Hobby turned career: how 1 person’s passion for American history changed the field

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When Kristen de Graauw was a Ph.D. candidate at West Virginia University, she found a way to merge her passions for Appalachian history and tree-ring dating of log buildings.

“When I came to WVU, I knew I wanted my research to be focused on forest ecology but also somehow related to the dating of historic log buildings and the history that we have here in the Appalachian region,” said de Graauw.

What is “tree-ring dating?”

Kristen de Graauw, who is the owner of Historic Timbers Dendroarchaeology, explained that every year that trees in temperate climates put on an annual growth ring. Every year there are different factors that are influencing the growth of trees. Some years might be dryer than others, which means trees will put on smaller growth rings. Versus wetter years that might put on larger growth rings.

De Grauuw said, “With each year, we have this variability in ring width that’s occurring and over time we start to notice patterns in the variability of ring width, which we can then match with other trees from other parts of the same region.”

The Barracks, constructed in 1799, is owned by the Greenbrier County Historical Society and located in downtown Lewisburg, WV.

She worked exclusively in Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Pendleton and Hardy countiea. She mentioned that she chose these counties because there were a lot of log buildings and she received a lot of support from the local historical societies.

“It was a really fun opportunity to talk to local communities about tree-ring dating buildings. And for a lot of people, they didn’t realize that was an option,” said de Graauw.

She explained how there are other ways to date log buildings but none of those ways are as precise as tree-ring dating, and there are a lot of people in West Virginia with log buildings that want to know what year it was built.

De Graauw and her mentor, Professor Amy Hessl, had their study, “Do Historic Log Buildings Provide Evidence of Reforestation Following Depopulation of Indigenous Peoples,” published in the Journal of Biogeography.

Through their research, de Graauw said they were surprised to notice a trend of the trees and buildings starting to grow between 1670 and 1690.

They realized that there was a possibility that these trees were all growing as a response to a decrease in land management at the time of Native American occupation, or there was a major drought event that happened in Eastern North America.

“So we’re seeing all these trees that start to grow around the same time and there are two potential causes for that. And we don’t quite know which one that is but it’s a really strong signal we’re seeing throughout West Virginia, so it’s really quite interesting to see that,” explained de Graauw.

De Graauw mentioned that they have received a lot of positive feedback throughout their research.

“The owners of the buildings just want to know “when was this built?” and so to be able to give them that little piece of their history back to them is always a positive thing.”

Kristen de Graauw

The West Virginia Humanities Council provided funding to find several historical societies to date their log buildings they were able to use in their study. They just received another grant from the WVHC to date two more log buildings in Monroe County for the Monroe County Historical Society.

“They have been a major help in this process to help us find funding to date these buildings to better understand the history of West Virginia,” said de Graauw.

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