The Infamous Van Buren Elm Incident of 1842

The Elm Tree Plaque
The Elm Tree Plaque

The National Road is known as Main Street and serves as Plainfield’s primary east-west roadway. As the sign in front of the Pedestrian Bridge states, “Make History, Drive It, The Road that Built the Nation.” In one of the more infamous footnotes of US History, the Town of Plainfield, the National Road and one of our early Presidents came together for a historical and amusing incident in 1842!

The National Road Information Sign
The National Road Information Sign

As the story goes, former President Martin Van Buren traveled to Indianapolis in 1842 as a part of a western swing to garner support for an eventual 1844 presidential bid. From there, he would continue to Illinois passing through Plainfield on the National Road. Locals firmly supported the continued improvements to the National Road, and they were still angered that Van Buren, as president, had vetoed an appropriation bill for road improvements toward the end of his term. The National Road, now known as US 40, served as a life-line for Indiana farmers of that time as they sent their crops back to the eastern states. A few of the more vociferous individuals conspired with Van Buren’s coach driver to make a point with the former President. Locals lined the National Road on its approach to Plainfield anticipating Van Buren’s arrival. As the driver brought the coach down the hill toward the center of town, he swerved around an elm tree hitting an exposed root. The carriage toppled and Van Buren fell into a mud bog soiling his fresh outfit. More than a few of the town folks took pleasure in seeing him at a nearby tavern washing up!

President Martin Van Buren (www.history.com)
President Martin Van Buren (www.history.com)

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:

–  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]

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.

Old photographs found on-line:

Dedication of Van Buren Elm plaque by DAR in 1916 (this is the real tree behind the ladies)
Dedication of Van Buren Elm plaque by DAR in 1916 (this is the real tree behind the ladies)

Shot of Van Buren Elm prior to 1916

6 Comments

    1. Yes, we also have an elementary school named after Van Buren as a further tribute (?) to the former President!

      And yes, Reagan had a great sense of humor. YouTube is full of videos of him joking around during speeches and such! I think he was the last President we had who developed a real connection with the general public. He was not a condescending politician.

      Thanks for the read – I am glad you enjoyed it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m English and you can add to the presidents in the mud every single politician over here. They are all suddenly interested in me and my opinions, just because there’s a General Election in the offing!

      Liked by 2 people

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