Osage Orange Connections

osageAlong the southeast side of the churchyard there stand four Osage orange trees with an intriguing history and connections to Nicholas Biddle, one of the most historic Americans buried in our yard, very near these trees.

In 1803, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory which had recently been purchased from soon-to-be Emperor Napoleon I of France. Here was this vast tract of land which virtually doubled the size of the young United States, and we knew very little about it. Jefferson wanted them to find a good route to the Pacific Ocean, to make contact with the native American tribes and learn about the flora and fauna there.

At the same time Jefferson was President of the United States, he was also President of the American Philosophical Society, the learned organization which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 and still thrives in its 1785 headquarters on 5th Street near Chestnut (0n Independence Square). The Lewis & Clark expedition was overseen by Jefferson but largely organized by the APS, with many member scientists, naturalists and geographers giving the two advice and training. Nicholas Biddle was part of it all: when the two explorers returned in 1806, they turned over to him all their journals full of fascinating information about what they saw, who they met, and how they finally arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean. Biddle spent several years getting the material published which allowed the world to know what these two intrepid explorers had found.

biddleNicholas Biddle, ancestor of our own parishioner, Cordelia Biddle, was born in 1786, graduated from Princeton at age 15, studied law, served in the diplomatic corps in France, then took up the practice of the law and also became the editor of Port Folio, a literary journal. This experience helped him to publish the journals of Lewis & Clark in 1814.

Lewis & Clark sent back many specimens of plants and animals, which included seeds of the Osage orange trees from the Osage tribal area in the Ohio River valley, in what is now Indiana and Illinois. The natives valued the strong wood for making bows and clubs. The seeds were sent to a nurseryman, Bernard McMahon, who planted some in St. Peter’s Churchyard in 1804 or 1805. They flourished for many years; the present day ones were planted in the 1950s, so are either the children or grandchildren of the original trees. And we are unfortunately faced now with the need to cut down the two eastern-most trees which are dying. But fortunately and far-sightedly, the Property and Churchyard Committees have planted cuttings from the present trees in the central section of the churchyard, near where the venerable chestnut tree had to be removed a few years ago. So this intriguing Lewis & Clark legacy will continue in the St. Peter’s Churchyard, close to the grave of the remarkable Nicholas Biddle.

The St. Peter’s History Committee is pleased to offer insights into the history of our church and churchyard so we learn about the people who came before us and brought us to where we are today. This article was submitted by Libby Browne.

Information for this article comes from articles in the HSPCPC View, Fall 1997 (Dorothy & David Stevens) and Spring 2003. To learn more about crucial Philadelphia’s role in the Lewis & Clark expedition, visit the Lewis & Clark Heritage Trail website. Also, there is currently an exhibit at the APS about Jefferson and his fascination with Native American language and includes materials from the expedition. It runs until December 16, 2016. www.apsmuseum.org

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