On June 27, 1654, Thomas Pell (1618-1669), a British settler and Connecticut resident, met with representatives of the Siwanoy people to sign a formal agreement for the purchase of 9,166 acres of land. This large tract included land destined to become today’s Pelham Bay Park and extended northward through what is now Pelham, New Rochelle, Larchmont and Mamaroneck.
Legend has it that the Pell treaty was signed under the shady branches of a majestic oak tree that came to be known as the “Treaty Oak.” It is not known how Pell paid the Native Americans. As a sign of good faith, Pell reportedly buried his seal and weapons at its roots. Among the Siwanoys present were several chiefs, called sachems, including Wampage, the sachem known as Anhooke who was widely reported to have slain Anne Hutchinson in 1643.
The intrusion of Pell, a British subject, into what was considered a Dutch region apparently antagonized the leaders of New Amsterdam who occupied the tip of Manhattan. The issue became moot ten years later when the Dutch handed over their colony to the British in 1664 without a fight, and New Amsterdam became New York. Two years later, British law made Pell’s purchase official and he became known as Lord of the Manor.
Pell’s land grant was eventually passed on to Pell’s descendants, divided and then sold to members of the wealthy upper class who built mansions there. By then, the area was known as Westchester County as created by the New York General Assembly in 1683. Pell’s land became the eastern portion of what we now know as The Bronx, which was annexed by New York City in 1895. Soon after in 1898, the five present-day boroughs were consolidated into Greater New York. Fortunately, thoughtful citizens had already lobbied the state legislature to encourage the purchase of various Bronx land parcels and reserve them for parks. When this was accomplished in 1888, the former Thomas Pell property became part of what we know today as Pelham Bay Park.
Recent debate has ensued regarding the location of the Treaty Oak. Some believe the original tree was gone long before a grand oak on the grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion was designated as the site where Pell and the Siwanoy signed their accord. In 1903, a tall iron fence was erected to encircle this tree and protect it from damage. Unfortunately just three years later in 1906, the tree burned down probably as a result of carelessness. Lightening may have diminished it even before this date. The oak was so celebrated that its final demise was reported on the front page of the New York Times, which referred to it as the “historic Pell Oak.” Today the iron fence still stands, surrounding a handsome American Elm planted there as its replacement.
For further information on the Treaty Oak, see the website www. HistoricPelham.com, and also:
Blake A. Bell. Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2004. This informative book was written on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the signing of the treaty.