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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Washington Post Report of the Final Destruction of the Pell Treaty Oak in Pelham Bay Park in 1909

According to legend -- likely apocryphal -- Native Americans signed the "Indian Deed" granting to Thomas Pell the lands that became the Manor of Pelham under the branches of a massive oak tree that continued to stand on the grounds of today's Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum for nearly three hundred years thereafter until the dying tree was destroyed by fire in the early twentieth century.  I have written extensively about the legend of what came to be known as the "Pell Treaty Oak" including a book on the topic published in 2004 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Pell purchase.  For examples, see:

Bell, Blake A., Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., 2004). 

Bell, Blake, Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak, The Westchester Historian, Vol. 28, Issue 3, pp. 73-81 (The Westchester County Historical Society, Summer 2002). 

Tue., Jan. 05, 2016:  Donation of a Piece of the "Pell Treaty Oak" to the Manor Club in 1940.

Tue., Oct. 16, 2007:  Information About Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak Published in 1912.

Tue., Jul. 24, 2007:  Article About the Pell Treaty Oak Published in 1909

Mon., Jul. 23, 2007:  1906 Article in The Sun Regarding Fire that Destroyed the Pell Treaty Oak

Wed., May 2, 2007:  Information About Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak Published in 1922.

Fri., Jul. 29, 2005:  Has Another Piece of the Treaty Oak Surfaced? 

Tue., Jun. 14, 2005:  Ceremony in 1915 to Open Bartow-Pell Mansion as Headquarters of International Garden Club Marred by Tragedy.

It is, of course, a misnomer to call the oak "The Pell Treaty Oak."  Even assuming there is some kernel of truth to the story, the document signed on June 27, 1654 was not an agreement between two nations but, rather, was a simple deed, often referenced in the literature as an "Indian Deed."

In any event, for much of the history of Pelham, the story has been told that the deed was signed beneath the spreading branches of the Pell Treaty Oak.  That mighty oak, however, was near the end of its life in the early twentieth century when a fire near its base roared into the hollow of the tree and killed it.  Not long thereafter, in 1909, a windstorm blew the remnants of the tree down.  Curiosity-seekers descended on the site, sawing off pieces of the oak, many of which made their way into local collections including those of the New-York Historical Society and the Manor Club in Pelham.

The final destruction of the Pell Treaty Oak captured national attention.  Articles with photographs of the tree appeared in newspapers throughout the United States.  Indeed, today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes the text and provides an image from one such article that appeared in The Washington Post on April 25, 1909.  The text and the image are followed by a citation and link to the source.

Where Thomas Pell Met with the Indians
By John M. Shinn"

Fragment of the Pell Treaty Oak in the Collection of the
Manor Club.  Photograph by the Author
Taken on January 24, 2004.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Detail from the Image Immediately Above Showing the
Silver Plaque Affixed to the Fragment of the Pell Treaty
Oak in the Collection of the Manor Club.  The Plaque Reads:
"A piece of the 'Treaty Oak' under which Thomas Pell made
a treaty with the Indian Sachems for the Manor of Pelham.
Nov. 14, 1654.  Wm. Cruger Pell from Howland Pell.  -- 1890 --"
Photograph by the Author Taken on January 24, 2004.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

*          *          *          *          *


After taking the blows of the elements for several hundred years the old Pell treaty oak in Pelham Bay Park tumbled over a month ago, the victim of a gale, and there remains now nothing but an old stump to mark the spot where it is believed the first Westchester real estate deal was put through two and a half centuries ago.  

It was under the leafy shade of the old tree that Thomas Pell negotiated this little real estate deal, standing there with a few companions who had journeyed with him from Connecticut while the sachems inspected gravely his collection of beads, blankets, and 'gunnes,' and decided that they were worth a large part of what is now Westchester county.  The sachems took the blankets and the beads and Pell took the real estate.  He was thus apparently the first speculator in suburban real estate.  And a pretty successful one at that for those times.  

The old tree under which Pell is supposed to have driven his bargain with the Indians in 1654 made a valiant fight for life in the two centuries and a half that have since passed.  Decapitated and dismembered a good many generations ago, it defied the attempts of the elements to complete its destruction, and with its days seemingly done for, it surprised all those who watched it in recent years by putting out new branches to be covered with green leaves each spring like the youngsters around it.  It seemed to be making another attempt to grow and reassume the place it once had as one of the monarchs of the primeval wilderness.

Tried to Preserve Tree.

A few years ago some of the patriotic societies decided to do what they could to preserve it, and at their expense they erected an iron fence around it, but this did not suffice to keep off the vandals.  Last fall somebody built a fire near it and it roared up the hollow trunk.  That fire ended the old tree's fight.  There was no more life in it after that, and with its trunk scorched and its new branches withered it fell an easy victim to one of the last month's storms, taking part of the fence with it as it fell.

In recent years, with the iron fence marking its nobility, the old tree has been visited by many who have seen it in passing along the Eastern boulevard.  It stood only a short distance from the road on the grounds of the old Bartow place, now occupied as a hospital for crippled children.

That it was no common tree one could easily tell from its size.  Its diameter several feet above the ground was over 2 feet, and the stumps of some of its mighty branches 26 feet or more from the ground, were 2 feet through.

Too Old to Estimate.

Sawed off fresh, these stumps showed so many rings that it was hopeless to ascertain its age by any such method.  Once the park department tried it, but the man who essayed to count the rings, first trying to distinguish them, gave it up in despair.  They have part of this enormous branch preserved up in Commissioner Berry's office now, so that any one who wants to try it again can do so.

The tree experts of the park have guessed at its age at anywhere from 300 to 500 years.  How many years its trunk had been hollow nobody knows, for hollow it was, and one could climb up to the very top of the huge cylinder.

In the case of a good many trees supposed to mark historical spots, there have been some who have had doubts as to the authenticity of the old oak and its connection with the Pell treaty, but near it are some of the graves of Pell's descendants [sic], and if there is anything in the legends of that part of Westchester, the old tree saw the bargain driven.

A short distance to the southeast from where the tree stood is the old Bartow mansion, and behind this is the Pell graveyard, containing six moss-grown tombstones.  They are the graves of Pells born years after the man who decided to take a chance on Westchester real estate, descendants who no doubt came to respect their ancestor's judgment and were glad of his shrewdness.  The oldest tombstone bears the inscription:  'Here Lyes Isec Pell D. Dec. 24 No. 1748.'

Original Land Speculator.

At a time when most men were thinking of hewing their own homelands out of the wilderness old Thomas Pell apparently was animated by the same object which today leads many a man to invest in property above the Bronx.  He didn't want a home; he bought land to sell.

That Pell was the original speculator in Westchester real estate is borne out in history.  One of the histories of Westchester county says of him:

'Pell himself does not even appear to have become a resident of Westchester.  He evidently regarded his purchase as a real estate speculation, selling his lands in parcels, at first to small private individuals and later to aggregations of enterprising men.'

A good many similar deals have been made since with some of the land Pell bought, only you pay a little more for it now.

Pell had tried several other ventures in the way of land purchases before what is now West Chester caught his eye, and his home was really at Fairfield, Conn., according to the best accounts.  Like a lot of the Englishmen in those parts, he decided that New York and its vicinity were altogether too good for the Dutchmen.

Followed the Fishhawks.

Perhaps he saw with the eye of the shrewd real estate speculator what splendid villa sites lay along the sound.  At any rate he and a few companions in 1654 made their way through the wilderness, took a look at the country lying between Bronck's River, as it was then called, and the Sound, and told the sachems that they wanted to buy some of it.

According to one of the West Chester legends concerning the old treaty tree he and his friends saw a lot of fishawks making their nests in the trees there and made up their minds that the birds would bring them good luck.  That was why they got the sachems Ann-Hoock and Wampage to meet them there and talk business.

The treaty provided that Pell was to get 'all that tract of land called West Chester, which is bounded on the East by a brook called Cedar Tree Brook, or gravelly brook, thence northwest, as the said brook runs, into the woods 10 English miles, thence west to Bronck's River to a certain bend in said river, thence by marked trees until it reaches the Sound.'

This land extended from East Chester to New Rochelle, and Pelham, Pelham manor, and Pelham bridge have taken their names from the purchaser of it.  Pell was made a lord of the manor by royal grant in 1666, and before he died he had already unloaded several parcels, presumably at a handsome profit.  One of the first sales he made was that consisting of the old settlement of East Chester.

Although Lord Thomas Pell as he afterward became, didn't settle on this property himself, his nephew and heir, John Pell, did, and he carved up more of the property, selling New Rochelle to some of the Huguenots.

According to Randall Comfort, one of the local historians, the old Pell manor house stood near the old tree facing what is now a thoroughfare for automobiles, and for years was supposed to be full of ghosts, so that lonely travelers along the lane gave it a wide berth.

Mr. Comfort and others who have taken an interest in the old tree have asked the park department to mark the spot where it stood with a tablet, telling the story of the little real estate deal supposed to have taken place there."

Source:  BRONX BOOM TREE BLOWN DOWN, Washington Post, Apr. 25, 1909, p. 4, cols. 1-4.  

"The Pell treaty oak in Pelham Park before it was blown down."
Post, Apr. 25, 1909, p. 4, cols. 1-4.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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