William Penn in America

First Visit To Pennsylvania

by:  Rupert Sargent Holland

The proprietor of the new province sailed from Deal, in England, on August 30, 1682, leaving his wife and children at their home in the country. His ship was the Welcome and carried about one hundred passengers. The voyage across the Atlantic took nearly two months, for it was the 24th day of October when the Welcome sighted the capes of the Delaware. During the voyage thirty of the passengers died of smallpox, a common sickness for a ship to carry in those days.

The Welcome took three days to sail up the Delaware to New Castle, which was the chief settlement thereabouts. This place was in the territory that had been granted to Penn by the Duke of York, and here the agents of the duke gave the title to the land to its new owner in their master's name by the old ceremony of "turf and twig and water," a custom long continued in Pennsylvania, and which meant that the former owner, by giving the new owner a piece of turf, a bit of twig, and a cup of water, transferred to him full possession of whatever was to be found on the land in question.

After this ceremony Penn sailed on up the river to the small village of Upland, where his agent, William Markham, was waiting for him. When he had landed at Upland, he asked his friend Pearson to choose a name for the town there, and Pearson, who hailed from the town of Chester in England, gave the settlement the name of that English place.

From Chester William Penn began to explore his new possessions. He found a soil that was rich, woods and fields filled with animals and birds of many kinds, and a wide river with many tributary streams that led far into the interior of his province. Along the Delaware wild birds were plentiful, and every day Indians brought deer from the forests and sold them to the settlers for small amounts of tobacco. The settlers who were already living in the clearings along the Delaware were chiefly Swedes and Dutch, with a few English, who fished in the river, hunted in the bays, and pastured their cattle in the open meadows along the river banks.

Penn was rowed in a barge up the Delaware past a place called Old Tinicum, which had been the residence of the Swedish governor, past that point where the Schuylkill joins the Delaware at what is now League Island, and on to a stretch where the Delaware grew narrower and deeper and where there was high land with a good frontage for deep draft boats. Here the shore was covered with pines, chestnuts, walnuts, oaks, and laurel, and a small stream flowed into the river. This was the place that Penn's commissioners had chosen for the site of his city. He landed at the mouth of the small stream called Dock Creek, which to-day flows into the sewer under Dock Street, on the water front of Philadelphia, and where then stood a log tavern known as "The Sign of the Blue Anchor." Tradition says that some English settlers and Indians were on the shore to greet the new owner, and that he sat down with the Indians and ate the hominy and roasted acorns that they offered him. Then they indulged in some athletic sports for his entertainment, and Penn himself took part in a jumping match. Tradition has it that he out jumped the best of the natives! 

He liked the site of his "green country town" very much, and also the plans that had been made by his agents. Some of the names they had given to streets he changed. He altered Pool to Walnut and Winn to Chestnut Street, because of the trees that grew near those thoroughfares. One of the main roads he named High Street, which was later changed to Market Street. He planned the open square at Broad and Market streets where the City Hall now stands, but he intended to have it include ten acres of ground. He left a wide boulevard along the Delaware River, and staked out the city on the plan of a checkerboard, leaving four open spaces, which were later given the names of Washington, Franklin, Rittenhouse, and Logan squares.

Hardly had Penn outlined the map of what he hoped his little village of Philadelphia would grow to be, than he set about planning for the education of the people he was urging to follow him from Europe. He had induced William Bradford, a printer of Leicester, England, to make the sea voyage with him, and set up a printing-press in the province. In December, 1683, Enoch Flower opened a school in a two-room shack built of pine and cedar planks, and six years later a public school was founded, to be known in time as the William Penn Charter School, destined to continue to the present day. Although the post office had existed in England for only a few years, Penn thought it so valuable that he issued orders to have a post office installed in his province with deliveries once a week, and letters were sent at the very reasonable cost of twopence from Philadelphia to Chester and sixpence from Philadelphia to Maryland.

The first frame building that had been completed in Philadelphia was the "Blue Anchor," which was at one and the same time an inn, an exchange, a corn market, a post office, and a landing-place. It stood fronting the river, and was built of heavy rafters of wood and bricks that were brought from England. The colonists were men of energy and resource; they built substantial houses rapidly, and before long residences with pointed roofs, balconies, and porches were common sights, while an enterprising man named Carpenter built a quay three hundred feet long, where a ship of five hundred tons could be moored. Penn was justly proud of the achievements of his colonists. To Lord Halifax he wrote, "I must without vanity say, I have led the greatest colony into America that ever any man did on private credit; " while to Lord Sunderland he said,"With the help of God and such noble friends, I will show a province in seven years equal to her neighbor's of forty years' planting."

When he had started men to work on his new city, Penn traveled through West and East Jersey, saw Long Island, and incidentally stopped and preached to any Quakers he found in that part of North America. It used to be supposed that he made his famous treaty with the Indians at Kensington at about that time, but historians now believe that it was not made until the following year. As soon as his new government was in order, the owner of the province of Pennsylvania, accompanied by his council, went to Maryland to discuss the boundary line with Lord Baltimore. The two proprietors met at West River, but could reach no satisfactory adjustments. Then Penn returned to his own colony and spent the winter in the little settlement of Chester. By this time other ships were bringing Quakers to Pennsylvania; twenty-three vessels had arrived within a short time, and their passengers were made very welcome by the settlers who were already established. The young proprietor — he was only thirty-eight years old — must have enjoyed his experience in his new country, if we may judge from his letters. He wrote to his wife, 
"O how sweet is the quiet of these parts, freed from the anxious and troublesome solicitations, hurries, and perplexities of woeful Europe
And again he wrote, 
"I like it so well that a plentiful estate, and a great acquaintance on the other side, have no charms to remove; my family being once fixed with me, and if no other thing occur, I am like to be an adopted American."

In the spring he was very busy overseeing the building of the houses of Philadelphia, and moved from Chester to what was known as the Letitia House in Philadelphia. This house had been built for him facing the river south of what is now Market Street, in a lot that contained about half a city block. The house was built of brick and was later given by Perm to his daughter Letitia.

While the newly arrived settlers were building their frame houses, they lived in huts of bark and turf, and some even in caves excavated in the steeper parts of the river bank. There was none of the famine and illness, and few of the hardships, that attended the early settlements in Massachusetts and Virginia. There was plenty of game to be had in the woods and along the river, stone for buildings was plentiful, and the clay beds under the soil provided material for bricks. The colony was comfortable and prosperous, and Penn's system of government had been so well planned that laws were made and enforced with very little friction.

Sometimes Penn himself presided over the meetings of the Provincial Council, which frequently sat as a court of law. One of the early trials was for witchcraft among the Swedes, and was handled so quickly and decisively that the old superstition was prevented from spreading among the people, as it did in Massachusetts a little later. Penn charged the jury, which brought in a verdict that the prisoner was "guilty of the common fame of being a witch; but not guilty in manner and form as she stands indicted." As this amounted to deciding that the prisoner was not guilty of having done any wrong, in spite of her reputation for dealing in witchcraft, a precedent was set which showed that Pennsylvania was to be fair in dealing with all kinds of men and women.

Every one is familiar with Benjamin West's famous picture of Penn making a treaty with the Indians under the great elm at Kensington. That scene, however, like many other striking scenes in history, seems to rest on vague tradition rather than on facts. There is no exact record of his first treaty with the Indians, but the place where it was made is generally supposed to have been on the bank of the Delaware River near the foot of what is now called Shackamaxon Street in Philadelphia. This treaty was simply an agreement as to the method of buying the land and how it should be surveyed. Later, deeds were drawn up for the actual transfer of the lands, and the tracts to be transferred were surveyed by the old method of walking against time. Thus it was agreed that what was known as the Neshaminy tract should reach beyond the mouth of the Neshaminy Creek "as far as a man could walk and back in three days."

How this was done was described by John Watson. "Governor Penn," said he, "with several Friends and a party of Indians, began in the month of November at the mouth of the Neshaminy and walked up the Delaware. In a day and a half they arrived at a point about thirty miles distant at the mouth of a creek which they called 'Baker's' (from the name of the man who first reached it). Here they marked a spruce tree; and Governor Penn decided that this was as much land as would be immediately wanted for settlement, and walked no farther. They walked at leisure, the Indians sitting down sometimes to smoke-their pipes and the white men to eat biscuit and cheese. ... A line was afterward run from the spruce tree to Neshaminy and marked, the remainder was left to be walked out when wanted for settlement."

The Treaty Tree

Under this tree William Penn is supposed to have made his first treaty with the Indians. The tree was blown down in 1810, when it was found to be 283 years old. During the winter of 1778, when Philadelphia was occupied by the British, their foraging parties were sent out in every direction for fuel. To protect this famous old tree from the ax, Colonel Simcoe, of the Queen's Rangers, placed a sentinel under it, and thus its life was spared for many years.

This unusual method of measuring land appears to have been fair enough, at least as long as William Penn was in authority over the white settlers. The Indians had already learned that they could trust him, and found no cause for raising the war cry against the "Children of Mignon" (Elder Brother), as the followers of William Penn were called. Half a century later, however, when William Penn's son Thomas was the governor, the Lenni-Lenape, or Delaware Indians, from whom Penn had bought much land, became uneasy at the encroachments of some of the settlers, and asked to have a distance, stated in the old agreement to be "as far as a man can go in a day and a half," definitely determined. Thomas Penn, the governor of Pennsylvania, and the chiefs of the Delawares agreed that the distance should be determined by a walk to take place on September 19, 1737. Very early on that morning a large number of colonists gathered at the crossroads near the Friends' meetinghouse at Wrightstown in Pennsylvania.

A large chestnut tree stood at the crossroads, and this was the center of interest for the white men and for the Indians who joined them there. "Ready!" commanded Sheriff Smith, and at the word three white men stepped out from the crowd and put their right hands on the chestnut tree. The three were James Yeates, a New Englander, described as "tall, slim, of much ability and speed of foot"; Solomon Jennings, "a remarkably stout and strong man," and Edward Marshall, a well known hunter, who was over six feet tall, and noted as a great walker.

Governor Thomas Penn had promised to give five pounds in money and five hundred acres of land to the walker who should cover the greatest distance, and these three had entered the contest for the prize. As the sheriff gave the word to start the three men were off. Yeates took the lead, followed by Jennings, beside whom walked two Indians to see that the walking was fair. After them came men on horseback, among whom were the sheriff and the surveyor general, and at a little distance Governor Thomas Penn himself. At the back of the procession came Edward Marshall, walking easily, swinging a hatchet in his hand, "to balance himself," as he said, and munching dry biscuits that he took from his pocket. He had said in advance that he would "win the prize of five hundred acres of land, or lose his life in the attempt," but he walked as if he had forgotten that determination.

The walkers pushed steadily on, never at a loss for direction, for Thomas Penn had secretly sent out a surveying party in advance to blaze the trees along a straight line for as great a distance as it was thought possible for a man to walk in eighteen hours. Therefore even when they reached the wilderness the walkers had the straightest course marked out for them. Then the Indians began to protest against the increasing speed of the white men, saying again and again, "That's not fair. You are running! You were to walk." In answer the white men only said that the treaty had used the words, "As far as a man can go," and therefore they had a right to run if they wished. Presently the Indians tried to delay the march by stopping to rest, but the horsemen who were with the party dismounted and insisted on the Indians riding their horses, and so the "march" continued as rapidly as ever. At last the Indians refused to go any farther, and left the white men.

Solomon Jennings was tired out before the Lehigh River was reached, and left the race to the other two, following for a time with some of the spectators. That night the walking party slept on the north side of the Lehigh Mountains. In the morning some of the white men hunted for the horses that had strayed from camp during the night, while others went to the village to ask the chief to send other Indians to accompany the white walkers. The chief answered angrily, "You have all the good land now, and you may as well take the bad, too." Another Indian, who had heard how the white men had raced along, trying to get as much land as possible, said disgustedly, "No sit down to smoke; no shoot squirrel; but lun, lun, lun, all day long!"

The last half-day's walk had hardly begun when James Yeates dropped out, finding the exertion of such a rapid pace too much for him. Marshall, however, still pressed on, traveling very fast. When he passed the last of the trees that had been blazed to guide them, he took a compass held out to him by the surveyor general, who was riding, and kept his direction by its aid. At last the sheriff, looking at his watch, called out, "Halt!" Marshall threw himself forward, and grasped a sapling. That point then became the mark for the northern boundary of the purchase made many years before, a mark that was sixty-eight miles from the chestnut tree at the crossroads at Wrightstown, and close to the site of the present town of Mauch Chunk. The distance covered had been twice as great as the Indians had supposed it would be.

In another way also the Delawares, who knew little of legal matters, were tricked by Thomas Penn's officers. The deed that set forth the purchase did not state in what direction the northern boundary was to be drawn, but the Indians had naturally expected that it would be run to the nearest point on the Delaware River. The surveyor general, however, decided that the line should be drawn at right angles to the direction of the walk, which was almost straight northwest. If a line were drawn from the town of Mauch Chunk to the Delaware so that if it were extended it would reach New York City, that line would represent what the Indians thought the northern boundary should be. But if a fine be drawn from Mauch Chunk to the point where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania meet, the result will be the boundary that Thomas Penn's surveyor general actually marked out four days after Edward Marshall finished his remarkable walk. As a result the amount of land that was taken from the Indians under this purchase was increased from the three hundred thousand acres they thought they should give to half a million acres, and all because white men took a selfish advantage of a loosely worded deed!

The Delawares, or Lenni-Lenape, had always trusted William Perm, because he had been scrupulously fair with them. They had said, "We will live in love with William Penn and his children as long as the sun and moon shall shine." The result of this "Walking Purchase" in 1737, however, which took away from the tribe all the land along the river from which they took their name, was to embitter them against the white men, and destroy the friendship that William Penn had been so careful to create between the two races.

It is pleasant to remember that the settlers of William Penn's time paid the Indians when they made purchases of land. There is a record of the sale of what was called the "Salem tract," a piece of land with a frontage of twenty-four miles on the Delaware and extending back far enough to include over eight hundred square miles. For this, it is related, the Indians received the following curious assortment of articles in payment:

"30 match-coats, 20 guns, 30 kettles, 1 great kettle, 30 pair of hose, 20 fathoms of duffels, 30 petticoats, 30 narrow hoes, 30 bars of lead, 15 small barrels of powder, 70 knives, 30 Indian axes, 70 combs, 60 pair of tobacco tongs, 60 pair of scissors, 60 tinshaw looking-glasses, 120 awl-blades, 120 fish-hooks, 2 grasps of red paint, 120 needles, 60 tobacco boxes, 120 pipes, 200 bells, 100 Jew's-harps, and 6 ankers of rum."A great deal of oratory was expended on the making of these treaties. Penn wrote of one of them, "When the purchase was agreed, great promises passed between us, of kindness and good neighbourhood, and that the Indians and English must live in love as long as the sun gave light: which done, another made a speech to the Indians, in the name of all the Sachamakan, or kings, first to tell them what was done; next, to charge and command them to love the Christians, and particularly five in peace with me and the people under my government; that many governors had been in the river, but that no governor had come himself to live and stay here before; and having now such an one that had treated them well, they should never do him or his any wrong. At every sentence of which they shouted, and said, Amen, in their way."

Usually in making these treaties a belt of wampum was given to an Indian with an injunction to remember a certain clause of the agreement, so that when the Indians wished to refresh their minds in regard to any of the treaties, they would gather together, and as each displayed his belt of wampum he would recite the agreement that the white men had made when they gave the belt to the native.

William Penn's Wampum Belt.

In general, William Penn's treaties simply promised that the Indians should be fairly treated, and that they should have redress from the colony's government in case any settler cheated them. Similar treaties had been made between the settlers and the natives for years in that neighborhood and in other parts of North America. The only thing that made Penn's treaties really remarkable was that the Quaker proprietor actually kept his promises. The Indians came to regard this as remarkable, after they had dealt with other white men, and spread the word that Penn, or Onas, as the Iroquois called him, or Mignon, as the Delawares called him, was really a man of his word. In time this unusual reputation of William Penn spread across the sea to England and to France. In both countries the reputation for dealing honestly with the Indians caused great surprise, mixed, fortunately, with great admiration for the white governor. Voltaire, the famous French writer, said of Perm's agreement, "This was the only treaty between these people and the Christians that was not ratified by an oath and that was never broken."

What Penn Found In America 

During his stay in Pennsylvania William Penn wrote often to his family and friends in England. These letters give us a vivid picture of the new world of America, for they were written by a very keen observer and an unusually well-educated man. They show us the virgin country from which were to grow the homes of a new nation.

"I find the country wholesome," he wrote,

 land, air, and water good, divers good sorts of wood and fruits that grow wild, of which plums, peaches and grapes are three; also cedar, chestnut and black walnut and poplar, with five sorts of oak, black and white, Spanish, red and swamp oak the most durable of all, the leaf like the English willow.
We have laid out a town a mile long, and two miles deep. On each side of the town runs a navigable river, the least as broad as the Thames at Woolwich, the other about a mile over. I think we have near about eighty houses built, and about three hundred farmers settled around the town. I fancy it already pleasanter than the Weald of Kent, our being clearer, and the country not much closer; a coach might be driven twenty miles end-ways. We have had fifty sail of ships and small vessels, since the last summer in our river, which shows a good beginning.

Penn was very proud of the natural riches of his new country.

"Here is a hickory-nut tree," he wrote, "mighty large, and more tough than our ash, the finest white and flaming fire I have ever seen. I have had better venison, bigger, more tender, and as fat as in England. Turkeys of the wood, 8 had of forty and fifty pounds weight. Fish in abundance hereaways yet as I hear of, but oysters, that are monstrous for bigness, though there be a lesser sort."
The climate was a matter of the greatest interest to him.

"For the seasons of the year," he said, "having by God's goodness now lived over the coldest and hottest that the oldest liver in the province can remember, I can say something to an English understanding.

"First of the fall, for then I came in. I found it from the 24th of October to the beginning of December, as we have it usually in England in September, or rather like an English mild spring. From December to the beginning of the month called March, we had sharp frosty weather; not foul, thick, black weather, as our northeast winds bring with them in England, but a sky as clear as in the summer, and the air dry, cold, piercing, and hungry; yet I remember not that I wore more clothes than in England. The reason of this cold is given from the great lakes, which are fed by the fountains of Canada. The winter before was as mild, scarce any ice at all, while this for a few days froze up our great river Delaware. From that month to the month called June we enjoyed a sweet spring; no gusts, but gentle showers and a fine sky. Yet this I observe, that the winds here, as there, are more inconstant, spring and fall, upon that turn of nature, than in summer or winter. From thence to this present month, August, which endeth the summer, commonly speaking, we have had extraordinary heats, yet mitigated sometimes by cool breezes."

Penn found the Indians as yet unspoiled by traffic with the settlers, and his opinion of them must stand as one of the very best ever given. He wrote:

"They are generally tall, straight, well built, and of singular proportion; they tread strong and clever, and mostly walk with a lofty chin. Of complexion black, but by design, as the gypsies in England. They grease themselves with bear's fat clarified; and using no defense against sun and weather, their skins must needs be swarthy. Their eye is little and black, not unlike a straight-looked Jew. The thick lip and flat nose, so frequent with the East Indians and blacks, are not common to them; for I have seen as comely European-like faces among them, of both sexes, as on your side the sea; and truly an Italian complexion hath not much more of the white; and the noses of several of them have as much of the Roman.

"Their language is lofty, yet narrow; but, like the Hebrew in signification, full. Like short-hand in writing, one word serveth in the place of three, and the rest are supplied by the understanding of the hearer; imperfect in their tenses, wanting in their moods, participles, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections. I have made it my business to understand it, that I might not want an interpreter on any occasion; and I must say that I know not a language spoken in Europe, that hath words of more sweetness or greatness, in accent and emphasis, than theirs; for instance, Octocockon, Rancocas, Oricton, Shak, Marian, Poquesian, all which are names of places, and have grandeur in them. . . .

"Of their customs and manners there is much to be said. I will begin with children. So soon as they are born they wash them in water, and while very young, and in cold weather to choose, they plunge them in the rivers to harden and embolden them. Having wrapt them in a clout, they lay them on a straight thin board a little more than the length and breadth of the child, and swaddle it fast upon the board to make it straight; wherefore all Indians have flat heads; and thus they carry them at their backs. The children will go very young, at nine months commonly. They wear only a small clout round their waist till they are big. If boys, they go a-fishing till ripe for the woods, which is about fifteen. Then they hunt; and, having given some proofs of their manhood by a good return of skins, they may marry: else it is a shame to think of a wife. The girls stay with their mothers, and help to hoe the ground, plant corn, and carry burthens; and they do well to use them to that, while young, which they must do when they are old; for the wives are the true servants of the husbands: otherwise the men are very affectionate to them. . . .
"Their houses are mats or barks of trees, set on poles in the fashion of an English barn, but out of the power of the winds, for they are hardly higher than a man, They lie on reeds or grass. In travel they lodge in the woods about a great fire, with the mantle of duffils " [a coarse woolen cloth] "they wear by day wrapt about them, and a few boughs stuck round them. 

"Their diet is maize or Indian corn divers ways prepared, sometimes roasted in the ashes, sometimes beaten and boiled with water, which they call homine. They also make cakes not unpleasant to eat. They have likewise several sorts of beans and peas that are good nourishment: and the woods and rivers are their larder. . . .

"But in liberality they excel. Nothing is too good for their friend. Give them a fine gun, coat, or other thing, it may pass twenty hands before it sticks: light of heart, strong affections, but soon spent: the most merry creatures that live: they feast and dance perpetually; they never have much, nor want much. Wealth circulateth like the blood. All parts partake; and though none shall want what another hath, yet exact observers of property. Some kings have sold, others presented, me with several parcels of land. The pay or presents I made them were not hoarded by the particular owners; but the neighboring kings and their clans being present when the goods were brought out, the parties chiefly concerned consulted what, and to whom, they should give them. To every king, then, by the hands of a person for that work appointed, is a proportion sent, so sorted and folded, and with that gravity which is admirable. Then that king subdivided it in like manner among his dependents, they hardly leaving themselves an equal share with one of their subjects: and be it on such occasions as festivals, or at their common meals, the kings distribute, and to themselves last. They care for little, because they want but little: and the reason is, a little contents them. In this they are sufficiently revenged on us. If they are ignorant of our pleasures, they are also free from our pains. They are not disquieted with bills of lading and exchange, nor perplexed with Chancery suits and Exchequer reckonings. We sweat and toil to live. Their pleasure feeds them; I mean their hunting, fishing, and fowling, and this table is spread everywhere."

It would have been fortunate for settlers in other colonies if they had taken the same friendly view of the Indians that Penn did, and, finding the natives a different race from themselves, had made allowances for those differences.

As Penn was on good terms with the Indians so he was with the men of other races who had settled near his province. He liked the Dutch and the Swedes as well as the English. He wrote of those who had located in his territory:
"There is no need of giving any description of them, who are better known there than here; but they are a plain, strong, industrious people, yet have made no great progress in culture, or propagation of fruit-trees; as if they desired rather to have enough than plenty or traffic. . . . They kindly received me as well as the English, who were few before the people connected with me came among them. I must needs commend their respect to authority, and kind behavior to the English. They do not degenerate from the old friendship between both kingdoms. As they are people proper and strong of body, so they have fine children, and almost every house full: rare to find one of them without three or four boys and as many girls; some six, seven, and eight sons. And I must do them that right, I see few young men more sober and laborious."

It was in the summer of 1683 when Penn had written home that fifty vessels had arrived during the past year, that about eighty houses had been built in Philadelphia, and some three hundred farms were under cultivation in the near neighborhood. It is estimated that about three thousand settlers had now arrived. Penn himself made a long horseback trip into the country, meeting many Indians, living in their wigwams, learning something of their language, and continually gaining their good will and friendship. After this journey he wrote a long letter to the Free Society of Traders, in which he described the country in detail, and gave remarkably accurate accounts of the trees and flowers, the soil and climate, of his great province.

He loved an outdoor life, and was so delighted with his new domain that he planned, and later built, a country home for himself about twenty miles above Philadelphia, near where Bristol is now situated. This place he called Pennsbury. He did not have a chance to do more than plan it at this time, for the boundary disputes with Lord Baltimore had now been referred to the Privy Council in London, and Penn felt that he must go there himself to represent his claims, and also to see his family. So he left his colony on August 16, 1684, sailing in a small ship called a ketch, and reached England after a seven weeks' voyage.

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