Penn, William Primary Source eText

Primary Source

William Penn concluding a treaty with the Delaware Indians. William Penn concluding a treaty with the Delaware Indians. Published by Gale Cengage
William Penn wrote The Propriety of Pennsylvania as an advertisement encouraging Europeans to settle in his new colony. William Penn wrote The Propriety of Pennsylvania as an advertisement encouraging Europeans to settle in his new colony. Published by Gale Cengage

The Propriety of Pennsylvania

Reprinted in In Their Own Words: The Colonizers

Published in 1998

Edited by T. J. Stiles

"Our people are mostly settled upon the upper rivers, which are pleasant and sweet, and generally bounded with good land."

After the English colonized the mid-Atlantic coast and New England, they expanded westward with the founding of Pennsylvania. In 1681 King Charles II (1630–1685) gave a tract (large amount) of land, which he called "Pennsylvania" (Penn's Woods), to William Penn (1644–1718) to repay a debt he owed to Penn's father. Charles granted the land under a proprietary contract that gave Penn the right to establish and govern a colony with almost complete independence from England. Penn, a member of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a religious sect that was greatly feared in England, decided to use the colony as a refuge for this religious group.

The Society of Friends had been started in the early 1650s by George Fox (1624–1691), an English cobbler (shoemaker) and shepherd. Fox believed he possessed the Inner Light, or Truth, which enabled him to communicate directly with God. He was convinced that everyone possessed an Inner Light. Fox and his followers became evangelicals (those who emphasize salvation by faith, the authority of the scripture, and the importance of preaching), calling on other Protestants to renounce the Church of England. Like the Puritans and Nonconformists (those who did not conform to the Church of England), the Friends felt the national church relied too heavily on priests, rituals, and worship services. The Friends were given the nickname "Quakers" by critics who ridiculed their beliefs, but they eventually adopted the name themselves.

The Quakers were considered a threat to both church and state. Quakerism was soon outlawed and many Friends, including William Penn, spent time in jail. Penn and other wealthy members of the group searched for a place of refuge that would permit them to worship freely and make a decent living for their families. At first they considered West New Jersey in America, part of the holdings of Charles's brother James (1633–1701; later King James II), the Duke of York, where Quakers had already settled. Since Penn had been granted land in America, however, he decided to start a new colony where they would have great freedom to practice their religion. The British authorities also benefitted from the new colony because they got rid of the troublesome Quakers.

Penn began making plans for Pennsylvania. In April 1681 he sent his cousin, William Markham, to America to form a governing council. When he arrived, Markham met with Native Americans and Europeans who lived in the territory to inform them of Penn's authority over the land. The following October, Penn dispatched a group of commissioners to choose a site for a port city, which would be called Philadelphia (a Greek word for "brotherly love"). Since Penn could not fund the entire venture himself, he organized the Free Society of Traders, a group of wealthy Quaker investors. Each investor purchased ten thousand acres and held a seat on the governing council. Between 1682 and 1683 they sent fifty ships to America. Penn's next step was to advertise Pennsylvania among Quakers in England, Wales, Holland, and Germany, hoping to attract new settlers. He also welcomed non-Quakers. When Penn went to Pennsylvania to take his post as governor in 1682, farms had been established, the city was being built, and new settlers were arriving from Ireland and Wales. The population had already reached four thousand. Penn then bought the three neighboring counties in Delaware from the Duke of York in order to expand his colony.

Perhaps the most important features of the Pennsylvania plan were the frame of government and charter of liberties, which guaranteed equality and fairness for its people. Penn envisioned a generous, free society in which taxes were low, no limit was placed on land holdings, and Native Americans were treated equally with Europeans. Moreover, he promoted complete religious tolerance, and he gave freedman (citizen) status to any male who owned fifty acres of farmland or paid taxes. The colony would be administered by the governor and the general council; these governing bodies proposed and passed laws. All citizens, including servants, would have certain rights and privileges, and there would be no established church.

Soon after arriving in Pennsylvania in 1682, Penn wrote The Propriety of Pennsylvania as an advertisement for his new colony. The document also revealed his fascination with Native American culture.

Things to Remember While Reading The Propriety of Pennsylvania:

  • Penn was a social reformer and advocate of religious freedom, but he also realized his venture in Pennsylvania would succeed only if he turned a profit. To make money he had to attract settlers to his new colony. Therefore in sections I and IV he promoted life in Pennsylvania by praising the richness of the land, the healthy air, the convenience of river transportation, and easy access to ocean trade.
  • Notice that Penn gave an extensive description of Native Americans in the area. So that they would not seem strange to his readers he compared them with familiar groups—Italians, Jews, Africans. Penn had respect for Native Americans, and he was critical of the negative influence of Europeans on native culture. In section XIX he observed, "Since the European came into these parts, they [Native Americans] are grown great lovers of strong liquors, rum especially, and for it exchange the richest of their skins and furs." He was referring to the European practice of getting Native Americans drunk in order to obtain the best deals on trading transactions. The colonists also used the same method with so-called "whisky treaties," whereby they tricked Native Americans into giving away vast amounts of land. Penn was equally critical of attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity. In section XXV he wrote, "The worst is that they [Native Americans] are worse for the Christians, who have propagated [increased] their vices, and yielded them tradition for ill, and not for good things. . . ."
  • Penn insisted on buying land from Native Americans, rather than simply seizing it or using the whiskey treaty trick. In 1682 the Native Americans and Quakers signed a treaty at a council meeting described by Penn in section [X]XIII. They agreed to "live in love as long as the sun gave light," thus forming one of the longest-lasting peace treaties between Native Americans and European settlers.
  • In section XXVI Penn stated that the Native Americans were "of the Jewish race" and "of the stock of the Ten [lost] Tribes"—a common theory in the seventeenth century. He was referring to the "lost tribes of Israel." According to the Bible, ten Israelite tribes were taken to Assyria after the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 B.C. No one knows what happened to the tribes, although numerous theories have placed them in Arabia, India, Ethiopia, and the Americas. Early Christian leaders claimed Native North Americans were the lost tribes.
  • In section XXVII Penn noted that "The first planters in these parts were Dutch, and soon after them the Swedes and Finns. . . ." The Dutch founded the nearby colony of New Netherland in 1624; it was taken over by the English in 1664 and renamed New York. The Swedes and Finns started New Sweden (present-day Delaware and New Jersey) in 1634; it was occupied by the Dutch in 1655. (See "Impressions of New Jersey and New York.")

The Propriety of Pennsylvania

For the Province, the general condition of it take as followeth:

I. The country itself in its soil, air, water, seasons, and produce both natural and artificial is not to be despised. The land containeth diverse sorts of earth. . . . God in his wisdom having ordered it so, that the advantages of the country are divided, the backlands being generally three to one richer than those that lie by navigable waters. . . .

VI. Of living creatures: fish, fowl, and beasts of the woods, here are diverse sorts, some for food and profit, and some for profit only. . . . The creatures for profit only by skin or fur, and that are natural to these parts, are the wild cat, panther, otter, wolf, fox, fisher, minx, muskrat; and of the water, the whale for oil, of which we have good store; and two companies of whalers, whose boats are built, will soon begin their work, which hath the appearance of a considerable improvement. To say nothing of our reasonable hopes of good cod in the bay. . . .

XI. The Natives I shall consider in their persons, language, manners, religion, and government, with my sense of their original. For their persons, they are generally tall, straight, well-built, and of singular proportion; they treat strong and clever, and most 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 or 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, as on your side of 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.

XII. Their language is lofty, yet narrow, but like the Hebrew; in signi fication 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. . . . 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 and greatness, in accent and emphasis, than theirs. . . .

VXI. Their diet is maize, or Indian corn, diverse 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 likewise eat several sorts of beans and peas that are good nourishment. . . .

XIX . . . in liberality they excell; nothing is too good for their friend. Give them a fine gun, coat, or any other thing, it may pass twenty hands, before it sticks. Light of heart, strong affections, but soon spent; the most merry creatures that live, feast and dance perpetually. . . . .

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 be give them? To every king then, . . . is a proportion sent. . . . Then that king sub divideth 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, at festivals, or at their common meals, the kings distribute, and to themselves last . . . [the kings divide their lands before keeping any for themselves].

Since the European came into these parts, they [Native Americans] are grown [have become] great lovers of strong liquors, rum especially, and for it exchange the richest of their skins and furs. If they are heated with liquors, they are restless till they have enough to sleep. That is their cry, Some more, and I will go to sleep; but when drunk, one of the most wretchedest spectacles in the world.

XX. In sickness, [they are] impatient to be cured, and for it give any thing, especially for their children, to whom they are extremely natural [i.e., to whom they show natural affection]. They drink at those times a Teran or decoction of some roots in spring water; and if they eat any flesh, it must be of the female of any creature. If they die, they bury them with their apparel, be they men or women, and the nearest kin fling in something precious with them, as a token of their love. Their mourning is blacking of their face, which they continue for a year. . . .

XXII. Their government is by kings, which they call Sachema, and those by succession, but always of the mother's side. For instance, the children of him that is now king, will not succeed, but his brother by the mother, or the children of his sister, whose sons (and after them the children of her daughters) will reign; for no woman inherits. The reason they render for this way of descent is that their issue may not be spurious. . . .

XIII. Every king hath his council, and that consists of all the old and wise men of his nation. . . .'Tis admirable to consider, how powerful the kings are, and yet how they move by the breath of their people. I have had occasion to be in council with them upon treaties for land, and to adjust the terms of trade.

Their order is thus: The king sits in the middle of an half moon, and hath his council, the old and wise on each hand; behind them, or at a little distance, sit the younger fry [youngsters], in the same figure. Having consulted and resolved their business, the king ordered one of them to speak to me; he stood up, came to me, and in the name of his king saluted me, then took me by the hand, and told me that he was ordered by his king to speak to me, and that now it was not he, but the king that spoke, because what he should say was the king's mind. He first prayed me to excuse them that they had not complied with me the last time; he feared, there might be some fault in the interpreter, being neither Indian nor English. Besides, it was the Indian custom to deliberate, and take up much time in council, before they resolve; and that if the young people or owners of the land had been as ready as he, I had not met with so much delay.

Having thus introduced the matter, he fell to the bounds of the land they had agreed to dispose of, and the price (which [land] now

is little and dear, that which would have bought twenty miles, not buying now two). During this time that this person spoke, not a man of them was observed to whisper or smile; the old, grave, the young, reverent in their deportment; they do speak little, but fervently, and with elegancy. I have never seen more natural sagacity, . . .

When the purchase was agreed, great promises passed between us of kindness and good neighborhood, 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 Sachamakers or kings, first to tell them what was done; next, to charge and command them, to love the Christians, and particularly to live 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 a 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. . . .

XXV. We have agreed, that in all differences between us, six of each side shall end the matter. Don't abuse them, but let them have justice, and you will win them. The worst is that they are the worse for the Christians, who have propagated their vices, and yielded them tradition for ill, and not for good things. . . .

XXVI. For their original, I am ready to believe them of the Jewish race, I mean, of the stock of the Ten [lost] Tribes. . . .

XXVII. The first planters in these parts were Dutch, and soon after them the Swedes and Finns. The Dutch applied themselves to traffic, the Swedes and Finns to husbandry. There were some disputes between them [for] some years, the Dutch looking upon them as intruders upon their purchase and possession, which was finally ended in the surrender made by. . . . the Swedes' governor, to Peter Stuyvesant, governor for the States of Holland, Anno 1655.

XXVIII. The Dutch inhabit mostly those parts of the province that lie upon or near to the bay, and the Swedes the freshes of the river Delaware. 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. But I presume the Indians made them the more careless, by furnishing them with the means of profit, to wit, skins and furs, for rum and such strong liquors.

They kindly received me, as well as the English, who were few, before the people concerned with me came among them. I must commend their respect to authority, and kind behavior to the English. . . .

XXXI. Our people are mostly settled upon the upper rivers, which are pleasant and sweet, and generally bounded with good land. The planted part of the province and territories is cast into six counties: Philadelphia, Buckingham, Chester, New Castle, Kent, and Sussex, maintaining about four thousand souls. The General Assemblies have been held, and with such concord and dispatch that they sat but three weeks, and at least seventy laws were passed without one dissent in any material thing. But of this more hereafter, being yet raw and new in our gear.

However, I cannot forget their singular respect to me in this infancy of things, who by their own private expenses so early considered mine for the public, as to present me with an impost upon certain goods imported and exported; which after my acknowledgments of their affection, I did as freely remit to the province and traders to it. And for the well government of the said counties, courts of justice are established in every county, with proper officers, as justices, sheriffs, clerks, constables, etc., which courts are held every two months. But to prevent lawsuits, there are three peace-makers chosen by every county court, in the nature of common arbitrators, to hear and end differences betwixt man and man; and spring and fall there is an orphan's court in each county, to inspect and regulate the affairs of orphans and widows.

XXXII. Philadelphia, the expectation of those that are concerned in this province, is at last laid out to the great content of those here. . . . It is advanced within less than a year to about four score houses and cottages, such as they are, where merchants and handicrafts are following their vocations as fast as they can, while the countrymen are close at their farms. . . .

What happened next . . .

Penn lived in Pennsylvania for only two years. During that time conflict broke out among various religious groups in the colony, disturbing the spirit of harmony and tolerance. Political squabbles also arose between poor landowners and the more privileged members of the Free Society of Traders. In 1684 Penn returned to England to fight against the persecution of Quakers and to settle a dispute over the southern boundary of his colony, which bordered Maryland. In the meantime King William III (1650–1702) and Queen Mary II (1662–1694) had ascended the throne, so Penn no longer had a personal relationship with the monarchy. Since he was absent from Pennsylvania, he lost his authority there as well. In 1692 the Crown (royal government) withdrew Penn's proprietorship (ownership), but restored it two years later.

Penn finally went back to Pennsylvania in 1699 only to face growing opposition from settlers who wanted the English government to take over the colony. Staying for another two years, he helped draft the Charter of Privileges (1701), legal reforms that increased the power of the elected assembly. But affairs in England called Penn home later that year, and he never again saw Pennsylvania. Upon his death in 1718 the proprietorship was passed to his son Thomas.

Pennsylvania continued to thrive in spite its problems. The Quaker philosophy of religious and ethnic tolerance became increasingly popular in Europe. During the eighteenth century Pennsylvania was the fastest-growing colony in America, and Philadelphia was the most important urban center.

Did you know . . .

  • Maryland was the first English proprietary colony in America. George Calvert (1580–1632), first Baron (Lord) Baltimore, received a grant of land in northern Virginia, which he named Mary's Land for Queen Henrietta Maria. After Calvert died in 1643, the grant was transferred to his son Cecilius (1605–1675), second Baron Baltimore. The Calverts undoubtedly wanted to make money on their new venture. As Roman Catholics they also hoped to provide a place in America where members of their faith could enjoy religious and political freedom.
  • When the Quakers arrived in Pennsylvania they encountered a variety of religious groups that were already established in the area—among them Swedish Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, German Lutheran, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Presbyterian. In 1685 Penn optimistically commented on the diversity of the population: "The People are a Collection of divers [various] Nations in Europe: As, French, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Scotch, Irish and English; and of the last equal to all the rest." As Penn learned later, this mixture of religious beliefs was a natural source of conflict.
  • Although Pennsylvania was a success, the colony yielded very little profit for Penn. When renters and landowners did not pay their bills, Penn ultimately was responsible for their debts. He was also swindled by one of his agents. Crushed by the financial burden, he went to debtor's prison in 1707. Five years later he began negotiating with the Crown for the sale of Pennsylvania, but during these discussions he suffered a series of disabling strokes.
  • Pennsylvania had a growing population of Africans, both slave and free. Although Quakers became increasingly uncomfortable with slavery from the 1750s onward and even participated in the early abolition (antislavery) movement, they owned slaves until the eve of the American Revolution (see Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes).

For more information

Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1986.

Foster, Genevieve. The World of William Penn. New York: Scribner's, 1973.

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776, Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 161–68, 199–202.

"Penn's Plan for a Union" in Documents Relevant to the United States Before 1700. Available September 30, 1999.

Quakers in Brief: an overview of the Quaker movement from 1650 to 1990. Available September 30, 1999.

Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1998, pp. 305–09.

Wildes, Harry Emerson. William Penn. New York: Macmillan, 1974.