With spring weather slowly beginning to show itself again, it is time to take advantage of New York City’s many renowned “green spaces.” Staples, such as Washington Square Park and Central Park, immediately jump to mind for many looking for a warm afternoon picnic spot. However, those not interested in traveling to Manhattan are still have a variety of choice here in the Bronx. One of these places is Pelham Bay Park, parts of which played an instrumental role in the origins of the borough, and New York City as a whole.
Many first think of the Dutch when considering the early populations of the various settlements that eventually became New York City. However, the English also held a major sway over early city planning, even before the Dutch land was surrendered to them in 1664. Such was the story of Thomas Pell, the founder of one of the first English settlements in what we today call Westchester County.
In 1654, Pell travelled from his home in Fairfield, Connecticut to the then-wilderness of the East Bronx to sign a treaty with the Siwanoy tribe of Native Americans. The treaty gave over 9,000 acres of land to the English. The land was known as the “Lordshipp & Mannour of Pelham,” and would become the northeast part of Bronx County and parts of New Rochelle.
Predictably, this made the Dutch settlers of the time quite angry, as they had laid claim to certain patches of land brokered in the deal. Additionally, Pell’s purchase of the land from the Siwanoy effectively blocked the northward expansion of the Dutch settlers living there, which was a major factor in the Dutch eventually abandoning their future plans for New Amsterdam and New Netherland.
There is one character in the story of Pell’s influential treaty who has not yet been mentioned: an oak tree. While the treaty itself no longer exists, historical records from that day indicate that Pell signed the document alongside a Siwanoy named Wampage underneath a giant oak tree. Pell’s “Treaty Oak” lived the next 250 years in relative comfort.
Between 1836 and 1842, the oak tree overlooked the construction of the nearby Bartow-Pell Mansion. It saw the creation of towns such as Morrisania and Kingsbridge, which would eventually grow into Bronx neighborhoods of the same name. It even saw the Bronx become one of the official five boroughs of a consolidated New York City on New Year’s Day, 1898. The Treaty Oak even lived to see the turn of the 20th century, but by that point it was not long for this world.
In 1902, according to a report owned by the Bartow-Pell Mansion, the tree snapped in half during a strong storm. “Yet, despite a hollow trunk,” the report said, “it continued to thrive.” On April 9, 1906, following the tree’s destruction, the New York Times ran an obituary for the tree on its front page, following the tree’s destruction the previous day. Reports indicate that the remains of the tree were burnt to a stump in a blaze caused by a discarded cigarette.
The tree’s memory lives on, though. In 1915, a red oak was planted on the site of the original tree. The ceremony was overseen by Charles S. Whitman, the governor of New York at the time.
This year marks the 110th anniversary of the destruction of Thomas Pell’s Treaty Oak. Pieces of the original Treaty Oak have been distributed to various museums and historical societies including one, fittingly, at the Bartow-Pell Mansion, which became a museum in 1946. Tours of the former country house give a fitting insight into what life was like for the wealthy classes during the 19th century, and the site serves as an integral and informative link to the Bronx’s complicated past. Plus, tucked between the mansion and the nearby road, nestled amid the underbrush, lies the stone wall that encircled the original Treaty Oak. In it, a new tree grows.