It is likely that the Tory Oak is one of the most historic trees in North Carolina, which grew for possibly three centuries in what is now the town of Wilkesboro. It was a vivid reminder of the stirring days of the Revolutionary period. The exact age of this famous old tree will never be known.
The Tory, occasionally referred to as the Cleveland Oak, assisted in the struggle for independence when Col. Ben Cleveland, a leader in the plight for freedom is western North Carolina, used its spreading limbs to hang at least five Tories.
In the fall of 1779, two marauding Tories plundered the Lincoln County home of George Wilfong, a Whig, and brazenly using the man's clothes line to lead off his horses. Wilfong and some others pursued the thieves and regained his horses, but the thieves escaped and headed south toward the British Lines. Before reaching safety, they were apprehended by Ben Cleveland's scouts and brought to the Wilkes County courthouse. Here, Cleveland summarily administered his justice, using Wilfong's clothes line to hang the loyalist from the limbs of the Tory Oak.
The enraged British forces sent Captain Riddle and two men, named Reeves and Goss, to capture Cleveland. They nearly accomplished this aim, but instead found themselves taken prisoner, shortly after which they too were dangling from the beckoning branches of the Tory Oak.
For the many years afterward, the tree stood nobly as a familiar landmark. But not even the tender care and doctoring from its admirers could hold off the effects of its age. Over recent decades it withstood the strain of three operations to remove rotten portions which were replaced with concrete motor. The rotting continued however and two-thirds of the tree was felled by heavy winds in June 1989.
What strong winds in 1989 began was finished in June 1992, when a storm of hail, copious rain, and wind struck down all the lop-sided remainder of this landmark tree leaving but a splintered trunk. Hundreds came to pay their respects to the fallen tree and to gather portions of the wood for souvenirs.
In 1980, the Tory Oak was given the distinction of being North Carolina's "champion" black oak. The Tory's circumference was 14 feet, its crown height was 50 feet, and its overall limb spread was 40 feet. However, its fate began to dwindle, in June 1989 and June 1992 violent wind storms left the old tree as only a 12 foot stump. This stump was removed in 1997 and a young oak sapling was planted and continues to remind us of the determined patriots whose courage and sacrifice won the freedom that lets us live in a democracy.
In 1992, the National Park Service designated the Tory Oak Site as a Certified Protected Site of the Overmountain Victory National Historical Trail.