This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
Building, changing, “developing” has always been New York City’s heritage, especially in the years before landmarking became law. But nineteenth-century New Yorkers did value one relic from its past, a living relic, no less, and one that met its doom 150 years ago this week: A tree that stood on the Bouwerie, or farm, of Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant. The 1811 street grid covered over the farm and erased what vegetation remained, but one pear tree survived on what became the northeast corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue, and, perhaps more surprising, it was honored by busy, productive New Yorkers.
It wasn’t developers who killed this particular tree, but another New York City menace — traffic — as two wagons collided, sending one into the tree trunk at the end of February 1867.
Philip Hone, one-time mayor and dedicated diarist, recounts in 1838 the history of this “great vegetable curiosity” that “annually bears leaves and blossoms, and would produce fruit if the boys would let it.”
While “tradition has been ransacked for its history,” Hone is able to testify, based on table conversation with a Stuyvesant descendant, that the sapling was brought from the Netherlands by Director-General Stuyvesant to plant with others to form an orchard on his farm. Whether Stuyvesant brought the tree upon his arrival as governor in May 1647 or later, on his retirement as a private citizen in 1667 after earlier relinquishing the colony to British rule, can be debated.
Ten years later, Philip Hone records how, on a spring day, upon admiring “its wide, dark trunk standing strong and stout, and its branches spreading out in fantastic forms,” he was honored to receive some of its new blossoms that he intended to preserve.
Hone’s claim that “poetry has sung its praises” is exemplified here, where Henry Webb Dunshee, longtime headmaster of the — even older — Collegiate School, thought the pear tree was worthy of thirty-three stanzas of verse, published as a pamphlet. Here is one:
Fam’d Relic of the Ancient Time, as on thy form I gaze, / My mind reverts to former scenes, to spirit-stirring days: / Guarding their sacred memories, as ashes in an urn, / I muse upon those good old times, and sigh for their return.”
Dunshee goes on to recount what, in 1857, were considered the “spirit-filling days” of the city’s sometimes tumultuous history. The tree, he reminds us — complete with footnotes to make it plausible — could have witnessed Leisler’s Rebellion, John Peter Zenger’s trial for asserting “Freedom of the Press,” the notorious punishments imposed on the slaves implicated in the conspiracy of 1741, and the antics of the Sons of Liberty who “Destroyed the tea, contemn’d the stamps, and patriot zeal arous’d.”
The wooden fence surrounding the trunk was replaced with an iron railing in 1851, but it could not protect the limbs and trunk from the 1867 accident or from storm damage that preceded it. Appropriately, a cross section of the relic — taken about four feet off the ground — arrived at the New-York Historical Society the same year.
Other pieces are said to survive, some artfully made into a frame during the tree’s life — and now a recent gift to the Historical Society from the Society of Daughters of Holland Dames.
Another fragment fell into the hands of police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt years later. TR, on an 1895 typewriter with smudging ribbon, hoped the New-York Historical [Society] would take the segment for safekeeping “until the City chooses to redeem it, which it doubtless never would.”
The fate of that particular relic remains unknown, even as other pieces have come into the Society’s collections over the years.
More surprising may be that New Yorkers still honor the tree’s memory. A late nineteenth plaque created by the Holland Society marking the tree’s location had been moved a few times around the neighborhood as buildings were razed, but, as reported in 2005, the tablet has been brought home to the corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue.
Meanwhile, local activists, businesses, and block associations have made a point of honoring its heritage by planting pear trees, leaving a legacy of charm to the neighborhood.
Source: Jan Seidler Ramirez, “Stuyvesant’s Pear Tree: Some Interpretive Fruits,” New York Journal of American History, vol. 65, no. 4 (Fall 2004), 116-121.