Additional reporting and video by: Isaiah Showell
SALEM, N.J. – A crowd gathered in the City of Salem to mourn the loss of a historic oak tree that, according to legend, saw the birth of the city.
The Salem Oak tree toppled over around 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 6th, after the roots of the approximately 600-year-old oak tree finally gave way.
According to visitsalemcountynj.com, local lore holds that the founder of Salem, John Fenwick, signed a treaty with the Lenni Lenape Tribe under the oak when he arrived in the area in 1675. The Religious Society of Friends in Salem has owned the tree and the property that surrounds it since 1681.
Virginia Davis, a retired teacher and Quaker member of The Salem Religious Society of Friends, remembers bringing one of her classes to the cemetery to learn the history of the tree.
“I remember, a memory of bringing my school class from Pennsville here and having someone come and talk to them about the history of the tree,” Davis said. “And he had my fourth-grade class join hands to see how many children it took to surround the trunk of the tree. It was amazing. The kids were just thrilled.”
Chief Mark Quiet Hawk Gould of the Lenni Lenape tribe, was taken aback when he found out that the mighty oak had fallen.
“Well, this is surprising because, my ancestors, our tribal ancestors, are the ones that signed the treaty,” Chief Gould said. “I’m 77 years old, and you ride by this tree thinking that ‘It will be there … it would be there forever.’
“And then when you look up and you see a thing that you considered a symbolism and it’s gone. Where does that leave us now?”
Mary Waddington, another member of The Salem Religious Society of Friends, recalls having Sunrise Services during Easter with local clergy in the area underneath the Salem Oak. She hopes that next Easter, the service can happen under the oak’s daughter tree.
“Next Easter I hope we have Sunrise Services here again, but maybe we’ll have to move over to the daughter of this old white oak and have her be the branches over our heads as we worship,” Waddington said.
In front of the Salem Oak tree, Chief Gould performed a praying ceremony using tobacco.
“Tobacco carries our prayers to the Creator,” Chief Gould said. “When you are going to do a blessing or when you are going to ask the Creator for help, you pray, and as you pray you offer tobacco. The tobacco mostly carries our prayers to the Creator.”
Chief Gould says that it is now everyone’s job to pass the story of the Salem Oak tree down to the next generation, so the story of Salem can never be forgotten.
“You have to think that every day, things evolve,” Chief Gould said. “You have to learn to live with the new, it’s just a shame that the markers that were there are going to be gone. And that’s gonna happen the rest of my life and the rest of your life.
Those markers that we live by, they’re no longer there, so you have to go by [the] mind and you have to pass the stories down to the next generation, it’s up to us to pass this story down about that tree.”