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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Is It Possible an Algonquian Oral Tradition of the Native American Sale of Lands to Thomas Pell on June 27, 1654 Has Survived?

The questions seem far-fetched.  Is it possible that an Algonquian oral tradition of the sale by Native Americans of the lands that became the Manor of Pelham to Thomas Pell on June 27, 1654 has survived?  If so, does it provide any insights into how the land transaction was perceived by the Native Americans who were involved?

It is well-established that Thomas Pell of Fairfield acquired a vast tract of land from Native Americans on June 27, 1654.  Indeed, a copy of the deed believed to be in Pell's own handwriting still exists.  

17th Century Copy of Pell Deed Signed by Thomas Pell
and Native Americans on June 27, 1654, Believed To Be
in Thomas Pell's Handwriting.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

There is no reliable record documenting when, where, or how the Pell Deed was executed.  Tradition, likely apocryphal, long has held that the deed was signed beneath the spreading branches of a massive White Oak that survived into the 20th century on the grounds of today's Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum.  The spot is marked with a circular wrought-iron fence that once protected the so-called "Pell Treaty Oak" before its death in the early 20th century.  

There is, however, a purported record of an Algonquian oral tradition passed from generation to generation until it was recorded in a book published in 1982 about sixty years after the death of the Native American who recounted the tradition.  Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog addresses this oral tradition.

In 1982, Theodore Kazimiroff, son of former Bronx Historian, dentist, naturalist, and amateur archaeologist Dr. Theodore ("Ted") Kazimiroff, published a book entitled "The Last Algonquin."  In it, he detailed a story long told him by his father, Dr. Kazimiroff, before his father's death in 1980.  The book tells of Dr. Kazimiroff's encounter with a Native American living off the land on Hunter's Island in Pelham Bay Park during the 1920s when Dr. Kazimiroff was a young boy.  The Algonquin called himself Joe Two Trees and followed Native American traditions including the making of pottery, the crafting of stone tools, the preparation of clothing from animal hides, and traditional hunting, fishing, and food preparation techniques.

As detailed in the book, the young boy met Joe Two Trees in the final year of his life and grew close to him, visiting him as often as possible. As Joe Two Trees neared death, living in a traditional wigwam crafted with his own hands on Hunter's Island, he recounted the story of his life to his young friend who helped care for him.  According to that story, Joe Two Trees was born as "Two Trees" on Hunter's Island in about 1840.  His father was named Eagle Feather.  His mother was named Small Doe.  Both his mother and father died before Two Trees was fifteen and remaining members of his clan departed for places unknown.

Two Trees made his way to Manhattan where he worked during the winter of 1855-56.  After killing a thief who attempted to rob him of his meager earnings, Two Trees fled to Staten Island and, then, New Jersey where he lived off the land following traditional Native American ways.  By 1858 he made his way to Pennsylvania where he was directed to coal mines where he worked for about two years until 1860.  

After his stint in a Pennsylvania coal mine, Two Trees -- then known as "Joe Two Trees" -- made his way across the land back toward New York City which he reached in the early winter of 1862.  He lived the next sixty years or so in New York, much of that time on Hunter's Island where he died.

Joe Two Trees, according to Dr. Kazimiroff and his son, told the young boy a number of stories that were part of the fabric of his life.  One of those stories purportedly involved an oral account of the Native American sale of lands to Thomas Pell on June 27, 1654.  As told in the book "The Last Algonquin," Two Trees told young Ted Kazimiroff that in the mid-seventeenth century as the Native Americans near Manhattan chafed at the ever-greater pressure of European settlers pressing toward their lands, local Native American clans in the region decided to split with some departing the region and a small group including the ancestors of Two Trees deciding to stay as the Turtle Clan.  According to Kazimiroff in his book:

"The new group [the Turtle Clan], flourished and they did all the things their sachem had ordered on the night of the joining ceremony.  They hunted and planted, fished and lived well.  Some died, but new children were born often, and they stayed a large clan for many years.

During this time, in 1654, a man named Thomas Pell had come to live nearby.  He wished to buy land here, and after the people saw that he was a good man who dealt honorably with his Indian neighbors, they agreed to listen to his offer of purchase.  Although the Turtle clan was not directly involved in the transaction, their brothers on the mainland invited them to the deliberations.  They were, after all, nearby, and this sale could well affect them too.  Subsequent studies revealed many of the details of what followed.

The white man spoke to the Indian delegation for a long time.  He promised peace and respect.  He said he would interfere with their lives as little as possible.  He told them that he would stay away from their holy places, and allow them to hunt on the land even after it was his.  He promised the red men that he would use the land and its game in ways that would not anger their Great Spirit.

Joe's people listened in silence, and when he had finished, they walked off a little way to make council.  After everyone had spoken, the leader saw that the agreement would be made.  Now he must bargain for a high price.  The beads and knives, jackets and pots had simply proven too much for the forest people to resist.  The sale was made now; all that remained was a final price.

The Indians and white man sat down under a large oak tree that day and made treaty.  A steatite smoking pipe was passed from hand to hand to seal the agreement.  The Indian people with their new pots and beads and other treasures were very much poorer when they finally stood up.

The oak tree grew alongside Shore road near the present Bartow Mansion.  It grew there, a landmark from earlier times, in an open field until early in the twentieth century when it was struck by lightning.  It subsequently died and rotted.  Now, an iron fence stands around the spot where Thomas Pell purchased Pelham Bay Park, parts of Westchester, and areas of the Bronx in 1654.  The final price must have been one of the best bargains in history.

The treaty was otherwise a good one, and both sides lived by it.  But the seeds of the end had been sown with its signing.  All people who make treaties have one thing in common.  None of them lives forever."

Source:  Kazimiroff, Theodore L., THE LAST ALGONQUIN, pp. 42-43 (London, New Delhi, New York, Sidney:  Bloomsbury, 1982) (paperback ISBN 978-0-8027-7517-7).

There has been a long-standing debate over whether Joe Two Trees existed and, even if so, whether "The Last Algonguin" accurately reflects his life.  Some of Dr. Kazimiroff's friends thought it odd that he had never mentioned Joe Two Trees to them before his death.  Although Dr. Kazimiroff's son who authored the book has acknowledged "fleshing out" the story, he has insisted that the basic story was true.  

Of course, even if Joe Two Trees recounted an oral tradition of Thomas Pell's purchase on June 27, 1654, we will never know if it was accurate in the first place or whether it was accurately described when put to paper some sixty years later.  Yet, the fact that such an account exists at all provides a tantalizing glimpse of a day that is admittedly one of the most significant in the history of Pelham.

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