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Sat, 30 May 2009
The Walking Purchase -- Curiosity
Regardless of the adequate spin off skills that kept my grades from being too slanted toward science and math, if you had asked the 16-year-old Dan Ichov to list school subjects ranked in order of his enthusiasm and interest, then undoubtedly history would have been at the bottom of his list, with gym and health being the only competition for his academic interest cellar.
To put my former lack of interest into perspective, consider this story. I remember a sunny day in sophomore year Social Studies class in high school. I was sitting by the window, hot sunshine streaming onto me and my desk, the heat baking rivers of sweat and boredom right out of me. As the teacher droned on about the mischief of the Spanish Inquisition, I began my own mischief. Being a science and math nerd, I always carried a small magnifying glass in my pocket. With nonchalance, I took the lens out and focused the sunshine onto the pages of my history book. Soon I was burning out the eyes of grand inquisitor, tiny wisps of smoke rising from his blackened eye sockets on the page. Classmates nearby suppressed giggles as I methodically avenged ancient crimes committed by the church against rationalists. Temporarily relieved of my acute boredom, I slipped the lens back into my pocket before the teacher sensed the aroma of burning paper and began to suspect something was amiss.
My projects and term papers on historical topics were uniformly paraphrase of encyclopedia articles, with the sole exception being a paper or two I wrote about Napoleon's life. A distant aunt had given me a thick book about the life of Napoleon and it served me well for a couple of assignments. My generally decent writing skills (when I was forced into writing something original) served as a good disguise for my routine plagiarism. In fact, my writing was good enough that I could steal my writing assignments from Britannica, something few other kids could get away with.
My indifference toward historical studies stayed with me through college and on into the first decade of my career as an engineer. Truly, this indifference left a major gap in my education that I'm not particularly proud of today. Although I started to fill in the edges of this gap as my reading and research interests expanded into philosophy and politics with their historical and cultural dimensions, I never focused on historical research directly.
In my early thirties this began to change. I found myself reading and enjoying popular books that had a mainly historical dimension. Will Durant and The Story of History may have been what got me started, but I eventually read the Stephen Ambrose books about World War II, the Sharra books about the Civil War. I read Clavell's historical fiction set in Asia. Vietnam era novels. Cold war spy novels, Gothic thrillers set in medieval Europe. Hugo, Dumas, and Zola. Most recently I read Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, the story of Lewis and Clark.
This was all great entertainment, but I never actually became motivated to personally do some historical research -- I never really wondered about some historical question -- nothing ever bugged me.
For some reason, the infamous Indian walk of 1737 has found its way under my skin. Usually referred to as "The Walking Purchase", this historical event now obsesses my interest. I wonder about it. The many seeming inconsistencies in the thing just bug me. Maybe its because these events took place near my home. I see reminders of them all around me.
In case you don't know the basic details, a roadside marker near were I live in Pennsylvania puts it this way:
"The Walking Purchase, measured in 1737 according to a supposed Indian deed of 1686, granted lands extending a day-and-a-half walk. Using picked men to force this measure to its limit, Thomas Penn reversed his father's Indian policy, losing Indian friendship."
Basically, this is the way the sense of the purchase is normally framed: William Penn's son, Thomas, swindled the poor Lenape Indians -- people his dad had always treated fairly -- out of their legal rights to 1.2 million acres of eastern Pennsylvania. He did this by using men that were unfairly running instead of "walking" when the deed was measured out.
Although an "Indian swindle" is the accepted take on this deal, for many reasons, such an apologetic view of the Walking Purchase bugs me. It doesn't quite sit comfortably in my mind, and my discomfort has begun to motivate me to do some research to get to the bottom of aspects that have me confused.
Firstly, all accounts give evidence that the Indians knew immediately that they were being swindled. The Lenape sent John Combush, Joe Tuneam (also known as Neepaheilomon) and his brother-in-law, named Tom, as witnesses to insure the fair conduct of the walk. When these witnesses saw that Penn's men were running on prepared paths and not walking through natural Penn's woods, they left in disgust. Lenape chief Lappawinzo was so insulted he told Penn to "go to the devil" with the stolen land. Despite the rebuff, Penn's agents cajoled some other Indian witnesses to be present and the "walk" was completed with these witnesses. Yet the Indians had seen enough. Over the following decades, the Lenape fought bitterly against the white men, the battles culminating in the French and Indian wars. All this violence, it is said, was somewhat a result of ill will kindled at the Walking Purchase. Relatives of those involved at the Walking Purchase were killed in Indian attacks.
Since the Indians immediately flagged the deal as bogus, clearly it was the presence of the Indians at the purchase that was important to the white men, not what the Indian's opinion might turn out to be. Why? If the white men didn't care what the Indians thought, why the elaborate charade? Was the walk some sort of legal theater conducted to convince the European authorities that Thomas Penn had sufficiently well defined legal claim? Yes, I know that many equally farcical ceremonies bestow legality on things even today. Still, if this was the real purpose of the walk, what authorities were were convinced with such a obvious farce? How could it "stick" legally if the cheat was so blatant?
I think the reason this inconsistency bugs me is because, as a science and math nerd rationalist, I generally seek fundamental reductionist reasons for everything. The Walking Purchase as usually explained seems to be built out of smoke and mirrors. Like the time travel story where the hero returns a pocket watch back in time, giving it to his former self who takes it forward again completing the loop. Where did the watch originate? The Walking Purchase is like that. Nothing holds it up. And if that's the case, what was the point? Worse yet, doesn't it mean that many of the deeds in eastern PA are based on a very problematic foundation, for it's nearly certain that both the original deed from 1686 that "justified" the need for the walk, and the walk itself, were extremely questionable.
Speaking of the 1686 deed, it is supposedly a record of William Penn's agreement with the Indians that was executed in the walk of 1737, but I've read several places, without reference, that it's probably counterfeit. Where's a reference for that accusation? Who made the determination? How? And if it's fake, it's an honored fake, residing as it does in the official Pennsylvania Records of the Department of State, Basic Documents, Indian Deeds, #35. I think it would be interesting to have a look at the original document, but scans of the deed are available online, as is a handy "translation" of the difficult cursive handwriting. Here's a 178 word quote of the critical part:
Doesn't that just beg you to immediately go and find that all-important spruce tree? It's hard to imagine the spruce is still there, what with the Delaware floods that have passed in the last couple of centuries, but wouldn't some evidence of that legendary tree be preserved? An iron pin, a stone monument, a marker, something!? Maybe an old painting of the area shows the tree. At the risk of mixing metaphors, that tree was the Lynch pin attaching a good chunk of the Keystone state to the US map. Can you imagine someone cut it down? What happened to the wood? Did it get made into a house? Furniture? Maybe it was burned during the cold winter of 1777-1778 to warm Washington's troops.
Another aspect of the deed that immediately strikes me is that numerous sources claim the walk started at sunrise from a chestnut- tree below Wrightstown meeting-house. The meeting-house is there today, and there are several markers commemorating the Walking Purchase start. But no chestnut tree is there, of course. Most American chestnut trees in the East were destroyed by the blight that began spreading in 1904. Still, the deed makes no mention of a chestnut tree, or the meeting house. More significantly, the deed seems to clearly state that the walk should begin from the Neshameny creek.
Now, it's true that the meeting house hadn't been built yet in 1686. But the Neshameny was certainly there. Today, a small tributary of the Neshameny is about a quarter mile from the Meeting house to the southwest, with what we would call the main branch joining it still another two miles further southwest. However, no creek is at the meeting house itself and it seems unlikely that there ever was one, given that the meeting house is up a bit on a rise with a big cemetery along side it. Certainly there isn't the "most westerly branch" anywhere nearby, as today's Neshameny extends a good twenty miles further west. Was the course of that creek different in 1737, or was this yet another liberty taken with the deed? Neither possibility makes much sense, especially the latter. If Penn's men were out to maximally bilk the Indians, why start the walk so far East?
One possibility might have been the existence of the good Durham Road near the meetinghouse. In colonial America, that meeting house may have been the only convenient landmark in what was otherwise nearly wilderness. Still, the logic grates. If it was important to follow the letter of the deed, why the variation. If the deed was fake, why not fake a deed with a convenient starting point?
Another possibility might have been a goal to cross Blue Mountain. There aren't many gaps in that massive obstacle. The white men may have calculated the walk had to cross the mountain at Lehigh Gap (near today's Palmerton, PA). If they started too far east, the angle of the purchase line would be shallower and they'd capture less land. An interesting project would be to analyze the topography and pick a starting point that would maximize the final area. I suspect we'd find that result a good match with the actual start.The deed has other puzzling aspects. After completion of the walk, surveyors interpreted the vague phrase "and from thence to the aforesaid River Delaware" as a line at right angles to the walk, extending to near the present Lackawaxen, twenty one miles north of Port Jervis. Thus, the area of the purchase was effectively doubled compared to a nearly due east line directly "thence" to the point on the Delaware nearest the finish. Writers today call this an additional swindle. Why? I have no argument that the "right angle" line increased the area over a direct eastward line, but why would the eastward line be more correct?
A key piece of primary source material regarding the Walking Purchase appears to be History of The Indian Walk by historian William J. Buck. I've only recently discovered this document. Two hundred and ten copies of this book were printed in Philadelphia by Edwin S. Stuart in 1886. One copy is in the Harvard College library collection and, fortunately, this copy was scanned by Google, allowing me to discover it.
Buck spent over thirty years collecting evidence associated with the Walking Purchase. He interviewed descendants of those involved, particularly Edward Marshall -- final finisher of the walk. Buck critically comparing and cross checked his data. I look forward to studying Buck's work and hope to follow in as many of his footsteps as possible, possibly bringing some modern tools to bear on his analysis.
Something I believe that could help clear up some of the walking purchase mystery is modern cartography, GIS, and GPS tools. Although it was obvious that Marshall had run a long way, well over 50 miles, contemporary surveyors differed widely on their measurement of the distance he ran. I've heard many different numbers for the distance, from 50 to 86 miles, and averaging a little over 100 kilometers. It seems to me that a more accurate number should be possible to determine.
Whatever the exact number, for the sake of argument we can assume that Edward Marshall ran approximately 100 kilometers in 18 hours (one and a half twelve-hour days, with 12 hours of rest in between). Is this fast? Most accounts seem to imply that he went pretty fast. The idea that they ran rather than walked is central to the whole framing that the Indians were cheated. Did they run? Marshall's two companions dropped out from exhaustion, on after under twenty miles.
See, this is another aspect of the "walk" that doesn't add up. I don't think 18 hours for a 100K trail run is all that good a time, especially given the rest allowed. For comparison, consider the modern day Miwok 100K Trail Race in Marin Headlands, CA. According to the course description, it's very hilly with approximately 10,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain, allowing for spectacular views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore. The course consists of rough fire roads and single track woodland trails with approximately three miles on paved roads.
The course record was set in 2008 by Dave Mackey. His time was 7 hours, 53 minutes. In 2004, Eldrith Gonsey, a woman in her sixties, did the course in 13 hours, 52 minutes.
Maybe these fire roads and single tracks in today's Marin county are in better condition than the roads the Indian Walkers traveled in colonial America, but several accounts note that the route traveled by the walkers had been cleared in advance. Trail conditions couldn't have been that different. The walkers had some stream crossings, but except for the Lehigh, the crossings were very minor streams, creeks really. They were probably welcome refreshment for the walkers.
And no way is there 10,000 feet of climbing on the line between Wrightstown and Jim Thorpe, PA. They went through Lehigh Gap rather than climbing Blue mountain, which would have been about 1000 feet. I also have the impression they avoided the Kohlberg (500 feet) in Springtown, bypassing it to the West, an impression I'd like to confirm with some evidence.
Some may argue that the path wasn't clear, and that explains why it took them so much longer to cover 100K in 1737 than trail runners of today would take. Maybe so, but a lot of evidence contradicts this. It's certain, for example, that much of the Indian Walk was along the Durham road, definitely a well cleared path in 1737. Also, I've seen some material that reports surveyors took twice as long, over 3 days, to travel from the endpoint of the Indian Walk traveling northeast to the river along that uncleared line. So either the surveyors were far slower, or the main northwest Indian Walk must have been clear relative to the northeast continuation.
Even accounting for possible differences, I continue to find it puzzling that a 60 something woman today can "run" 62 trail miles, with 10,000 feet of climbing four hours faster than the fastest, young male "runners" Thomas Penn could find in 1737. Given this fact, should we still think Edward Marshal's 12+6 hour time (with 12 hours overnight rest) for a less hilly 100K was anything remarkable?
It's well known that today's athletes are better than those of three centuries ago. Modern nutrition, sanitation, and training techniques all combine for stronger, faster humans. But are we that much better today?
Here's another data point. The record for running the 2175 mile Appalachian trail is now 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes, held by Andrew (AT) Thompson. That's an average of 68 miles every day and a half -- or like equaling Marshall's Walking Purchase effort and repeating it 32 consecutive times.
And why did his companions drop out? As the story goes, Solomon Jennings, the first to drop, suffered the rest of his life from the injury sustained on the walk. Yeats, the second to drop, went blind, and died three days later! This one really bothers me. What disease causes blindness after athletic effort? Since I'm already nearly blind in one eye, and I often engage in strenuous athletics, I wonder if whatever Yeats had could someday get me too.
I know the spot where Jennings dropped. It's on route 611 atop Ked Hill (300 feet). Ked hill is part of a long ridge that we call Pennridge today. My kids have sledded down it. I've huffed and puffed up this ridge countless times on my bike. It's typical of the hills in the area. Maybe Jennings smoked too much tobacco -- it's a hill, but I don't see why it would make you drop if you were a fit distance runner. It's not even a Marathon distance from the start.
Heck, even normal walking speeds aren't far off Marshall's pace, especially if your consider the lower estimates for the distance achieved. A brisk walking pace for most fit people on smooth ground is about three miles per hour. On cleared, single track woodland trail, speed drops to 2.5, although I've seen Boy Scouts sustain 2.8 mph with 40 lb packs. Thus, most fit people could cover 45 miles walking briskly on woodland trail for 18 hours. They could go 54 miles on smooth pavement. Some estimates put the "walk" as just over 50 miles. Am I missing something? Could the generally accepted historical analysis that the Indians were cheated be the true swindle?
Probably not. It really wasn't as easy to walk through Penn's woods then as it is today. And I certainly don't want to come across like those crazies that deny the Holocaust or the Apollo moon landings. I have no conspiracy theory agenda here. Maybe the Indians were cheated like everyone says. The Illuminati were not involved. I'm simply willing to entertain the possibility that the unfairness of the deal has been exaggerated. Maybe Penn's men did care what the Indians thought. Maybe the Indians were unfairly critical of the "walking".