BUCKHANNON — In this first edition of a series of articles that will follow, Upshur County’s rich history, culture and people honored by the West Virginia Highway Historical Marker Program will be explored. The state register lists 20 of these iconic white plaques right here in Upshur County. After a brief introduction to the Historical Marker Program, this first installment will focus on the Pringle Tree of Buckhannon, WV.
The West Virginia Highway Historical Marker Program was established in 1937 as part of the New Deal to encourage tourism during the Great Depression. Since the late 1960s, the program has been managed by West Virginia Archives and History, part of the state Department of Arts, Culture & History. Placement of markers was funded by the state until 1985; all those placed since have been funded by groups or private individuals.
Approximately 1,000 markers exist across the state, though recent surveys indicate that nearly 30% of them are no longer standing and a majority of the markers are in dire need of repair. Funds for refurbishment in the past have been granted by the state legislature and the Division of Highways grants program. Missing or damaged markers should be reported to the State Archives.
The first subject covered in this series is the Pringle Tree. One of its two historical markers can be found off US 119/WV 20 on Pringle Tree Road, and the other is located in front of the tree itself. This hollow sycamore is one of the most famous landmarks in Upshur County because of its connection to the era of early American pioneers. Half-brothers John and Samuel Pringle [John, between 1717 and 1777 – unknown; Samuel, 1726-1830], originally from the Philadelphia area, were soldiers during the French and Indian War, a conflict fought over the Ohio River Valley by British, French and Native American forces considered to be a front in the Seven Years’ War. Stationed at Fort Pitt [present-day Pittsburgh] in 1761, the brothers decided to abandon their post, traveling southward and upstream along the Monongahela and Tygart Valley rivers.
They arrived in what is now Upshur County in 1764 and took shelter in an 11-foot-deep cavity in a towering American sycamore. While living in the river valley near Turkey Run for three years, the two deserters survived frigid winters, sustaining themselves by fishing for trout and hunting rabbits, turkey and bison. They also had run-ins with local predators, with Samuel writing about his close encounters with both a black bear and a mountain lion. Eventually, by autumn 1767, they ran dangerously low on ammunition, with each man having only two powder charges left. Though the two feared being captured and imprisoned for their desertion, it was John who decided to return to civilization for supplies.
The closest settlement at that time was on the South Branch Potomac River, or Wappatomaka, located about 200 miles northeast. When John eventually returned to his brother from visiting the settlement, he reported that neither of them were wanted by the authorities. Peace had been declared between the French and British, and they could freely return to civilization.
The Pringles left their river valley and moved to the South Branch settlements. John would later leave the area and establish a home in Kentucky, but Samuel would return with his wife, Charity Pringle, his brother-in-law, John Cutright, Jr., and several other settler families who would disperse throughout modern-day Upshur and Lewis counties. Among those who settled the area were John and Elizabeth Jackson, great-grandparents of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
The aboveground portion of the Pringle Tree was destroyed twice over the centuries, once by disease and once by flood, though the root system is still that of the tree which sheltered the Pringle Brothers 257 years ago. The third-generation tree that grew from the roots sometime prior to 1900 is remarkably similar to its ancestor, even including its hollow trunk; it is this tree which stands in Pringle Tree Park today.