“I’m from the most Mormon place on earth,” declared history Professor Jared Farmer at the start of the Dec. 7 Penn Lightbulb Cafe, This Land is My/Our/Their Land. Farmer’s reflection on the land of his upbringing and the role of place in Latter-day Saint culture was part of a wide-ranging discussion on place-making and memory-making with Bethany Wiggin, associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures and director of the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities.
In the shadow of snow-capped mountains, Mormon settlers in the Great Basin developed a sense of environmental belonging to match their sense of religious purpose. Utah Mormons “might be the only white people in America who speak of their ancestral belonging to American land,” Farmer said, “and they’re certainly the only white folks I know who talk like Native Americans in the sense of having a connection to an ancestral homeland that is a spiritual inheritance.”
Farmer has pursued a career in 19th-century U.S. history, environmental history, and landscape studies. “I loved Utah more completely—and more naively—than anything I will probably ever love in my life,” he said. He began to question his “received sense of place” in graduate school. “I wanted to understand how my own people had created attachments to a place that didn’t belong to them,” Farmer said. “It was really crushing to realize that the making of my Utah involved the unmaking of an earlier Utah.”
The issue was not historical suppression so much as forgetting, Farmer said. “I became fascinated with the process of memory-making in combination with place-making.” Farmer wrote “On Zion’s Mount” as a way of understanding his homeland. The book is biography of a mountain, “which I interpreted as a kind of unbuilt monument, a kind of memory site that is really a false memory site.” The descendants of Mormon settlers endowed this landform with “modern legends that facilitated a distorted memory of pseudo-Indians, and in the process helped erase from memory real Numic peoples,” Farmer said. This dynamic of white settlers displacing Native populations, then using fragments of Native languages and stories to create a sense of belonging to the newly claimed places is a repeated motif in American history, he said.
Farmer and Wiggin discussed some of the stories surrounding William Penn, which struck Farmer as similar to Brigham Young. “The Mormon, the Quaker—they’re both remembered for their magnanimity towards Natives, their acts of peace.” These figures are painted as the religious exception to the historical rule of land lust and violence, Farmer said. Wiggin originally thought of William Penn “as a kind of corrective to the Puritans” in the way that he approached the New World and its inhabitants. As she kept reading, Penn became a more problematic figure, Wiggin said, agreeing that both Penn and Young had a “shared theological, mystical inheritance.”
Wiggin asked Farmer to talk about the treaty tree, an elm on the shore of the Delaware River where William Penn entered into an oral agreement with Tamanend of the Lenape people in 1683. “Trees were the original national monuments,” Farmer said. Early settlers were influenced by the tree culture of Native Americans up and down the East Coast and “members of the early republic were attracted to organic monuments” as part of their resistance to monarchy and empire. The Liberty Tree in Boston became a gathering site for patriots and a prominent symbol of the revolution, Farmer said.
There are also numerous historical trees associated with founding fathers and pivotal moments in American history, which may or may not have taken place under those trees. “There’s a long American tradition of just making stuff up,” Farmer said. Likewise, there is no written record of the Penn Treaty happening in that location under the elm. The site became iconic after appearing in a Benjamin West painting commissioned by William Penn’s son Thomas, who orchestrated the Walking Purchase.
West worked on the painting during 1771-72, a “dark moment in Pennsylvania history” after relations between settlers and Natives had turned “very, very bloody,” Farmer said. While the original Penn Treaty should not be uprooted “from our minds as a monument to the violence of settler colonialism,” the painting—and reproductions of it—became prominent in the 1820s and 1830s, when Americans were “breaking treaties left and right,” said Farmer. “What’s even more disturbing is that, in the second half of the 19th century, all over America, people are basically inventing treaty trees,” starting in Maryland and continuing down to Florida and Texas and into Michigan and even Utah. It is important to consider the “timing of monuments and the motives of the people more than the people depicted or commemorated,” Farmer said, noting a parallel to the monument removal happening in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
After the original treaty tree fell in 1810, landowners took seedlings and distributed them to Haverford College, Pennsylvania Hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania, where the branches of the second-generation American elm now wave outside Farmer’s College Hall office.
A 2020 transplant to Philadelphia, Farmer now owns a rowhouse and holds a mortgage with a local bank, an American rite of passage that has made him think even harder about race and place and belonging, he said. In pursuing his academic interests, first in graduate school, and later through positions in California and Long Island, New York, “I have alienated myself from home,” Farmer said. “I guess I’m still looking for my own place, and all of my scholarship to some degree concerns how people make meaning out of nonhuman things, geologic and organic, and how those meanings are in conversation, often in conflict, with other meanings created by other peoples.”