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William Penn’s Quaker Colony: Pennsylvania

William Penn became famous for founding the English province of Pennsylvania in the 1600s, which many call America’s original melting pot society. Penn stood out in American history for several things that he did differently than most colonists, including his unique way of dealing with Native American tribes.

Penn was also known to be a champion of freedom, and his first form of government helped pave the way for the U.S. Constitution. Penn once said, “There can be no friendship where there is no freedom. Friendship loves a free air and will not be penned up in straight and narrow enclosures.”

Penn was born to a wealthy family in England in 1644, and his father was the Lord High Admiral, or leader, of the English Navy. Penn’s father encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps and learn diplomacy. Penn attended Oxford University until he decided to reject Anglicanism and was expelled in 1662 for becoming a Quaker.

William Penn
William Penn founded the Colony of Pennsylvania based on his Quaker beliefs. “Portrait of William Penn,” 18th century, anonymous. (Public Domain)

Penn then traveled throughout England and preached his Quaker beliefs which landed him in prison several times. He eventually became a leader in religious reform in England as he used his connections with the royal family gained through his father to free many religious prisoners in the country.

After a while, Penn gave up on his fight for religious freedom in England and chose to develop a Quaker colony in America, seeing it as a safe haven for those who faced religious persecution. To a friend living in the American colonies, Penn wrote, “There may be room there, though not here for such a holy experiment.”

Penn eventually secured a deal with King Charles II to acquire a 45,000-square mile plot of land west of New Jersey and north of Maryland, making him the largest private (non-royal) landowner in the world.

The king gave the land to Penn for his new Quaker safe haven in 1681 due to a debt that he owed Penn’s father. Penn first named the area “New Wales,” and then “Sylvania” which is Latin for “woods” or “forests.” The king, however, then changed the name to Pennsylvania, which means “Penn’s forest,” in honor of Penn’s father.

‘First Frame of Government’

Once Penn finalized the acquisition of land, he quickly began formulating a legal framework for a free society. Before Penn ever set foot on the new land he wrote the “First Frame of Government,” which was adopted in the colony in April 1682.

In the document laying out the rules of his new colony, Penn expressed similar ideals to those that would nearly a century later be expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  “Men being born with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature … no one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political view of another, without his consent,” Penn’s “First Frame of Government” stated.

In Pennsylvania’s first form of government, residents had the right to secured private property, a free press, virtually unlimited free enterprise, trial by jury, and religious toleration. The new colony’s penal code only gave the death penalty for treason and murder compared to the 200 charges that could get someone executed under the English penal code. The framework also included an amending clause so it could be altered as necessity required, which was the first time such a clause was put into any written constitution.

Penn also believed in having low taxes in the colony. He passed laws that imposed low taxes on liquor and cider, and a low tariff on imports and exported furs and hides.

Penn then made the gruesome voyage across the Atlantic in 1682 on the ship Welcome. Despite hardship on the journey, including losing a third of the ship’s passengers due to a smallpox outbreak, Penn arrived at his colony on Nov. 8, 1682.

As soon as Penn arrived in the American colonies, he gathered with his Quaker friends to establish the first city in the colony. He laid the city out in a grid pattern and named it Philadelphia, which is Greek for “city of brotherly love.” A mere four years after Penn established the city, it had thousands of residents from many ethnicities and religious backgrounds.

‘The Great Treaty’

William Penn
“Penn’s Treaty,” 1847, by Edward Hicks. (Public Domain)

Before he moved to his new colony, Penn knew that he had one more hurdle to cross, as he had heard from his friends in America that the land he was granted by the king was already inhabited by indigenous tribes. Penn had wanted to change the way colonists had dealt with Native American tribes after hearing about the brutal conquering and takeovers of land that occurred in parts of New England and Maryland.

Since he was devoted to his Quaker religion, Penn was a pacifist and did not believe in violence. In fact, Pennsylvania was started as the only colony in America that did not have an army.

Penn strongly believed that he could create peace with the indigenous tribes and not resort to war and bloodshed as other colonists had. Before Penn even arrived, he wrote a letter to tribal leaders telling them that he was coming to settle in their land as, by that time, many tribal leaders has dealt with English colonists or had translators to interpret.

He told them that he regretted the “unkindness and injustice” that Native Americans had experienced with other Europeans and he promised that his Pennsylvania would be different. He said that, because God commanded his Quaker people to love others, he and those in his colony would treat the indigenous people with peace, fairness, and honesty. From the time he arrived, Penn and the Quakers refused to take any land unless the indigenous people, who had been living there for several years, agreed to it.

William Penn
Penn made a peaceful purchase of the land from the Lenape tribe in 1682. This is the belt of wampum delivered by Native Peoples to William Penn at the “Great Treaty.” (Public Domain)

He was able to achieve peaceful relations with the Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and Leni-Lenape tribes. The Native Americans respected Penn’s courage, as he was known to visit the tribes without having personal guards or weapons on him.

He was known to be a fast runner who could sprint away from the Native American warriors, which helped him gain respect among the tribes. He also learned the Native American languages so that he could conduct his negotiations and communicate with the tribes without a translator.

In 1682, under a large elm tree, Penn made a peaceful purchase of the land from the leaders of the Lenape tribe in the village of Shackamaxon. It was reported that Penn paid a total of ₤1,200 for the land and he invited the native people to visit Philadelphia any time they desired. Penn also probably made multiple payments to the same tribe due to the fact that several of the tribal people had claims to various portions of the land.

Years later, the deal Penn made with the Native American tribes earned the nicknames “The Great Treaty” or “Penn’s Treaty.” During the 18th century, French philosopher Voltaire famously labeled the treaty as “the only treaty between those people [Indians] and Christians that was not ratified by an oath, and that was never infringed.” In 1771, painter Benjamin West gave Penn’s meeting with the Native Americans a new life, when he painted “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians.”

Penn Returns to England

In 1684, Penn left America and headed back to England to visit his family and attempt to solve a territorial dispute with Lord Baltimore. Penn and Lord Baltimore had a disagreement regarding where Pennsylvania ended and Maryland started which led to an 80-year legal dispute between the two families.

Penn returned to Philadelphia in December 1699 on a ship called the Canterbury. Pennsylvania now had over 18,000 residents and Philadelphia was a booming city.

Penn’s second stint living in his American colony was also shortlived as he and his family decided to move back to England in 1701, where he passed away in 1718. Even though Penn only lived in his American colony for a total of four years, he laid the groundwork for the State of Pennsylvania, which was the second of the original 13 states to join the Union in 1787.

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