Trees die, but promises live on.
More than 300 years ago, a peace treaty of friendship was formed between William Penn and Chief Tamanead of the Lenape turtle clan beneath a picturesque elm tree in what is now Penn Treaty Park on Delaware Avenue in Fishtown.
Although there are no historical records of the meeting, the tree, famous from a 1771 painting by Benjamin West, stood as a beacon of equality and togetherness until March, 5, 1810, when a storm pulled its roots from the ground. It was replaced by a six-foot-tall monument, but some citizens worried that the tree took the treaty down with it.
Determined to keep the bond between the cultures thriving, neighbors and friends met at the park on Wednesday to plant an 18-foot offspring of "the Great Elm," as it was known, beside the Delaware River bank.
A clipping of the Great Elm was passed to Haverford College by the former owner of the park, Gen. Paul Oliver, said Carol Wagner, a Haverford College horticulturist who helped nurture the sapling.
Wagner, who considers the elm her baby, said the college has nurtured seedling offsprings of the elm since the original's demise. Haverford replanted the clippings and grew its descendants from its seedlings.
"I nurture it and I dig up its seedlings," Wagner said. "This is one of the most important trees in American history."
Wednesday's planting was given a traditional Indian blessing by Native American pastor John Norwood, a member of the Nanticoke Leni-Lenape Tribal Council and the Penn Treaty Museum board.
Norwood chanted a prayer while circling the elm in smoke, Wagner said. He then asked each of about 20 people attending to take a pinch of tobacco from inside a plastic bag and recite their own prayers before the tree, while sprinkling its trunk with the tobacco.
Wagner said Norwood told the crowd that the tree represented not only a bond between Quakers and Indians, but also a treaty for everyone who believes in friendship and fairness.
The group then formed a circle around the tree and locked hands.
During a March ceremony at the park commemorating the 200-year anniversary of the tree's fall, Haverford donated two of the tree's descendants, one each to a Quaker and a Native American. The event included traditional Leni-Lenape signing, dancing, and drumming, and brought Native Americans to the park from as far away as Oklahoma.
John Connors, a park preserver and member of the Penn Treaty Museum board who witnessed yesterday's planting, said he was proud of the park and all that it represented in Fishtown.
"This park lives on because decent people kept a promise," he said.