A Piece of the Shakamaxon Elm

Curio B4

The curio we are exhibiting over the next few weeks is reputedly a piece of the elm tree under which the English Quaker, William Penn signed a treaty with the Lenni Lepae (Delaware) Indians in late November 1682. Penn had obtained a charter to colonise a tract of land in the area from King Charles II. The elm tree stood at a meeting place on the Delaware River called Shakamaxon and tradition says that, soon after Penn’s arrival in the country, it was here that promises of friendship were exchanged. The colony of Pennsylvania (named for Penn’s father) was established with the seat of government in the city of Philadelphia. Today ‘Penn Treaty Park’ lies on the border of that city.

In fact, no written treaty exists but the tradition of this agreement has given rise to a powerful mythology. The treaty was referred to by Voltaire in his Dictionnaire philosophique published in 1764 where he stated that Penn had made an agreement with his neighbours, the American Indians and declared:

C’est le seul traite entre ces peoples et les Chretiens qui n’ ait point ete jure et qui n’ait point ete rompu. [Dict. phil., 7, 17-18]

This is the only treaty between those persons and the Christians which has not been sworn to, and which has not been broken.”

The event was also realised by a number of artists; the most famous being a picture by Benjamin West (1738-1820) now in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (see here). It depicts the group on the banks of the River Delaware gathered underneath the ‘Treaty Elm’.

The original tree blew down during a storm in March 1810. An obelisk marking the spot was subsequently placed there by the Penn Society in 1827 and this is now within Penn Treaty Park established in 1893. Many artefacts were carved from the wood of the tree after it blew down and Trinity’s piece of the tree was brought from America by John Sholl in 1842 and was given to the College by Mr Arnold Lloyd.

The library also owns a number of related books as follows:

Map from Thomas, G, An historical and geographical account of the province and country of Pensilvania etc, W.26.23

An early colonist, Gabriel Thomas, wrote An historical and geographical account of the province and country of Pensilvania etc in 1698. He dedicated the work to his friend William Penn: “Thou wilt find here a true and genuine Description of that (once) obscure tho’ (now) glorious place”.

Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Etliche zu dieser Zeit nicht unnütze Fragen über einige Schrift-stellen, printed by Benjamin Franklin, Crewe Collection

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was born in Boston Massachusetts to Josiah Franklin who had emigrated from England in 1683 to practice his Puritan faith. Known later in life as a writer, political revolutionary and scientist, in the period 1726-48 he ran a successful printing press in Philadelphia. As owner of the newspaper the ‘Pennsylvannia Gazette’, this was the period in which his political influence began to grow. This book, in German, on the Moravian Church was published in 1742 and printed by Franklin. It is the only known copy in a UK library. For a digital version see here.

Emmanuel Domenech, Manuscrit pictographique américain (1860), Crewe Collection

Claimed by abbé Emmanuel Domenech, a Catholic priest and missionary, in his ‘Manuscrit pictographique américain’ (1860) to be Native American drawings these illustrations were later surmised to be the doodlings of a German child, one clue being the (badly spelled) German words sometimes included with the drawings.  The German orientalist Julius Petzholdt refuted the claim in his ‘Das Buch der Wilden’ (1861) but, obviously not one to give up a cause lightly, Domenech then wrote a rebuttal in ‘La vérite sur le livre des sauvages’ (1861).  These three works are here bound together and are an example of the diversity to be found in the Crewe collection.

Further Reading: