Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, July 23, 2007

1906 Article in The Sun Regarding Fire that Destroyed the Pell Treaty Oak

For many years a gigantic, ancient oak stood on the grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion in Pelham Bay Park. According to tradition, Thomas Pell met with local Native Americans beneath the branches of that oak on June 27, 1654 and signed the so-called "treaty" by which Pell acquired the lands that became Pelham and surrounding areas.

In a book published in 2004 during the 350th anniversary of the Pell Treaty, I traced the facts underlying the tradition and outlined the history of the so-called Pell Treaty Oak. In the book I concluded that it was unlikely that the tree on the grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion was the oak beneath which Pell signed his agreement with local Native Americans. To read more about the Pell Treaty Oak, see:

Bell, Blake A., Thomas Pell and The Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., 2004) (click here to learn more).

Bell, Blake A., Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak, HistoricPelham.com (visited July 20, 2007).

Bell, Blake A., Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak, The Westchester Historian, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 73-81 (Westchester County Historical Society, Summer 2002).

Today's Historic Pelham Blog posting transcribes the text of an article that appeared in The Sun published in New York City in 1906. The article describes the fire that killed the Pell Treaty Oak.

The Historic Tree Incurs a New Peril - Once Struck by Lightning.

The old Pell oak, which stands at the intersection of the New Rochelle road and the Split Rock road in Westchester, took fire Saturday night from burning grass. Policeman Booth of the City Island substation, who was patrolling the New Rochelle road about 8 o'clock Saturday night, saw sparks leaping from the trunk of the venerable tree. He turned in a still alarm, which brought Engine Company 70 from City Island. Meanwhile a dozen or more people living along the New Rochelle road hurried with buckets of water to the burning tree. The firemen and volunteers worked for hours before they managed to make the water reach the part of the inner trunk where the fire was.

For the last ten years the old oak has been little more than a noble trunk ten feet high and four feet in diameter. It was struck by lightning during a heavy storm and all but about ten feet of the trunk broke off. New branches appeared at the top of the stump and formed an umbrella shaped growth, which increased and throve. The fire Saturday night destroyed most of the new growth and charred the hollow trunk, but the old residents, who take much pride in the historic tree, believe that it can be saved if proper care is given it. It is believed to be nearly 350 years old.

There are many stories told in Westchester about the Pell oak. It is said that Sir John Pell, second lord of the manor, who came over in 1670 and was the first Judge of the Court of Common Pleas from 1688 until 1702, signed a treaty [sic] with the Indians under the oak, which was then in its prime. There is another legend of Westchester that the son of Sir John, Thomas Pell, who married a daughter of an Indian chief, wooed her under the oak. There is a ghost story, too, about the old tree. Somewhere near the middle of the eighteenth century a traveler was murdered and robbed under its branches. The body was found, but the murderer was never caught. The private cemetery of the Westchester Pells, where Sir John and his son are buried, is about 400 feet from the tree. The old Bartow mansion is within a short distance of it.

Yesterday afternoon people from all the region visited the old oak, and the older residents commented somewhat mournfully on its reduced state."

Source: Fire in the Pell Oak, The Sun, Apr. 9, 1906, p. 4, col. 2.

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