From the Archives: Chrysti the Wordsmith on the Word ‘Trust’

From the 1993 Spring GVLT Newsletter, written by Chrysti the Wordsmith

In 1891, the world’s first private land trust was founded in Boston, Massachusetts by a young Bostonian named Charles Eliot. Charles Eliot spent an enchanted childhood exploring the endless forests surrounding the city of Boston. Those early sylvan adventures later inspired him to enroll in the Harvard School of Horticulture and Agriculture, from which he graduated in 1882. Soon thereafter, Eliot became concerned about the disappearance of public open spaces near Boston. He saw that the city was devouring the countryside as the population expanded. Eliot responded to this situation with remarkable vision. He founded an organization called the Trustees of Reservations, which he described as “an incorporated association, composed of citizens of all Boston towns, and empowered by the State to hold small and well-distributed parcels of land, free of taxes, just as the Public Library holds books, and the Art Museum pictures for the use and enjoyment of the public.” The first project of the Trustees of Reservations was the safeguarding of the Waverly Oaks, a stand of famous trees near Boston.

Now, what was happening in Montana while the Bostonian Charles Eliot was championing the salvation of wild and scenic lands? Montana was simultaneously laboring to rid herself of such places! In 1891, Montana’s 143,000 Anglo citizens were celebrating a second year of statehood. The federal government was eager to pack this young state from border to border with “civilized folk”. To that end, Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 whereby each settler was given 320 acres after he or she had “proved up” for five years. Thirty-two million Montana acres passed from public hands into private under the Enlarged Homestead Act. The Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and Milwaukee Road railways lured thousands more homesteaders west by offering a one-way freight car from St. Paul to Montana for just twenty two dollars and fifty cents.

The desire to corral this country was fierce in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1907, the editor of the Gallatin hFarmer and Stockman magazine wrote “The rancher of the future will know the color of the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney. The covert of the deer will be the retreat of the domestic animal and the lair of the wild beast the play house of children. There will be no wilderness anymore.” The idea of Charles Eliot’s land trusts would probably have seemed absurd to these early Montanans. To preserve a parcel of land for its scenic value? Not in Montana, thank you, where to cultured, enterprising, decent folk, scenic was just as good as desert.

The population crush which alarmed Charles Eliot 101 years ago in Boston has now arrived on the western landscape. Concerned Montana landowners such as Gertrude Baker, Kit and Dave Wolney, and Cheryl Chadwick have worked with the local Gallatin Valley Land Trust to shield their land from undesired and inappropriate development. Through easements and purchases, GVLT has been empowered to oversee the sensible management of these land parcels and to seal the landowner’s intentions for their properties.

A trust is an organization, like GVLT, which superintends the management of a client’s money, property or goods. Used as a verb, trust means to have confidence in, to hope, to believe in. Our English word trust comes most recently from the Germanic language family. In German, the word is trost, in Dutch, troost, and there are corresponding words in the Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic languages. But the Germanic language family is not the womb of our English word trust. Language scholars believe this term is quite ancient, and comes to us via a long and tangly etymological trail. Historical linguists postulate that the inventors of the term trust lived somewhere near eastern Europe between 7000 and 2000 BC. These late Stone Age peoples were mostly sedentary. They cultivated wheat, beans, barley and peas. They kept domesticated goats, sheep, and swine, and supplemented their diets with wild apples, cherries, and honey collected from wild bees. Archaeological evidence suggests they lived in mud plaster dwellings with thatched roofs. These early European farming people were so successful that by 2000 BC they had pushed out of eastern Europe into northwestern Europe, to Greece and Italy. Into Russia, Asia Minor, Iran and India pressed other branches of these European people. These emigrants conquered new lands not only with their technology, but with the power of language. Whether settling in India or Italy, they carried with them an armor of language which they bequeathed to those they vanquished. As a result, most of the peoples in Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, India and Greece eventually adopted dialects of this early European language.

Linguists have named this language Indo-European (IE), because they believe it is the progenitor of all European and eastern Indian tongues. Included in the IE mosaic is the Germanic subfamily of languages, of which English is part. In the past two centuries, linguistic scholars have reconstructed elements of the IE tongue. They have identified many Indo-European roots which are the ultimate ancestors of thousands of modern English words. And this is where our quest for the pedigree of the word trust begins in earnest.

Most etymologists concur that the word trust comes from an IE root which meant “tree;” specifically, “oak tree.” How did a word describing a tangible object, tree, come to represent an abstract notion, trust? Apparently what happened was this: the attributes of the oak tree- firmness, steadfastness, durability-became associated in the later IE mind with that which inspired confidence or trust. The words tryst and truce also spring from the same IE source. A trust was originally an appointment one was entrusted to keep, and a truce operates only by a mutual faith and trust. Other less abstract kin words are tray and trough, which are things made of trees, and even tar, a substance derived from trees.

This word was a most felicitous choice to include in the titles “Trustees of Reservations” and “Land Trust”. First, those who solicit the help of lands trust hope their properties will endure like an oak tree, strong and firm against pernicious development. Second, it is an astonishing and poetic coincidence that the world’s first private land trust sought to preserve a stand of oak trees, the very organisms which animated the trust thousands of years ago.