The Treaty Oak
Perhaps "Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak" is the only tree ever to merit an obituary on the front page of The New York Times. The article, in the paper's April 9, 1906 issue, announced the death of the giant white oak the previous day. Until then, the tree had stood for years on the grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion on Shore Road in Pelham Bay Park. Tradition holds that beneath its limbs more than 250 years before, Thomas Pell signed a treaty with local Siwanoy Native Americans and acquired 9,166 acres including what we know today as Pelham, New Rochelle, portions of Bronx County and much of the land east of the Hutchinson River northward to Mamaroneck. This article documents the story of that magnificent oak.
Thomas Pell Versus the Dutch
Thomas Pell of Fairfield, Connecticut was among the earliest Englishmen to establish settlements in today's lower Westchester County. He traveled from Fairfield in 1654 to sign the treaty with Siwanoy sachems only eleven years after the Siwanoys massacred another famous settler, Anne Hutchinson, along with most of her family.
Pell's successful negotiation of the treaty for the purchase of what came to be known as the "Lordshipp & Mannour of Pelham" had enormous implications for the dispute between the English and the Dutch over control of the area. The tract was huge. The Dutch claimed some of it. Effective control of the lands could block any further northward movement of Dutch settlers – at least along the shore of the Long Island Sound westward to the Hutchinson River.
The enormity of Pell's move was not lost on Dutch authorities. They confronted the English settlers who arrived in the area, although they were unsuccessful in their efforts to stop the English from settling here.
Ultimately, the strength and resolve of Pell and the English settlers were fruitful. The Dutch, facing a war with England they knew they could not win, surrendered New Amsterdam to the English on September 8, 1664. New Netherland, including Westchester, passed out of the hands of the Dutch. On October 6, 1666, Thomas Pell's rightful ownership of virtually all the land transferred by the Siwanoys in the 1654 treaty was confirmed by royal patent, signed and sealed by Governor Richard Nicolls.
Pell's Treaty With the Siwanoys
Most historical accounts say the Treaty was signed beneath a "Treaty Oak" on November 14, 1654. It appears from a contemporary handwritten copy of the Treaty, however, that it was signed on June 27, 1654. On that date, Thomas Pell and a small band of Englishmen reportedly gathered beneath a giant oak tree along with a Siwanoy named Anhõõke, also said by some to be known as Wampage, and four other Siwanoy Indians who have been described as "sub-chieftains". Wampage is widely believed to have been the murderer of Anne Hutchinson.
The whereabouts of the original Treaty are not known. Fortunately, though, a copy exists in what is said to be Thomas Pell's own handwriting. He reportedly created it and forwarded it to relatives in England from whom it has been retrieved and documented.
There is no record of the price Thomas Pell paid for the land. His copy of the Treaty says only that the sellers received "trou valew & just Satisfaction" for the land. Westchester Historian Thomas Scharf, however, reported in 1886 that the "Indians received, it is said, as an equivalent for their deed of the land, sundry hogshead of Jamaica rum." Thomas Pell reportedly took symbolic possession of his estate "by burying his seal with his arms at the root of the oak".
A Fiery Death
For 250 years the tree beneath which, it was said, the Treaty was signed flourished. Then, on April 8, 1906, disaster struck. The Treaty Oak died a fiery death. It appears that the fire began either with a discarded cigarette or cigar and perhaps was started by a group of small boys playing near the tree. A news account that appeared on the front page of The New York Times the following day described the death of the tree as follows:
The historic Pell Oak, a fine old tree eighty feet high, at the junction of the New Rochelle and Prospect Hill Roads, under which Lord Pell stood when he signed a treaty with the Indians early in the eighteenth [sic] century, for the property now comprising the northeastern section of the Bronx, was destroyed by fire early yesterday morning.
Several years ago the Park Commission had a fence put around the tree, which began to show signs of decay, in order to make it last as long as possible. Recently a pile of dead leaves and brush accumulated within the fence, and it is supposed that some one threw a lighted cigar or cigarette there, starting the blaze. Before any one could put the fire out the flames spread to the tree and burned it to a blackened stump.
A landscape report subsequently prepared on behalf of The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum described the demise of the tree somewhat differently, though not necessarily inconsistently. It says: "in 1906 some young boys started a fire which swept up into the trunk, effectively ending its life." The fire was tragic. But, it seems, the tree had been dying for years.
One account, published in 1909, noted that twenty years previously the tree was eighty feet tall and quite majestic. Ten years after that, according to the same account, the state of the tree had deteriorated precipitously: "its once proud height shorn to about twelve feet above the ground, yet still covered with second growth branches of luxuriant beauty, and the stout old trunk still offering a sturdy defiance to the ravages of time and the elements."
The last years of the legendary oak were described in another account as follows:
Sometime prior to 1902 the tree was broken in two by a storm, yet, despite a hollow trunk, it continued to thrive. In 1906 some young boys started a fire which swept up into the trunk, effectively ending its life. The following March the dead tree was blown over in a wind storm, leaving a small stump contained within the iron fence which survived for a few years... Once the gust of wind blew over the dead tree, the sad remnant of Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak lay decaying on the ground "having crashed its way through the iron railing" built to protect it.
Death destroyed neither the legend nor the symbolism of what was known as "Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak". On May 1, 1915, the Governor of New York reportedly attended ceremonies during the formal opening of the Bartow-Pell Mansion as the clubhouse of the International Garden Club and planted a red oak near the site where the tree had once stood to honor Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak and all that it had come to symbolize.
Remnants of the Oak
Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak lives on, so to speak, in another way. Pieces of what are said to be the venerable old oak are scattered among the collections of local historical societies in homage to the tree and what it came to symbolize.
For example, the collection of the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum includes a piece of the Pell Treaty Oak. It is about eight inches long and is encased within a glass-enclosed oval shadow box. Wire holds it in place and it rests on a hand-lettered paper affixed to the interior of the shadow box that reads in part:
The Pell Tree
The Pell Treaty Oak Site Today
Most of the circular, eight-and-a-half foot high iron fence that surrounded Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak in its final years still stands more than a century after it was first built. It was erected as a "safeguard against the depredations of relic hunters" who doubtless contributed in some measure to the rapid deterioration of the oak in 1903.
As you turn from Shore Road in Pelham Bay Park through the stone-columned gate and enter the Bartow-Pell estate, look into the wooded area to your right. There, about thirty yards from the roadway amidst the trees and shrubbery, is what remains of the circular fence where the Treaty Oak stood.
Fact or Fiction?
Was the oak on the Bartow-Pell Estate that burned in 1906 the actual tree beneath which the Siwanoys granted their lands to Thomas Pell in 1654? No one knows. Biologically, it would seem possible. White oaks remain among the most abundant oaks in the eastern United States and have been known to "live to great age, over 1000 years in some cases" and to reach heights of up to 107 feet.
Certainly tradition holds that the tree that burned in 1906 was the tree that in fact spread its branches above the band that signed the Treaty on that solemn occasion. Odd references in the 1881 revised edition of Robert Bolton's History of Westchester, and in Thomas Scharf's 1886 History of Westchester, however, suggest otherwise. The former says the oak "formerly stood a little to the westward of" the Bartow-Pell mansion. The latter says the tree "stood until within twenty or thirty years past on the Bartow estate."
Such passages suggest their authors believed the tree no longer stood at the time of their publication. One possibility is that the passages were mere lapses of unintended ambiguity in each of the two-volume histories of Westchester County. Sadly, that may be wishful thinking.
A 1941 landscape report on the Bartow-Pell site concluded that the tree that perished in 1906 was not the tree beneath which Thomas Pell signed his fateful Treaty with the Siwanoys. The report said:
Just as the Bartow Mansion had been erroneously thought to be the Pell Manor House, over time the oak that was enclosed in the iron fence became associated with the Treaty Oak. However, numerous accounts by long-time local residents seem to have put the matter to rest. . . . With the erection of the iron fence in 1903, the site of this oak tree seemed to be indubitably linked with the historic event of 1654. However, the claim was refuted in an article in the Seventeenth Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (1912) which stated that the iron fence in the Bartow House grounds does not indicate the site of the Treaty Oak. In addition to studying the written sources, the author had consulted with Anne J. Bolton, the daughter of the Rev. Robert Bolton who lived nearby in Pelham, who said that it had stood between the Pelham Bridge and the entrance to the Bartow place alongside the Post Road; she remembered that, travelers on the Post Road were accustomed to stop their horses under its branches to enjoy its refreshing shade. Later authors writing about Pelham Manor noted the disputed claim, but acknowledged, that despite a possible historical inaccuracy, the iron fence helped to keep alive the memory of the treaty between Thomas Pell and the native Americans.
We will never know whether the oak that perished in 1906 was, in fact, the tree beneath which the famous Treaty was signed. Somehow that does not seem important. Thomas Pell's Treaty Oak came to symbolize the sacrifice – and glory – of those before us who carved Pelham and much of today's Westchester County out of the primeval forest that still existed in the 17th century, beginning on that day in 1654...