The Early Pells: Life in a Colorful 17th-Century World

King Charles I by Antoon Van Dyck

We tend to think of our ancestors – if we think of them at all – as living in a world of black-and-white photos, stiff collars and wooden expressions.  But the truth is much more colorful.  Our ancestors lived in a world that pulsed with mortal danger, vivid intrigue and quickly-changing fortunes – a world that can make our own lives seem pretty bland by comparison.  The early generations of the Pell family, the founders of Pelham and the Bartow-Pell Mansion, give us many examples of that colorful world that we may not know much about.

Ruth and Consequences Why did the Pells come to America at all?  In 1635, Thomas Pell was 22 years old, and was serving as a “groom-in-waiting” (a page) in the royal court of King Charles I of England.  A continued, comfortable life in the royal court was his for the asking.  But then Thomas met Ruth, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, who had recently arrived from France.  It turned out that neither Thomas nor Ruth were very good at “waiting” because Thomas was soon “caught making love” to Ruth, right in the royal court.  In order to “save his neck,” Thomas quickly fled to the English colonies in North America.  Perhaps the Pell family motto should have been “Vive la France”?  In any event, Thomas Pell had now established himself as a risk-taker.

The Treaty Oak

Staring down the Dutch By 1654, Thomas Pell was a wealthy resident of colonial Fairfield, Connecticut.  Fifty miles away was the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, supported by the powerful Dutch Navy.  In a bold move to extend English power in North America, Pell sailed down to where the Bartow-Pell Mansion now stands – just ten miles from Manhattan.  He then signed a treaty with the Native American tribes living nearby, and set up his own English outpost.  Under Pell’s treaty, he purchased over 9,000 acres of land – all of today’s northern Bronx and southern Westchester County – in exchange for several barrels of Jamaican rum.  The Dutch were incensed at this attempt to block the northward expansion of their colony.  But when they arrived at Pell’s outpost to demand his withdrawal, they found that they had brought knives to a gunfight.  They were “roughly handled” by a dozen men with pistols, and sent back to Manhattan empty-handed.  Meanwhile, the ongoing naval war between the Dutch and the English turned in favor of England, and New Amsterdam became New York in 1664.  Thomas Pell’s ownership of his vast estate was later confirmed by a royal decree, and he became known as the “First Lord of the Manor of Pelham.”

Marrying an Indian Princess The land that Thomas Pell had purchased was not always friendly to English settlers.  In 1643, Anne Hutchinson and her followers had been killed by some of the same Native Americans who signed the treaty with Pell in 1654.  The Hutchinson River and Parkway are reminders today of that bloody event.  But local lore says that when the Hutchinson settlers were killed, one little English girl was spared – and that she later became the wife of “Anhooke,” a Native American chief who lived near today’s Split Rock golf course.  Local lore goes on to say that the “Third Lord of the Manor of Pelham” – also named Thomas Pell – married an “Indian Princess” who had descended from that little English girl and Anhooke.  Together, Thomas and his Indian Princess lived in a grand “Manor House” that stood near today’s Bartow-Pell Mansion.

Loyalists and Rebels What happened to that first Manor House?  Well, for most of the Revolutionary War, Manhattan was occupied by the British.  But the British could never extend their control beyond Manhattan; Pelham and the Manor House stood in “the Neutral Ground,” a 30-mile-wide no-man’s-land between the opposing armies.  Loyalists who lived in the Neutral Ground flocked into Manhattan, seeking protection from the British.  The Pells, who lived in the Manor House during the war were among those Loyalists.  They fled to Manhattan and abandoned the Manor House, which was then burned to the ground.  After the war, they moved to Canada.  But not all Pells were Loyalists.

The Pell family cemetery at Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum.

 Philip Pell III was a great-grandson of Thomas Pell,  the Third Lord of the Manor.  He served with distinction in George Washington’s Continental Army, rising to the rank of Colonel.  He was part of Washington’s escort of honor when the Continental Army re-entered Manhattan in 1783 after the British surrender and evacuation.  He enjoyed a distinguished legal and judicial career after the Revolution, and died in 1811.

~ Mark Campisano

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One Response to The Early Pells: Life in a Colorful 17th-Century World

  1. amanda Smith says:

    I’m a Pell on my mother’s side

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