Penn Treaty Park turns softball player into historian

A close-up of the inscription at the baseof Haozous' sculpture.
A close-up of the inscription at the baseof Haozous' sculpture. (CLARK DeLEON)
Posted: April 21, 2013

To hear John Connors tell the story, he just sort of got involved with saving Penn Treaty Park when he wore a younger man's clothes. He doesn't even know if the legend - William Penn made nice here with the original Philadelphians - actually happened in 1682 under a big elm tree on a bendy curve along the Delaware River.

The famous treaty was more of a handshake, a pledge of goodwill and peaceful intentions between the recently arrived Englishman and the native Lenni Lenape whose ancestors had dwelled in these parts since 2500 B.C. Almost a century later, Voltaire described this unique understanding as "the only treaty never sworn to and never broken."

At its core, Penn's treaty is Philadelphia's creation myth, the very embodiment of brotherly love. It was the first time a white man had treated the red man as an equal in the eyes of God and kings. Penn's honest and faithful example was much admired in Europe, but little copied in America, where the story of the white man's relationship with one of the original inhabitants was more often a Trail of Broken Tears than a Peaceable Kingdom.

That sweep of history was unknown to Connors when he got involved with Penn Treaty Park in 1978. He was 29, single, and playing serious softball for the team from Frank's Getty in Mayfair.

"All I wanted to do was find a place where we could play softball and drink some beers afterward without bothering the neighbors," Connors said. He spotted a "For Sale" sign on an open lot of industrial land fronting the river off Delaware Avenue in Fishtown.

His interest in the vacant lot as a softball field of dreams (No Neighbors? No Problem!) led him to civic association meetings, where he learned that the lot was adjacent to Penn Treaty Park. That was the beginning of Connors' post-Father Judge High School education in Philadelphia history.

Who knew? Not him. Not most of us. Despite the familiar and constant presence of a 37-foot-tall bronze statue atop City Hall, like a monumental cross crowning a church steeple, William Penn remains a curiously distant and unknowable human figure. Penn was the better archangel of our natures. Like Jesus in a broad-brimmed hat, Penn's statue is a symbol of unattainable goodness and unconditional love.

"I'm more of a Rocky guy than a Billy Penn guy," Connors says of his Philadelphia icons. But in the decades since, he's become something of "a nutcase about William Penn."

During a tour of Penn Treaty Park, Connors points to the stone obelisk erected in 1827 by a committee led by substantial Philadelphians such as Roberts Vaux to mark the site of the Great Elm Tree, which had been felled by high winds on March 3, 1810.

There's also a life-size stone statue of Penn erected in 1982, the 300th anniversary of his arrival in his eponymously named colony. Penn wanted to name his colony Sylvania, but the king of England insisted on Pennsylvania in honor of the founder's late father, Adm. William Penn.

My favorite piece of sculpture at the park looks like an upright piece of perforated and rusty metal on a traffic island on Delaware Avenue. It is the work of Bob Haozous, a Chiricahua Apache artist who inscribed "Indian Land Commemorative" with a welding torch above his signature. The sculpture depicts the famous Quaker-hatted white man holding hands with an Indian on the wampum belt presented to William Penn by Chief Tamanend.

Inside the temporary Penn Treaty Museum (penntreatymuseum.org) on the west side of Delaware Avenue at the foot of Columbia Avenue, Connors displays dozens of historic Philadelphia maps and artifacts. He also has depictions of the treaty "signing" by artists from France, Germany, and Italy, most of which are based on Benjamin West's "Penn's Treaty with the Indians," painted almost a century after the events depicted.

On May 16, from 6 to 8 p.m., the museum is planning a display of artifacts discovered by archaeologists in advance of the I-95 construction through former Indian settlements from Port Richmond to Northern Liberties. Carbon dating of some of the 500,000 items unearthed reveals that Indian settlers were cooking food in hearth fires around 2590 B.C.

"That's more than 4,000 years ago," said Steve Tull, vice president for archaeology and architectural history for URS Corp., which is responsible for collecting and preserving the evidence of human life in Philadelphia. "Imagine you are at the end of this 4,500-year continuum. Now imagine what we will look like to people living here 4,500 years from now."

Tull, who will be speaking about the artifacts at the May 16 open house, is excited by the possibilities of Penn Treaty Park becoming the center of information about the city's ancient and more recent past. "I've never seen a response so great from people living in the area," he said of interest from people in the neighborhood.

Philadelphia and William Penn represent a holy experiment in brotherhood, an experiment that failed more often than it succeeded. And yet you can still see evidence of our unique and celebrated birthright every day, just by the people you meet on the streets of Philadelphia. People like John Connors, who, by accident, became a lifelong historian. "I was only looking for a softball field," he said with emphasis, one more time.


Clark Deleon's column appears regularly in Currents. E-mail him at deleonc88@aol.com.

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