At the north end of Manhattan, where the Hudson and Harlem Rivers join, is a bluff covered by hardwood forest. This is Inwood Hill Park.
Late in the afternoon on a sunny day is a good time to walk the path winding up around the bluff, under the abutment of the Henry Hudson Bridge, then south, high above the Parkway and the Hudson River. The river is a mile or so wide here and the surface is made of gold. The Palisades are on display. It's easy to think this cannot be Manhattan. The trees, the ancient rocks, the birdsong and little flowers, the luminous sky and the north wind become all that is left of a great city. The Lenape people called the place Shorakapok, or “the edge of the river.”
At the base of the bluff’s northwest side is a ball field where local children play sports. In a paved circle between the bluff and the field is a boulder, and a plaque on the boulder commemorates one of New York’s fundamental myths: this is the very spot where a Dutchman bought Manhattan from the Lenape for some beads and other trinkets valued at no more than 60 guilders. The transaction, it goes, took place under a tulip tree.
Of the genus Liriodendron, “lily tree,” Liriodendron tulipifera is not nearly as whimsical as it sounds. Mature trees can reach a height of 120 feet, making it the tallest hardwood species in the Eastern United States. Builders prize the wood and bakers favor the honey. The oldest living thing in the greater New York metropolitan area is a tulip tree in Queens estimated to be between 350-450 years old.
The Inwood tulip tree grew tall and bloomed every May for almost three hundred years, becoming the oldest of its kind on Manhattan and a sacred icon for the Lenape.
Then, in 1938, long after that people had disappeared from the region, a storm brought the tree down. In time the massive stump rotted away and the boulder was set to replace it. The plaque on the boulder tells the myth of the purchase and about the role of the tulip tree as last witness.
Now, it seems to say, the story is yours and mine alone.