little more about the Van Buren Elm. [Laughter] It turns out that Van Buren was riding in a carriage when the driver took a sharp turn around the elm, throwing Van Buren out of the carriage and into the mud. [Laughter] And in case you’re wondering, the answer is, yes, I’ve warned the Secret Service to be on the lookout for elms. [Laughter] And I’m wondering how I ever got through my own college, Eureka College. The alma mater is “Neath the Elms upon the Campus.” [Laughter]

The Harry Truman gavel made with wood from the Van Buren Elm.
The Harry Truman gavel made with wood from the Van Buren Elm.
A plaque on a large stone (pictured above) now marks the site where the notorious elm tree once stood. The tree survived until 1926 when all but a stump was left after being damaged in a storm. The remaining stump was removed in 1947 with some lumber from the tree used to make a mallet for President Harry Truman. Reportedly the coach driver received a fine silk hat for his efforts.


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